September 2014 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Gutenberg's Apprentice

As biblio-fiction goes, reaching back to the birth of printing in medieval Germany is pretty ambitious, but so little is known about the "real" Gutenberg that Alix Christie landed a perfect topic for her fiction debut, Gutenberg's Apprentice (Harper, $27.99). She was able to explore his vibrant and changing world by focusing the narrative on the printer's young apprentice, Peter Schoeffer, a former scribe whose world is upturned by the advent of moveable type.   

GutenbergsApprentice hc c copy.jpgAs a former printing apprentice herself--under her grandfather, Les Lloyd, at San Francisco's Mackenzie & Harris type foundry--Christie certainly clearly followed the old adage to 'write what you know.' She also happens to have a way with words that is steady, delicate, and beautiful. Take, for example: "He pictured them, the hundred eighty copies of their Bible, stowed in casks attached to boats--to convoys, caravans--spreading far beyond Rhineland. It seemed to him they moved out ponderously, yet with great purpose, into the world. Like oliphants, he thought: great hidebound beats out of the East, spreading across the land, bearing their thick and transcendental cargo."

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called the novel "enthralling ... a meticulous account of quattrocento innovation, technology, politics, art and commerce." I couldn't agree more, and so I'm glad to share with you a recent interview with Christie about her work as a novelist and as a printer.

FB&C: I think many of us have viewed Gutenberg as a solo act--the man behind the first printed book--and what I like about your narrative is that it disrupts that idea and makes him human. It also brings his apprentice, Peter Schoeffer, into focus. Why did you decide to write about the apprentice rather than the master?

AC: As an amateur letterpress printer, I became intrigued with Gutenberg's technique in 2001, when Princeton researchers first suggested that his types had been made in a more rudimentary fashion than generally thought. By chance or fate I stumbled a few years later across Helmut Lehmann-Haupt's 1950 monograph on Peter Schoeffer at the Strand bookstore, and knew I'd found a voice that no one had yet heard. Most people know about Gutenberg, but few know of the significant roles played by Schoeffer, a great printer in his own right, and Gutenberg's financier Johann Fust. The more I dug, the more I realized that the 'great man' theory was woefully inadequate to explain the massive undertaking required to produce this 1,282-page book. Today we understand better than early German incunabulists how technology startups work--as collaborations between innovators, financiers and skilled technicians. And this was the world's first tech startup, really. My aim was to give Schoeffer and Fust their due, and bring them out of Gutenberg's long shadow.

FB&C: It's clear that so much research went into this historical novel. How long did it take from idea to complete manuscript? Did you travel to Mainz for research?

AC: It took me seven years of active research and writing to complete the book-- the length, I like to think, of a medieval guild apprenticeship. I was lucky to speak German and be living in Berlin at the time, and made several trips to Mainz, Eltville and Frankfurt. There I met city archivists and librarians who assisted me enormously; I also became close to the two greatest Gutenberg and Schoeffer scholars, Paul Needham and Lotte Hellinga, who advised and helped me in innumerable ways.

FB&C: Although you have been a writer and a journalist for decades, this is your first novel. Were you surprised by the writing process or by how much story there was to tell?

AC: I never imagined I would write historical fiction or this book, particularly. I had been writing contemporary stories after receiving an MFA in fiction. But from the moment I discovered the existence of Peter Schoeffer, the passion to unearth his story grabbed me and wouldn't let me go. There was both so much material, and--crucially for fiction--a huge gap in the key years between 1450 and 1454. I saw my task as inventing a human narrative that could make sense of the available scraps of evidence, mainly the surviving books and ephemera themselves. The writing process was fascinating: I felt it was a spiral, from draft to draft. Each new draft (and there were 8) raised questions about the characters' motivations and difficulties, pushing me to understand the world of medieval Mainz more deeply.
FB&C: I read that you trained as a letterpress printer and that you own a 1910 Chandler & Price letterpress--is it a still a hobby? What do you print?

AC: I bought my C&P in the 1980s and dubbed my shop "The Itinerant Press." Initially I printed mainly broadsides, poetry chapbooks, invitations--the usual ephemera. Since I have in fact been much more itinerant than this ton of cast-iron, I have lent it over the past decade to a series of young printers in San Francisco. It resides in their shops and does good work while I visit from Europe to pat it from time to time. Eventually I'll come home to California and put it back to work.

FB&C: Tell me about your grandfather and his work in California printing.

AC: My grandfather, Les Lloyd, was for many years foreman of the Mackenzie & Harris type foundry, the last major hot type operation on the West Coast, which survives now as the historic foundry M&H Type under the conservancy of the Arion Press. He was active in the Roxburghe and Craftsman's clubs and beloved by all west coast printers for his composing and design skills and unfailing modesty. He worked with the greats: the Grabhorns, Ansel Adams, Fred Goudy, Bruce Rogers, Lawton Kennedy; he oversaw a menu for Khrushchev and San Francisco's printed bid to host the United Nations. I was his apprentice, starting at the age of 16, when he retired; we printed a lot of little books together at his Red Squirrel Press.
GutenbergsApprentice_KEEPSAKE_SEPT (2).JPGFB&C: What is the collaboration with Foolscap Press you mention in the book's acknowledgements? Are there private press editions of the novel, or special printed ephemera?

AC: I would love to see a fine limited edition of Gutenberg's Apprentice, but it would require an underwriter! My association with Foolscap goes back decades; bookbinder Peggy Gotthold and I were both apprentices at the Yolla Bolly Press. We previously collaborated on a fine edition of stories based on the Hemingway story, "For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn." She and Larry Van Velzer very graciously printed a gorgeous keepsake announcement for the novel [seen above], featuring a 16th-century woodcut of a printing house, which I'll be giving away at
FB&C: Are you a book collector, and if so, what do you collect? If you won the lottery, would you buy a Gutenberg bible (or leaf) if it came to auction?

AC: I am not a collector so much as an accumulator of books. That said, I have most of Foolscap's inventive, lovely books, and several gorgeous Yolla Bolly Press editions. If I won the lottery I probably would buy a replica Bible leaf from the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz.

p.s. For anyone in the Bay Area, Christie will be discussing her roots in letterpress and reading from Gutenberg's Apprentice on September 25; reception at 6 p.m., program at 7 p.m. at The Arion Press, 1802 Hays Street, The Presidio, San Francisco. RSVP to Booksmith or Arion Press.