Ep 314 Meet Nick Gadd, author of ‘Death of a Typographer’.

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In Episode 314 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Nick Gadd, author of Death of a Typographer. #authorsforfireys brings the community together and what happened to the Apostrophe Protection Society? Plus, we have three copies of That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea by Marc Randolph to give away.

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Show Notes

#authorsforfireys

The Apostrophe Protection Society and its founder have given up

All hail apostrophes: the heavy lifters who ‘point a sentence in the right direction'

Writer in Residence

Nick Gadd

Nick Gadd is a novelist and essayist from Melbourne. His new novel, Death of a Typographer, was published in September 2019 by Australian Scholarly Publishing.

Follow Nick Gadd on Twitter

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks for joining us, Nick.

Nick

It's a pleasure to be here.

Valerie

Congratulations on your book, Death of a Typographer. Now the minute I heard about this book I thought, this is so intriguing, and I had to talk to you. Now, for some listeners are not yet familiar with the book, can you tell them a little bit of what it's about.

Nick

Sure. So this is a mystery novel, I guess you would describe it as a mystery novel, which centres on fonts and typography. And the main character is an investigator, Martin Kern, who is sensitive to fonts. And he uses his special powers to assist the police to solve crime, especially type crime. And that's the main plot of the novel, in which he investigates a series, he and his co-investigator, Lucy, investigate a series of murders. And they discover that the trails lead back to a Dutch design genius called Pieter van Floogstraten who has been working for years on this mystical project to create the world's most perfect font.

And so also in the novel we get the backstory of Floogstraten and find out just what's been going on with him and what his project actually is, how if at all he is connected to these murders which have happened.

Valerie

Now you've mentioned that he investigates type crime. So can you just give readers a bit of an insight into what type crime is?

Nick

Yeah, sure. Well, a type crime is any kind of crime that involves type or letter forms. So for example, that might involve a kidnapping with somebody sending a ransom note with letters cut out of a newspaper. Or it could involve, let's see, um… I mean, a real life example of type crime involves documents which are typed in a particular font. For example, there was a case a few years ago where there was a senior politician, not in this country, in another country, who was involved in the Panama papers case and attempted to clear his name by saying, look, here's a document that proves I am not connected with this dodgy business deal. And the document was dated 2008 but then somebody noted that the font in this document was only created in 2009. So presumably the document was forged. So that's an example of how type can be used in resolving a criminal matter.

Valerie

Now, I have to ask, I mean obviously you're a writer, you have written for quite a number of outlets before, but I have to ask, have you always been obsessed with type and fonts?

Nick

No, I haven't actually.

Valerie

Really?

Nick

This came about, I became friends with a fellow called Stephen Banham who's a type designer and a graphic designer and we worked together on various things over the years. And Stephen is a great expert on fonts and type. And he started talking to me a number of years ago about this and I became really interested in the language of it, the fact that type has its own kind of secret language, with glyphs and swashes and ligatures and all this stuff.

And also that it attracts some quite obsessive kind of personalities. So people who are really obsessed with letter forms. And these people really do exist. And they kind of live and breathe for typography and they become really, really obsessed with things like the shape of the dot over an I, for example. It's called a tittle, by the way. That's another piece of language. Who knew that the dot over an I had its own name, but it does.

So in these conversations with Stephen over the years, I became interested in type and fonts. And at a certain point I started thinking, oh well, I'm a writer, I'm a fiction writer, I should do something with all of this. So that was really the start of it. And then I started doing my own research and reading and just became sucked down this rabbit hole of typography and discovered, yeah, it's a truly fascinating world. So that was the start of it for me.

So I wouldn't call myself, I'm certainly not an expert on fonts. And I'm not really obsessed with them, either. But I'm foremost a writer, so I know enough about that subject to use it imaginatively. And that's what I've tried to do.

Valerie

So this novel is very… It's set in this world where typography plays such a big part in so many aspects of it, because, you know, you've got scenarios with a printer, you've got the actual protagonist whose name is Kern.

Nick

Yes, yes.

Valerie

What made you think of this premise? How in the world did this come into your brain?

Nick

Golly. I'm not sure… I don't know…

Valerie

It's so bizarre! It's so bizarre. And yet it works fantastically. But how in the world did this idea come to you?

Nick

Well, I suppose because there really are people a bit like that. So for a start I thought, well, you know, this whole business of using fonts as a way of solving mysteries is pretty impressive. The fact that you can look at a piece of typography and it can tell you some things about the writer and about the document and about its history and what it's trying to communicate. That's all pretty interesting.

And then the fact that the world of typography is genuinely full of these people who are really quite obsessive. Like there was a fellow for example, and this not in my book, this is in real life, there was a fellow who spent his life travelling the world taking photographs of letter forms as they appeared on the wings of butterflies.

Valerie

Oh my god.

Nick

Right? Until he had accumulated the entire alphabet. And he had to go kind of hike deep into the jungles of the Amazon to do it. And it took him many, many years until eventually he found the butterflies who had all the letters of the alphabet and all the numbers, as well. And you can google it. His name was Kjell Sandved and you can buy posters of the butterfly alphabet and so forth.

So I thought, well, if there are people like this in the world who are so obsessed with letter forms, then to invent this character, my character, Floogstraten, whose ambition is to create the world's most perfect font, which he then conceals, creates letter forms and conceals it in different places around the world, well, that's not really so far-fetched at all. It's just a kind of quest for perfection but in a different way.

And so once I've come up with this idea of using fonts to solve mysteries, which is the kind of Martin and Lucy part of the plot, and then trying to create the world's most perfect font, which is the Floogstraten part of the plot, and then it was a case of figuring out ways to resolve those two things and bring them together. And it all comes together in the end.

Valerie

So can you give me just a vague, you don't have to be super accurate, but some kind of timeline of the gestation period of this from idea to draft to getting a publisher interested to edits to publication? I'm interested in how long this took.

Nick

Yeah. Well it was quite an interesting process, actually. Because I originally had the idea in about 2014. And I thought, I'd like to write something about fonts and type, but I wasn't sure there was a whole novel in it. So at first I wrote a short version, which was about 20,000 words long, and I entered this in a novella competition. And it was a finalist in the novella competition. And I wrote that pretty quickly. I wrote it in about three months and it was 20,000 words. And that had the basic story arc in it. But not a whole lot of… The international chapters were not there. But the basic story arc was there.

And when it was a finalist in the competition I thought, oh well, there may be a real novel in this. Maybe it could be a full novel in this. And but then I didn't do anything with it for a couple of years. And then, because I was working on other things. And then I came back to it and thought, right, now I'm going to turn it into a full novel. So I've had a couple more years to kind of think about it and think about how I could do that. And then I wrote the whole novel, and it's about 100,000 words, and I wrote that in probably around 18 months. And I'm working fairly fast and got faster as it went on.

And then I did some work with Nick Earls who mentored me and he read my draft and gave me some feedback on it. And so then there was a stage of doing a bit of reworking. But then it was pretty much, it was pretty much done and ready for submission to publishers. So that was the process.

Valerie

Wow.

Nick

And after that, the editing process didn't really take very long at all. It was pretty much there at that point.

Valerie

So you've written a mystery, which obviously means that everything really needs to ultimately fit together and make sense and be believable. Did you plot that out? So you knew what was going to happen? Or did you just kind of write and hope that it was going to go somewhere?

Nick

Well, I did have the basic story arc pretty much worked out in my head. And on paper. And I did plot it out reasonably carefully. But then I did also want to leave room for new characters to appear and things to evolve. And I wanted to be able to have some fun with it as well.

And I also find that I tend to write in blocks of about 3000 words. Like, my chapters tend to be about 3000 words long. And that's just the natural length I gravitate towards, in my previous book as well. So most of the chapters in this book are of that length, but then there are five longer ones. And I decided I wanted to have 26 chapters. And that's not a coincidental number. And I wanted to have five chapters which were kind of the backstory set in different parts of the world. And so I would have three chapters or four chapters and then, three of the shorter chapters and then a longer chapter, and then three of the shorter chapters and then a longer chapter. So that was the structure of it.

So you get the main narrative unfolding in the shorter chapters and then every few chapters you get one of the longer ones which is in a different part of the world. So there's a chapter in a Tibetan monastery, a chapter in Peru, one in Naples, one in Amsterdam, and one in London. Those are the four longer chapters. And then the main narrative unfolds in Melbourne.

Valerie

And so when you were writing it over your 18 months, did you have… And you said you've written in 3000 word-ish chunks. Did you have some kind of, did you give yourself that timeline? And did you kind of have a goal? Like a certain number of wordcount to achieve in a certain period? How did you structure the discipline of getting it out?

Nick

Yeah, look, it was totally… The discipline was totally self-imposed. I didn't have a publisher in place or anything. I was just purely writing it for my own pleasure, really. And I gave myself the target of I'm going to try and write one of the shorter chapters every two weeks. So a 3000 word chapter in two weeks. And the longer ones would take a bit longer than that. About a month or so.

And then I just kind of worked my way through the chapters. I had the architecture all plotted out and I had the rules worked out. And I had a pretty clear idea of what had to go in each chapter. And yeah, and then that was the way I approached it. And I found I was able to pretty much stick to that.

And then I got to the stage where the only part I had left to write was the Amsterdam chapter, which is not the final chapter but that was the last one that I wrote. And I finished that, I went up to Varuna, early in 2018, for two weeks, and I set myself the target, right, I'm going to write the Amsterdam chapter and then I went and I wrote that in that two weeks. And then that was the end of that draft.

Valerie

And just on a practical level, just so that people can understand, were you working at the time? Or did you do this fulltime? Or what were you combining it with? Give us an idea of say your day, a typical day, while you were writing.

Nick

Yeah. I have a fulltime job. So most of the writing was done early in the mornings. I get up in the morning and write. And then sometimes at lunchtime I would go off to the State Library of Victoria and sit in the typography section and do some writing there, or go there after work and sit there near the type books, and let them speak to me. And commune with them.

And then at weekends of course I had a bit more time. I was able to put a few more hours in. But I certainly wasn't doing this fulltime. I was kind of seizing bits of time where I could.

Valerie

And so, you see, when I asked you if you were obsessed with fonts or typography and you said, not really, I find that so surprising and almost hard to believe. Because I'm wondering, I mean, are you now? Because this book is just so full of references. Not that that detracts from it in any way. It flows very, very well. But it has so many things, so many references in it to fonts and typography. So are you obsessed now?

Nick

Oh look, I probably wouldn't say obsessed. I'm also, I don't want to claim a level of knowledge which I don't have. Because the people who really are experts on this stuff really do know a huge amount more than me.

But yeah, look, I really am interested in it. And I did a lot of reading. I did a lot of research. The research for this book, I must say, was such fun. Because there are some really good books out there about fonts and typography. And it's like discovering this world that you didn't really know existed.

Valerie

Yes.

Nick

And that's one of the things I really love about it is the fact that type is around us, and I'm using type in the sense of all letter forms. Around us all the time communicating all this kind of stuff and we often don't, you don't really think about it until you do. And then you can't stop thinking about it, you can't stop looking at it and thinking, hm, why does that baker's shop use that kind of handwriting kind of style? You know?

Valerie

Yes.

Nick

Why does this pharmacy use this kind of stencil lettering? Because that suggests kind of cheap and cheerful, you know, whereas this cafe that I'm in now has got this elegant lettering on its… Which suggests a certain kind of sophistication. And this wine bottle, you know, why did they use this kind of lettering? The lettering they've got on the wine bottle would look totally wrong on the cheap pharmacy, you know? And vice versa. So what is it saying to us? It's communicating this kind of stuff.

And in the book, you will have noticed, we had quite a bit of fun with this. We used a lot of different fonts in the book. And each chapter is introduced by a title page which has a different font on it. And the title is in a different font. And we're trying to communicate there something to do with the story. So you know, if you want to look at all those fonts, and they're all listed at the back, and figure out how does that connect to the story, then there's a level of fun there in doing that. Or you can just look at them and appreciate them, just enjoy them, you know. You don't have to be a font expert to enjoy this book at all.

Valerie

No, not at all. Not at all. And so when… See, what I found myself doing more towards the start was, I'd be reading something and it was fascinating and I had to go google it to see if it was true. You know, whether the story was true or whether that really is a font or whatever, right. So I had my iPad there. And after doing that for quite a period of time I actually had to stop myself because I really wanted to read it normally. But the point of that is that there were so many references interwoven. What I'm interested to know is did you go off and do your research and think, oh, that's really an interesting story, I'm going to file that away. Oh, that's an interesting bit of trivia, I'm going to file away. And then weave them in? Or were you writing, and in the process of writing, you thought, oh, I should get a story, a font, a story about a font like this and then research it? You know what I mean?

Nick

Yeah. Oh, it was probably a little bit of both. You know, like I mean I would be reading a book about typography and some story would come up, like for example the one about Carlo Guidi who was an Italian poet of the 18th century. This is possibly one of the things that you googled.

Valerie

Yes! It was.

Nick

And this is a true story. He was about to present his book of poetry to the Pope. And he travelled across Italy on horseback to do so and then he got basically to the door of the Vatican and he spotted a typographical error in the book. And the poor man dropped dead on the spot, you know, because… And yeah, which is terrible for him. But it kind of reveals the fact that people really take type seriously.

So when I wanted to create my character, and Martin is so sensitive to fonts that if he sees a really bad piece of typography he gets a migraine.

Valerie

Yes.

Nick

And so I… And that's part of the premise of his character. So when he's explaining this he says to Lucy, look, some people take type seriously. And he tells the story of Carlo Guidi. So it's a way of getting the reader into that world of really, really serious people who really care about type.

Valerie

Yes.

Nick

And then, you know, sometimes I would come across a story like that, I'd just have to include that. And then other times, things would just occur to me and it would be worked into the plot more quite organically.

And then of course there's also the stuff that I just invented. Which, like, I mean, some people have told me that they've been googling Floogstraten, for example, to see was he real. But he wasn't. He wasn't. I made him up. But there are people like that, you know?

Valerie

Yes.

Nick

There are people even more crazy than him. Once you've found out how nuts some of the people are in the world of typography then, you know, my characters are really quite balanced and sane.

Valerie

So are you working on your next novel now?

Nick

I'm working, my next book is going to be a nonfiction book which is called The Melbourne Circle which is about walking in Melbourne and psycho-geography, which has been another big interest of mine. I wrote a blog called Melbourne Circle for a number of years which was about walking in the suburbs and looking at things like old signage and lost places and things like that. So it does kind of overlap, there's a little bit of overlap with the themes of the novel.

But I'm… And then once that's delivered to my publisher, then I'll start thinking about a new novel.

Valerie

Yes. I'm wondering whether it would be… Like this is kind of a genre all its own. You know what I mean? I'm wondering whether you'll pick another topic to really delve into and write a novel about. Not about, but you know, based in that world kind of things. I think that that would be fascinating.

Nick

Yeah, look, I think that… Yes. I mean, this novel does include a lot of things which do fascinate me. Also, I feel in a way, and that was kind of one of the drawbacks in terms of pitching it to publishers, is the fact that it's quite hard to classify. Because this is a multi-generic novel. So it's not just a crime novel. There are certainly elements of crime in it. It's not just a comic novel, although there's plenty of humour in it. There are places where I'm having fun, there's a bit of parody, a bit of pastiche. There's lots of jokes. There's chapters that are set in different parts of the world. There's a little bit of supernatural going on in some parts of the plot.

So it's quite multi-generic. And it's difficult to explain that to publishers. And when I was trying to find a publisher for this book, I think a lot of them were kind of turned off by that, because a lot of publishers like something which is quite easy to market, which is quite easy for them to pigeonhole. They'll say, right, this is rural crime. You know. Everybody knows what that is. Or this is a psychological thriller. Everybody knows what that is. But then they'd look at this and go, well, we don't know what this is, you know? I'd say, well, it's a novel, you know. It's entertaining. It's fiction!

But I think sometimes if you're doing something that's a bit original then some publishers are going to shy away from that.

Valerie

Well, that's the thing, because when you read it it's brilliant. But I did imagine, how in the world did you pitch it to publishers? And ultimately, what got you over the line? Because I can totally see them going, oh, that's just really weird.

Nick

Yeah, well, I mean I did have an agent. And she would say the same thing, right. She would say, I can't think of any comparative titles for this. And I can't think of anything that it's like. But that's a good thing, right? It's a good thing for it to be original.

But in the end, it turned out to be just the… My publisher, Nick Walker, an Australian, Scholarly Publishing in Melbourne, he just looked at the manuscript and he just loved it. So it was just an old fashioned thing of a publisher who just looked at it and just loved it.

Valerie

Because once you start reading, it just gets you in.

Nick

Yeah.

Valerie

They've just got to start reading.

Nick

Yes. And for a book like this, and people who have read it have loved it. And I think for something like this, sometimes you're better off with a small publisher. Because then the publisher can look at it and go yes, I want to do this book. Whereas if they have to get it through acquisitions meetings and so forth, then the marketing department has to sit there and you have to try and explain it to them, then it is, you know, harder.

Valerie

So now that the book is done and it's published, do you still go sit in the typography section of the State Library of Victoria and commune with the books?

Nick

Oh, look, sometimes I do. Or I commune with my own typography books. And I read my typography magazines. Yeah. And I think once you have that interest in this world, yes, you… There's a…

Valerie

You've become one of those people!

Nick

Yeah, you become one of those people. And it's typomania. There's no cure. There's a famous typographer called Eric Speakerman, who is probably one of the most famous typographers in the world, and he says, and I used this at the start of the book, “most people take the way words look for granted. Once typomania sets in, it becomes quite a different story.”

And that's kind of about, that's what the book… I suppose one of my aims is that the reader will be drawn into this world of typomania a little bit, and will start to look at the world a little bit differently.

Valerie

Brilliant.

Nick

So hopefully they will be entertained. I mean, one thing I wanted to do with this book was to write a book that was entertaining, was enjoyable, would give people a bit of a lift, you know, in these gloomy times. But the other thing is I would like readers to kind of come away from it viewing the world a little bit differently. And perhaps seeing all these letter forms around them which they might not have noticed before and thinking, oh, well, actually, what is that doing? What effect is that having on me?

Valerie

What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?

Nick

Oh golly, look, it was just such fun, Valerie.

Valerie

Really?

Nick

It didn't feel… It was a challenge. It was kind of an intellectual challenge. I enjoyed working out the architecture of it. But basically, I was having so much fun.

Valerie

That's great.

Nick

I just wrote this book to kind of please myself. And that gave me a lot of freedom. And so I could just kind of write in… Try to emulate the writers I really admire, you know, people like David Mitchell and Douglas Adams and Umberto Eco and people like that. And if I wanted to introduce a kind of crazed medieval monk preaching about the typocalypse who was obsessed with fonts, then I could do that. And if I wanted to introduce a hard-boiled detective like a gumshoe was an expert on type, and so is a typeshoe, then I could do that. I could just have a whole lot of fun with it.

And you know, that's what I did. So it just, it didn't really feel like hard work. It just felt like I was enjoying myself.

Valerie

Wow. All right, so then finally what would be your top three tips to aspiring writers who hope to write their own novel one day?

Nick

I would say write what you want to write. Write the thing that you really care about, that you really love. And don't try to second guess the market. Just write the thing that you really love and you're really fascinated by. That's tip number one.

Number two, which is a piece of advice that was given to me by Antoni Jach, who's a Melbourne writer, and Melbourne writing teacher. And he often says, make it more. Whatever your book wants to be, make it more. So if it wants to be funny, make it more funny. If you want it to be weird, make it weirder. You know? And so I kind of followed that advice. At every stage, my characters kind of get a little bit weirder. So I started off with people who are obsessed with type. And then as the book goes on, I introduce people who are even more obsessed. And then I start introducing people who are even more obsessed. So at every stage kind of cranking it up a little bit more. So that's two things.

And oh, let me see. So a third tip. Hm. No, I might have to think about that a little bit.

Valerie

We can go with two, that's okay.

Nick

We can go with two? All right. Okay.

Valerie

All right. Well, look, that's just brilliant. And I highly recommend the book to all our listeners. So thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Nick

It's been a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

 

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