Happy Birthday, Buffy! Whitney Sorrow Pays Homage to the Slayer With Edgy Bibliopegy

Whitney Sorrow loves books. No, really. She loves books. Not just reading them, but making them. At her website, Edgy Bibliopegy, you can see all the lovely fruits of her labor. And, as today is Buffy Summer’s 30th birthday, as well as the release of the final issue of the Buffy: Season Eight comic, do yourself a favor and check out Sorrow’s “Geekery” line, which features handmade journals, sketchbooks, and other gorgeous volumes inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as other stuff from the Whedonverse and Doctor Who!

I had the chance to speak with Whitney about the art of bibliopegy, her love of Buffy and the Whedonverse, and why kung fu movies go best with Wu Tang Clan.

Interview with bookbinder Whitney Sorrow

Teresa Jusino: Why book making? How did you get started, and why did you decide to cross the line from hobby to business?

Whitney Sorrow: It took a long time for me to find bookbinding. I liked other crafts and artistic ventures, and always felt a real need for some way like that to express myself, but nothing ever stuck. I was given a handmade book by a friend, I loved it, and like most crafty stuff, I thought “I could make that.” So I did a little research and started making simple, single-needle coptic books. That was early 2003. Once I mastered that I got into perfect bound (hard cover, rounded spine) books, but once I discovered the more elaborate exposed spine binding techniques, that was it for me. Bookbinding is perfect for me, it’s detail oriented, takes a high level of dexterity, and honestly a certain amount of OCD, I think, to be really good at it. I’ve always found a certain amount of peace through repetitive tasks, as my personal kind of zen practice. But I can always vary the degree of immediacy of gratification with bookbinding—on impatient days, I make simpler books that I can crank out in a hour or two. When I’m feeling more focused I make one of my wooden covered books that takes about four days to complete, or one of my geeky ones which can vary from a few hours to a few days.

As for hobby versus business, the verdict’s still out on that one. My husband [Casey Sorrow], who is an amazing artist and illustrator in his own right, is supportive and has confidence that I will make the full transition to business. But this year will be probably the deciding year. As for why I wanted to make the switch, that’s easy—I’ve simply never been so inspired by anything I’ve done or studied before. I never get bored making books, and that is saying something for me. Sometimes I think my whole life can be framed as a journey towards this. At no point in my life have books not been prominent. From a voracious reading habit from age 4, to an education in Library & Information Science, my life has always included books as a passion in some way, shape, or form.

Interview with bookbinder Whitney Sorrow

What kinds of books do you offer? Do you do custom orders as well?

Whitney Sorrow: I try to always have a supply of general purpose books: blank journals, journals with lined pages, large photo albums, small photo albums and sketchbooks in my inventory. I do custom books. I often love doing custom orders. I can’t say that I’ll do any custom job, just because if it’s really time consuming I do want it to be a project that I like. If the subject matter bores me, I might not say yes to it. I just did a really cool custom order where I bound an entire set of books for an abecediary project for a printmaker friend of mine. One volume for every letter of the alphabet. I like collaborations.

ARGH—lined pages. They are the bane of my bibliopegy. I haven’t found a resource for nicely printed lined paper that’s affordable. So I’ve ended up making my own. That’s what I use when I make them with lined pages (I’ve tried to mimic the lined pages of a Moleskine.) Lots of people really like them. I happen to be enough of a perfectionist that I don’t like to use the lined pages myself, because I make the pages using a photocopier and the 1/16th of an inch that every copy varies by is enough to bug me about how the lines line up on the edge of bookblock. But if your interests are more utilitarian, you’d probably be fine with my lined pages! I haven’t had any complaints from customers, anyway. I’ve also made composition books for musicians. I often make books for myself with engineering graph paper, because that’s what I like to use to draw my plans for new books. I’m a total paper snob, so if I call a book a sketchbook, I’ve used really good quality paper to make it. Plus my husband, who is a printmaker and comic artist, runs an art supply store (somebody has to get us health insurance!) so I get a good price on high quality sketch, drawing, printmaking papers and illustration board. Have I mentioned how shiny and supportive he is?


Interview with bookbinder Whitney Sorrow

Do you consider yourself a geek? What do you geek out about?

Whitney Sorrow: Short answer: Yes!

Long answer: I am the nerdiest book worm around. I never leave the house without something to read. I read the dictionary for fun. I correct people’s grammar for fun. I watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer seasons 1-7 probably once a year. (And yes, I’ve done the math here, and I’m okay with it, I watch ’em while I do my books, so really it’s not so bad.) The same with Firefly. Yes, Joss Whedon is my hero. If you look at my books, you can tell I love Doctor Who, although I just got into it with the new series; I’m only now getting around to watching classic Doctor Who.

I geek out in specific genres of pop culture—like kung fu. I love good Hong Kong kung fu movies. My “bachelorette party” was getting buzzed at home watching my favorite kung fu movies on mute with Wu Tang Clan at full volume. And if you thought Dark Side of the Moon went well with The Wizard of Oz, you ought to try Chinese Super Ninjas with Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers.) So I love my kung fu, Akira Kurosawa, spaghetti westerns, sci-fi movies that don’t have sound effects in space, LoTR, zombie movies, cult b-movies, Evil Dead, Star Trek, Spaced, etc. I am a child of the 70s, so of course I love Star Wars (episodes 3 through 5). I would rather be stranded on a desert island overrun with Ewoks for the rest of my natural life than listen to ten minutes of Jar Jar Binks.

My geek cred pretty much extends to books, movies and television. I have never done any gaming (unless Scrabble counts). This greatly saddens my husband. And I never read comic books as a kid, and still now, not so much. I have been reading Buffy: Season Eight, because, well, it’s Buffy: Season Eight. And sometimes my husband will tell me I can’t go on without checking something out, so right now I am reading Cursed Pirate Girl by Jeremy Bastian. I do have a tremendous respect for what’s going on in comics, and I believe graphic novels have a valid place in literature. It’s just that I was over 30 before I first picked one up. My husband and I spend a lot of time together enjoying the same things; but sometimes our idea of the perfect night is him staying home playing Grand Theft Auto and me going to the local pub and watching a Pistons or Redwings game. I am a hockey and basketball fanatic.

After all that, though, really it’s books. It’s always been books. The smell when I first open my favorite volume of Pride and Prejudice is my yoga or my Xanax or whatnot; I grow still, it soothes me, slows my heart rate and eases my troubles. I love that the binding I do was being done over 2000 years ago. I love that somebody like Betsy Palmer Eldridge can take one of those thousand year old techniques and make something utterly new and stunning from it, like she did when she pioneered the Caterpillar stitch that I use on some of my books. My ultimate goal would be to do something like that, to study and understand these methods so well that someday I can tweak them and come up with something beautiful and unique to contribute to our bookbinding culture.

Interview with bookbinder Whitney Sorrow

Of the geeky books you’ve created, which is your favorite because of how it came out and why? Which is your favorite because of the fandom it represents or because it means something to you?

Whitney Sorrow: My “Hush” book, I have to say, is one of my favorites. I worked really hard to get a paper bound book to look like a metal trimmed wooden box. And the chapter covers—my drawings of Giles’ overhead transparencies on The Gentlemen’s modus operandi, those were seriously fun to draw. That scene, the one with all the Scoobies in the classroom with Giles and his boombox and those awesomely, hilariously gruesome drawings, is one of my all time favorite scenes. And, for not being an illustrator I’m pretty proud of how they turned out. I have to admit, I had a lot of trouble sending that one out when it sold. I didn’t want to let it go and it was a little bit of an internal fight. That was a new experience for me. I already have plans to make another “Hush” themed book, but it will be different, not a replica of the one I already made. I’ve toyed around with the idea of trying to send one of them to Joss… I don’t know if I’ve gathered up the nerve yet. But Buffy’s 30th birthday is here, so now might be the time!

In terms of fandom, I think my favorites come down to Mr. Pointy because it is so classic—the simple Buffy “B” and the uber adorable wooden Mr Pointy stake replica as the closure, and the wooden TARDIS one that I’m working on right now. They’re iconic and I like them for that. I am excited about a new Doctor Who “Doctor” series I’m working on—one volume for each of the eleven Doctors. And I know a lot of my friends are excited for the LOST ones I’m working on, too. I just started playing with a new medium for an embellishment for a Simpsons themed one featuring Blinky, the three-eyed fish. Oh wait, you asked for just one… I’ll stop here.
Interview with bookbinder Whitney Sorrow

Describe the process of making one of these in a way folks who don’t do it can understand.

Whitney Sorrow: This is a tough question! Okay, so depending on the book it can take from 70 minutes to four days per book. But I get sort of assembly line-y. When I start running low on the 25% cotton rag blank paper I use for my journals, I buy more, enough for about 30 books, then I cut it down all at once, then fold it all, compile the sections and then store the book blocks unassembled. That takes a couple of days. I do the same thing with the bookboard for the covers, I gather a bunch of book board (otherwise known as grey board) and cut it down to size, enough for about 30 books, or until my hands are bleeding too much to go on. With any art or craft, there are a lot of specialized tools you can buy. I try to keep it simple. I also try to hack the tools I’ve got to work for what I need before buying super specialized tools. A lot of bookbinders use a “cradle” which is a wooden device that is used to lay the book sections in and punch the holes through which the bindings are sewn. One of the Jedi Masters of bibliopegy, Daniel Essig, showed me a way simpler way of tackling this problem. Simply by inverting the process—instead of laying a book section open in the cradle to punch it, you take any old cardboard box and you lay the section over the edge of the box and punch it that way. I try to continue to find solutions like that.

I like making what I already have work for me whenever possible. There are a few tools you can’t go without: a good bone folder, one good bodkin or awl, an x-acto multi-tool, good quality sharp needles and waxed linen thread. I use a really high-end specialized medium rather than adhesive, mostly because I don’t want to deal with the mess of liquid adhesive and because I make and sell enough to afford and justify it; but most people use PVA to cover their bookboards, and that’s what I’d recommend for beginners. The first thing I do when I start a book is make the covers. Sometimes it’s as simple as covering the bookboard with a decorative paper, and other times it’s as complicated as creating a 1960s police box door out of 15 pieces of basswood stained blue. Then you move on to the bookblock. I mostly use quaternion sections, which means I take four pieces of paper (leaves) and fold them in half and then I put them together in a section. This results in an eight page section (or 16 if you count both sides.) Then I decide how many sections will be used in the book.

Then I punch the holes. I make a punching template for uniform holes (a binding that would go in straight horizontal lines across the spine) or I use a white charcoal pencil and draw along the spine where I want to punch if I want the bindings to be free form or on diagonals or something. Then I sew the sections together. I use a variety of methods to do this. I use variations on the Greek method, the Ethiopian method or the French method. All of which have been around for 1000+ years. They all require an even number of needles, I use anywhere from two to eight needles to sew one book. (This would be so much easier with illustrations!)

I started out making perfect bindings—this is to say traditional hard back, rounded spine, paper and cloth bound books, not necessarily books without imperfection. But I quickly realized that exposed spine bindings are what I’m passionate about. So that is mostly all I do. If you want the technical details on these binding methods this Wikipedia article covers some of the bases and I also go into more detail on specific techniques on my blog. If you’re interested in becoming a bookbinder, I strongly advise learning some kind of binding in person, in a class or as an apprentice. I learned a lot from books on bookbinding, like Keith A. Smith’s series of books, but some kind of one-on-one teaching is crucial. Bibliopegy is one of those beautiful arts that has always been passed on from master to apprentice and as much as I believe that the craft itself should live on, so should the tradition of its mastery. The John C. Campbell Folk Art school is an amazing place for things like that.

Although I do try to come up with simple solutions for specialilzed tools that I don’t think are necessary, that doesn’t mean I don’t love tools. That comes from a generally DIY sort of hacking/anti-consumerist sensibility. But I also have a genetic predisposition for tool collection and pack ratting. So my nature is a bit at odds with itself. I do love my tools! My dad taught me that the ideal project requires you to acquire one new tool and use two of your existing tools. But my dad also had a 700 square foot workroom whereas I have a 220 square foot studio. And I have very particular tastes… I only use one brand of waxed linen thread that comes from Belfast, Northern Ireland and the only needles I will use have been made by one family for over 100 years. And don’t even get me started on my paper collection!

Teresa Jusino is two years older than Buffy Summers. Her “feminist brown person” take on pop culture has been featured on websites like ChinaShopMag.com, PinkRaygun.com, Newsarama, and PopMatters.com. Her fiction has appeared in the sci-fi literary magazine, Crossed Genres, and her essay “Why Joss is More Important Than His ‘Verse” is included in the upcoming book Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon By the Women Who Love Them, coming in March 2011! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.


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