Beth Kephart Pens a Love Letter to Paper Through Her New Memoir

Posted inDesigner Interviews

“Throughout the centuries, to this very day, people have taken paper for granted. It is regarded as one of the givens of society, as ubiquitous as rain, smog, motherhood, or oleomargarine. Being so obvious, it has long been invisible.” -Jules Heller, Papermaking (1978)

Epigraph of My Life in Paper by Beth Kephart

What does your paper say about you? Receipts in totes, scribbled notes shoved in pants pockets, birthday cards tucked in desk drawers, ticket stubs saved from clammy first dates to the cinema. This paper ephemera carries our stories and marks moments in a singular, physical way nothing else can. Such is the power of paper, to which author and paper maker Beth Kephart has become wholly devoted.

As part of Kephart’s ongoing exploration and adoration of paper, she recently penned a love letter to the medium as a memoir-style book entitled My Life in Paper (Temple University Press, 2023). After Kephart’s brother gifted her their mother’s old copy of the paper maker Dard Hunter’s (1883-1966) autobiography My Life with Paper (1958), Kephart’s obsession with paper extended to a deep and profound connection to Hunter. Through My Life in Paper, Kephart mines her bond with this kindred spirit through letters to Hunter interspersed with poetic reflections about categories of paper ephemera.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Kephart directly about her memoir, her love of hand-making paper and books, and the experience of moving through the world as an artist who defies category. Our conversation is below.

Imaginative Reader Gelli cyanotype print collage

(Interview edited for clarity and length.)

When did you first develop the book arts side of your writing practice?

The death of my father in early August of 2020 was the beginning. I had been taking care of him on an almost daily basis for years, and then COVID hit, and I could only be with him when he was suddenly dying. It was a very rainy night. It was very late. I almost didn’t hear the phone. They allowed me to be with him for the first time in such a long time, and I was there at his death. It was so frustrating and heartbreaking.

What my dad always wanted was a funeral. When he was sick before that, and he couldn’t get to funerals, I would go to his friends’ funerals, and the first thing he would always ask was, “How many people were at the funeral?” It mattered to him for some reason; he thought that would be the measure of his life. And, of course, we buried him on the hill, my brother, my sister, our children, and that was it because of COVID. So what I began to do out of that sadness was, with very little knowledge, make these booklets; they were Gelli printed, they were hand stitched. They were designed for people who had loved my father to record their own stories. That became a two or three-month project, but I couldn’t stop.

Handmade paper with tulips.

How did you go from stitching those booklets to making your own paper by hand?

I was fascinated by hand-making paper, and then my husband gave me marbling paint. Then I started cyanotyping and solar fasting over cyanotypes and Gelli printing underneath them all. It just became something that felt suddenly inherent to me.

Because I am married to a real artist—he went to Yale, has his Masters in Architecture, and is an extraordinary oil painter and ceramicist—it didn’t feel like it was my domain. I was words, and he was art. And yet, it has become what binds us even more. Right now, actually, I’m making this handmade paper, and he’s going to be printing on it, and then I’m going to be adding words to it. There’s more integrative power. We’ve always done stuff together in a very long marriage, but now it’s really together.

Double cyanotype

It took me such a long time to become a writer who was not only not afraid of making mistakes but eager to make mistakes.

It’s interesting to me that you first put yourself into that words-only box. I’ve grappled with that myself, and I know a lot of other creatives do, too. We feel like we might need to choose a lane and stick to it, but if you are a genuinely creative being, usually that means you’re breaking down barriers and exploring different forms of art and media. What I love so much about My Life in Paper is that it feels like you’re doing a similar exploration by creating your own genre while writing and breaking existing genre molds. You’re expressing yourself in a form that doesn’t exist yet.

My work is so un-categorizable. Whether I’m writing young adult or history or whatever it is, what everybody says about me is, “You can’t be categorized in publishing’s tiered system. We don’t know where your work would go.” It is frustrating.

It took me such a long time to become a writer who was not only not afraid of making mistakes but eager to make mistakes.

Bojagi Thoughts

I now don’t think I could write a book without having time in a day to go stitch one.

Can you elaborate on what it is about hand-making books and paper that you find so captivating?

Before working on the Dard Hunter, I was obsessed with Virginia Woolf. I’ve written many books that never get published, and one of those books was trying to put myself into her mind as she made books with her husband, Leonard.

I found that story to be remarkable. Virginia found, in paper and bookmaking, calm. Before she and her husband bought what turned out to be a broken press that they had to fix, she had one of her famous and long-lasting nervous breakdowns. Her half-brother was publishing her first novel, and it was making her anxious. Leonard, thinking, how can we salvage this great mind? went with her to buy the press on her birthday. She was the one who would place the typeface in; he was the one who would press it, and she would bind it.

I have that same relationship. I love making. I love making words. I love making a book. I’m terrified of the process afterward; I will not look at this book now that it’s there. I read from it once, and that’ll be it. But this idea of the letters, the typography stuff in her hands, the paper, and the ink on her fingertips calmed her— I find that to be very true in my own practice. I now don’t think I could write a book without having time in a day to go stitch one.

Word Aura

The crux of My Life in Paper is your infatuation and fascination with the great paper maker, Dard Hunter. Can you share more about your relationship with Dard?

Dard opened something in me. I was reading his My Life with Paper during a season when I doubted myself in many ways. But while reading Dard, I felt this sense of failure, a sense of disappointment in my work—not with fame but with the artistry of it. And I just fell into this conversation with him that felt entirely urgent.

Dard was imperfect. We’re all imperfect, but he used terminology when he was writing that is understood to be inappropriate now, like “primitive handmade paper.” When trying to understand how Dard’s encapsulation of some of the cultures he visited feels now versus my own sense of being swept into who he was in his time, I’ve been fortunate to be educated by a handful of artists and historians. They were able to nest my effusive love for Dard in, yes, but look at this. Yes, but consider this. And that is a way of honoring Dard, too.

How to Know cyanotype squares and stitching

The art that excites me the most is art in which I can feel the artist grappling with something in the process of making it, which is very much the case with so many of the ideas and themes you’re addressing within My Life in Paper.

My letters to Dard are intense; I cried writing to him. Especially when I thought about the end of his life. I felt like he was in the room with me. In my letters, I was saying, “Dard! I know it’s horrible! I feel that! I’ve been there! They can treat you like shit, Dard. But you’re somebody, and you’re somebody to me.”

It is so important as a writer to realize that you can fully empathize with and honor someone whose political philosophies differ greatly from yours. When you look at another’s life with complete sympathy and empathy and do the work of imagining it, everything else falls down. I think it’s important that we keep remembering the power of the empathetic imagination in this world, especially right now.

Peacock Fantasia marbling

I was hoping you could walk me through the considerations that went into the design of My Life in Paper. Obviously, the book’s subject matter makes the physical book object incredibly important.

It was a rainy Saturday morning, and one of the cyclamens in my yard fell. I use cyclamens a lot; I always work with the plants I have here. So the cyclamen on the cover fell from the pot it was in. I said to myself, It’s so beautiful; I should see if I can make the cover design with that. I wanted to take a soft piece of sheer paper from the dictionary and find the word “paper,” but I used the veil on top of it because what does paper really mean? Those are my scissors; that is my thread.

This rough piece on the side is a failed attempt at a Gelli print cyanotype, but I thought My Life in Paper was imperfect, and the colors were right. So I got a stool out, and I found this one rectangle of grayish light on the floor, and I just stood with my big camera and arranged things. I did not do the typography; Kate Nichols of Temple University Press did the interior and typography. That was her first attempt, and it was perfect.

For the interior, I sent them three different sheets of marbleized paper to choose from. In real life, it’s much punchier; it’s more precise. For the chapter divisions, my idea for the book launch was to give everybody a handmade bookmark, which I made with a combination of cyanotype and Gelli. I told Kate Nichols, and she told me to scan them and send them over. We talked about how they might be used. So even though they’re faded, they’re almost positioned where you would slip a bookmark.

In my first conversation with Sean (of Temple University Press), he said, “I can see this book, and it has to be beautiful. It has to be a hardback; it has to have endpapers.” In today’s world, it would have been a $16.99 paperback, but it wouldn’t, as an object, have felt like what I was saying a book is. So they went all out in making it an object, too.

Book boards

This book holds in it everything that I currently am.

For me, the experience of reading has to be physical; it has to be on paper. I understand the value of eReaders and PDFs, but to enjoy and luxuriate in the words and story that the writer is sharing with you, you owe it to the author to have the container of those words honor them.

I agree with you, even right down to the deckled edge. That’s how paper comes off the mold, and Dard cared a lot about the deckle. I care a lot about the deckle, but it makes a more expensive, therefore a less “successful” book. But, if people were to ask me, “Has this book succeeded?” In my definition, yes, because it’s the book that I wanted it to be. You have to keep your eyes on not what you want but who you are. Who are you as an author?

This book holds in it everything that I currently am. It holds my love for the people in my life; it holds my love for playing with and breaking language, finding raw urgency and truth inside storytelling, and just the art of the book itself.

Book boards