Far from the world of mass production, Paris based writer Jason Stoneking has embarked on a project creating bespoke books: The selling point-only one copy of each book will ever be made by Jason Stoneking. It’s a novel idea (forgive the pun) where monetary gain is not the objective. It’s something less tangible than that, yet evidently logical.
Think of the ordeal after buying new mass-produced leather brogues or high heels. Your; bunions, corns, width of foot, size of toes, is it the left or right foot, injuries sustained in life can make that first month painful.
As a master writer Jason Stoneking measures your character and measures your life experiences to poignant effect. It’s a warming and deeply personal experience encapsulated in a single hand-written book created by Jason Stoneking. At a time where mass production ensures there is a dis-connect (of sorts) with writers, here’s a project that allows ‘you’ to form an emotional connection with a writer.
Jason were you destined for a life in the creative arts?
I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. My mom volunteered at the school library when I was a little kid, and I grew up thinking books were the coolest thing to do. Then I left home as a teenager and found that creative communities were the only ones where I felt myself. The musicians, artists, and poets I met were always the ones saying things I could relate to. So, I never seriously considered any other path.
What do words mean to you?
I process everything through words. My friends in the visual arts often make fun of me. When they talk about how concepts feel to them before words are attached, I never understand what they mean. I think directly into words. I talk to myself in my head, constantly funnelling every experience through language. Realli I don’t know how to be consciously aware of anything except by phrasing it to myself in words. So, without them, I can’t even conceive of how I would interpret my reality, or how I would think.
The first written piece which had an impact on you. What was it, how did it impact you?
I’m sure there were plenty of things that impacted me in my childhood, in ways too formative for me to go back and decode now. But I became conscious of writing changing my life during my first year of high school. That was when I read On The Road (1957), Nausea (1938), and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). All three of those books were about characters who had checked out of the system, forging their own paths of identity, and their own values. This was important to me because I was suffering a lot of violence and alienation at school. I was feeling increasingly hopeless. Those books (along with the albums I’d started listening to, by The Doors and Bob Dylan) emboldened me to escape that violence and find my own path in the world. At the end of that year I quit school and left town.
We all have inspirations-discuss yours.
I’m inspired by outer space. The idea that our ultimate context extends far beyond our ability to witness, or even imagine it. And also, inner space, which is equally infinite and mysterious. I’m fascinated by the notion that our entire experience of reality is taking place within a limited perception, but we can sense things that lie just beyond our conceptual grasp. And sometimes, we can even manage to channel clues about what we’re sensing, share them with each other, and celebrate our mutual recognition of their value, without anyone totally knowing what’s going on.
Your project Bespoke Books Project is interesting. Explain the idea and the inspiration behind it?
After releasing my last few books in a more traditional way, and touring to promote them, I was struck by an incongruity. I was traveling all over the US, Canada, and Europe, giving readings to different kinds of crowds, in varying types of spaces, meeting people who all reacted to different elements of my work and interacted with me in different ways. But at the end of each of these unique interactions, I was selling everyone the exact same book, regardless of who they were, where they lived, or how we’d met each other. I started wondering if there might be a way for me to write things that would reach these individual readers in a more personalized way, and more accurately reflect the diversity of interactions I was experiencing on the road.
Then, a couple of years ago, I went on a trip to the States to visit my family for Christmas. I was away from my lover during this time, so while I was there I filled a journal with my thoughts and experiences to bring back to her as a Christmas gift. When I saw her reaction to being presented with a whole handwritten book, I realized that this was exactly the kind of experience I wanted to create. An intimacy, and an immediacy, that reflects the time in which it was written, and the nature of the relationship between the writer and the reader.
Part of the idea seems to be going against the mass production of books but shouldn’t books be mass produced for all to enjoy?
If the person who receives one of these books decides that they want to share their enjoyment of it, they are free to do so. They can type it, scan it, print it, post it online if they like. I’m not blocking that process. But I like the idea that this decision is in their hands rather than mine. Since they are the person the book has been written for, it seems only fitting that they should be the one to choose whether it is distributed more widely. They can keep the book as a one-of-a-kind object, like they would be able to with a painting or sculpture, or they can share it, in whole or in part, at their own discretion. So, it’s up to each reader to customize how publicly available their book will be.
One friend ordered a book for his brother (whom I knew as well), who was terminally ill….He received it and read it just a couple of weeks before he passed.
People can share the book should they choose. Is there also an idea of people sharing a book outside of monetary gain?
Great question! Yes, I love the idea that the reader can also decide the extent to which each book becomes a commodity. If they want to, they can keep it under their bed forever, and effectively remove it from the marketplace, so that it only serves their private interest. Or, if they prefer, they can sell it, trade it, publish it, make a movie out of it, treat it as an investment. And they can also elect to distribute it for free and make it available to everyone. So again, the choice rests with them. Each reader can value their book in their own way.
Talk about the technicalities of how one gets a bespoke book.
Most books I’ve sold so far have been via pre-order, through the crowdfunding campaign I did last spring, but I’ve also taken a few private orders, and I’m planning to relaunch the project again this year. Mostly I’m writing about my own life and experiences, while keeping the reader in mind. I’m open to special requests, but so far no one has really asked for anything too specific. I do try to factor in the things I know about the person I’ll be writing for when I’m selecting a theme. One friend ordered a book for his brother (whom I knew as well), who was terminally ill, and it turned into a goodbye letter, reflecting on mortality. He received it and read it just a couple of weeks before he passed.
There must have been some interesting challenges in such a unique project?
The biggest challenge is always those moments when I don’t feel like writing, or don’t feel confident about my writing, and yet the show must go on. When that happens, I try to incorporate those doubts, and that part of what I’m going through, into the writing itself, and share the whole process with the reader as directly and candidly as I can. And since each book is a first and only handwritten draft, there’s no way to go back and correct anything I don’t like. So, if I’ve written a few lame pages, then it’s an embarrassment the reader and I will then have to share. That can be scary, but it also feels vital and true.
Another challenge I face concerns writing about events in my own life. I often find myself revealing extremely personal details. I try not to stop myself from doing this, because I think it gives an intimate energy to the work, but sometimes I must be careful not to divulge things about others that might be problematic. Then later, I tend to forget what I’ve written, and I’m shocked to be reminded of what some of my readers know about me.
We are aware you wrote in your own writing there’s something nostalgic pre-industrialisation about that. Is that what you were aiming for?
I’m not sure nostalgia is exactly the word I would use, because I don’t get off on the old ways just because they’re old. I don’t have any particular feeling for telegrams or rotary phones, whose sole functions were only made more efficient by their replacement technologies. But I do think that some of the practices we’ve left behind created experiences that were functionally different from their contemporary counterparts in rich and tangible ways, and I’m interested in exploring that. It’s like the way people think about the difference in sound between vinyl records and digital files. A handwritten document creates a very different experience from a printed or digitally reproduced one. The presence of the handwriting itself brings the reader closer to the author, and the fact of it being an only draft means that when you hold it you are holding something unique, something for which you bear the entire responsibility while it is in your hands. The feelings provoked by that are a large part of what interests me in this process.
Was there an element of freedom in creating these projects if so how?
The biggest freedom here is from the post-production process. I don’t have to deal with marketing and promoting the books I’ve already written, because they’ve been written to order. So as soon as they’re done, I put them in the mail and that’s it. Also, I don’t have to face the temptation to go back in and endlessly edit them, refusing to let them go, because they’re unalterable.
Isn’t there something almost strange in the fact that years from now perhaps when we are all gone- one book will become this collector’s piece worth some amazing amount of money?
That is a funny thought, and an inspiring one. But even more inspiring than the notion of financial worth is the idea that the documents that survive for a long time are the ones that people have been touched by, and that have become personal treasures. So, if one of these books is still around long after we’re gone, it will be because it touched someone profoundly. And that would make me very happy indeed.
What has been a lasting thought for you regarding this project?
With such different content flying around, it’s getting harder for writers to forge unique and vital bonds with the people who read their work. It’s increasingly important that we keep finding new ways to reach for when we write, and that we insist on feeling it when we read. I’m always looking for ways to create more direct interactions through my work. So, if any of your readers have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear from them!