Almost two years ago I became acquainted with Betsy Cordes. I was looking for an expert on art direction and licensing to interview for my book Art Inc and through friends I discovered Betsy. Since then we’ve become good friends and collaborators (and she is an expert interviewee in both my book Art Inc and my class Become a Working Artist). One day about a year ago Betsy and I were having lunch, and she told me about an exciting project she was working on — to put back into publication a long out-of-print book called Mr. Dog’s Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn. She told me the story of the book and its meaning to her family and about the lengths she was stretching to bring the book back to life (it was an incredible endeavor, as you will see). I was so inspired by Betsy’s story and just last week saw the book for the first time (which is now for sale) and was so mesmerized by its beauty that I decided it would be a great story to share here. I hope you enjoy this interview with Betsy about Mr. Dog’s Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn (scroll to the bottom for purchase details!).
Lisa: Mr. Dog’s Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn was originally published in 1898! How and why did you come to bring this old story back to life?
Betsy: That’s right! The author, Albert Bigelow Paine, wrote the story back at the turn of the last century. (Cool fact: Paine was also Mark Twain’s good friend and biographer!) Mr. Dog’s Christmas has been read aloud on Christmas Eve in my family since the early 1940s, first by my grandparents to my dad and his brother. My dad’s been reading it to me and my brother our whole lives and our children have now grown up with Mr. Dog, too. We’re kind of nuts about it… Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without Mr. Dog! I’ve even been known to ask my dad for a private reading over the phone, on those few Christmases I haven’t been able to spend with my folks.
It’s always surprised us that the story isn’t more widely known. Although it was written over a century ago, it’s timeless. It’s just a really charming tale about the worldly and rather mischievous Mr. Dog, who decides to surprise his friends at the Hollow Tree Inn (Mr. Crow, Mr. ‘Coon, and Mr. ‘Possum) by playing Santa Claus. He goes to great lengths to pull it off, and treats his friends to a beautiful experience. Until our edition, the story had been out of print for decades and it was a couple years ago that my brother, Jason, had the brilliant idea to republish it with new illustrations. We talked about it a bit and decided we really wanted to do it ourselves, rather than try to get an established publisher interested. We felt super protective of the story because of our tradition, but we don’t own it; it’s in the public domain. We didn’t want someone else to bring it back in a way that didn’t please us!
As an art director, I knew I could find and work with an artist to bring the story to life in glorious color, and I had just enough experience with design, print production and promotion to feel comfortable managing the project myself. Truth be told, it’s become a far bigger endeavor than I ever imagined. Honestly it’s been like a second full-time job for me, but I’ve learned so much through the process that’s helpful in my work with artists, many of whom also want to publish their own books or launch Kickstarter campaigns. I’m feeling really grateful for the opportunities this project has given me.
Lisa: The book is beautifully illustrated by well known illustrator Adam McCauley. How did he come to illustrate the book & what was it about his style that appealed to you for this project?
Betsy: I know, aren’t his drawings incredible? We are so fortunate to have him as our illustrator and I credit the Makeshift Society for bringing that about. When I started my search for an illustrator, I sent an email to the group and Adam’s wife, Cynthia Wigginton, was the first to respond, saying, “You might want to check out my husband Adam’s work.” Well, as soon as I saw his portfolio I felt he could strike that perfect balance between old and new; a lot of his work has a vintage quality about it while being entirely contemporary. As it turned out, Adam felt a great affinity for the material; it put him in mind of some of his favorite book artists, including Lewis Carroll. Because of the era and flavor of the story he saw an opportunity to work in pen and ink, a medium he loves but doesn’t often get to use for his children’s book work. Really, when I saw Adam’s first illustrations for the book, that’s when this project became so much bigger than I ever imagined. I immediately felt a larger sense of responsibility because of the beauty and rightness of his art.
Lisa: The book is also gorgeously designed! Tell us a bit about the vision for the book design, who designed it, and all of the special elements of the design.
Betsy: Thank you! I’m so proud of it, and it’s been a great collaboration between me, Adam, and—in another huge stroke of luck—his wife Cynthia! As it turns out, Cynthia is a designer and she works with Adam on many of his books. I always knew that I wanted the whole look and feel of the book to reference the Victorian era of the story. I wanted a cloth-covered book, with embossing and foil and those intricate design details that we see in books from that time. Cynthia knew just how to handle it; her choice of type, the gorgeous decorative frame that surrounds the text pages, the faux bois patterning, antiqued look of the pages, and other details are all so spot on. I’ve come to appreciate what a special and particular skill book design is, from a technical perspective as well. Knowing what you want a book to look like is one thing; being able to execute it and deliver it in printable form for mass production is quite another thing. I’m so glad to have had Cynthia on this project, and to have had the support of a really amazing print broker who shepherded it through overseas production.
Lisa: What do you hope people experience from owning and reading Mr. Dog’s Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn?
Betsy: You know, I just feel so incredibly lucky to have had this story and this tradition in my family for so long and I hope that our readers get to enjoy the feeling of anticipation, togetherness and continuity that we experience with it. The story is perfectly timeless. To me, it’s at least as appealing as cherished classics like Clement C. Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (aka “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) and others—stories that have been part of Christmas celebrations for decades.
Lisa: Where can people purchase Mr. Dog’s Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn?
Betsy: For now, the best place is through our website, MrDogsChristmas.com. The first edition is a pretty luxurious one, so we had to keep the production run small. If it takes off (fingers crossed!) we’d love to do a bigger run and have much wider distribution next year. But I gotta say, if it speaks to you, grab a copy of this first edition, because the look and feel of it are so special. I imagine and hope it will become an heirloom for many.
Lisa: I can vouch for that! It’s just gorgeous. Thank you, Betsy!
Incidentally, Adam McCauley will be signing copies of the book this coming Saturday, December 6 at Rare Device in Noe Valley in SF. You can pick up your own copy of the first edition there!