With Caitlin Dover
CD: This book brings together two distinctive, like-minded yet very different sensibilities. How did you and Dave Eggers find each other and decide to collaborate?
DB: I didn't go looking for Dave. However, I do like the way McSweeney’s, the arts "quarterly", looks, and I contacted them and asked who their designer is, as I thought that whoever it was would be appropriate for my little theological project. Dave replied and said he himself was the designer, and he would be happy to do my little book- in fact he collects bibles and would I like to see some? I went to the McSweeney’s store*, and sure enough Dave had some beautiful old bibles he'd gotten at flea markets or somewhere and these were obviously the design font from which many things McSweeney’s flowed. We looked at them together and noted some of the features (dedication pages, footnotes down the side, etc) and chose some of these to incorporate into The New Sins.
Dave is pretty low key about being a designer, I don't know if there is any design credit listed in McSweeney’s at all, so this acknowledgement by me is probably borderline distasteful to him. I suspect he sees the design that he does as fun, and that to think of himself as a serious designer might take some of that sense of play and looseness away.
CD: In the e-mail you sent to Annie, you wrote that the design was informed by assorted religious books (the bibles, etc.). Did those books also inspire you to create the text, or did the text come first and the design follow?
DB: Both. I have collected odd religious books for years, mainly as objects, and for their titles. ("How To Do All Things", "Glamour: A World Problem" and "I Dare You" are a few) So I was well aware of this tradition, and obviously the Sins book was a comment and a homage to that style. I knew therefore that I could do a similar tome written in a similar style- although how similar I had no idea. And although these books usually have pictures of either Jesus, Armageddon or Happy Families scattered throughout, I felt I could be a liitle more wide ranging with my picture choice. But the picture tradition had been well established.
I began reading both religious tracts and Faulkner in preparation for this book. (Well, I was reading Faulkner anyway) Many of the tracts which used to be passed out on the street are now on websites. Their language is snakelike, convoluted, beautiful. These were my models.
CD: How did you go about choosing the photos to accompany the different chapters?
DB: Surprising as it might be, I think they all actually have something to do with the images on the opposite pages. I take pictures constantly, and had a huge bank of images from which to draw, or so I believed, so I started off pairing these with the pages of text. Sometimes the link is obvious- Ambition is paired with a photo of a swarm of ants, Hope with a new bride and Cleanliness with a hand towel (neatly folded). In other cases the link might be known only to me- a plate bearing the image of Lincoln has blobs of Bolognese meat sauce on his eyes, this is opposite a section on what happens when we die- a reference to the old custom of putting coins on the eyes of the dead. Opposite a passage on sanity and lunacy is an image of a face scrawled over with graffiti, which to me looks like the image of a person gone squiggle headed. So there is always a link between word and image, but sometimes one could use footnotes or a second book to decipher them. This partial obscurity doesn't bother me- my sense is that if an author or artist intuits that there is a link between words, images or sounds, however indirect that link might be, it is probably there, and maybe subconsciously the reader will feel it too. Something doesn't need to be visible or describable to be real. There is always a connection, but it is not always linear or direct.
CD: While the design and tone of the book are tongue-in-cheek, its message seems sincere, and I, for one, found it moving. Why did you feel it was important to get these ideas out there right now? And why did you decide to put them in book form (rather than conveying them through music, for instance)?
DB: I realized early on that I'd be straddling a fence with this book- sometimes being funny and ironic, and then in the next paragraph offering thoughts that are sincere, if oddball or brazen. I knew that if it was merely a joke at the expense of little religious books and assorted tracts it would be good for one or two laughs and then the joke would be over, but if I could go beyond parody and often be sincere, I might actually say something and be pleasantly confusing.
CD: Why did you decide to include a Spanish version?
DB: This book was originally done for the Valencia Bienal, where they agreed to place it anonymously in hotel drawers. So I did it half in Spanish and half in English- for the foreign visitors to their art event.
CD: It's very difficult, when looking through this book, to figure out who wrote it. Was that a deliberate measure to give it the kind of presence that the bible, for instance, has? The authority of no author?
DB: Exactly. Most of those religious books I'd collected have no author, or at least none who are mentioned on the cover. The authority of received wisdom. The impression one gets is that with these books the consumer is more interested in the actual content, in what solace and advice a book like this can offer, than in who authored it.
Besides, my name would be a tip-off. In Valencia I wanted people to come upon this and wonder to themselves what mad organization produced had sponsored it. And I love the idea of art appearing somewhat anonymously in the world. Work perceived and discovered in the street, in out of the way places, allows the reader, listener or viewer to feel they have made the decision that the work is worthwhile and worthy. They take part in the creative process. The work is anointed by them, not parceled up and handed to them already mediated and endorsed.
CD: The book really looks like it belongs in the drawer of a hotel room bedside table. Have you considered approaching motel chains and proposing that they replace Gideon's with The New Sins? Or have you thought about just surreptitiously switching the two yourself?
DB: I have left a few around myself. And the folks at McSweeney’s have dropped a few as well. But we'd need to pass the plate in order to support that kind of thing on a larger scale.
CD: Your description of the "upper level" of hell that graphic designers inhabit is frightening and true. Any suggestions for Print's readers as to how they might redeem themselves—assuming redemption is possible once one is actually in hell? [I only ask this silly question because Print is a graphic design magazine. Please don't answer if you don't feel like it.]
DB: Well, while I may have qualms about the value and eternal worth of Graphic Design, I'm not fool enough to bite the hand that feeds me. You guys are wonderful and all of you are so unlike the evil graphic designers I describe in the book, you're not like them at all.
CD: How did the collaboration with Eggers go? Did you work together closely throughout the project?
DB: I have a cardinal rule which I broke on this project "Never work with a designer who isn't in your town" (I value spreading stuff out on a table, sifting through images and ideas, and face to face discussions) But Eggers passed through NY enough to make it possible. I could see he "got it" right away, I mean, he had a bible collection, what more do you want! We got along well, I trusted him. And I've since then I've gone on to participate in some of the McSweeney’s events.
*The McSweeney’s store in Park Slope is, well, something to see.