21 January 2021

Interview with Nick Gadd, author of Death of a Typographer

Nick Gadd, author bio photo
Australian author Nick Gadd
I recently had the pleasure of reading Death of a Typographer by fellow Melbournian and Aussie writer Nick Gadd last month. Nick kindly agreed to let me grill him about his book and geek out on some font related questions, so welcome to Carpe Librum Nick! 

Thanks for joining us. Can you tell us about the research you undertook for Death of a Typographer? Has exploring the world of typefaces and fonts changed your perspective in any way?
Hello Tracey, and thank you for the review! I first became interested in fonts through my friendship with Stephen Banham, a Melbourne typographer. He introduced me to the world of type design and typography, and the wonderful language around it - swashes, glyphs, ligatures, kerning et cetera - and the marvellous characters - in both senses - that it contains. I realised that this is its own self-contained world of people who look at things in a very particular way, and for a fiction writer that is gold. So I went off and did my own research, sitting in the typography section of the State Library of Victoria, browsing through the books and letting them speak to me. The best of the books I used are listed in the Acknowledgements of Death of a Typographer. All of this has changed my perspective in that I am much more conscious of the impacts that different fonts make on our responses to text. The right font on a fancy wine bottle, for example, can add $20 to the price. I am hoping that readers will finish the book with similar raised awareness.
Death of a Typographer by Nick Gadd book cover

Are you able to recognise different fonts when you see them? What's your favourite and least favourite font? (I think my favourites are Garamond and Calibri, while my least favourite is Comic Sans).

I can’t recognise that many, actually. I’m certainly not an expert like the people in the book, who can pick a font by the shape of the dot over the letter ‘i’ (it’s called a tittle, by the way). But many fonts can be good or bad depending on how they are used. I like a stylish French display font called Peignot from the mid-20th century, but it has been much abused and can sometimes be seen in pizza shop signage where it looks terrible. In the printed word, I agree that Garamond usually looks great because it suggests centuries of learning and scholarship. Hence it is the right choice for literary writing, an essay or a thesis. I’m typing my answers to this in Times, which was designed for a newspaper - The Times - in the 1930s. It’s a tried and true working font that doesn’t draw attention to itself. The arch-villain font of the novel is Helvetica, which my hero Martin Kern hates because it is over-used - though Helvetica, too, is fine in places like hospitals and airports, it’s really a matter of typodiversity as Martin says. There aren’t too many fonts that are always awful, except perhaps Bleeding Cowboys.

I just had a look at the Bleeding Cowboys font, and it's exactly what it sounds like, what a hoot! How did you settle on the font for the cover design of Death of a Typographer? Was it a tough choice or a no brainer?
The cover design is by Stephen Banham, who chose Bureau Grotesque Extra Condensed for the title, and Typewriter for the author’s name - which I love, because it reminds me of the old Remington I used to type my first stories when I was a little kid. The text of the novel is set in Mercury Text, which you won’t find on your desktop - it’s a beautiful font we bought specially from the Hoefler type foundry in the United States. We also used more than 30 other fonts through the book, mainly for the chapter titles - each font selection is related somehow to the story, and they are all listed at the back for font nerds. By the way, Stephen won the Designers’ Choice Cover of the Year Award at the Australian Book Design Awards for the cover of Death of a Typographer.

I loved seeing the list of different fonts used for each of the chapters, and congratulations to Stephen on the award; you both must be thrilled. Was the character's name of Avery a typographical joke? Can you share one of the in-jokes that appears in the book? (I got the Roman reference, that was a good one!)
There are lots of font-related gags in the book - the most obvious is the name of Martin Kern, the hero. To ‘kern’ is a term meaning adjusting the spacing between letters. It’s one of those things that drives a type designer nuts - bad kerning! You spotted Roman, who also has a child named Pica - a pica is a typographical measure. There’s a pub the characters go to with a landlord named Tony Bodoni - Bodoni is a classic Italian font - where you can get a Palatino cocktail or a glass of Coopers Black (both fonts).  There are lots of other in-jokes which font nerds will spot, but you don’t actually need to know any of that stuff to enjoy the book - it’s just a cherry on top if you do. As for Avery, I needed a name for Martin’s antagonist, the black-clad, beret-wearing, arch-wanker corporate graphic designer. One day I saw the name Avery in a shop window in Helvetica Thin and thought, that’s it!

Oh Palatino and Coopers Black, of course! Tell us, what are you reading at the moment?
I’m enjoying Robert MacFarlane’s Underland, which goes deeply into another of my interests - psychogeography; and I’m also loving an old biography of Edie Sedgwick which is about the self-destructive scene of Andy Warhol’s Factory and the New York counterculture in the 1960s. I’m fascinated by the kind of alternative realities that people live in, I guess.

Has the pandemic changed your reading or writing habits in any way?
I don’t know if it was the pandemic, but I read more books by women writers last year - Olivia Laing and Vivian Gornick in particular, which led me to Jean Rhys and Colette, all of whom I think are marvellous.

When did you become interested in ghost signs? Do you have a favourite ghost sign in Melbourne?
I became interested in ghost signs through my friend Vin Maskell, the writer, who like me has an interest in things that are on the verge of being lost. A ghost sign is an old piece of signage, often painted but sometimes neon or some other material, which points back to a lost product or person or trade. They are evocative windows into social history, but also carry a lot of symbolic and metaphorical weight. I did sneak a few ghost signs into Death of a Typographer, but I discuss them much more extensively in my psychogeographic work. My favourite ghost sign of all time is the one reading ’Consult the Celebrated Specialist Dr King’ which appeared in Melbourne in 2013 - it was a painted advertisement from the 1890s for a ‘medical clairvoyant’, whom I write about in my new book. The sign is lost now, alas.
Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss by Nick Gadd book cover

I noticed you launched your new book Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss last month, can you tell us a little about it?

Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss is my first non-fiction book. Part travelogue, part psychogeography, part memoir, it describes a two-year walk around and through the suburbs of Melbourne by my late wife Lynne and me. On the way we came across ghost signs, fascinating buildings, and odd traces of the past which led us to some weird and wonderful stories of lost Melbourne. Shortly afterwards, when Lynne died of cancer, I began to write about our relationship and the walk we took together as a way of investigating the relationship between people and places, and the ways that where we live gives meaning to our lives. So it’s a very personal book, but readers have told me that it speaks to them because over the past year in Melbourne many of us have only been able to travel around our own neighbourhoods, and there is a lot to discover on foot if you approach it with a sense of curiosity.

What's next? What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on some essays, thinking about a new novel, and preparing for some workshops I’m offering during the upcoming year on walking, writing and place.

Sounds like you'll be keeping very busy in 2021, so thanks for joining us Nick. To find out more about Nick Gadd's other writing, visit nickowriter.com or to learn more about his Melbourne Circle project, visit melbournecircle.net and Carpe Librum!

Would you like to comment?

  1. What a great interview! I’m sure I use all the wrong fonts in all the wrong places. I’m fascinated by the idea of ghost signs. They are probably things you see around and don’t take a second thought about them.

    1. Thanks Veronica, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I notice ghost signs when a building is demolished and you can see a ghost sign on one of the walls from the building next door. I like to wonder how long it's been hidden for and how long it'll be visible until it's bricked up again for who knows how long. Very interesting, isn't it?

  2. Your interview was really well-done: you had great prepared questions but also the confidence to pick up on the author's comments and to follow them spontaneously.

    This book sounds so intriguing! It's definitely on my short list for this year's reading.

    1. Wow, thanks so much for your super kind words Debbie, I'm so glad you enjoyed the interview. And I hope you're able to pick up a copy Death of a Typographer this year, I think you'll really enjoy it, it's a lot of fun!


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