Monday, May 29, 2017

A Visit with Pegana Press

Mike and Rita Tortorello run Pegana Press from their home near Seattle, Washington. I have written about their Dunsany publications before (here and here).  I’m pleased now to offer a brief Q&A with Mike about how they got started with Pegana Press. I also recommend that you browse around their website, which has lots of photos and text describing their operation and publications more fully.  (Click on the photos to enlarge them.)

Tell us a bit about yourselves:

Well, when we're not printing or binding books we have other businesses we run. Rita is an energy medicine practitioner and is also deeply involved in Permaculture design, trying to create a self-sustaining environment here on our property.

I have an audio production studio and engineer and record music, which is what my formal training and career has been. I've begun to combine my interest in books and recording sound by creating an audiobook of Lord Dunsany stories, The Vengeance of Thor, that are a blend of music, narration and radio drama woven into the tales, really fun and satisfying to do.

How did you get started in the fine press field?

That grew out of collecting nice books and gradually growing more curious about how they were made. Knowing about and reading William Morris had a lot to do with it because of his printing at Kelmscott. That led me to a Roycroft edition of a Morris book and I explored the printing career of Elbert Hubbard. I was also collecting Clark Ashton Smith at the time and tracked down some of the letterpress chapbooks that Roy Squires had printed in California and that was a big eye opener as well. Strangely, I had talked with Squires years before this and bought Kai Lung and Lord Dunsany first editions from him as a bookseller without knowing that he was a well respected printer in the Fantasy/Supernatural field.

Around this time, a local college was offering letterpress printing and bookbinding classes and Rita encouraged me to take one. I found the process extremely interesting and satisfying and began to get curious about the different printing presses and their function. At some point I just decided to go for it and buy a press and begin printing. I started with a broadside of Lord Dunsany's first published poem Rhymes From A Suburb. I then ran into some information about other works by Hope Mirrlees, the author of Lud-in-the-Mist, and discovered she had written a long surrealist prose poem Paris in 1919 that was now almost totally forgotten. It had been printed by Virginia Woolf and exhibited extremely interesting typesetting to support the text. I spent a year printing it, measuring and duplicating the spacing from scans of the original.

Tell us about your interests in fantasy literature, and how that developed.

Well I suppose growing up in the late 60's and early 70's my exposure to comics (and having them mailed to me) and fantasy based cartoons may have been the start. I somehow (like many of us) found paperbacks, primarily the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series put together by Lin Carter. This introduced me to many of the authors which in turn led to many other authors and collecting began in earnest. I was also exposed to the wildly fantastic progressive rock music happening in the early to mid 70's, Yes and Genesis and the amazing artwork and lyrics going on. At some point I began looking at hardbacks rather than paperbacks in bookstores and began seeking finer editions; being in Spokane at the time there was never much to see in rare fantasy books though so I began to purchase through catalogs. I moved to Seattle to work in a recording studio and walked into a used bookstore that had an almost complete collection of Lord Dunsany first editions, books I had only dreamed of, that was a day to remember!

Why Dunsany?

Dunsany is my favorite author, an amazing man and a visionary who wrote much of his work with little, if any editing. He wrote almost nonstop, and there are stories of his scattered everywhere that haven't seen the light of day. He cared about the design of his books and also had custom bindings done for himself so I think it's appropriate that his work has a beautiful vehicle to carry it.

I began with the grandiose idea (since shelved) of doing a deluxe velum version of The Charwoman's Shadow which would have taken almost 3 years of typesetting by hand to complete but I had contacted the Dunsany Estate for permission and established a dialogue with Lady Dunsany. At some point I ran into a list of uncollected Dunsany stories and began to track down the magazines they had been published in and that started the Lost Tales series of books. Lady Dunsany is very supportive of craftsmanship and art and has been extraordinarily kind enough, with the Curator's invaluable assistance, to provide us with unpublished stories and rare artwork from the Castle.

Part of what I try to do with Pegana Press is add to the canon of fantasy with something lost, rare or unusual as opposed to just redoing what has been done before. I think it's important to share these Dunsany gems to those who will appreciate them.

Describe the development of a book idea over time, from conception to publication.

I usually come at each book from a different direction. I begin by choosing an author or work I'd like to have in my library and that no one has else has done. Then I have to decide on the design and physical structure of the book to determine what kinds of paper and type will be used. One of the Clark Ashton Smith books we did utilized Golden Rectangle proportions for everything and we used an ancient looking Lokta paper from Nepal as endpapers, I really wanted the book to feel prediluvian in nature and magical as the stories are about Necromancers in Poseidonis. The Lovecraft Edition was based on the proportions of a James Branch Cabell book I own that I really like the look and feel of. I also do chapbooks that require less structural decisions. After the design concept is clear in my mind, I start thinking about art and how to get something cool for the book. The great thing about the internet is it allows me to have worked with artists in Germany, Fiji and France to realize some of these books.

From here the real work begins of typesetting each letter by hand and then laboriously printing a page at a time. This is where our books are totally unique in the genres of Fantasy and Supernatural, no one else that I know of is doing fine edition letterpress like this. All the paper and materials are cut by hand. Once printing is done all the sheets are folded by hand and Rita begins the sewing and binding. All the binding and sewing is done by hand. Some of the binding is also done by Ars Obscura in Seattle. From there it's a matter of marketing the book and finding collectors interested in what we do, a full time occupation by itself.

Any authors you want to do but haven’t got round to yet?

There are so many, Robert W. Chambers, E.R. Eddison, Ernest Bramah, Donald Corley, William Morris, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert E. Howard, Eden Phillpotts. I still have more unpublished Lord Dunsany to get through as well. I'm just finishing a Fritz Leiber chapbook so he's off the short term board.

I also like to hear from people what they think I should print, I thrive on feedback and enjoy finding out what they want in their own libraries.

Thanks, Mike!


  1. I confess that despite trying I just can't 'get' Dunsany, somehow. But the CAS stuff sounds lovely.

    1. Try this tiny gem of a story called Charon by Dunsany and see what you think.

    2. Thanks, I shall. I do like Two Bottles of Relish, though. A friend found what Lady Dunsany thought was probably a Sime sketch for a Dunsany tale in a charity shop a couple years back.

    3. Have just read Charon. I can see it's a nicely crafted prose poem, but does nothing for me. I tried some of those stories about Gods but it's strange - he's the sort of author I should love but nope. Still, if we all liked the same stuff it'd be an echo chamber genre.

    4. I know what you mean, Sandy. I've long felt the same about the fantasies. I do adore, tho', the novel, 'The Curse Of The Wise Woman,' which has a more authentic 'recent' historical feel, a constant thread of realism running throughout, while the prose style remains at once taut and beautiful. Would make a superb Neil Jordan film, too.

  2. I've long admired these Pegana books from afar, but given their cost, it must only be from afar. I don't begrudge the press charging what it will for books that are obviously labor intensive works of art. But I do wish the stories were otherwise available for Dunsany devotees without deep pockets.

    1. Actually, many of our customers make payments over time to buy our books, they don't have deep pockets, I've collected my entire life and never had deep pockets either. Pursuing a passion doesn't have to do with income when you're a collector.

  3. Most of the stories are otherwise available!
    For those whose passion for words does not require passionately printed paper, Project Gutenberg has a LOT of Dunsany... And, if you have mindless tasks or long walks, you can fill them with some surprisingly good free audio book versions at Librivox dot org.

    1. With all due respect, most of the stories in our Dunsany books are NOT available elsewhere, they are unpublished or uncollected and certainly are not at Gutenburg. That is the point at Pegana Press and why they're called Lost Tales so it's about more than just fancy paper.