February 2008 Issue
Perry Township's London House Publishing takes reading to another dimension.
At first glance, they look like relics from the Romantic Age: a bundle of handwritten letters lovingly tied with red ribbon and surrounded by the scent of honeysuckle; a faded yellow rose; a cigar band; and a stone worn smooth by water’s ebb and flow.
But appearances can be deceiving. Together, these 100 letters represent a novel way to enjoy fiction.
Dearest, the enchanting tale they tell, is the love story of James Cavell, a wealthy engineer from Pittsburgh, and Marietta milliner Anne Levitt, who meet during a boat trip on the Ohio River in 1872. The stack of letters and accompanying artifacts also symbolize a success story for publisher Michael McGee London, 56, owner of London House Publishing in Perry Township, who spent a decade developing the story content and innovative packaging.
PhotographyÂ by Thom Sivo
Letters and artifacts bring romance to life in Dearest, a new novel from London House Publishing
|The letters tell the tale.
His mission: to make reading a sensory experience — one that he calls “multidimensional.” The idea first took hold during a conversation with a professor at Wright State University, where London taught English to international students. The two were discussing the differences between theater and literature.
“When you go to a play, you have a physical experience,” says London. “Even though you’re not talking to other members of the audience, you’re interacting with the action on stage. The experience of reading is so much more intellectual and solitary.
“I wanted to change that.”
His colleague was skeptical, but London was up for the challenge.
A history buff, he became fascinated by the epistolary novels of the 1700s, which were comprised of a series of letters written by one or more characters.
“When you read one of them, you’re touching the letters, studying the handwriting, getting a greater sense of the visual image than just words on a printed page,” he says. “I decided that was the form my work would take.”
When it came time for him to put pen to paper, the Columbus native — whose forebears hailed from West Virginia — wanted to pay homage to the heyday of the Ohio River that took place a century or so ago.
“The setting came before the story,” he says. “I knew I needed to write a piece that honored my heritage.”
London’s pen name, Michelangelo Altiére, also serves as a tribute to his roots. It’s derived from the Italian nickname his grandmother gave him — “She’d see me come running and say, “Here comes my little Michelangelo,’ which meant, “Here comes trouble.’” — and his mother’s maiden name.
The author credits insatiable curiosity with playing a major part in the plot. While surfing the Web, he happened upon a story about the incline railway systems that were once a dominant means of transportation in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. While vacationing in Budapest, he went out of his way to ride one.
“I can get very obsessive,” London admits. “I lived in museums and libraries to get a real sense of the period.”
He also experimented with fonts mirroring a variety of handwriting styles for the correspondence between his characters, and painstakingly chose the look of the stationery.
“I wanted to understand the colors and paper of the period,” London says.
Anne’s initial letters to James, for instance, are written on what looks like newsprint, an indication of modest means. Letters written after one of the characters dies contain a black border representing a period of mourning. As time passes, the border gets thinner.
“Every page took six or seven hours to create,” recalls London. “Each was treated like a piece of artwork. In some letters, the penmanship is a little blurry; in others, it’s a bit thick or contains a series of broken lines.
“It took us hours to get it un-perfect,” he says with a laugh.
The design also adds to the ambiance. Available in three editions – contained in either a hatbox, limited-edition jewelry chest or book-shaped package — Dearest is filled with artifacts related to the story, ranging from dried flowers to copies of newspaper articles about the period. (Each jewelry chest is aged to a golden patina by London’s daughter-in-law, Jennifer, and filled with photographs of the characters.)
“But I don’t want you, the reader, to notice any of these special touches,” London insists. “All I want you to do is feel. Feel like the characters are real people. That’s all I care about.”
Published in July, the book has generated rave reviews from readers.
London has heard from couples who say evenings reading the letters aloud to each other has led to a rekindling of their own romance. And two sisters also expressed gratitude for the quality time they spent together with Dearest while one of the siblings was undergoing chemotherapy treatments.
“One woman called to tell me she stopped reading the novel because she felt she was invading people’s privacy,” London says. “I had to keep reminding her that this is fiction. That was the nicest compliment I ever received, because that’s when I knew [the method] was working.”
The next multidimensional offering from London House, available later this year, will be a new edition of All That it Brings: Army Letters from an Officer’s Wife, 1871-1888. The book recounts the true story of Frances M.A. Roe, who left the East Coast with her husband, Lt. Col. Fayette W. Roe, for the untamed West. London is also in the process of writing two historical novels he plans on publishing in 2009.
“One thing I know for sure,” he says. “We’ll never run out of material.”