Jennifer Savran Kelly, ENDPAPERS

Jennifer Savran Kelly, ENDPAPERS

Zibby speaks to debut author Jennifer Savran Kelly about Endpapers, an evocative and sharply-written early-2000s literary mystery about a queer bookbinder who finds a love letter and becomes obsessed with tracking down the author (all while struggling in her artistic life and with her gender identity). Jennifer talks about her love of papermaking, bookbinding, and book conservation. She also reveals she is part of the #5amWritersClub on Twitter, explains why she started writing in the first place, and shares her best advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jennifer. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books”, or clearly, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Host Podcasts” today, to talk about Endpapers: A Novel. I have a sick kid here, so thank you for going with the flow.

Jennifer Savran Kelly: Thank you. Again, .

Zibby: No, all good. Jennifer, tell everybody about your book.

Jennifer: My book, the title is Endpapers. It’s a literary mystery of sorts, a sort of bookish literary mystery about a genderqueer bookbinder who is struggling both in her artistic life and in her relationship and also with her gender identity. It’s the early 2000s, so no mainstream pronouns to call on or words like nonbinary or genderqueer. Near the beginning of the book, Dawn, the main character, finds a letter underneath the endpapers of a book that she’s repairing at work. It’s on the back of the torn-off cover of a lesbian pulp novel from the 1950s. It’s a love letter from one girl to another. That’s all she knows because it’s written in German. That is the inciting action of the book and sets our main character on a journey to find out who wrote this letter, how their life went, and if it might help her make sense of her own identity and all of the issues that she’s having.

Zibby: Amazing. That’s such a great premise for a book. I love it. You do bookbinding yourself? Tell us the whole backstory.

Jennifer: I do. It’s actually kind of funny. I was thinking about this just as I was getting on here. There’s a story that I’ve never told anybody because it’s really embarrassing.

Zibby: We love embarrassing, never-told-before stories.

Jennifer: I was just a little bit obsessed with book arts as a person when I graduated from college. I moved to New York City. I had this little studio apartment in Brooklyn. I turned the kitchen into, basically, a papermaking studio. I wanted to teach myself how to make paper. I thought, well, this is my space, and I can do it. My very first sheet of paper that I made, I blended some stuff up, some flowers and some paper. The embarrassing part is that after I pulled my sheet of paper and transferred the wet sheet onto whatever it was to dry, I immediately started imagining that I was going to be on a talk show someday because everyone would want to know how I made a piece of paper in my Brooklyn apartment.

Zibby: I am actually fascinated with how you made a piece of paper in your Brooklyn apartment, so you’ve come to the right place. I love this full-circle moment. Wait, seriously, go back to how to make paper and even the desire to make your own paper. Where do you even begin?

Jennifer: Professional papermakers don’t do it like this, but if you want to make paper at home, essentially, you find old paper to recycle. Some people use dryer lint, but I feel like it doesn’t have a very paper-y texture. You can put in dried flowers and all kinds of things. Then you get a blender. You add water. You blend it all up. Then you need screens. They have a real name that I’m forgetting right now. Essentially, it’s a frame with a screen on it and then another frame that doesn’t have a screen. I feel like I’m really letting down your audience right now by not remembering what these are called.

Zibby: You could make up a word. We would never know the difference.

Jennifer: Then you put the plain frame on top of the one with the screen. You dip it into your vat of water and paper pulp. You shake it a little bit. I’m doing this, but I know your audience can’t see. I’m doing the motion. You pull it out. Then once the water drains out, you transfer it into a towel or a piece of flannel, something really smooth, and you let it dry. Then you have a piece of paper. I would go up on my roof and beat boiled daffodils with a rolling pin. I was very serious. I really wanted to make beautiful paper, but I didn’t have a real papermaking studio. I didn’t know how you really make beautiful paper. I was just doing it in my kitchen.

Zibby: Then when you dried these individual pieces of paper out and then they dried, then what did you do with them?

Jennifer: I collected them. I sometimes wrote notes on them. I would write thank you notes. I love writing letters to people. I’m sort of a throwback. I would collect them. I wanted to make my own artist books. Artist books are essentially works of art in book form. I was just seeing what I could do. I started with that. I hadn’t actually bound any books yet. That came after. Through my love of papermaking, I discovered the Center for Book Arts in New York. I started taking classes. Then I took real papermaking classes with a real professional papermaker. That was amazing. It blew my mind because you use things like cotton, lanolin, and rag. There are these beautiful commercial vats and hydraulic presses and a whole wet studio with a floor that’s slanted toward a drain. You’re just in there making a mess and making beautiful paper. It’s fantastic.

Zibby: I feel like this is a necessary field trip destination. They should have kids go and see how paper’s made.

Jennifer: They should. When I say commercial, this is also not a — what do you call it?

Zibby: A factory?

Jennifer: A factory, yeah. This is an artist making paper. Yes, I agree.

Zibby: My school took kids to go to a matzah-making factory once. It’s not a factory because a lot of it is by hand. It was that same thing. They put on little caps. I would so love to go to a field trip myself. Maybe I’ll suggest this to the school. I’m probably getting too old.

Jennifer: Chaperone.

Zibby: Chaperone, yeah. Then you learned to make paper in these amazing classes. Then talk about how that led to bookbinding and what that entails on your end.

Jennifer: Then I went to the Center for Book Arts, took bookbinding, papermaking, letterpress printing. Then I got an internship. I started calling — we still had the Yellow Pages when I was doing this, by the way.

Zibby: I remember the Yellow Pages very well.

Jennifer: It was pre-everyone having internet in their house. I actually was living in Brooklyn. I did the craziest thing. I opened the Yellow Pages and started looking for hand bookbinders in Brooklyn. To my utter shock, I found one within walking distance of my apartment. I called the binder. I said, “Hey, I’d really love to intern with you. What do I need to do?” She said, “What’s your experience?” I said, “I’m taking a workshop right now.” She said, “Did you finish it?” I said, “No, I’ve only taken two classes.” She said, “It would be great if you had more experience.” I said, “I’m just really enthusiastic.” Long story short, she said, “Why don’t you come by? We’ll just meet and talk.” She gave me a test without telling me it was a test. We talked. Then she said, “You know, I really like you, so sure.”

Zibby: Then you interned there?

Jennifer: I interned there. Then she introduced me to my former boss at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who was looking for a volunteer in their book conservation lab. They took me. Within my first year of taking bookbinding workshops, I had inserted myself in two different internships, so I was able to learn on the job. I was very serious. I was very driven. For years, I did that.

Zibby: You have to talk to our first Zibby Books author, Alisha Fernandez Miranda, who took a year off and did four internships. It’s rare to find other people who take internships on, and then they lead to all these great things.

Jennifer: I was working full time while I did that too.

Zibby: Wow. What was your full-time job at the time? What was your day job?

Jennifer: I was working at a college textbook publisher.

Zibby: You have had such an interesting life. I am so into this whole story. Keep telling me stories.

Jennifer: That’s how I started writing, ultimately, was through just writing little things for these artist books that I was working on. I never considered myself to be a writer. I was much more interested in the book as an object at that time.

Zibby: Then your book is called Endpapers. Speaking of field trips and endpapers, we had two kindergarten field trips recently at the bookstore I opened in California. They were so cute. They came in in the pouring rain and sat down. I was teaching them all about endpapers and how it’s such an undercelebrated thing. I love opening up a book and seeing what the endpapers are, especially children’s books, which sometimes can be really clever and an illustration unto themselves. We were talking all about endpapers. Now your book is called Endpapers, but I only have the galley here. Although, I think I have the finished copy somewhere. When you were doing endpapers for Endpapers, what did you do?

Jennifer: They’re white.

Zibby: Oh, no. I’m so disappointed in you.

Jennifer: It wasn’t my choice. We did a handbound giveaway. I did take one copy of the book, and I tore off the cover, gently. I rebound it. I did a collage. I rebound it. I actually made a pocket in the endpaper. I hid something in there, a note on the back of a printout of a pulp cover. Somebody won that copy.

Zibby: That’s a good idea. That’s really cool.

Jennifer: That was really fun.

Zibby: You should do more of those.

Jennifer: I should. Also, I do work full time now too. I have a fifteen-year-old. That one took me two and a half full days to do, just to give you a sense of how long those can take.

Zibby: Oh, wow. I have two fifteen-year-olds, I have to say, so I know how that goes. I don’t know. Every kid is so different.

Jennifer: You have four kids, right?

Zibby: I do have four kids. These two little ones also. Not so little anymore. What is your full-time job now?

Jennifer: Now I work at Cornell University Press as a production editor. That’s all I’ll say. The other might not be — anyway, that’s what I do.

Zibby: That’s what you do. So you help with book production?

Jennifer: Yeah. Once a book is accepted for publication, it’s been through the editorial process with the acquisitions editor, then it would come to me or one of my colleagues. We see it through copyediting and page proofs and production until it’s a bound book.

Zibby: We call that our managing editor here. That’s what she does. That’s awesome. Then when did you end up writing this book? How are you still writing? When are you doing everything, then? At night?

Jennifer: At five thirty in the morning. I’m part of the #5amWritersClub on Twitter.

Zibby: Is there really a thing? Is that really a thing?

Jennifer: It is really a thing. Check the hashtag. They have real virtual meetups sometimes, but I don’t ever go because it’s my only writing time. I really just write and check in with the hashtag. Then sometimes on weekends and then occasional retreats. I’ll go for a weekend and write. I started writing Endpapers. It was maybe a year before 2016. Then I just wrote one very long sentence and didn’t really know what to do with it, so I put it away for a long time. I always hate this part of the story, but then Trump was elected. I felt like I needed to go back to it. I started working on it in earnest around 2016.

Zibby: First of all, how do you — this is going to sound so stupid. How do you become part of a hashtag on Twitter? You just follow the hashtag, and then you’re part of it? Do you have to apply somewhere or anything? You just follow it?

Jennifer: Just follow it. You can use it. I got up early to write. I started getting on Twitter. I saw this hashtag that was #5amWritersClub. I thought, oh, I’m just going to jump in there.

Zibby: That’s so cool.

Jennifer: I just really wanted community. It’s not easy to get up every morning to write when you have a full day of work ahead of you and a kid and all that. This community is so supportive, just really, really nice people who are super committed. They’re there every morning. It’s amazing.

Zibby: Then you all wake up and tweet each other, basically?

Jennifer: Yeah. Essentially, wake up, make our coffee, and a lot of GIFs. A lot of GIFs being shared.

Zibby: So cool. I sound idiotic, obviously, but I have not figured out Twitter. It’s not intuitive to me. I’m scared of it. I feel like Instagram, I know really well. Then Twitter, I just pop on every so often. I’m like, I don’t know, I can’t make sense of this world. Then I leave.

Jennifer: I’m the opposite. I’m just getting used to Instagram now.

Zibby: Maybe we can teach each other how to do these platforms. I’m sure it’s not rocket science, but I have not invested the time to figure it out, which I should because apparently, lots of writers are on Twitter. I’m missing out. That’s so sweet. I love the visual of all these authors waking up all over the world and texting each other with their coffees. Doesn’t that feel like a scene out of a movie or something?

Jennifer: It really does.

Zibby: That’s really awesome. What is it about writing for you? Why do you make the time? That’s a big commitment. Why?

Jennifer: I’ve always had creative stuff that I’ve done. It’s always been around words. I never really, like I said, thought of myself as a writer. Then when my son was born, I didn’t have time to work in my bindery anymore because it’s a good twenty minutes to set up and then clean up after you work. That just wasn’t happening. I had collaborated on some other projects with friends. I couldn’t do that anymore because I couldn’t commit to a schedule. I had to do something. Writing was the thing that was always the thread that was running through. I had never been interested even in sharing my work beyond my own community. I really did it and have always done it for me just because I’ve needed it. Then writing seemed like the thing I could do. If I could grab fifteen minutes while my son was napping, then that’s what I did. I started to feel like, for the first time, I was really using my voice.

Then I was working for a journal where there were three male editors. I was really doing a lot of the work. They were doing a lot of the exciting part, like getting to go to conferences and talk to people about the journal. I was really behind the scenes, but I was doing a lot of the work. I thought, if I’m putting this much effort into getting other people’s work out there, maybe I’m allowed to have my own voice. Maybe I’m allowed to do that for myself. It really inspired me to try to start publishing. The more I wrote, the more I felt like I was, again, doing it for myself, but then thinking, if I need this, maybe somebody else does too. It’s just something I do. I can’t not do it. Even if I never published a word, I think I would still do it. I went ten years without publishing much. I published some short stories. Really, I’m not a happy person if I don’t do it.

Zibby: Speaking of really cool book-related arts, someone gave me — I could go grab it in the other room. Somebody recently gave me a copy of the memoir that I wrote, but they had done origami with all the pages. Then when you open it, it says my name. Have you ever seen anything like that?

Jennifer: No, that’s beautiful.

Zibby: It’s right here. Hold on. I feel like if anyone is going to appreciate this, it’s you. This is the book, the actual book and the actual jacket. Then they made it into my name. This is actually my signature. The lights are really weird here.

Jennifer: I can see it. That’s beautiful.

Zibby: Isn’t that cool? Then each page is folded. You see this?

Jennifer: Yeah. It’s all with folds. That’s incredible.

Zibby: Is that the coolest thing ever? I think they cut some. They cut some because this is indented a little.

Jennifer: I’ve seen altered books before, I guess I would call that an altered book, but never like that. That’s very cool. Congratulations.

Zibby: This is a year ago or something. What are some of the coolest book art things you learned or saw in class or that you’ve been a part of? What’s something cool that you’ve seen or done?

Jennifer: One of them was learning about how people used to actually find letters under the endpapers of books. That stayed with me for years and inspired the story. Another one, there’s an artist named Kumi Korf who did these really cool 3D books. They weren’t pop-up. I recently, finally, after all these years, got rid of my mock-up, so I can’t really show you what it looked like. Essentially, some of the pages would be regular pages. Then the whole thing would turn like a page, but you would have almost like a shadow box with 3D elements in it. She sort of invented this way to put a book like this together with regular pages and then 3D pages. I really loved that. I made a mock-up of an artist book using that idea. I wanted to have different parts of cathedrals. It was a little bit about, how do you learn to believe in yourself? What do people believe in? I had this idea that never came to fruition. I had tried doing all these sculptures with wire. I had this mock-up sitting around for a very long time. I finally just let it go. Someday, maybe I would like to try it out again. That was one of the cooler structures I’ve seen. I haven’t seen it since, I think just because she invented it.

Zibby: So neat. This is a whole new world here. I love this. Back to writing the book, why the mystery element? Obviously, if you find something, you have to get to the bottom of it. I know there’s a lot about identity and what you should look like and what you should wear and who you are to the people in your life at all times and all of that as well. Tell me about weaving it all in together and all the different threads.

Jennifer: I love a good mystery. I love literary fiction. I write literary fiction. I love a good page-turner. The older I get, the more I appreciate that, I think I said recently, especially in TV because otherwise, I fall asleep while I’m watching. I really just wanted to create something that would keep people interested, a story that would keep people turning the pages and would keep me interested in writing it. I don’t outline to the end when I write, and so I feel like I’m always reading as I’m writing. I’m writing to find out what happened. I tend to gravitate toward adding elements of mystery. I knew that I wanted there to be a historical element to the book as well. I didn’t know what I wanted it to be. When I first came up with the idea, it also just seemed like it had to be a mystery. If somebody was going to find this letter under the endpapers of a book, what was going to be the mystery? What was going to be the history there? That set me up for mystery and history. Sorry, I didn’t mean for that to rhyme. I feel like that set me up to try to uncover for myself, what was going on and then try to make an interesting story for the reader.

Zibby: It’s so cool. To your point about falling asleep early, I just read somewhere, somebody posted on, maybe Twitter — I don’t even know. Somewhere. Why do musician concerts always happen at night? Why not do Taylor Swift at two PM? How amazing would that be? Then you could be home by seven.

Jennifer: That would be so good. I would go to many more concerts.

Zibby: My whole day skews early. I’m like, why? Going out at eight, eight thirty is like — we’re having an afterparty soon. It starts at seven thirty, the afterparty. That is my kind of afterparty. Anyway, are you still in Brooklyn, or did I make that up?

Jennifer: No, I’m in Ithaca. I’m upstate now. I actually left on September 1st, 2001, which was heartbreaking. Then 9/11 happened right after I left.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors or artists?

Jennifer: My biggest advice to people — a college student just asked me, how do I get started? I feel like because I never really thought of myself as a writer and I never got an MFA, I had to, at some point, decide that if I was going to do this, that it was also okay for me to fail and that that was the only way that I would learn. When I started, I just made a decision that I didn’t have to be good and that I was just going to find people I trusted to read my work and tell me what I was doing wrong or what I could do better. I approached it with the mind of a student. I think that really helped me never feel like I couldn’t do it because I knew that once I did it, I could do it better and better and better. That was my goal. I don’t know if that helps people out there. I know there’s a big fear of failure when you first start. What if I’m not good enough?

One of the things that my father said — we were never very close. One of the things he told me when I went to college was that if you love something, if you’re really passionate about something, then you can assume that the people who do it are probably passionate too and that as long as you approach them respectfully and kindly, there will be people who want to talk to you. There will be people who want to help you. That’s what I did, the same way I did with bookbinding. I reached out respectfully and kindly. Some people said no. Some people said yes. Writers are nice people and generous people. If you respect their time, sometimes they’ll help you out. I took classes. I just learned and learned and learned until I felt like I could finally do it. I never felt like I was failing even when I probably was. I would recommend that as an approach.

Zibby: I love it. I love it so much. Do you have a book whose endpapers you think are amazing, or the endpapers of which you find amazing or whatever?

Jennifer: I don’t, but my former boss at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mindell Dubansky, she just published the result of years’ worth of research. It’s not necessarily endpapers, but it’s decorative papers throughout history. It is a gorgeous, gorgeous book. I would have to go get it. I know you have stuff to do, so I won’t do that. Mindell Dubansky. It’s a book about decorative papers that I would highly recommend that people take a look at because it’s beautiful.

Zibby: Amazing. We have our 5AM author group to now infiltrate. We have bookbinding papers and endpapers. I’m feeling very artistically inspired after this conversation. Thank you for the book as well, as a throw-in. Congratulations on Endpapers. Thank you for the chat.

Jennifer: Thank you so much, Zibby. This was really fun. I hope your son feels better.

Zibby: Thank you. Take care.

Jennifer: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Jennifer: Bye.

Jennifer Savran Kelly, ENDPAPERS

ENDPAPERS by Jennifer Savran Kelly

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