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The Arts

Bringing history alive

Local author and world-famous filmmaker —longtime friends — find commonalities in limited-edition monograph

BRATTLEBORO—You might say that it takes a village to make a book.

Certainly that would seem the case with Waking the Dead in Real Time, a limited-edition, 48-page monograph written, designed, illustrated, and published by a group of talented men and women who live in and around Brattleboro.

This unusual work, intended to bring history to life, includes excerpts from a forthcoming trilogy by writer David Blistein, who lives in East Dummerston.

Filmmaker Ken Burns, who lives just up the Connecticut River in Walpole, N.H., offers a substantial introductory essay, “Waking the Dead.”

The piece was designed by Dede Cummings of Brattleboro, illustrated with maps by Carolyn Kasper of Marlboro, proofed by Ellen Keelan of Brattleboro, and printed just outside Windham County at Springfield Printing in Springfield.

‘Both committed to bringing history to life today’

Blistein said he and Burns met in the mid-1970s, while Blistein was at Amherst College and Burns was at Hampshire College. In 1977, they roomed in a house in Amherst with 10 other people.

Through the years, Blistein and Burns remained close and, last October, they appeared together at the Brattleboro Literary Festival to celebrate their friendship, of which Waking the Dead in Real Time was a product.

In Blistein’s part of the book, historical characters such as Agamemnon, Jezebel, Chopin, Harriet Tubman, and Minamoto No’ Yoritomo, the first Shogun, walk into Blistein’s life.

All come from Blistein’s work-in-progress, “Real Time,” a trilogy that he characterizes as a “Danté-esque odyssey in which historical characters make a full-frontal assault on [my] everyday life. In ‘Real Time,’ historical characters appear...to reflect on their past and how they see the world now.”

Burns’s introduction discusses his relation to history and gives a groundwork for the work he does in making historical documentaries.

Blistein sees his project as related to Burns’s.

“In Ken’s documentaries, he provides a new way to understand American history by delving deeply into the experiences and emotions of truly extraordinary people from the past,” Blistein says.

“We are both committed to bringing history to life today, in the hopes that by feeling our past as well as knowing it, we can better understand human nature and — who knows? — maybe write some brand new stories,” he says.

For her part, Cummings describes Burns’s essay as “open and honest.”

And although Blistein’s work is fiction about historical figures out of context, “when you read the collection closely, you see how he portrays the characters in a heartfelt way and from the guise of the Everyman,” Cummings says.

Making it beautiful

Bringing a book to life involves more than just its writers.

Cummings wrote on her blog about the detailed process of creating the limited-edition volume.

Cummings, a former book designer for Little, Brown and Co. whose studio DCDesign enjoys a national reputation within the publishing industry for high-quality work, said she got involved in the project based on her friendship with Blistein.

“David and I have known each other longer than we can remember,” she wrote. “It turns out we grew up around the corner from each other in Providence, R.I. But we didn’t actually meet until we both found ourselves living in Brattleboro during the 1990s. So it was a personal, as well as a professional, pleasure to work with him.”

Cummings said the book was printed on 100-percent post-consumer-waste recycled paper.

“For readability, I selected Dante [for the type font],” she said.

“Each chapter begins with the name of the author or character — staggered and stacked — with strong black initial caps and the middle name in red in between the first and last name.

“Opposite those title pages is a signature or seal of the character — including ones for David and Ken — which subtly places them as part of the overall historical continuum.

“Then we added the strongest design elements — biographical sidebars and original maps by illustrator Carolyn Kasper. Positioned on an antiqued parchment background, the maps look like they came out of a book collector’s treasure chest.

”All these elements work together to give the book a feel of historical authenticity that supports the authors’ original perspectives on history itself.”

The authors

Blistein, who used to own an ad agency in Keene, N.H., has been writing professionally for many years. In addition to Real Time trilogy, he is writing David’s Inferno, a memoir of his bipolar breakdown from 2005 to 2007, including overviews of both conventional and alternative treatments. Excerpts from the work in progress appeared in the Voices section of The Commons Nov. 16.

Burns has been making documentaries for more than 30 years. His most recent documentary series, Prohibition, aired on PBS last fall. He will make his third appearance at the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro in a “First Wednesday” talk on Jan. 4 at 7 p.m.

Each of the 500 copies of Waking the Dead in Real Time is signed and numbered by the authors. The title can be bought at Everyone’s Books and the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, or it may be ordered online for $30 at www.davidblistein.com.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #133 (Wednesday, January 4, 2012).

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