Updated: Dec 5, 2022
Mike and Rita Tortorello of Pegana Press
In 2009, after a decade of dreaming and contemplating, Mike Tortorello launched Pegana Press with a beautiful broadside of Lord Dunsany's Rhymes From a Suburb. This would set the tone for works to come as he focused on some of the earliest weird fiction writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and of course, Lord Dunsany. In 2012, Mike's wife Rita joined the team to become the binder for Pegana Press, bringing a refined sensibility to the design of their projects. If you are even a casual fan of weird fiction, Pegana is absolutely a press to follow. We are so excited to be able to share our conversation with Mike and Rita. It is an honor to have this veteran duo be a part of our series here at the Collectible Book Vault.
Q: This will be our first interview with a husband-and-wife duo, which is really exciting! What did the first conversation about Pegana Press look like between the two of you? Was it collaborative and slowly evolving or something one of you came up with suddenly?
Rita: It took a long time between the inception of the idea and the day Mike unpacked the press. We were having a random conversation one night and Mike was telling me that he had worked for the local newspaper when he was in high school. He was telling me about all the steps involved in printing a newspaper, which was his actual job there.
Mike had been an enthusiastic collector of books since he was a kid which gave him an appreciation for the way books used to be made. We grew up in the era when the town libraries were filled with old books. There is just no comparison between a book made 100 years ago and what you will find today. It is a completely different experience for the reader.
As I listened to him talk about the printing process, I realized that it might be possible to put that experience to work making the kind of books Mike loved. It was a pretty naïve idea, but we were young, and the world was a different place. We began talking about the idea that night, but it was another 10 years or more before Mike bought the press.
In 2009, Mike and I were both starting businesses at the same time. It was not in the original plan that I would be the binder for Pegana Press. Paris was bound at Ars Obscura in Seattle, and Lost Tales Volume I was a chapbook. I sewed the chapbook for Mike based on the chapbooks produced by Roy A. Squires.
What happened next was that Mike began getting feedback from the people buying the books. They wanted hardbound books. The next book was The Age of Malygris. It was the first casebound book we produced. Mike was still working a day job, and printing books at night (which he continued to do for the first five years of Pegana Press). It wasn’t cost effective at that point to send the books out to be bound, so we talked about it, and I ended up teaching myself how to bind books. I wasn’t trained or apprenticed, but I put a lot of care and a lot of love into those books, and Mike put a lot of care and love into typesetting and printing each book, and the content is superb. I think our customers really wanted us to succeed. They were very encouraging and supportive, and Pegana Press grew, which gave me a lot of practice binding books.
Q: The name of your imprint draws its name from a series of stories by Lord Dunsany, including The Gods of Pegana, published in 1905. How intentional was this name chosen and did it guide the future direction of author and title selections? Did you originally intend to focus on the genre of books you have published up to this point?
Mike: I was always curious that the First Lord Dunsany book was published by Elkin Matthews in the U.K. under the imprint “Pegana Press” but his subsequent books from them didn’t use that imprint. Apparently, Dunsany paid to get his first book published and I assume that was the reason. I was intrigued to carry that banner if you will and release more Dunsany editions under that name.
My intent was to print books I’d like to have in my own library, being primarily composed of Weird Fiction. Many of these classic, imaginative and evocative works had never been produced in nice editions but cried out for them.
After printing Paris, I had the idea of doing a version of Dunsany’s Charwoman’s Shadow in a letterpress edition and contacted the Dunsany Estate. I heard back from Lady Dunsany who was mourning the death of her husband Eddie, a fabulous artist. She was very gracious and supported any project I cared to do. I subsequently realized that Charwoman would take possibly 4 years to set the type and print but, in the meantime, I ran into a list that a Dunsany fan had put together of stories of Dunsany that had appeared in magazines but never were published in book form. I began to track scans down of them through world library loan systems, and that’s when I decided to do a series of these stories that really were Lost Tales. Beginning with Volume 3, Lady Dunsany and the Dunsany Castle archivist Joe Doyle began sharing these incredibly rare Sidney Sime oil paintings as well as unpublished stories waiting in the Castle archives for their time. So, Lord Dunsany, and to some degree his philosophy, are at the heart of Pegana Press. The design of our Lost Tales books are based on a hybrid of two of Dunsany’s original publishers. The dimensions of the books are the same as the Elkin Mathew’s editions so they can line up neatly in a Dunsany collection. The inset pastedown on the front board is based on the William Heinemann editions.
Q: That's wonderful, I think it is a very common theme among small/fine press owners to be collectors first and then find a niche they are passionate about that hasn't been filled. Your first published work was a poem by Hope Mirrlees (author of Lud-In-The-Mist) that hadn’t been printed since 1919 and was almost forgotten by history. The release drew accolades from a number of sources including Neil Gaiman. What was the genesis of choosing this piece and how did it feel to get confirmation from respected sources with your first release?
Mike: I printed a broadside of Dunsany’s first published poem and was casting around for something to work on next. I had always loved Lud-In-The-Mist by Hope Mirrlees and started delving into her life and works. That’s when I ran into Paris.
As I learned more about the poem’s construction and meaning I became fascinated with it. The work itself is like a multi-layered construction, comprised of word/language puzzles, double meanings and sometimes ruthless observations of well-known people woven into a 24-hour sunrise-to-sunrise guided tour of 1919 Paris by Mirrlees. In addition to its linguistic complexity, Mirrlees, living in Paris, had become interested in French Modernism and their nontraditional use of typesetting and forms on the page. She incorporated the physical layouts of famous Parisian gardens, signs and verses of music on a staff when she had Virginia Woolf typeset and print the book at Hogarth Press. This was really the first time something of this nature had been published in the realm of Western Modernism and it certainly influenced T.S. Eliot and others in her circle.
At any rate, I decided to try and replicate the exact spacing and printing of the original work, so I procured a scan of a first edition and laboriously measured each word’s spacing and very slowly began printing it.
It was very gratifying to have some of the finest living writers compliment me on the work. Upon learning Michael Swanwick was a champion of Mirrlees, I reached out to him, and he was very supportive. Michael also suggested I tell his friend Neil Gaiman about the book as he was also a huge fan of the poem. Neil was gracious in his praise. Of course, it encouraged me to continue this insane pathway I had chosen, haha. Swanwick also wrote an introduction to our first Lost Tales Dunsany edition. Both of them were fine gentlemen and extremely gracious with their time and enthusiasm.
Everyone really along the way has been so supportive it has been amazing. When I wanted to do an edition of The Golden Key by George MacDonald, I immediately thought of Charles van Sandwyck as one of the only living illustrators to work on it. Rita was like you’re really going to just have the cajones to contact him and it was like sure, all he can do is say no. I eventually tracked down Charles on a boat headed to his home on Fiji and he was delighted to be asked to work on it. When it comes to trying to integrate my own artistic heroes into my work that is extremely satisfying to have happen.
Q: I could imagine that getting such high praise was a great kick start for morale so early on in the life of the press. It's clear there is a bent towards weird and fantastical fiction of the early 20th century in your overall catalog with authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, and Clark Ashton Smith heavily featured. You started by producing lesser-known and sometimes unpublished works by authors in this overall movement. Knowing that there may not necessarily have been a large dedicated market to these particular selections at the onset, what drove you to want to bring these titles to print?
I tend to choose works to print from various criteria. First, it has to be something I really love to read. I also will choose something that has evocative imagery to take advantage of letterpress design and innovative artists.
Most of the work certainly has been in the realm of my personal core collection. Many of these authors like Lovecraft and CAS have never really had interesting, illustrated editions ever produced of their work. The Arkham House editions other than the cachet of age and exclusivity had pedestrian printing and bindings. The dust jackets themselves were usually cool but that’s about it.
Of course, gaining access to and printing unpublished Lord Dunsany material has been a stupendous thrill for me. Some of his best work was never included in his published books for reasons as diverse as paper shortages in WWI. His later work really carries timely words of caution and messages to the race of Man that I think are worth sharing. Paris, I felt strongly because of the potency of the work should get some attention. I certainly didn’t intend to start with obscure works, but it worked out.
I knew that I would be almost creating my own niche micro market but hoped there were enough people on the planet I could reach who would like what we do and help keep us going. That has proved the case, although it took quite a while to get there. I can’t tell you how many pancakes Rita and I ate the first couple of years ha-ha.
It’s also important to stress that not only did I decide to end up in a micro niche, but we also chose the hardest, old-world way to produce our books. I am probably the only specialty press using movable hand-set type to print with. Everyone else uses photopolymer plates or casting machines that compose the type for you.
What I do is pre-1900’s technology and hearkens back to the Arts and Crafts Movement of William Morris and Roycrofters for book production. This method is extremely slow and laborious in nature, but well-forged hard metal type really does create the finest letterpress impression of any method. All the paper is cut down by hand, all the sewing is by hand, and all the paper folding by hand. Everyone else is using some or all of these tools/machines to do their work. We don't. No computer programs to spell check, edit, arrange type, choose a font. Probably the only modern part of my printing would be the motor distributing the ink on the press rollers.
Q: You split the duties of running a small press between the two of you with Mike focusing on the letterpress printing and research of titles and Rita operating as binder. How do you see this partnership as being additive to the process of producing your books and has it presented any unique challenges?
Rita: I think having both of us really caring so much about infusing magic and life into our work together makes our books a bit special. Mike and I read the possible Lord Dunsany unpublished stories together discussing them and we both weigh in on what will go in the edition. Mike will also give me an idea of the design for the printing and overall feel he wants the book to have, and we’ll talk about the binding methods that we think will achieve that. Sometimes it is a challenge because I run my own business as well and coordinating our work together for Pegana Press can be difficult at times.
Mike: It’s great being able to collaborate together on our books. Rita has a different way of viewing things than I do, and the sum is usually greater than the parts. Of course, we do disagree on things and that’s when it can get challenging because you don’t want it affecting your personal relationship. I am a very demanding person of myself and others and sometimes have to reign it in and realize other people have other priorities. Overall, the partnership works out quite well.
Q: If you can work together for as long as you have and still enjoy it, I think you are doing something right! The bindings done by Rita are always so elegantly understated and timeless. Where do you begin with the design process of a new Pegana selection?
Mike: Rita and I talk about what color paper might be appropriate for the spirit of the book and its dimensions. From there we’ll decide on what kind of cloth and endpapers we will use. In the case of the Poseidonis books by Clark Ashton Smith we based its dimensions on sacred geometry and the Golden Rectangle. Rita had showed me a book of photos she used in her energy work that was meant to stimulate certain reactions because of those particular dimension ratios. I found it fascinating and in keeping with the ancient and beyond-time feeling of the Poseidonis stories we wanted to capture. We also incorporated papyrus endpapers to add to the archaic feel of the book.
Q: With your partnership and multi-talent skill sets, a lot of the functions that many presses collaborate on with third parties are done internally. Obviously, you bring in artists to contribute to your publications, but are there any other ways you collaborate with other artisans to keep the process fresh?
Mike: In a way, many of our customers become involved in the design process and feel of the books by providing feedback. They are so tuned into new illustrators that they tell me about, some are also hobby bookbinders and printers and share their perspectives. I do like to work with outside artisans, but it does also complicate matters sometimes. I spend a fair amount of my “leisure time” looking at other people’s bindings and those making their own papers and such to keep things fresh. We are working now with a fabulous binder Ethan, of Scrub Oak Bindery, who I met with recently to help out with some of our books. He does terrific work and I hope to collaborate with him on a very special lettered edition of Annals of the Jinns and offer more elaborate binding and clamshell cases moving forward.
Q: Different to any press owners that I know, you have also ventured into the area of recording some Lord Dunsany audiobooks, bringing some of your recording and musical background into the process. How does this medium offer a new perspective and has there been anything you learned that has helped you with Pegana’s printed works?
Mike: I’m fortunate to have a terrific musician and voiceover talent named Daven Tillinghast to collaborate with. He works on our Audiobooks for Dreamers Tales and in return I produce and engineer his music catalog for him.
I do find that a well-written story, especially in imaginative fiction, can have a different impact when it is read out loud. They can also lend themselves to tonal and music enhancement to bring the story to life in a different way than description.
The audiobook work sometimes does affect my direction with Pegana Press. It was after hearing Annals of the Jinns by R.H. Barlow that I decided to print a Limited edition of the Annals. The grotesque and dark whimsical nature of these tales really came out when I heard them read and embellished with music. It definitely gave me a different viewpoint than when reading the stories to myself.
So far Daven and I have produced and released 4 audiobooks, ranging from Lovecraft through Dunsany and more obscure authors. People can find them on our Dreamers Tales Patreon and Bandcamp pages.
Q: What does the process look like as you begin to look for the next Pegana Press title, where does the search begin? How do you balance seeking out unpublished selections and printing established works?
I have a sort of mental checklist of works I’d like to print in the future. As I near the end of printing a current book I open that mental file in my head and see what rabbit holes they might take me down. The amount of unpublished material available from the “classic” periods of Weird Fiction is quite sparse. I just got lucky being loaned the key to the large unpublished Dunsany archives. There are unpublished works I come across that I would love to print but they would have such a potentially small market that I do weigh that aspect. In the case of the Lovecraft Dreamlands editions, there weren’t any lavish editions out there and they were books I would want in my library, so I printed deluxe versions with some incredibly surreal artwork from German artist Michael Hutter. I also try and stay in touch with our collectors as to what kind of books they would like to see us do. There are times when I may choose a particular story to print that I think suits a particular artist I would like to work with. So, there are quite a few paths that may lead to the next publication for Pegana Press.
Q: At this point, you have produced around twenty different unique projects across many different authors. Obviously, they are all treasured, but were there any that were particularly rewarding or ones that you are especially proud of? Where would you recommend a newcomer to Pegana start?
That is a hard question to answer, we’re proud of the legendary artists that have worked on our books like Hutter, Jim Pitts, Robert H. Knox and van Sandwyck. I guess the legacy Pegana Press leaves of the buried trove of Lord Dunsany unpublished work and Sidney Sime paintings would be the high point. Being able to have phone and Skype conversations with Lady Dunsany was incredible.
I suppose a good place to start with our books would be the Dark Dreamlands Lovecraft editions. It really does depend on the person’s reading preferences to some degree. If someone is looking to read prose that is an entirely unique voice it would have to be Lord Dunsany. If they want to experience what letterpress is like, the chapbooks and broadsides can be a good place to start.
Q: If you had no limitations relating to right acquisition and you could choose any illustrator to pair with a specific work, what project would you want to create?
There are a couple of Lord Dunsany stories I would love to get Roger Dean, the album art wizard to illustrate. He’s still painting and doing fabulous work. It would have to be an unusual shaped book, taking advantage of Roger’s “landscape view” perspective.
I would also dearly love to print something special or rare from Le Guin, I love her work!
Q: If there was one word or idea that came to people’s minds when they think of Pegana Press, what would you hope that it would be?
Hopefully long after we are gone, people in places all over the world will be sitting in their libraries and some of our books can be seen within the glow of their fires or lamps dancing off their spines, waiting to be read and touched. Perhaps they’ll remember us fondly or not even know who we are, it really doesn’t matter, a part of us will be there.
Q: That's a beautiful perspective, I think you can be assured that people will be reading these for years to come. What should we expect next from Pegana Press? Are there any future projects you can share that may be coming further down the line in 2023?
Well of course we’re really excited about R.H. Barlow’s Annals of the Jinns edition. I’ve seen some of the preliminary artwork and it is superbly surreal! From there I’m not sure, wherever the whim takes me I suppose. Feedback from people about what they would like to see us release is always welcome.
Mike and Rita were absolutely wonderful to work with and I wanted to close the interview with a short message from Pegana's page. "It's a wonderful season to hide away with a book. We wish you happy reading, from your friends Mike and Rita at Pegana Press."
This interview was done in a series of communications back and forth and we want to thank Mike and Rita for their willingness and generosity of time. If you want to see more from Pegana Press you can check them out at https://peganapress.com/ and can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter for more info on their wonderful press!
Interview by: Zach Harney a contributor to the Collectible Book Vault