There are many ways to pay tribute to those you look up to, and they deserve all of them. Our chosen method? Sitting down with them, asking some pretty soul-searching questions, and revelling in their answers. We gather them all here in this segment, and we realized we had the beginnings of a club. An amalgamation of real, accomplished, and emboldened folks. The best part is, you can sit with us. Welcome to the S-Club. (Catch up on our past S-Club members here.)
Where do you go for answers when you have a question you just can’t shake?
The ear of a friend or family member? Your diary? The fun, swirling void of the Internet, or maybe a nice windswept hill? We all have those Big Picture™️ doubts — I imagine them perched comfortably somewhere in the recesses of our brains, or following our footsteps slyly, dogging us for answers.
For writer and publisher Erin Klassen, she goes to others — artists, writers, playwrights, poets — and then they make a book.
With/out Pretend is a Toronto-based publisher with Erin at the helm. They’ve tackled nebulous questions of self care and unresolved feelings with You Care Too Much and Portraits, and now, their most recent anthology, Happy If You Know It, untangles the webs of intuition and happiness. In myriad ways, fifteen brilliant contributors answered the question posed on the book’s cover: what does it mean to trust our intuition? There’s an interactive propaganda pull out, an illustrated essay, and much more from a wide, diverse range of established women.
With Happy If You Know It set to launch, Erin and I spoke about demystifying collaboration, the fun in posing questions, and the anthology as a dinner party.
Elizabeth Polanco When intuition comes to mind, or this idea of trusting your gut, I always thought of it in regards to danger, especially for women — an example would be fight or flight responses. What made you bring intuition together with happiness?
Erin Klassen Really interesting insight, because the idea for the book actually started from thinking of dysfunction, and when we’re in places that are the wrong ones. But also looking at what normal means, and how we decide whether something is right for us, or whether it’s just “right” by society’s standards. So we talked a lot about dysfunctional relationships and situations, and this dysfunctional world. It became a discussion about social norms, what’s right for us personally and how those things meet in the middle.
From there, the theme of intuition emerged. To be happy, do we have to tap into those voices inside that tell us if we’re on the right track? I struggle with that personally, I think that I can see all possible outcomes at all times for myself, thinking my life could be like this, or it could be like this.
If you love somebody, and you see them hurting, is it your place to step in or not? It’s all of those things, and a million other examples. I just thought it would be really interesting to get some answers! [laughs] So that’s why I make books. I don’t know the answer to this, maybe these fifteen cool artists will be able to tell me?
EP That’s actually my next question — how do you begin your projects? Does it begin with a question, or a feeling?
EK It starts with a dark place inside me. It’s a question that keeps coming up for me, probably for a year or more before it starts materializing into something I think I can make a book about. Then I bounce it off the people I’m going to be working with.
Jen Spinner, our art director for You Care Too Much, had already agreed to do another anthology with me. From there, she asked what I was thinking about, because it usually comes from me. We began talking about the root causes of dysfunction, about making healthy decisions, and cultivating good patterns for ourselves, and she said, “That’s funny, I have a calendar reminder that says ‘trust your gut’.” It pops up for her biweekly, and reminds her. And that’s kind of how the themes of the book started formalizing.
EP It’s funny, because you’d think that would be an innate kind of thing. But sometimes we have to coach ourselves to do that, like an instinct you have to practice.
EK And in a way we didn’t mean for it to be a continuation of You Care Too Much. But the concept of self care and self trust, I think there are a lot of parallels there. Self care is another one of those things that should be obvious. Like, just so, you know, take care of yourself! But it’s not obvious, and it’s not obvious what that looks like, because it’s so different for each person. We’re trying to make books about subjects that don’t really have answers, they’re more personal in nature.
EP I really liked how with the few outside quotes used in the book, you noted that we’re only invited guests in people’s experiences, and to be mindful of that. What other things are you looking to emphasize in anthologies?
EK I think ideas can be expressed in so many different ways. The only limitation we have with a book is how there’s no room for video, motion, or sound. These are the kind of things I’m thinking about for next projects. But then there’s really anything else you can think of — poetry, plays, prose, fiction, essays, hybrids of those two things, all kinds of visual art.
I guess I start there. What are all the different ways this idea can be explored? Then I look for people who are masters in those areas. Or at least people who are curious to explore ideas with the medium that makes sense to them.
EP When you’re working with so many other voices, what else do you try to take note of when you’re working with the anthology format?
EK I’ve explained it as a kind of dinner party. You have a party, you make all the food, or maybe it’s a potluck — there’s lots of different ways to have one. You invite people into your space, and ideally, you don’t spend the whole time talking at them. I think it’s important to note that I don’t create spaces for people, I just invite them to take up space. They already own and deserve that space.
The people I work with really get it right away, and that’s the beauty of it. I come to work with this idea, and they can see how excited I am about exploring it from a creative perspective — that I just want to make something nice and beautiful that people want to look at, absorb, spend time with.
EP Let’s talk about how the cover model, Dae, shaved her head before she even knew that it was your original vision for the cover! Was there any other moments where the process of creating Happy If You Know It, or any past works, have reflected the themes of the books themselves? I don’t know if that kind of serendipity could be replicated.
EK It’s one of those things that makes you believe that there are things in this universe working for you. I guess I have more to say about the collaborative process than moments of intuition, but there are just magical things that happen when you’re working with people who care as much as you care.
Again, because Jen and I had worked together on You Care Too Much, we had an easier and even more joyous time making Happy If You Know It, because we knew one another’s working style. Really cool things come out of that, and you almost don’t remember where certain ideas started when you’re working with a bunch of people. I think that’s a really good thing, because the ideas feel truly shared.
EP It’s kind of organic.
EK Right, and by the time you get to the end product, you have to kind of work your way backwards.
EP The bio poems that you created for the book, which you picked and arranged using only the words contributors used as descriptors… can you speak more about those, and their significance?
EK Bios are so important to people. Think about how everything we do now is a curated way of telling the world who we are. And that’s not bad, I think you have to tell people in these bite-sized ways, “This is who I am, this is how I identify, this is what’s important to me.” You’ll see some of the poems use more academic terms, saying, “These are the things I do.” Others are more like, “These are things I am, what I look like, what I feel.” Everyone’s different.
But I just like these big juicy subjects that I feel there are a million ways to look at. I wish I had a bite-sized answer for this, but the concept of how we self identify is so interesting, and I just thought it would be shocking for people to see words on a page without all of the dressing of sentences.
So I took the words either from personal essays or long bios. In some cases, I talked to contributors to make sure they were comfortable with the words I chose. It’s not my place to put identifying words on people.
EP I loved them, they also made for a kind of fun word search.
EK Thank you! The two things that mean the most to me are when people have feedback about what a piece meant to them, and when people are inspired to make their own things. I’ve had people say to me things like, “By the way, I started a zine, I made a book, my friend and I are starting a book club.” That happened a lot with You Care Too Much, and it was really cool. I want the books to feel like you can do this too. Because I just decided to do it, and then I did it.
EP Another favourite of mine was how you outlined the full process of the book in the first few pages, from ideation to finding the model to the final product.
EK That was Jen’s idea. There are so many decisions and small choices that go into making a book like this. We want to take away some of the mystery, and also reflect how much care and thoughtfulness goes into it. It’s not an accident!
One example is Tania Love, an established textile and illustrative artist we commissioned. We love having a visual component that runs through the book to tie the themes together. I gave Tania some excerpts of the written work, from each contributor, and she was inspired by the words and by neural patterns. Her body of work often focuses on nature, so we spoke about human nature, and how patterns of the brain are similar to the code of the natural world. Tania made these beautiful, big painted drawings on sketching paper, we scanned them, and Jen designed and arranged them for the book. Each writer has their own print! I feel like people should know about that, because it was very thoughtful and deliberate.
We’re also trying to talk about how many hands and talented brains touched something to make it happen. It’s demystifying collaboration, basically. People ask me that a lot, how does that even process work? I think being a good collaborator is part intuitive but can also be learned behaviour. It’s the fun part. The more the merrier!
EP What’s the next question you’d like to ask, or next feeling to plumb?
EK There are always more. I want to do more work more often, and the books are obviously laborious. I think the biggest subject of all would be the question of loss. I don’t know if it’ll resonate the same way as ideas of self care or happiness. So maybe it wouldn’t have to be about loss, but rather pivotal moments, like some I have suffered. Ideas of loss, grief, what it means to make connections, to love, to be human. I don’t know if that’s a little too philosophical, but I always start up in the clouds and then try to make it a more concrete idea before I bring other people in.
EP So my last question: do you feel your question was answered?
EK Well, these are questions that don’t have one straightforward answer, but I like it that way. [laughs]
What I did learn is that we are born to be seekers. We seek answers about ourselves, about each other, and I think there’s a lot to what we can learn when we actually shut up and listen. That’s what I try to do. I could read these books over and over and never get sick of them, and as a maker of anything, that’s your goal. You want to be able to make something that you’re proud of. I still get nervous that people won’t get it or like it, but I like it. I gain so much insight through reading about other people’s experiences.
But do I now know the answers to “how to be happy” or “how to trust myself”? No. But I had a really great time asking.