Interview with Hannah Comerford, PPA Alumna and Visiting Instructor
This interview was conducted by Rachel M., a current PPA minor, and edited for clarity.
What drew you to the program?
I had always been a reader, I always loved books, and the publishing world seemed really interesting and exciting. When I saw the classes offered by the Publishing and Printing Arts minor, they seemed like they were made for me. It was a lot of fun and it felt like I fit in really well. I think it was probably around the time when I was taking Publishing Procedures when I realized the program wasn’t just for fun, it was also going to be good for my career. It would offer a lot of job opportunities that other parts of my degree would not.
Were you able to find community within the department?
Yes, it was a great way to get outside my English degree while still sharing commonalities. We didn’t just have English majors in the program, we had people majoring in art, in communications, and being able to get out of that English degree bubble was fun. We were able to bond over editing, late nights in Ingram for Art of the Book, and other experiences that were offered by the PPA classes like field trips.
How have skills you learned in the PPA program assisted you in your career?
I was able to get a job as a freelance editor immediately out of undergrad. I started in an entry level job but quickly grew in that career and now work on a huge variety of projects. There was hardly any time where I was waiting to find a job right after college. It also helped me have a realistic view of the publishing industry. As a writer, it was easier to not get distracted by false ideas of what getting published would be like and to have realistic ideas about it. The program also helped me understand what needed to go into a book and to have a better appreciation for the whole process. I’m better able to explain this process my clients as an editor in a comprehensive way.
I think a knowledge gap many people who want to become writers have is an understanding of the entire journey a book goes through from manuscript to published work, which makes this program really helpful for understanding that and having knowledge you can share with others.
Were there any activities or projects in the program that stood out as particularly fun or interesting?
Studying genre in the Book in Society was really helpful! The project was a great way to recognize tropes and how books are marketed to consumers, or basically how genres work. Later on, it was helpful if I was working with people who were writing in a genre to understand beats and what they were going for rather than being stuck in the mindset of all writing needing to be “high literature.”
What was your favorite thing you printed in the Art of the Book?
Looking back, I wish I could have done it again. I especially liked working with type. I liked laying out type and finding all of the right pieces. In order to do my final project, a larger broadside, Jessica Spring [the instructor at the time] worked with me to typeset in a way that was different from the normal process. My type was in an odd shape, so she brought me to the pottery professor who let me use clay to make a custom frame.
I always felt like I could get the time I needed from professors when I needed it. I never felt like I was on my own or floundering — I guess I probably did at 3am in Ingram once, but that was my own fault! But in general, I appreciated having that support. We were also able to do more field trips, which would be harder with a larger department.
What’s one book-related topic you get fired up about (book bans, early reading education, diversity in publishing, etc.)?
The first thing that came to my mind is classics, especially Shakespeare, being inaccessible. We’ve seen time and time again that it’s not about the books themselves, it’s how they’re taught and presented. If we keep presenting classics like Shakespeare as above everyone’s reading level, everyone is going to assume that and go into it thinking, “I’m not going to be able to get this.” If we can make it clear that it just takes a little bit more work, but you can do this, they can be accessible to everybody. This might be a little bit of an over-generalization, but as an example, Shakespeare has been used in prison systems to reach out to inmates and they’ve connected with it whether or not they’ve had any experience with classics before. We’ve seen Shakespeare adapted in many different ways, take so many different forms, but there’s still a popular mindset that people can’t understand it if they aren’t a certain type of person. I think you can say that about any classic book across cultures. Books are about learning other perspectives, and I don’t think we’re doing ourselves any favors by siloing specific books to specific people. That’s not true, and we need to work against those stereotypes or they will only get worse.
What was the last book you read?
There’s a couple! I just finished Wishtress, which is a YA fantasy novel. It worked better as an audiobook, because I’ve noticed that a lot of issues with writing are more forgivable in audio. It had a lot of unique elements and dealt with consequences I don’t often see in YA fiction or fiction in general. She didn’t tie up every loose end, in fact, she left it on a cliffhanger, but she dealt with all the repercussions of the main plot, which I thought was good.
Before that, I read What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher, which is a retelling of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s just the right level of creepy and I thought it did what Poe wasn’t able to do in going beyond the original story and fleshing out most of the characters. What Moves the Dead also had really good representation of a non-binary character in a culturally specific way that I thought was handled really well. T. Kingfisher also writes middle-grade books under the name Ursula Vernon and has a fantastic sense of humor. In What Moves the Dead, she’s able to bring in commentary on feminism and what happens when we don’t give women options for the direction of their lives.
That kind of goes back to the accessibility of classical literature. Another stereotype that can often come with classic literature is that it’s boring, and when modern authors write retellings, giving the classics a fresh coat of paint and renewing people’s interest, it’s really awesome.
Yeah, our library had copies of What Moves the Dead displayed next to printouts of The Fall of the House of Usher so people could grab both and see the inspiration. I’m sure there’s a large group of teenagers who suddenly became Poe fans!
What kinds of qualities and interests do you think make a good candidate for the PPA program? Who would you recommend it to?
Honestly, I think it’s a good minor for all English majors. The program shows them what goes into the books they are studying and the practical sides of the industry. Whether or not they want to use that knowledge in the future, I think it’s a valuable tool for their belt and will help them become better writers. Learning to edit will always make you a better writer because you will start to recognize your own pitfalls and be able to avoid them, or at the very least warn your editor. I think it’s also great for those who might not want to be an English major but really love books and want to put that passion into something — whether a career, a side job, or understanding more about what their reading.
As far as qualities, I think people who are detail-oriented do really well in Publishing Procedures. I think for Art of the Book, in particular, people who have a good eye for finding different uses for something or different ways to look at something. People who are driven and are able to work independently tend to thrive in the publishing world.
Anything else you want to add?
The PPA minor was the most useful part of my degree. It taught me skills that would pave the way for a career form the get-go. At the very least, even if you don’t plan on using those skills right away, it’s a great tool to have, and it’s a great way to meet people in other majors.