David Rees' new book "How to Sharpen Pencils" is the latest in a long string of successful humor projects, the most high-profile being the comic strip Get Your War On serialized for years in Rolling Stone. But David is an artisan now, a serious craftsperson, and wants to inspire you to learn the art of pencil-pointing. He spoke with me on the phone while painting the walls of a well ventilated room.
So, tell me more about what led up to the idea of becoming an artisanal pencil sharpener. Did anything in your previous projects lead up to this or are they mostly unrelated?
No, I don't feel like this project has much relationship to the comics I used to make or any of the other writing I've done. I got the idea while working for the census bureau a few years ago. I got a job as a census enumerator – because I quit my job cartooning and I didn't have any money. And on the first day of staff training they actually just handed us pencils we were going to use to fill out the forms. And they said, "Okay, uh, the first order of business is everybody sharpen your pencils." So we all just stood around – it was really weird – sharpening our pencils. And I was like, oh, this is really satisfying and fun. I wonder if there is a way to get paid to do this? It had been a long time since I sharpened a pencil. So I decided I would start a pencil sharpening business, as a challenge to myself to see if I could get paid to do something that was so enjoyable.
How did this all become a book? I know you weren't brand new to publishing prior to this with your Get Your War On books and working with your friend John Hodgman.
The publisher Melville House approached me and said do you think you could write a book about this and for a while I was like, I don't see how this project could turn into a book. But then when I thought about it, I've always collected old training manuals, old industrial manuals, and how-to manuals from the '40's and '50's. I just think they look really cool and think they're written in this really polite and information language. I thought if I did a book that was a how-to manual of pencil sharpening techniques, that is a way I could get really into it.
I didn't want the book to be a joke. I mean, I know it's filed under humor and it has some silly stuff in it but I really do want it to function as an honest to God reference manual and a kind of serious celebration of pencils. Because I think pencils are really cool. And so, once I came up with that strategy I went through all of my old reference manuals looking for inspiration in terms of the photographs and the language and the diagrams and the charts and all that. And then when the publisher said you should get somebody to write the introduction I thought of Hodgman because he and I had been friends for a long time and um, we share, we have a lot of the same tastes and stuff, like, his book called Areas of My Expertise, well you know, you know his series of fake trivia books? Some of that was inspired by a book that I let him borrow that I had found in an antique store which was a crazy old serious but completely insane reference manual. So he and I both like weird old books and stuff and he had been a big supporter of my business. Like, he had bought artisanally sharpened pencils for his friends and so I thought this would be a good opportunity to get John to write something about the projects.
Well it was a great foreword. I loved it.
Yeah, I really liked it, too, because I felt like he kind of addressed a bunch of stuff that then I didn't have to worry about in the text, you know? Like I could get straight into the how-to stuff and let Hodgman handle all the, like putting it in the context of, you know, whatever, the modern society or all that stuff and he's a great writer so I was stoked about that.
Craftspeople are getting craftier about being crafty, but a book like this, as a straight forward thing, just a simple field manual, back in the day didn't need to try hard to be a success. The sort of thing the Pentagon would print and distribute to every office and recruit. But now...
(Laughing) I should try to get the Pentagon to buy the book!
Yeah, but now do you think that a something like this is possible because of Etsy and Instructables and a shift away from the mechanized and mass manufactured?
Yeah, we talked about that a lot when we were trying to figure out how to market the book and in fact Etsy ran an excerpt from the book a few days ago, but they ran it on April 1st so everybody thought it was a joke. So I wrote in the comments, This is not a joke. This is a real business and a real book. Send me your money and I'll prove it to you!
Um, but yeah, I mean when I decided I wanted to start a pencil sharpening business, I thought it would be good to market it as artisanal because I live in the Hudson River Valley in New York state and there's like so many farmers markets and like really expensive jars of pickles and marmalade that you can buy and handmade kale chips and all this kind of stuff, you know, and it has like, that word has come to symbolize a certain technique or a certain ethos of doing things. And I wanted to apply that to the idea of sharpening a pencil. This is the same thing. It's this old task that everybody used to do and everybody took for granted, but now it's less and less common for a certain demographic of people either because they no longer use pencils, they use iPads, or if they do use pencils maybe they use an electric pencil sharpener. And so it is kind of like this idea of celebrating, there's still something really cool and elegant and efficient about a number 2 pencil and how to put a point on it.
While reading the book I wondered what thing I might know enough about to fill a book of this nature, and then what would make me feel like I should actually do it. I remembered that my dad taught me surely everything there is to know about maintaining a bicycle chain. But probably the one thing that would make me think I aught to write a book about it is if I was aggravated enough by the sight of others doing a terrible job of say, cleaning a bicycle chain. You know more than anybody about pencil sharpening. Now, I doubt you're a rude person but is there some small part of you that wrote this book out of a frustration with others? I mean, did you see one mechanical pencil too many one day while you were riding the fence about the book and decide, yes, I must do this?
No, I mean the book was really written in the spirit of trying to be helpful and trying to be useful, but trying to also remind people of just how cool it is. Again, it is just this whole idea of taking this simple act for granted when it is actually really interesting and cool and so it's not like I get annoyed at people for not knowing how to sharpen pencils correctly because A) that means it is just another potential customer for my book, but B) that is not really like ... yeah, it's more about mechanical pencils and electric pencil sharpeners. And also you know, I spent 7 years as a political cartoonist and there was so much negativity and those cartoons are pretty angry and aggressive I got so much negative feedback about some of them. So the whole vibe for this project is just supposed to be really fun and friendly and something that just anybody could enjoy. And so in that regard it is just a celebration of the pencil and of course if people are intimidated about pencil sharpening or sharpening pencils incorrectly it's like that is the whole reason I wrote the book. Let me help you maximize your chances of producing a nice pencil point.
I love that you're also doing workshops and demonstrations. I think you're also doing a workshop at the Literary Festival.
I think I'm part of a graphic novel discussion, as well. I'm thinking of the book tour as basically like a nationwide continuing education course. Where I'm going to travel the country like Johnny Appleseed just teaching people different pencil sharpening techniques. You know, obviously I'll be signing books and answering questions and stuff, but also it is going to assume the form of an adult education lecture. Like, all right guys, let's get some volunteers out of the audience and see how they do with these pencil sharpening techniques. Because the book really is supposed to function as an honest-to-God technical manual. So the test of that is for me to just read from the book while someone follows my instructions and see what their pencil looks like at the end of it.
It does seem remarkably thorough. I haven't put it to the test yet, myself, but it does seem like I could walk through the whole book and a lot of good laughs but also know how to sharpen pencils – and for different uses, too.
Oh, good. I'm glad to hear that.
Obviously you don't hope to inspire legions of artisanal pencil sharpeners from this book, so what could someone who has no interest in becoming one gain from this book? Are there principles the average person could draw from the book and apply to their daily life?
Yeah, I think so. The book is kind of me opening up the doors to my workshop and sharing my secrets with everybody. Um, to kind of take what I've learned over the last couple years and get it out there, because A) I think it is interesting, and B) there are people who are intimidated by different pencil sharpening techniques or aren't really aware of how different techniques can lead to different pencil points or how different pencil points are appropriate for different uses, and so I did want to kind of share that, and then also if someone gets inspired by my book and starts a rival pencil sharpening company, I say that is great. Let the market decide who provides the superior product at the affordable price. I'm open to that type of artisanal pencil sharpening war.
I watched a YouTube video of you skillfully sharpening a pencil for some ladies on a cruise ship. During that process you touched on your, uh, disinterest in the numerous innuendos that you've suffered in this business.
Well, I mean, of course. If you're running a pencil sharpening business, you have to be ready for every single article to begin like "This guy's got a sharp mind" or "This guy might have a point." You know, like all the pencil puns, or whatever. And then also, of course, all the sexual innuendos, like, "Oh, I'm going to put my pencil in your sharpener." I guess that is par for the course. I hope you, as an upstanding citizen will avoid all these semantic shortcuts. I'll forgive you in advance if one of them makes it into your article.
"How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening" is set to hit shelves April 10. He will be at the Arkansas Literary Festival on Saturday, April 14, joining Peter Kuper, Barbara Slate and Lila Quintero Weaver in a conversation about writing and illustrating graphic novels and comics at 10 a.m. and will lead a pencil sharpening workshop at 4:30 p.m. His new book will be on hand.