The author discusses Gutenberg’s Apprentice, her debut novel about ambition, reform, and the machine that changed the world.
Gutenberg’s Apprentice is about the invention of the printing press in 15th-century Mainz (Germany). Johann Gutenberg is not the main character; rather, the story is told by his apprentice, Peter Schoeffer. Why did you choose Schoeffer to narrate?
Hardly anyone has heard of Peter Schoeffer, yet he was the world’s first master printer, a brilliant calligrapher who printed hundreds of books and invented the business of publishing. We know that he must have learned the craft from Gutenberg, the inventor, although he ended up breaking with him and establishing a printing house with Johann Fust, Gutenberg’s financier. I felt that his view of this extraordinary triumph and tragedy would not only be moving, but offer a perspective we haven’t heard before.
Schoeffer is initially horrified by the printed word and thinks there’s something ungodly about it. Why does he change his mind?
We have to try to put ourselves into a medieval worldview: People believed that everything that happened was part of God’s plan. So the scribe Peter, though initially repulsed by this mechanical process, continually asks himself why he has been placed inside this workshop, what path God has in mind for him. He’s also a skilled craftsman and a perfectionist, so when he carves his first letters and finds them beautiful, he begins to grasp that creating Scripture in this new way may in fact be serving the divine plan.
Gutenberg is portrayed as a mercurial genius. By today’s standards, he might also be considered a narcissist. Schoeffer has deeply mixed feelings about Gutenberg — feelings that will haunt him for the rest of his life. What do you make of Gutenberg?
In the novel, Peter continually asks himself whether genius requires some necessary quality; whether, to be brilliant and truly innovative, it is necessary to be humanly cold and entirely focused on the task at hand. We have all known difficult, driven individuals whose single-minded focus leaves them emotionally callous. This has been said of Steve Jobs and Picasso and many other great creators. Thus, I didn’t see Gutenberg as selfish or narcissistic, so much as obsessed with achieving his goal no matter the price. In my view, he was a genius thirsting for recognition who, from time to time, shows Peter his kinder, almost childlike, side.
You depict the minds and hearts of 15th-century Europe. How difficult was that?
Hilary Mantel once said jokingly that all novelists should have a Catholic upbringing. I think she meant by that a sense of the mystical. Still, I don’t think I could have entered into this world if I hadn’t been raised in that tradition. The 15th-century psyche was profoundly different than ours: God-centered, collectivist, largely unconscious of the self as an individual. A writer of historical fiction has to try to see everything through that filter, so I read massively about the religious beliefs, economy, and politics of the time. I also spent a lot of time looking at medieval art, which depicts daily life much more effectively than the few written documents that survive. I was fortunate to speak the language these people lived and dreamed in, so I could read early chronicles and get a visceral sense of how they spoke and thought.
The story develops while Germany is still Roman Catholic. As Schoeffer sinks into his work, he finds a rhythm that’s almost spiritual — the way he channels his ambition and doubt and faith into the work itself. It reminded me of what Weber describes in his seminal text, The Protestant Ethic and the "Spirit" of Capitalism. But, of course, Protestantism arises about 65 years after the printing press is created. I wondered if what Weber called “Protestant work ethic” is more aptly the German work ethic, in the sense that industriousness and innovation pre-date Protestantism. In fact, they seem to lead to it.
The remarkable thing about pre-Reformation Germany is how technically advanced it was. Nuremberg was renowned for precision metalwork, and Cistercian monks engineered sophisticated agricultural systems. This creative, painstaking industry is still a fundamental part of the German character and reveals, as you say, an extraordinary work ethic rooted deep in the Holy Roman Empire. They are still craftspeople almost without equal. It’s also no exaggeration to say that it was the invention of printing that directly enabled the Reformation — this mechanical genius created a new environment in which more people could suddenly start to read and think for themselves, and Martin Luther’s 95 theses (printed in multiple editions that immediately sold out) were one result.
Some of the characters in the novel struggle with the fear that technology could overtake what they hold as sacred. We modern people share this ambivalence. For instance, we worry e-readers will replace books and lament the disappearance of independent bookstores. The lesson from Gutenberg’s Apprentice seems to be that the sacredness is in the content itself, and not the packaging. Do you agree?
The ambivalence many of us feel toward digital technology was in my mind all through the writing of the book. How do we reconcile progress with the knowledge that inevitably something will be lost? I left Peter at a point in time — 30 years after the development of this new technology — when he has started asking whether it was worth it, if the world is just going to be inundated with shoddy crud. I feel we stand in much the same place between the e-reader and the printed book. Personally, I believe that form matters a great deal, and our love for well-made books shows that we consider some books “sacred” enough to clothe in that special form and not others. But the long history of the book is one of co-existence between forms, so I don’t see print disappearing anytime soon. What I hope, as I suggested through Peter, is that we bring the same high level of artistry to bear on the new technology as we have on the old.
Dorothy Reno, a DC-based writer, has been published by Red Tuque Books. She is currently at work on a collection of stories called The One that Got Away.