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What to Read: Neil Barraclough is tapping into typewriting history
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
TypeTown is an exploration of 20th-century cultural figures through their relationship with the typewriter.
I’ve spent my entire career writing, first as a journalist and now as a copywriter. In summer 2021, we moved from the U.K. to Canada and had to quarantine for two weeks. I’d seen a recommendation for the documentary film California Typewriter, and I was hooked. The romance of typewriters caught my attention. Using typewriters to explore different cultural figures was enough to get me going.
The typewriter is freeing. It doesn’t ping with distractions. It’s simply a tool for absorbing yourself completely in your work. For many writers, it’s not about getting things done fast. It’s about getting things right. Those who still love typewriters see them as the best way to dive fully into the world they’re creating.
For people who work with modern technology all day, every day, a note from a typewriter creates such a personal moment. I have a small collection (so far!). Last year, instead of Christmas cards, my clients got a typewritten note in the post. Without exception, they all loved it. My 5-year-old daughter has also used one to send little notes back to her grandparents in the U.K., and that had the same effect.
For many writers, it’s not about getting things done fast. It’s about getting things right. Those who still love typewriters see them as the best way to dive fully into the world they’re creating.
You’ve written about a broad array of typewriter users: Susan Sontag, Gabriel García Márquez, and Agatha Christie. How do you choose your subjects, and what do you hope readers learn from them?
There’s no set method. Some of the subjects might share a birthday with the publication date. Others might be particularly timely, perhaps because of a current news story or something similar. And some are just people I want to delve into.
Writing TypeTown is as much a journey of learning and discovery for myself as it is for the readers. That, along with the reaction I’ve received, is probably why I’ve been able to keep it going.
Your posts follow a consistent format. How did that design come about?
I wanted to remove the barrier of having to work out how to write each post and just be able to concentrate on what to write. Perhaps it’s a throwback from my journalism days. Magazines run the same features in every issue. This is no different.
My creative process is just like it is for anyone else: initial blind panic that eventually flows into frantic writing as the deadline looms, and then astonishment that it’s actually done.
What’s been your favorite “typewriter in the wild” so far?
Jeremy Mayer is a sculptor who works exclusively with old typewriters, dismantling them by hand and then reassembling them to create breathtaking new pieces. This owl featured in TypeTown #13 and feels like the perfect example of “typewriters in the wild”—quite literally.
Who’s another Substack writer you’d recommend?
I’ve just discovered Angeles Fernández’s newsletter on Spain and its language. Feature Shoot is great for photography (its North Korea issue is well worth checking out). And I’ve been reading Austin Kleon for over a decade, so he’s clearly doing something right.