Marcel’s Letters: Q&A with Carolyn Porter

Carolyn Porter never set out to become a biographer…or a detective! A graphic designer for more than twenty years, she had long entertained the idea of designing her own font. But what she thought would be a small side gig blossomed into a fifteen-year labor of love—and the inspiration for one of our January Book a Month selections, Marcel’s Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate—when she stumbled upon a collection of letters written by a Frenchman imprisoned in a German labor camp during World War II. The adventure that unfolded is by turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, resulting in what our reviewer hailed as a “one-of-a-kind memoir.” Today in the Bluestocking Salon, Carolyn chats with us about the emotional legacy of her transcontinental quest to learn Marcel’s story, what it takes to be a type designer, and the importance of handwritten letters in a digital age. 

Bas Bleu: For our readers who haven’t read your book yet, can you explain briefly how you “met” Marcel?

Carolyn Porter: Many years ago, I decided I wanted to design a font that mimicked the look of old-timey handwriting. That might sound like an odd thing to want to do, but as a graphic designer I work with fonts every day, and handwriting is something I’ve been fascinated with since I was young. Creating a font seemed to be the perfect way to combine things I loved: graphic design, typography, and handwriting.

I had been keeping my eye out for an old handwriting sample I could use as a reference source. I was in an antique store near my home in Minnesota when I saw Marcel’s original handwritten letters. As soon as I saw the yellowed sheets with the swashed greeting, “Mes chères petites,” I knew I had found what I was looking for. I bought five letters, took them home, and began to trace my favorite individual letters. That’s how I “met” Marcel.

BB: Early on, when you were having Marcel’s letters translated, you erased a swastika from one of the letters. You wrote, “after reading Marcel’s loving words, the swastika now made me confused and uncomfortable.” If Marcel had been revealed as a Nazi, would you have abandoned your project? Why or why not?

CP: That is a really great question, and I’m not sure I can answer that with certainty. People have asked why—after the first letter was translated— I didn’t immediately have all of the other letters translated. The cost of translation was part of the reason, but I believe the swastika played a part in the decision, too. I didn’t know who Marcel was, and I didn’t understand why he had been in Berlin making Panther tanks. I would like to believe if I had discovered Marcel had been a Nazi, I could not have developed the emotional attachment that I did. And it is unlikely I would have wanted to honor him by naming a font after him.

On the other hand, the words of love he wrote to his wife and young daughters revealed universal human emotions—love and longing—that transcend political affiliation. I might have still been curious to know his fate. But I probably would have only been able to look for answers by thinking of him as a man who yearned to be reunited with his family rather than as a member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.

Author Carolyn Porter (Photo: Lisa Venticinque)

BB: Not many American history classes teach students about Service du Travail Obligatoire (STO), the “arrangement” between Nazi Germany and Vichy France that provided French laborers to replace German workers, who were needed for military duty. More than 600,000 French men and women were forced into labor for the Third Reich, and tens of thousands died in Germany. (As you report, “the average life span of a forced laborer was three and a half months.”) Do you think today’s students should be learning about the STO program? Why?

CP: Another great question. If teachers have a week to teach students about World War II, then no. Forced labor impacted a relatively small number of people, and I understand the need to focus on bigger stories: the social and economic factors that led to the war, the timeline of major military actions, the Holocaust. Plus, forced labor didn’t impact American civilians during World War II.

The concept of forced labor is also inherently complicated. Workers from western Europe were generally better off than workers from the east. And men like Marcel were paid for their work, though deductions were made for food and housing, clothes were rented, and any money they sent home was devalued through currency manipulation. After the war, some viewed STO workers as willing participants whose efforts prolonged the war. Workers who survived seemed to live in a grey area: neither hero nor victim.

BB: Are you still in touch with Marcel’s family?

CP: Yes! A few emails went back and forth last week. I am in contact with Natacha more than anyone else. She has three young boys and a Newfoundland puppy. There is always something funny happening in her house.

BB: Most people may not realize just how much time, effort, and artistry goes in to creating fonts. What is the one thing you’d like readers (and potential designers!) to know about this field of work?

CP: I think a person needs to have a brain that is wired for both creative and technical thinking. But, above all, I think a type designer has to have an abundance of patience. When I started the font, I expected it to be a quick and easy little side project. Boy, was I wrong. I think someone needs to understand the project might take years, and even with that, there is no guarantee it will ever make money.

BB: Any new developments with the font P22 Marcel Script since you finished the book? Where is the font available? Who uses it? Are you interested in creating another font or is one enough?

CP: The font was released in 2014 and is distributed by the P22 Type Foundry. I know designers who have used it on wedding invitations, on books, and in magazines. My first “in the wild” sighting was at a Barnes & Noble. It was on the cover of Anna Quindlen’s book, Miller’s Valley. (I wrote a blog post about this comedic first sighting.)

I will confess I do have another font in the works. I intentionally have not set a deadline for its completion. It is also a connected cursive script based on old handwriting, but it looks completely different than the font based on Marcel’s handwriting. It is more lyrical. The original handwriting sample is unsigned, so I have no idea who wrote it. That is freeing because I don’t feel beholden to ensure the font stays true to the person who wrote it. In fact, the font has morphed into something very different than the initial tracing.

BB: Did Marcel’s letters inspire you to send handwritten letters to your loved ones? Would you encourage readers to do so? In this age of digital communication, do you worry the lack of physical letters will create a void of information for future historians and writers?

CP: Yes, yes, and yes! I do send letters, and I would encourage readers to write more. In this hyper-fast era of email, social media, and a 24-hour news cycle, finding a hand-addressed envelope in your mailbox is a real gift. Realizing someone took care to sit down and write a letter means more than ever.

One group that is constantly seeking handwritten letters is the Honor Flight organization. Honor Flights are trips for WWII, and now Vietnam veterans. They fly to Washington, DC, to see the memorials, then fly back the same day. The trip is completely free for the veterans. During the flight they hold an old style“mail call.” Some veteran’s families send letters and cards, other veterans receive anonymous letters of gratitude from people like you and me. You can find an upcoming Honor Flight to write to here.

I am indeed worried about a void of correspondence—especially in the military. It is easier than ever to stay in touch with loved ones via email, text, or video calls. But, I worry those methods don’t provide a tangible, lasting record of the experiences of men and women in uniform. Twenty, fifty, or one hundred years from now I fear many accounts of those first-hand experiences will be lost to time.

BB: You describe the P22 Marcel Script font as one “based on words of love.” Has your adventure with Marcel changed how you relate emotionally with the people you care about?

CP: One thing Marcel’s letters reinforced is the reality that any day could be the last day you can tell someone you love them. I didn’t grow up in a family that easily or openly demonstrated emotion, so what I can tell you is that I’m trying to be more open and demonstrative. It’s not easy or natural, but I’m trying.

BB: You have a very supportive husband! Does he have any obsessions you get to support him in?

CP: I don’t know that he has obsessions, but he certainly has interests. He is a fantastic cook, and plenty of evenings he disappears into the kitchen to concoct some kind of magic.

Last fall Aaron went on a solo trek on the Superior Hiking Trail (it extends from the Minnesota–Canada border through Duluth, Minn.). He spent months researching gear, testing food, and going on training hikes. I was grateful he had an adventure of his own to focus on while book promotion was in full swing. I’m proud of him—he finished 100 miles of the 300-mile trail!

For readers who think he’s a saint, I enjoy reminding them that on page 66 he almost killed both of us.

BB: Have you stumbled on to any new obsessions since Marcel’s Letters?

CP: Not yet—thank goodness. I still work full-time as a freelance graphic designer. The font, the search for answers, then the book have essentially been a 15-year-long second job. I have a dozen or so book events scheduled for 2018, but my goal is to have a project-free (and obsession-free and deadline-free) year. I need time to recharge. Someday I will be ready to jump into a new project, and when it’s time I’ll jump in with both feet. But, I’m not ready yet.

BB: Which book from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?

CP: I don’t know that this book shaped me into who I am, but there is one childhood book-related memory that comes to mind. My sister, brother and I were piled into our parent’s station wagon on a long road trip. I was seven or eight. I don’t even recall where we were heading, to be honest. To pass the hours, while my dad drove, my mom read Wilson Rawls’s Summer of the Monkeys out loud, one chapter at a time. It began as a distraction, but we got sucked into the story of Jay Berry Lee trying to catch the monkeys that had escaped from a traveling circus. I recall imploring her to read one more chapter, then another, then another.

Who knows! (I’m chuckling as I put these two together.) Perhaps Jay Berry Lee’s obsessive hunt for monkeys planted seeds for my obsessive search for answers about Marcel’s fate. Perhaps the book did help shape me into who I am!

BB: Aside from Marcel’s Letters, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers?

CP: I recently finished Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes. I enjoyed it so much I bought additional copies to give as Christmas gifts. It’s the true story of the American cryptologist Elizebeth Friedman, who during World War II cracked thousands of coded Nazi messages. She was sworn to secrecy, so she was never able to talk about her work.

I generally read non-fiction. Some other recent favorite non-fiction books include: The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny by Michael Wallis; Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free by Héctor Tobar; and Hunger by Roxane Gay

BB: What future projects can fans look forward to seeing from you?

CP: More fonts. More writing. Perhaps more writing about fonts. I don’t know! I think any future project will be like my original search for a handwriting sample for my font: I’ll know it when I find it.

BB: Many thanks to Carolyn for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer our questions…and for inspiring us to send more letters to those we love!

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2 thoughts on “Marcel’s Letters: Q&A with Carolyn Porter

  1. I *LOVED* this post! This is like being in a book club! Discussions, recommendations, reviews, conversations with the author … I’m so grateful to my step-mother for introducing me to Bas Bleu.

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