Artist Tim Youd on Typing Willa Cather in Red Cloud

Los Angeles-based artist Tim Youd has been typing The Song of the Lark in Red Cloud as part of his 100 Novels Project, every day since he arrived in town on April 10. In a hat, coat, and gloves, he has so far braved some unusually cold April prairie winds—and a rare sweltering day while in the Childhood Home attic—as he has moved around to different Willa Cather-related sites. We asked him about his artistic process and time in Red Cloud—and his vast vintage typewriter collection. 

What inspired the 100 Novels Project?

I've been a devoted reader my entire life. Sometimes I've read for inspiration, sometimes for escape. When I was able to connect my visual art-making to my ongoing habit of reading, not only my art but my life in its entirety took on a new purpose and focus for me. I feel lucky most every day that it's come together this way.

What drew you to Willa Cather for your 100 Novels Project?

I came late to Willa Cather. In fact, when I started my 100 Novels Project ten years ago, I had not read any of her books (Cather's three representative novels are the 72nd-74th performances in the project). It was thanks to novelist John Green (who I met through his wife and art curator, Sarah Urist Green) that I took a look at Cather. Once I started reading her, I recognized the singularity of her voice and vision. That led me to research whether or not she used a typewriter—I found that she did. And finally that led me to learning about Red Cloud and the National Willa Cather Center. There couldn't be a more perfect setup for a typewriter-toting literary pilgrim.

Why The Song of the Lark in Red Cloud?

Two reasons: even though Thea Kronborg's home hometown of Moonstone is nominally in Colorado, much of that town is informed by Red Cloud, so that alone made it a good fit. And when I decided I would retype the three early frontier novels—one in Lincoln, one in Red Cloud, and one in Omaha—I wanted to spend the most amount of time in Red Cloud, so I picked the longest of the three for here.

Are there one or two favorite spots that you’ve enjoyed while in Red Cloud for this project?

I love the porch here at the Miner House (where Tim is also staying during his three-week residency). The platform at the Burlington Depot was cold and windy, but starkly beautiful and invigorating. I was upstairs in Cather's Childhood Bedroom on that freak day when it hit 90—that was sweaty! I'm looking forward to a day or two out on the prairie.

What do you think about while you’re typing? Does your mind wander or are you really focusing on reading the text while punching out the letters?

At the heart of my project is the desire to be a good reader, to become a better reader over the course of each retyping and over the course of the entire 100 Novels Project. So I work hard at staying engaged in the novel I'm retyping. I regularly stop typing to annotate the text. I look up words or references I'm not familiar with. I get up from my table if my mind is wandering and do jumping jacks.

While typing, does the time go quickly or slowly?

There are days that fly by and days that are slogs. Equipment trouble can be a drag, and so can changing weather when I'm outside. The book itself is essential. Some sections move slower than others. And my own mental state plays a role, no matter how many pep talks I give myself.

So are your performances more about the process and less of an accurate recording of Cather’s words?

I'm a terrible typist. I have some kind of three-ish finger method. Thankfully no one can read what I type. I'd flunk. But I’m trying to hit the right key, not just banging away. When I do a retyping, I try to do it on the same make/model machine used by the author whose work I am retyping. Here I’m using an Oliver typewriter, which has high “bat wings” that give it a singular appearance. Based on my discussion with some of the Cather scholars, and on looking in the archive with Tracy Tucker (NWCC Education Director & Archivist) while here last summer, it’s clear that †Cather owned and used at least one Oliver typewriter. The typescripts of the three Cather novels I’m retyping are lost, perhaps in a fire in New York, but it’s a pretty good bet that I’ve got the right machine for the job. In fact, I have two Olivers with me, as I always bring a backup to each performance.

How many typewriters do you own and how do you get repairs and ribbons? 

I have a typewriter room in my studio in Los Angeles. It's jam-packed with at least a hundred machines. When I'm searching for a specific typewriter I don't already have, or when I need an existing machine serviced, I have a few people I work with in L.A., another in Ohio, and Gramercy Typewriter in New York. These Oliver machines were sourced and thoroughly overhauled for me by Ruben Flores of U.S. Office Machines in L.A.

As far as ribbons go, there are multiple ribbon suppliers that can be found on the Internet. For these particular ribbons for the Oliver, though, Ruben got them for me through a supplier that he uses. They are an atypical width.

Do you have a specific favorite author or place where you have typed a book?

It's a tough question, and one I get a lot. If really pressed, I'd have to say Virginia Woolf has, in her relatively small output, more good answers than any other writer. Another answer I have given concerns Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. I'm not saying it's the number one novel, but I will say that it's the novel that grew most in my esteem from my first reading and to my second. The book really opened up for me as I sat retyping in the Prytania Theater in New Orleans.

As to place, I've typed in some extraordinary locations—Faulkner's Rowan Oak, a Sing Sing prison tower, a post office parking lot in L.A. But at the risk of sounding like I'm panderering to your Cather readers, I do think Red Cloud will go down as one of the very best locations. It's a pure pilgrimage with little distraction, Cather is dominant, and the NWCC maintains multiple properties. For what I'm endeavoring to do, it would be hard to design a better location.

Though finished in Red Cloud, visitors can observe Tim Youd in Omaha's Old Market as he retypes My Ántonia in May, in partnership with the Joslyn Art Museum. He is represented by the Cristin Tierney Gallery in New York and you can follow him on Instagram @TimYoud.


† Cather references an Oliver typewriter in her letter to Alfred A. Knopf and Blanche Wolf Knopf, May 16, 1923:

“The Oliver typewriter which Mr. Samuel Knopf ordered sent to me has not arrived, and after a gay week in Paris I want to get to work and need a machine. Will you please find when it was shipped? If through some mistake it was not sent at all, I may have to buy one here, though they charge twice what Olivers sell for at home. If the machine was sent and is on the way will you please cable me to that effect as soon as you get this letter?”

[Cather-Knopf Correspondence, The Dobkin Family Collection of Feminism, New York, NY]