Friday, November 23, 2007

Covering the story

I've been wanting to blog properly about The Lost Dog for ages. I suddenly find myself with a wee window of time and this seems like the right time, as I'm all jangled by pre-election nerves and so is Best Beloved.

I'm not a very mainstream designer of things. I don't usually do big flash things, for a number of reasons. One is that I'm not formally trained; I never went to Graphic Design School and learned how many blacks you can overlay without pissing off the printer or how to avoid a moire pattern when setting up screens. I get very nervous when faced with big professional-looking briefs.

I picked up computer layout work by hating everything I saw in the 1990s when Macs and cheap design software democratised book and newsletter layout. Suddenly people stopped using designers and started getting their secretaries to lay out their newsletters, annual reports and journals, with disastrous results. Anyone over 35 will know exactly what I'm talking about.

I managed, with the help of a bit of nepotism (the only way to get jobs in Canberra, really) to talk my way into a position as a publications officer for an academic lobby group. I made some awful things, but each one got progressively better as I worked out how to use the software. And being a voracious reader and a lover of books as objects, I had an idea of what good publishing should look like, and that is what I've always wanted to achieve.

Another reason is sheer laziness; I don't go out and find clients. Most of the people I've worked for have found me through by word of mouth, and once they've found me they tend to use me repeatedly and thus I have enough work to keep me going. The majority of them are local, and nearly all are academics or art-school related, since they're the places I've worked and got to know people.

Another reason is that I want to do fifty million other things besides sit at a computer, so I only take on enough work to pay the bills and maybe buy a pair of shoes a year (I wear cheap clothes and expensive shoes, but I try not to have more than four pairs going at a time). That hopefully leaves me to have time to talk to my family, cook for them, and make a bit of art. Money is just not very interesting, really. Enough money is great, not enough is awful, and too much seems to be a responsibility and something I've not yet encountered. So I work to make enough.

*  *  *  *

When I was in Melbourne earlier in the year, I was sitting in an internet cafe checking my emails and got one from Allen & Unwin asking if I was interested in designing a book cover for a fab Australian author of theirs who likes my blog. It was very seductive, and they pressed a few of my buttons: I've ALWAYS wanted to design a mainstream book; I love Australian literature; and she likes my blog! Sigh. How could I resist?

I rang Michelle de Kretser from my friend's flat in Melbourne, and we had a lovely natter. What Michelle really craved was a designer who reads, and she noticed from my blog that I like a book or two. For me, the most alluring part of the job was that part of my brief was to read the book properly. Hooray!

I've often fantasised about having some job where I got to use the work of talent-spotting the work of emerging artists for design purposes such as book covers. My first idea for TLD was to use an image by Waratah Lahy, who paints onto various surfaces such as beer glasses, blankets and flattened beer-cans. She did a dog beer-can cut-out that I thought would be perfect.

germ of an idea
This is the germ of the idea, done with some simply-scanned things, including Waratah's image (with her blessing!).

next thought
Then I played some more, using just the dog shape. I've always liked really simple, elegant book covers.

But while Michelle loved the actual doggie object, she said it wasn't the right sort of dog. This is when I realised that she had a specific dog in mind, and it was her dog, Gus (who has since died, poor lovie).


Well, of course, that changed everything. And the dog needed to be stressed, to be more lost in its body language. I think with those earlier drafts I had been concentrating less on the type of dog and more on the feel of the narrative... I wanted to convey a lot of feeling with very little information. I wanted it to feel contemporary, arty, airy, and very Australian. I wanted to break away from that 'Commonwealth writer' tag that keeps Michelle in a certain Auslit corner.

*  *  *  *

Hmm. Back to the drawing board. Michelle and her A&U team liked the textures I was playing with, so I jigged up some more ideas involving a typecase and some grungy old paper I'd photographed years ago. The paper had been lining an ancient case of woodtype that had been dumped like an abandoned baby on the doorstep of the museum in Bega.

After a lot of emails (I still haven't met Michelle or the A&U team in person! This was a very 21st-century relationship! But I intend to meet her next time I'm in Melbourne.) we headed in a direction that made everyone happy, using the typecase (completely altered in its compartment configuration) and the paper and lots of elements that hopefully draw upon the amount of detail Michelle lovingly renders in her writing.

Lost Dog

If you read the novel (and you should), it will all make a bit of sense, hopefully. But nothing included on the cover is specific, more just moments caught in the pages. And I did get to use some original Australian art, with the Deborah Williams etching of the dog at the bottom. If you like it, there's more here. I still hope to use Waratah's work for something in the future, because I think it would work beautifully with someone's narrative.

For me the best bits of working on this book (besides reading it) was designing its inner bits, the less obvious little touches. The text design was fun, but I loved doing the endpapers, because they're very 'me'. Michelle and A&U were inspired by the British cover of John Baxter's A Pound of Paper, with its samples of old book covers. I thought about what we were doing, making the inside of a book cover, and I scanned some of the paper covers from my collection of old Angus & Robertson poetry volumes. I scanned the insides of them, with their faded and torn bits, and collaged them together to make booky underclothes. I think it worked quite well.

This is the back endpaper. Michelle wanted an old-fashioned autograph page at each end of the book, with very specific text (part of the narrative, really), so they had to be manufactured from scratch as well. I'm very proud of the way they look so authentic.

*  *  *  *

I haven't changed from when I first started layout and design. In my head I still know what I want, and I'm still working out the ways to get there. I think formal training would have locked me in a box that would have been hard to get out of, so while part of my brain suspects that I'm woefully amateur, another part treasures the fact that I'm a bit of a wildflower instead of a hothouse flower.

All of this stuff, of course, feeds into my letterpress work, and my letterpress work feeds into my design. And my bottom line is: start with traditional rules and keep it simple. There's plenty of designers out there who do layered and decorative really well.

To be honest, I'm never completely happy with anything I finish, but that is hopefully a sign that I'll do better next time if I make myself think hard about what I don't like. I'm not going to say here what I don't like, because I like Michelle and her book too much.* Suffice to say that the kind of things that niggle at me are things that others don't usually notice, and my loved ones think I'm too fussy. That's ok, it's my bugbear, not theirs. It's all part of the "Learning Journey" :)

*  *  *  *

I must say, I'm a bit annoyed at some of the reviews I've been reading of this book. I know I'm absolutely biased, but what I've been seeing smacks of -- not jealousy or spite -- but of the sort of criticism an English teacher would give to their best pupil, a level of chastising reserved for someone who already does well, and the lesser students wouldn't get. I'd expect that sort of review in-house, in maybe a literary journal or something, but surely when you're writing in a major newspaper, the object is to communicate something of the novel to the general public, no? Maybe I'm out of touch that way. But in the review I linked to, the subtext is 'Great novel, but she could do better'. Surely you could make it clearer that in terms of writing in this country, it's an excellent novel, and have a quick para about the niggly bits so as not to detract?

Meh, what do I know? I'm just the designer. We don't read.

* For what it's worth, though, my personal favorite design idea is the last one before the final above. But I do like the absolute final a hell of a lot.

Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla (thanks to Tim for the encouragement!)


Tim said...

It really is a brilliant cover. After Kerryn made a comment about the book over at Sars I placed it on reserve at the library (you don't get royalties, do you? If so, sorry, but I've sworn off buying new books for the moment owing to being flat broke). I very much enjoyed this post (maybe worth cross-posting to Sars?). There's an awful lot of crap book covers out there, so it's interesting to read about the process of creating a bloody good one.

Ampersand Duck said...

Thanks, Tim, that's lovely feedback. I really appreciate it. And yes, I just cross-posted. I always feel guilty about not doing enough at Sars!

No, no royalties -- they (rightly) go to the author! I'm just the window-dresser :)

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

What a great post, I loved reading that.

The last paragraph of the review you linked to is a dead giveaway. The reviewer is clearly a young Turk and a Pom to boot, and thinks all this fancy academic pomo malarkey is, erm malarkey. Anyone who puts quotation marks round the word discourse is wearing his Cambridge-trained (I'm guessing) post-Leavis liberal-humanist heart, bless it, on his sleeve. There's one in every reviews section. Actually there's usually more than one.

What you say about the condescending tone is very funny as this reviewer is more than ten years younger than Michelle and doesn't have a tenth of her intellectual sophistication. But then he's a boy and a Pom so he probably can't help condescending to colonial girls who think they can write fiction, poor loves.

I read the book early because I got it in one of my boxes of books from the SMH for my short-reviews column in Spectrum. I picked it for Book of the Week but there's only 320 words of space even in that -- was going to link to it here, as the SMH usually puts the Pick of the Week online, but it doesn't seem to be there. FWIW, I said it was fab.

Ampersand Duck said...

I'm kicking myself -- when Mindy told me it was your book of the week, I ran to the recycling bin, because BB bought the SMH last week and I hadn't read it. But it was unrecoverable.

I confess that I don't read the SMH because it shits me up the wall with all its assumptions of wealthy readers and the general Sydney ego it exudes. Never mind.

I'm so glad of your response to my criticism, Pav! Thanks!

Penthe said...

I love the cover. I was dancing with excitement when I realised this was coming out, and once I started I didn't speak to anyone until I'd finished reading it.

I have history gushing about how marvellous Michelle de Kretser is, so I'll leave it there. Thank you ampersand duck for making the book look so absolutely right.

Maria said...

Dear Ampersand Duck,

What an ab fab cover! And you've made it seem so much fun. You've made me want to go cover a book. Once I wanted to write books, now I want to cover them. though I'll probably end up using Christmas gift-wrapping paper. I'll never end up with something so creative and inspiring.

I know what you mean about reviews; often I read reviews and I get quite cross about what I'm sure are childish and unfair comments. I know I can't expect everyone to love the books I do, but if they would be constructively, insightfully or rationally critical it wouldn't bother me so much. Chin up, though! You've obviously shown them you're head and shoulders above the lot. I look forward to your next book cover offering, and hope there shall be some more ... soon!

Jonathan Shaw said...

Thanks for this post. I agree it's a splendid book. The cover is even more beautiful after the book has been read, and the end papers are wondrous. I'd just uploaded an entry on my own blog mentioning this cover when I saw it mentioned in today's Spectrum, so added a link to here.

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