Thursday, 30 January 2014

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Jamie Iredell's "I Was A Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac"

   Meet Jamie Iredell, a PhD essayist with a wildly checkered past... 

   He had me at "I was in this fucked relationship with a woman who had the beginnings of a serious drinking problem. To be fair, I too swilled ten to twelve too many beers a day and was a heavy drug user." (A title like “How to Not Get Arrested for Driving While High on Crack and After Having Drunk a Bunch of Vodka at a James Taylor Concert” didn't hurt either.)

The review appears at The Rumpus.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Non-Fiction Sidebar: Jacket Design (pt. 3)

   ... and then there's the homely cousin of book design, the one with lots to say and a great personality, but. That's right, the back jacket.

   Paperbacks without flaps present a logistical problem: normally, a lot of information has to be crowded into a small space, and the result can look junky, cluttered, unfocussed, and etc. The plot summary, author photo, author bio, blurb(s), bar code, publisher logo, production credits, and design elements all on a 5.5 x 8.5 rectangle can make for a necessarily jammed janitor's supply closet of information.

   For the back, an element or two are typically carried over from the front, the effect to make the entire jacket a thematically coherent (aka uniform) whole. 
   I thought it might interesting or novel to break with that tradition and have a documentary photograph: if the front cover implies the comic genre, I thought, the back would let the reader know the setting is here and now and based within two of BC's economic powerhouses: film production and post-secondary education. 
   I had the good fortune to visit my office on campus in early August last year during crew prep for the scenes of Tomorrowland being shot there. (Tomorrowland? It stars George Clooney, and according to IMDb, will be released in May 2015. The plot? IMDb again, being sketchy: "Bound by a shared destiny, a teen bursting with scientific curiosity and a former boy-genius inventor embark on a mission to unearth the secrets of a place somewhere in time and space that exists in their collective memory.") 

   Anyhow, before being told by a rent-a-cop PA that I wasn't allowed to take photos (because, apparently, an outdoor set at a public institution is equivalent to a top secret governmental facility), I looked around for suitable book jacket images. And before the bouncer/PA escorted me away from the set (the set alone and standing outside its taped-off boundaries; there were no actors because the set was still being built), I snapped a few documentary details that I figured might look eye-catching on a back jacket—

   I sent the best ones to HonkHonk. In contrast to the front cover process, there was far less discussion and virtually no back and forth regarding many possible design options.
   Moving some technical concerns (eg, the author photo, the author's publications, etc) inside, along with additional information relating to design and photo credits, opened up lots of 'free' space on the back so that a relatively busy photograph could be utilized without the back cover becoming a distracting or unfocused junk pile that might annoy or confuse the the viewer's eye.
   Here's the handsome final product—

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Non-Fiction Sidebar: Jacket Design (pt. 2)

   Whatever my brain had at best hazily half-conjured based on that more or less random assortment of illustrations and images I'd found and liked... Well, what HonkHonk returned wasn't anything I'd have ever anticipated. 

   Up first, fiercely bright and as plastic-y as Lego—

   We quickly moved away from that one. 
   Aside from legibility issues and a lack of any clear relation to the novel's plot elements, there was to me a bit of a retro feel to it, in this case a rather particular retro: the Memphis Group of the early 1980s made famous by the work of Ettore Sottsass and Michael Graves

   After that, and with the eye-soothing application of black, elements of all the proposed ideas intrigued me. Asking around, however, as in "What do you think of this?" and "Which one of these do you prefer, and why?," I noticed that people have really strong reactions and opinions. The 'wrong' font, apparently, is tantamount to sin, as is an ambiguous image, or a tonality that implies "childish." Good to know... 
   (This asking around is never uniformly useful or productive because there's such a surprising variety of opinion about the same image. Why that surprised me, I do not know; but each time two people delivered radically opposed views, I felt a bit caught off guard.  In fact, for every, "Wow, I love that," it seemed there was an equal: "God, that's awful"; and for each, "That looks really current and attractive," I heard, "It's tired and dated and it would make me think the book wasn't worth reading." Consensus, then, must be a dream, or else a mirage you'd always imagined to be real.)
   Gradually, the ropey font disappeared: too country and western perhaps. As did the mountain backdrop (which I still think of as pretty. Others: "Too Group of Seven," "Too CanLit-y," "Seems kinda amateur," and so on). The process—back and forth, give and take, add and subtract, rearrange and re-size—refined ideas until they they were as 'good' as they could be. At that point, everyone weighed in and HonkHonk dropped that and replaced it with this, and so forth—

   At long last (and thanks to the internet: talking on the phone about these ideas, or actually meeting to talk about them, or, god forbid, mailing illustrations and notes back and forth would be onerous, if not an ordeal), we all settled on the one we settled on because, to simplify, we liked it the most. 

   No doubt, the final version will draw favour and criticism for one reason or another. I'm more than happy with it, though, and since no one has ever even partially convinced me that design relates in any way to volume of sales, social prominence, or buy buyer acceptability, a jacket design that pleases my eye (and my publisher's eye, of course) also pleases me and adds to my sense of accomplishment of having written a novel in the first place and managed to get it published—

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Non-Fiction Sidebar: Jacket Design (Part 1)

   One of the best - ie, fun and interesting but challenging - aspects of book publication, in my humble view, involves jacket design. 

   I've read about/heard of authors whose publisher basically informed them what the jacket will be, as in "Here's the jacket we've chosen." (This unbalanced relationship presumes, it seems, that the author either doesn't care about the trifling matter of the design of their own book or has nothing worthwhile to contribute to the sales dialogue, or else takes it for granted that the publisher, being a business with veteran marketing expertise, ought to adopt a paternalistic attitude because it knows better than any civilian what sells and what does not. Bubkes, I say.) For the most part, publishers with that exclusionary philosophy have not been my part of my experience.* 

   What should the jacket express (explicitly and implicitly), what colour(s) should it feature, what are the optimal fonts, what's best to avoid? These questions could strike some as onerous and unpleasant, as matters so consequential (as far as trifling book design goes: it's not like anyone's going to war and could lose a limb or a life) that they're best - and with gratitude - handed over to the design and marketing pros.

   (And, in truth, being a good mechanic doesn't mean you're a good driver. As much as I'm intrigued by design in general, and can at times fancy myself as someone with a keen eye or good taste, I also understand - or am forced to understand - my limits. 
   What I'm able to hazily envision in my head rarely turns out that way in reality. I accept that even if I regret it too.
   This situation began early, with a bike I spray-painted (baby) blue and (matte) black in elementary school (the effect? Just ghastly) and with the cedar spice rack of Woodworking 8 whose forlorn surfaces featured deep hammer indentations, unplanned and unfilled nail holes, and a tragically uneven coating of too thick varnish. (Yes, my parents kept the ugly specimen in the kitchen for years.)

   And just last year - lest I come to believe these failings are an event of my distant past - my hubby and I decided on the zombiefied ladies of ABBA as our ill-fated Halloween costumes. (I was Anni-Frid, the brunette.) Fancying myself an expert designer and sewer, I purchased a metre or two of pink satin fabric and proceeded to cut the pattern of a '70s-style butterfly-sleeve blouse that would have made ABBA wild. I measured. I cut. I stitched by hand. When I tried on my masterpiece, I couldn't fit my arms through the (carefully measured, I'd thought) sleeves. In a fit of fleeting rage, I tore up the whole undertaking and hurled it in the garbage. An hour later I was at a thrift shop downtown and had already found what I eventually wore. The lesson that day related to the vast distance between what I imagine I can do and what I can actually do.   
   As with celebrity designers, then,outsourcing the hands-on labour seems reasonable: "Here are some sketchy, half-baked, inconsistent, contradictory, and partially useless inspirations," says Jessica Simpson to her 'design team.' "When we meet up next month, I'd like to see how my clothing collection is shaping up." 

  For this jacket I asked my publisher if I could work with the guy - Finn at HonkHonk Graphic Arts in Victoria - who'd done such impressive work (I'd thought and still think) with novel #1, which started with and then modified an archival photograph of a '50s-era Vancouver beer parlour I'd located at the central library:

   For this new one, though, I didn't want CanLit dourness, doom and gloom and sadness and defeat seeping from every corner. This Location of Unknown Possibilities isn't particular sad or sober. It's a comedy. Instead of mournfulness and defeat I wanted cartoonishness, bright colours, busyness, mirth, a touch of the silly, all to reflect a plot that zooms from location to location and scenes that run from weird to silly and ridiculous.

   Since Finn knew virtually nothing about the story, I sent a list of key scenes and motifs. And I asked for lightheartedness and brightness. Lastly, I'd been stockpiling a few images that I'd noticed and thought inspirational. Basically, I wanted Finn to (a) read my mind, and (b) clarify my thoughts regarding the jacket, and (c) create something for me that already existed somewhere in my brain's innermost creative pockets and which I had no conscious awareness of. And do it all for cheap, of course.
   Good luck with that, right? (More on the process and results in my next posting.)

   These were the key images I sent—


  *My recent experiences with a scholarly publisher were interactive but less free. The marketing person asked for our ideas and recommendations for cover design. We send a handful that reflected our knowledge of our book's thematic concerns and its contents. A few months later we received a file of images that were terrific but had nothing whatsoever to do with ideas we'd pitched early. Oh well. Variations on a theme, the three images below, which are definitely eye-catching and cool, also indicate the choices given to us.