January 30, 2006

Under Cover...

Book design...from cover art, to font choice, to the weight and feel of the pages and every intricate detail between, is often something overlooked by readers. Sure, we've all felt drawn to pick up a book with an interesting or unusual cover, but most likely never thought twice about the effort that went into creating it. Perhaps a seasoned book designer would say that's the way it should be...that the first-sight temptation of the perfect book is seamless, silent, mesmerizing.

In an effort to peer into the world of book design, I decided to ask the amazing woman who created the design for Knopf's Canada's publication of The Birth House, Kelly Hill, a few questions.

here is our recent email conversation:

What led you to a life in book design?

Literature and art are always showing up to parties together in my world. While at university I remember looking at all of my Canadian lit novels (I was an English major) and thinking that it was someone's job to decide which piece of art -- usually a group of seven painting(!) -- went on which cover. With my minor in Art History I thought that would be the perfect job for me. That's how unsophisticated my first thoughts were about what I do now. After university I went to Centennial College for the book and magazine publishing program, thinking that I wanted to do editorial work and ended up loving the design class. Because I didn't have a graphic design diploma I didn't think I'd be qualified for the positions I wanted, but I got into publishing as an advertising and promotions designer and then made my way
down the hall to book design.

How long have you been with Knopf/Random House Canada?

5 years: 3 in advertising design and 2 in book design

There's been a lot of talk about 39-year-old Chip Kidd, (with the recent release of his ten-year retrospective Chip Kidd: Book One 1986-2006) and what he's brought to book design. He cites comic books (specifically Batman comics) and album covers as sources of inspiration for his style. What kinds of things (and/or artists) have inspired your work?

Chip Kidd's book is sitting on my desk right now: it's a really impressive portfolio.

I'm glad you suggested that things could be a source of inspiration: I'm often inspired by beautiful handmade pieces, like clothing and quilts and rugs and fabrics. I am drawn to book jackets that use illustrations, textures, whimsical elements -- evidence that although books are mass produced, somebody made this cover. I have some books with old advertising illustrations, which I go to often for inspiration, and I pore over graphic design annuals, wishing I'd thought of those ideas. And then there's always the book itself as the most important source of inspiration -- everything you need to design the cover is there.

Can you losely take me through the process you went through in designing the cover for The Birth House? What were you trying to convey to the reader?

For every book I first sit down with the editor, who describes the general themes and storyline, the audience for the novel and maybe comparable books
or authors. I also like to read a portion of the manuscript to get a feeling for the writing and to look for "images" within the text. What I always want to do with a cover is present something that is true to the book with just enough intrigue and hopefully beauty, that whoever picks it up will want more. In the case of The Birth House, there is the pregnant woman (who is she? is she going to be okay?) and the label and botanical print, which hint to the Willow Book and the "scrapbook" style of the novel.

The Birth House also includes many design elements within the text of the book. (advertisements, invitations, old news clippings, and an herbal notebook - all circa WW I era) What sorts of challenges did these things present?

These were fun to do: I used some actual ads from that time period as inspiration and did my best to mimic the fonts and graphic style. Since some of the authentic ads were not well designed I was allowed to break some of my own rules for the purposes of authenticity.

What kinds of things can editors and writers do to lend a hand to the designer?

Trust them!

*Author's Note - In May, I handed Kelly a scrapbook filled with images that had been sources of inspiration for me while I was writing. All I said to her was, 'run with it!' She sure did...I love Kelly's work on The Birth House. It is surprising, beautiful and brimming with wit and magic. Thanks, Kelly!

January 21, 2006

My New Face

As some of you may already know, The Birth House has been chosen as the sole title for Knopf Canada's 2006 New Faces of Fiction. This year marks the 10th anniverary of the New Faces of Fiction, a program started by Louise Dennys...her response to the oft-repeated industry comment
"First fiction doesn't sell . . . ."

A decade later and 30 authors have gotten their foot in the literary door (and have been enthusiastically embraced by readers) because the editors at Knopf Canada were willing to devote their time and attention to first fiction. (Ann-Marie MacDonald, Yann Martel, Gail Anderson-Dargatz and Dionne Brand were in the first group!) It is difficult for me to even begin to describe how honoured I feel to be a part of the NFoF, especially in the 10th anniversary year.

Back in October I shared a personal journal entry with friends and family via my monthly newsletter, Incidentally. At the time, it felt like a very intimate revelation and I chose not to post it on the blog. Now that the launch of The Birth House is almost here, requests for interviews are starting to roll in, my heart is a-twitter with anticipation (mixed with bouts of nervousness), and my debut into the world of all things literary is inevitable. It's time to share some of myself with the rest of the world. Here is the email that went out in October of 2005.

Hi all,
This time of year is always one of deep reflection for
me. Autumn colours are brilliant and wild, and the
winds bring thoughts of change.

I thought I'd share a little bit of what's been on my

October 13, 1998 - While driving to my job as a music
teacher at the Chicago Waldorf School, I was
blindsided by a car that was coming out of a side
street. I was pretty banged up, most especially my
head...my face was black, blue, purple, red, my right
eye - cut up and swollen shut. I had to miss several
weeks of work. I was a mess. When my downstairs
neighbour came to see me at the hospital, he actually
turned away from me several times because he said it
hurt to look at me...and he was a pretty tough guy, a
dispatcher for an ambulance service who had grown up
on the South side. When my mom and dad saw me, they
cried. When my best friend from university came to
help out, she could hardly hold the camera still to
take pictures for my insurance company. Not pretty.

Seven years later...

October 13, 2005 - The courrier truck delivered a box
from Knopf/Random House Canada this morning - the
galleys of my novel. Galleys (or advanced reader
copies) are paperback proofs of the book that are sent
to booksellers, media contacts and reviewers who need
to have an early look at the book before it's in
finished hardcover form. As I started to open the box
I could see part of my face. I assumed I must be
seeing the back of the book. When I wrestled the box
completely open I discovered (much to my surprise)
that my face is on the cover of the proofs along with
a banner accross the top that says: "The New Face of
Fiction, 2006 is Here!" A dozen books, a dozen smiling
Ami's were staring back at me.

Seven years. What a difference.

And as my twelve-year-old son (who has a love for all
things scientific) reminded me, "did you know that in
the space of seven years the human body has regnerated
every single one of its cells? It's like you're a
whole new person."

I guess I'm a "New Face" afterall.

New Face of Fiction web site
Visit the New Faces of Fiction site...it's recently been revamped. You'll find author profiles, book descriptions, author interviews, history of the program...and you can enter the NFoF contest to win a library of all the NFoF titles from the last 10 years!
Click here for the: NFoF library contest

January 05, 2006

You Gotta Read to Write!

As I mentioned in my previous post, M.J. Rose had stated that in 2006 she would find ways to "Adopt a Reader". One thought she had was to pass out cards to wanna-be writers with the following quote:
“Readers get published more often than Writers.”

She continues:
And I’ll explain that be it karmic dept or just the smarts that come for reading a lot but when you talk to the most successful writers you discover what rabid readers they were prior to getting published and still are.

Her thoughts inspired me to leave the following comment at her blog, Buzz Balls and Hype. (Now with photos from my personal collection to illustrate my story!)

Excellent idea, M.J.!
Your post reminded me of something that happened a few years ago when I was living in Chicago.

I used to take a notebook with me and scribble a few lines during my train ride to work.

One morning a woman sat next to me...sporting a bright scarf, a hat with some silk flowers pinned to it, and a large button pinned to her coat that said: "Senior Power". She kept looking over at my notebook (which didn't have much to offer at that point). Eventually she asked, "what's that?" I shrugged my shoulders and admitted that I wasn't quite sure yet, but I hoped it might turn out to be a short-story.

She looked at me and shook her head, "Don't you know anything, girl? You gotta READ to WRITE."
The next day I traded my notebook for a copy of "The Bluest Eye".

I read novel after novel on those train rides. I never saw the woman again, but if I saw her today, I'd thank her for telling me the truest thing I've ever heard about writing. My first novel comes out February 14!

(What I didn't mantion when I was typing my comment at BB&H was that I had carried my camera on the train that day as well. I was so taken with the woman and her willingness to tell me exactly what she thought that I snapped her photo.)

Here's to Senior Power, to saying what's on your mind, and to reading before you write!


The end of 2005 was littered with top ten, top 100, and year-in-review lists. Along with these offerings were the usual sooth-sayer columns citing the 'death' of this or that. Rachel Giese's 2005 retrospective at the CBC arts website asked the question, Is Fiction Dead?
Shh! No one tell the novelists — they are tender souls — but the big book story this year was the death of fiction. Literary media, like the make-or-break-an-author’s-reputation New York Times Book Review, have cut back on reviews of novels in favour of non-fiction coverage. Globally, fiction sales are down. Publishers and agents returning from the Frankfurt Book Fair reported that Canadian fiction, despite its stellar international reputation, wasn’t generating the heat it used to.

Ouch! Tender souls, indeed.

To Ms. Giese's credit, she went on to throw a few literary bones to both writers and readers, mentioning highlights in Canadian fiction, the strength of a few first ficion titles, and the unstopable, unsinkable Margaret Atwood.

Unbridled Books' Blog tackled the same theme in the post: Is Fiction Necessary?

When so successful and gifted a novelist as Jane Smiley feels it necessary produce her own course of literary study — Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (Knopf) — just to convince herself that fiction still matters, then we have a problem.

But dear Fred Ramey saved many writers from running to the kitchen for the meat cleaver by making this assertion:

It seems clear to me that there’s an essential role for fiction now, when who we are is such an important consideration.

Bless you, Fred!

And now I'll go out on the hopeful limb and say that I think fiction isn't dead at all...the signs are there, if we only point them out and crow about them twice as often as the naysayers shake their heads. Here are but a few "Fiction is ALIVE" sightings:

1. Tralee Pierce gave a glimmer of hope in her 2006 Globe and Mail trends column, You in 2006.

The Reading Fiction. After several seasons of political bestsellers, you're tired of anti-Bush rants geared toward the liberal book-reading minority. You've had it up to here with "reality-lit"...You're still keen to learn about the world, but you're hungry for a story, an intellectual diversion that reveals itself through charatcers, plot, and language."

2. In response to National Novel Writing Month, there's now:
National Just Read More Novels Month!

3. and M.J. Rose, (the promotional goddess of all things literary) has declared that 2006 is the year to Adopt a Reader. (More on this in my next post!)

If you make any sightings (web related or otherwise) that prove that fiction is indeed alive and kickin', let me know and I'll post them right here!