Monday, July 27, 2020

Judging Me by My Covers by Allison Montclair

Allison Montclair: 
Judging Me by My Covers 

Writing a book is a solitary process. Publishing one is anything but. The stages of editing, copy-editing, proof-reading, and so forth are all laborious, necessary, and tedious to recount. However, there is that glorious moment where you open up your e-mail to see [Tympani roll! Fanfares!] the cover art.

Be honest — when you think of a book that you’ve loved, the memory includes the cover. A good one will make you pause in your rambling through the aisles, pinging your subconscious before you even have taken the rational series of mental steps that culminate in your reaching out to pluck this book from amongst the hundreds to read the flap copy [flap copywriting! Another unheralded art!]

A good cover artist will tell a story in a single image, one that will give a sense of what lies ahead for the lucky reader while not giving too much away. It’s something I cannot do, despite having artists in the family. That particular gene was not passed along, but my lack of talent in that area makes me appreciate even more those who do it well.

Now, does the fact that the book-making process is handled by people better qualified than the author mean that the author has no input into it? It depends on the relationship between the author and her editor. The editor is the one who makes the final decision approving the design of the book which is, after all, a part of the marketing process. There are authors who do understand marketing [I am certainly not one of them], and there are authors who may have sufficient clout to muscle in on these decisions [see previous comment in brackets, plus I am not a muscling-in sort of person]. In my case, I am very fortunate to have a good working relationship and friendship with my editor.

So when I first received the proposed cover for The Right Sort of Man, I cautiously ventured a couple of comments, both involving the dress of the two characters depicted — a woman in the foreground holding a small note pad either watching or following a male figure in the distance. These comments were passed on to the artist, Mick Wiggins, and he graciously incorporated them into the final version.

The result is one of the most glorious covers I have ever seen. The colour scheme, with a background palette of oranges and yellows, is simply breathtaking. The positioning of the two characters shows tension and mystery, and there is the wonderful little detail of a bloody knife used to cross the ’t’ in the word ‘Right’ in the lettering of the title. This last is subtly done, more likely to hook the subconscious than to register at first glance, but hook it, it will.

When the second book, A Royal Affair, was in the production stages, I asked if the same artist would be doing the next cover. I was told, to my initial disappointment, that he would not be. But don’t worry, my editor reassured me, the new artist was very good. In fact, he had been responsible for the posters for Lincoln Center Theater.

Gulp.

James McMullan. The James McMullan would be doing the cover for my book.

You have to understand — I am a theater geek. I’ve been going to theater in New York for decades, and there are two artists whose work, displayed in subway platforms, bus stops, and billboards, has been synonymous with that world. One is Paul Brooks Davis, whose posters for the New York Shakespeare Festival include the iconic portrait of Raul Julia in “Threepenny Opera.” The other is James McMullan.

McMullan’s theater work started with the poster for Trevor Griffiths’ play “Comedians,” which introduced Jonathan Pryce to the world. I saw it. His relationship with Lincoln Center Theater began with John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves.” Saw that too!

In fact, I cannot even tell you how many shows I have seen for which McMullan did the posters. And now he was doing my book cover!

I felt unworthy.

There is a wonderful Vanity Fair profile of McMullan which you can find at https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2017/11/meet-the-illustrator-james-mcmullan-lincoln-center-most-memorable-posters. What leapt out in particular was the description of his technique, particularly that he works with vintage watercolour paper, last manufactured in 1955. “His precious stockpile is now down to 80 sheets. (‘It’s a race to the finish—whoever goes first, me or the paper.’)”

I don’t know if he uses that for his book covers as well, but the end result both echoed the work of Wiggins on the first book while giving it his own stamp. A Royal Affair concerns Sparks and Bainbridge’s investigation into a rumour about Prince Philip, who is courting Princess Elizabeth in 1946. Once again, a woman in the foreground is gazing into the distance, only this time at a young couple in a romantic embrace. Look closely, and you’ll see the details of his naval uniform, the cap in his left hand.

I cannot tell you how fortunate I feel to have Mr. McMullan illustrating my efforts. And he has done it again. I just saw the first draft of the proposed cover for Book Three, A Rogue’s Company. I am satisfied. Actually, I am ecstatic!

And I can only hope that you find that the books are as good as their covers.

***

ALLISON MONTCLAIR grew up devouring hand-me-down Agatha Christie paperbacks and James Bond movies. As a result of this deplorable upbringing, Montclair became addicted to tales of crime, intrigue, and espionage. She now spends her spare time poking through the corners, nooks, and crannies of history, searching for the odd mysterious bits and transforming them into novels of her own. She is the author of The Right Sort of Man and A Royal Affair.

Read The Saturday Reader's Review of "The Right Sort of Man" by Allison Montclair here.

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