behind the design: michael mccartney & where things come back

I think this particular interview calls for a drumroll, friends.

After some cover fawning and a lovely interview with author Corey Whaley, it’s now my absolute pleasure to welcome to the blog Michael McCartney, the designer responsible for both covers for Where Things Come Back.

TCG: Take us back to the drawing board — in this case, WTCB’s early design phases for its hardcover artwork. What kind of information were you working with in regards to its story, prior to even thinking about its design? What were some of the ideas thrown out during concepting? And further down the road, when and how did Grady McFerrin come along for the ride?

There was a lot of excitement about this book because it struck a number of people as being uncommonly good. Here was an author making his début with a complex and nuanced story of what roles such things as faith and hope play in the lives not simply of teenagers but their parents and the adults around them. This was a young-adult novel with so much of what we call “crossover appeal” to older readers that we all knew that the packaging was not going to look like it belonged on the teen shelves. One of my first thoughts as I began reading the manuscript was that some of the more superficial qualities of the book evoked To Kill a Mockingbird—it is set in a small town in the South and has an avian metaphor right at the centre and is poignant as well. I should note that the book had a working title of Good God Bird, which only changed after several months of discussion.

Throughout those months, the editor, Namrata Tripathi, and I undertook a pitch to various decision-makers to allow us the freedom to venture outside the safe and well-populated areas of young-adult cover design. I would have simply repurposed the first-edition cover art from Harper Lee’s book if Little Brown hadn’t just done it for The Mockingbirds. We pointed to illustrated covers on adult novels by Jonthan Safran Foer, Chuck Palahniuk, and David Foster Wallace and said we wanted to follow suit. The immediate response was that teen books must have photographic covers to receive any sales attention. That isn’t our sales policy as much as it is the bookselling industry’s.

Our retort was that there are plenty of examples of successful packaging for younger consumers in other media. I brought up album art for Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, Neko Case, Sufjan Stevens, and the like (with the perhaps outdated notion that album art counts for anything today). Our mission was then to make a Decemberists cover; something hand-tooled, preferably brown and weathered. (We also requested it be printed an a specialty stock, which is something one can only experience by holding a copy in one’s hands.) I had wanted to work with Grady McFerrin for years, but given that teen jackets aren’t supposed to be illustrated, the opportunity to hire him did not exist until this moment. Grady and I both loved the idea of using wood panelling in the background as though this cover were being hung in the dining room of one of the characters in the book. His cover art was a little more ornate than what was printed on the hardcover and I readily admit that the cover we printed without the border and the angels is missing something.

The notion that teen jackets aren’t supposed to be illustrated makes me cringe. But WTCB is basically a YA book that looks nothing like a YA book. You could easily find it sitting in the fiction section alongside a couple of other novels and never know its audience was for teens. Was this a conscious intention from the get-go for both covers?

Indeed, I did not want this book to appear to be marketed to teenagers. This is a young-adult novel in that it features a teenaged protagonist and is published by the Children’s division, but it could just as easily be an adult novel given its thematic content and quality of execution. For that reason, I did not want to turn away adults who might be embarrassed to be seen reading a book for teens. I don’t mind designing a cover that might turn off a large number of people because I presume that a segment of potential readers remains, waiting for something different—and better—than the usual fare to come along and speak to them. This book was not expected to reach the best-seller list when it released. I can say that without disparaging Corey’s work because I believe that most of the books that sell in bulk are completely awful. The good stuff just isn’t popular.

The editor and I talked about this being the kind of book a few people will find and fall in love with; it will be a book all their own and it won’t be ruined by being overexposed. I compare it to the feeling of reading The Virgin Suicides before Middlesex came along. (The first edition cover is very spare and nearly perfect.) I figured all throughout the design process that no matter what I did with the hardcover, it was going to change for later editions. Not only would our Sales force recommend that we do the book a favour and try something friendlier on the paperback edition, but that this book would start to gain some accolades and really come to life in time, and that extra attention would bring about a repackage. This book is unusual, in many splendid ways, and wrapping it in a commonplace jacket in order to attract readers who probably won’t appreciate it while discouraging those who would was always a bad strategy. If there were any boy-and-girl scene I would have suggested for the cover, it would have been Cullen waking up in Alma Ember’s bed, and that was sure to upset somebody. 

Oh, yes, I’m sure that would’ve ruffled a few feathers. You mention that you knew while designing the hardcover, the paperback would need to be a friendlier version. How did the re-design for the paperback come about? It’s simple, but alluring. What was the thought and design process behind the new cover?

As I suggested, not many people much cared for the hardcover design. Book reviews tend to concern themselves very little with the packaging, and yet a number of them have, for this book, singled out the cover for derision. My consolation is that this a popular cover among designers, and since we tend to have the reputation as being the cool kids, that was all the approval I needed. Everyone wanted the opportunity to bring this book to their accounts for a second chance to sell it in. To do that, it needed a new look. The publisher gave me complete freedom to design the paperback edition because, I suspect, he figured that I couldn’t do any worse than the hardcover.

I revisited some of the ideas thrown out during the hardcover design process. One was a parody of the Led Zeppelin tour shirt Gabriel wears in the story. Another was to emulate Notes from the Dog by Gary Paulsen, which the editor and I appreciated for being a successful, illustrated cover for teens. I ran with the Book of Enoch theme in some admittedly bizarre ways, including bloody angel wings. I also made a photographic collages of an ivory-billed woodpecker, a motel TV set from the 1970s, a boy in a gilt frame who looked like my image of Gabriel, some more wood panelling, and an Arkansas landscape. These cover comps were increasingly speaking only to somebody who knew the novel very well already, as opposed to a reader who was seeing it for the first time.

In the end we went for simplicity. (I had been reading The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and one line was quite pertinent: “Now the definition of virtue and philosophy is: simplicity with prudence.”) Joel Holland illustrated the paperback cover. Like Grady, Joel was an illustrator whose name I had at the top of my list for years. He likewise loved the project and turned in amazing work. The original colour scheme was going to be red and black, but that palette seemed to dwell on the darker components of the story rather than the more optimistic ones. The background is now a vibrant spot blue, which can only begin to be reproduced on a monitor.

Only after the fact did I see that I had been borrowing from one of my favourite covers, The Voyeur by Alain Robbe-Grillet. A few other similar covers were brought to my attention after the fact, including The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and Wonder by    R. J. Palacio. 

What’s your design theory when it comes to storytelling across a novel’s cover? How do you balance audience, story, and marketing while maintaining creative integrity?

My opinion of what makes for a good cover is just about the opposite of what popular opinion dictates. I always prefer to tell something specific about the story in the cover; all the better if it is a bonus for the reader after finishing the story. For the paperback cover, the silhouette of the woodpecker flying with its wings spread wide refers generally to the alleged sighting of the bird relatively early in the book but more specifically to Lucas’ description of it in the last chapter. The woodpecker is a symbol for the people of Lily and what it can do to revive the town, a symbol for Cullen of what he sees wrong with the town’s misplaced brand of faith […]. The title Where Things Come Back plays a subtle trick on the reader.

As I said, I don’t design for what I think teenagers might want to see. I’m not a teenager. Given how many young-adult books are clearly written for a female audience, I especially don’t know what a teenaged girl wants. I am certainly not interested in being trendy. I simply try to design a cover that is right for the book. I want to stay true to the details of the book, whether that means ensuring that any figures match the physical description of the characters but that the other elements of the design are accurate: not being anachronistic with the wardrobe or even the typeface, not using the incorrect setting, and so forth.

Beyond that, I want the cover to stand out by being different. A cover of mine may, by popular standards, be a little on the unglamorous side. Covers don’t all need photogenic models on them. Our industry has become even more ridiculous on that count because most covers take themselves far too seriously. I shouldn’t imply that I do not take a book seriously. The cover design process lasts months or perhaps years and I have been working on Where Things Come Back off and on for about eighteen months. I must have designed two dozen different comps for it. One criticism I have yet to read about one of my covers is that it is wrong for the book. It may not be what somebody wants, but it makes a kind of sense that may not be obvious. I don’t really like to be obvious unless the other options are exhausted.

I should also say that a good deal of my effort goes toward ensuring the author is happy with the cover. This doesn’t usually mean that the author is difficult to please although it does happen on occasion. I know how much effort an author dedicates in writing (and editing and rewriting) a book and I feel that the book deserves better than the first idea I have that pleases everybody. For Corey, this is his first book. It was doubly important that my design pleased him because this is what he would be bringing home to his family and friends to prove that he had made it as a writer. 

I definitely gathered he was pleased in his interview. So eighteen months to design the cover! I can only imagine what that process was like, especially juggling other creative projects concurrently. What were the easiest parts of the process of designing both covers? The hardest?

Not much was easy about designing this book; there were a lot of battles. I always had the support of the author and editor, which is crucial. If they weren’t on board with me, this would have been a still more difficult assignment. Grady and Joel did the hard part of illustrating the covers. That much was easy for me. 

Who inspires you?

Neil Kellerhouse

Neil Kellerhouse and everyone who designs for the Criterion Collection are so good that I steal from them as much as I am capable. John Gall, Paul Sahre, and Helen Yentus are always seemingly doing something that I wanted to do before I even thought of it. I look at movie posters a lot for inspiration too. That behaviour is often discouraged by purists, yet we are in the business of making money and movies make a lot more money than books, which is how I see things when I am feeling cynical or practical. Perhaps publishers don’t want to admit that a book’s greatest aspiration is now to become a movie. (It should be noted that the Gotham Group has optioned the film rights for Where Things Come Back. There is a book trailer on Corey’s site, which only amplifies how much I would love to see this made into a film.) I also work with a number of designers at Simon & Schuster who are so much more talented than I am that I often consider changing careers. 

Please don’t change careers! For the love of…please just don’t.

Last prompt, and always a fun one  name three of your favorite pieces of cover art  — designed by someone else.

I already mentioned The Voyeur and The Virgin Suicides as two of my favourite covers. That I made reference to them while working on Where Things Come Back is a testament to how good I found this book to be because I wanted this to look like it belonged in that group. I have a few random selections of the many covers I keep hanging around for inspiration.

Some I like because I enjoyed the book and now the cover has positive associations. You’ll see that I love type so much that I don’t consider images necessary for a cover. There are also times I love an image so much that type is unnecessary.

To be fair to children’s designers I include one recent young-adult jacket that is simply amazing. Lizzy Bromley designed it for our flagship, S&S Books for Young Readers. Once it’s a printed book, I recommend looking at it in person. Anyone can splash a model in a gown on a cover. This cover surpasses all of them. The props are fantastic, especially the rocking horse. I love all of the geometry in the green layer (which will be stamped foil). It has a lot of motion going on for being a still life.

Oh, that Fever cover. I have to admit I was thoroughly confused by this cover at first. My friend Asheley recently read it and has convinced me that this cover is seamlessly interwoven with its story. I’ll definitely have to keep an eye out for it when it’s in bookstores. (Mmm…stamped foil.)

Thank you so much for stopping by the blog, Michael. It’s been a pleasure cover-talking Where Things Come Back these past few days and my hope is that more publishers recognize the need for cover art that does right by its story and author, and not just by its marketability. I will definitely be reading the novel very, very soon!

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8 thoughts on “behind the design: michael mccartney & where things come back

  1. i love everything about this blog post…all the way from the album art inspiration (i ABSOLUTELY saw Sufjan Stevens & the Decemberists when i first saw the hardback, within nanoseconds) down to the massive, spelled-correctly shout-out.

    it sounds like mccarthy took his time on corey whaley’s book, which is so very awesome. everything i hear about this book just makes me jealous and needful because i haven’t read it yet.

    also: “For Corey, this is his first book. It was doubly important that my design pleased him because this is what he would be bringing home to his family and friends to prove that he had made it as a writer.” — wow.

  2. To start with the end…I’m still slightly confused by the Fever cover. Haven’t read the book yet…but I love some of the other covers mentioned in this post so much better! I’ll have to revisit my opinion after I finish the read.

    I for one like the hardback cover of the novel. It was one of the things that attracted me to review posts about the book. It’s just so different from what’s currently flooding the market. I love a cover to be smart…not just beautiful, or inclusive of hidden meanings from the novel…It’s really beautiful when it fits but is simple.

    Not that I could ever design such a thing myself. Nope, everything from my wardrobe, to my house, to my choices in art are all busy, busy, busy…lol.

  3. Wow. This cover design explanation has made me fall in love with the book loads more (if that’s even possible!). I love that Michael wasn’t afraid to be different, to go against the norm. Just because Corey’s book is labeled as YA, does not mean it needs to sit on the shelf among all the other sad girl book covers. I am SO happy Michael went against this.

    I love me some typography, too. I think that’s probably my most favorite in cover art design. Using indie music artists as inspiration for this novel just completes the package. Knowing Corey, and how much his music loves influenced his writing, just brings this whole experience full circle.

    Well done. VERY well done.

  4. I think the To Kill a Mockingbird comparison is very apt. I agree–an astonishing debut. And I also agree with the comments posted thus far. It’s so lovely to know that Michael cared what Corey might think about his cover. it’s very well done, by the way. I love the fact that it’s not specifically marketed to teens, that it has crossover appeal.

  5. WOW! I actually really like the hardcover of Where Things Come Back, better than the paperback which is sort of lifeless and generic to me.

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  7. Pingback: Where Things Come Back | this is your brain on books

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