Friday, December 20, 2013

From the Back of the Bookshop: The Strength of Bone Start to Finish

Way back in March, when the snow likely leaked through my boots and road salt tracked its way through the bookshop just as it is doing now, I started what I had the best intentions of making a series about the cover design process at Biblioasis. Since my initial post, which ran through the many varied concepts on the way to producing the final cover for Nancy Jo Cullen's short story collection Canary (Biblioasis, Spring 2013), I've designed many a cover, but the blog "series" on cover design has not moved beyond its first installment.

Today, I present the second part of what I still have the best intentions of making a series: "From the back of the bookshop."

This time, I'm featuring a book from our fall 2013 list, The Strength of Bone by Lucie Wilk. Her debut novel, The Strength of Bone follows the interwoven stories of a Canadian doctor in Malawi, a Malawian nurse, and a young Malawian boy whose mother is receiving treatment at the hospital. What struck me most about Wilk's writing is the way she balances clarity and medical precision with some truly beautiful imagery, making cells on slides as stunning as her landscapes, all while avoiding lapsing into cliche.

Despite my great enjoyment of the novel, a fitting cover design evaded me for a long while. I tend to gravitate towards designs that are minimal, clean, and sometimes quite stark. All of these qualities seemed to be precisely the wrong direction for this cover, so I knew it would be a challenge from the start.

My first thought was to grab one of the images that stood out the strongest to me in the novel, the yellow walls of the hospital. While I rarely use photos in my cover designs, this book seemed to demand a photographic treatment, so I went searching for something that would fit the content and mood of the book. I found a photo of a hospital gurney in a run-down hospital, in front of bright ochre walls.
Great colours. Not so great decor.
Unfortunately, while there were a couple things I liked about the design, such as the type treatment and that fantastic colour, the overwhelming reaction was that the gurney gave more the impression of a torture chamber than a hospital. Since we weren't promoting the latest Saw flick, this idea was not going to work.

Next attempt: photos of people.
Another issue with the first cover concept was that it didn't represent the human interactions that are necessary to the novel. The broken gurney was definitely too bleak and, while I wouldn't call it sterile, it lacked warmth. My next move was to try to incorporate people, and as Iris, a Malawian nurse, features heavily in the book, I tried a concept based around a photo of a Malawian nurse tending to a patient. However, this cover put a bit too much focus on one character, and since the novel splices together the lives of three main figures, there was a problem with balance. I tried a similar type treatment on the photo and played with the focus, but while it was a striking photo, it wasn't right to represent the whole book. Next.

And we're back to cold and clinical again.
 In my continued search for inspiration, I came across this photo of nurses training in Africa. I thought the image had a great visual impact, but I still wanted to incorporate the yellow wall Wilk describes in the novel. I made a couple attempts at overlaying some yellow graphics, but as the image was too stark and cold again I didn't end up working with this one even long enough to do much with the type. Onto something else. 

That typeface keeps coming back.
With this concept, I was still clinging to the typeface from the first cover, which I thought was fitting in that it's nice and clean but also round enough to avoid being too harsh. I also liked the idea of the text appearing almost in negative with the photo showing through. The photo was again intended to emphasize a more human element, with a nurse treating her patients. However, the photo didn't seem to stand out enough for a cover image and the eye had too many places to look all at once. I was sent back to my photo search once more.

Different character. Same issue. Not representative of the whole book.
As with the photo of the single nurse treating her patient, this shot was deemed too specific to one character. Again, since the photo wasn't working, I didn't do much with the typeface, and quickly changed gears.

I walked away from my design attempts for this cover for a couple days and went back to the book. What could I try that I hadn't yet to reflect something broader about the story. This is when I started looking into photos of Mount Mulanje, which plays a prominent role in the novel, to the point where it almost becomes a character itself.

A couple nights' sleep means a drastic shift in concept.
I found this wonderful photo of the mountain, with the lush greenery in the foreground and mists rising above. While it wasn't a hospital, or even a person, there was something about that image that seemed to speak to the novel and give the right impression of its tone. I thought the way the text interacted with the image was also quite organic, for example the overlay of the word "bone" onto the mountain face. This was working better than anything I'd tried to date, but it was not quite right yet. It was time, at last, to re-visit the type treatment.

And we have a winner!
The final cover (above) used the same image of Mount Mulanje but played up the contrast between the greenery, the mountain and the mists to a greater extent. I drew on the way "bone" played against the mountain to do something similar with "strength," darkening it to give it a more dramatic appearance against the mist. One of my favourite aspects of the type treatment is the way "of" appears out of the mists. Add a blurb at the bottom, and the cover is good to go.

From too harsh hospitals, to human interaction, to more harsh hospitals, this was a long haul of a cover design. In the end, the mountain that looms over the story looms also on the cover. And I think it works.

Keep an eye on this spot for more book covers as they progress start to finish. Hopefully in fewer than nine month intervals this time. I have the best intentions.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Late Night Conversation

In the wake of the Debut-Litzer Prize, you can join winners Anakana Schofield (fiction, Malarky), Benjamin Busch (creative nonfiction, Dust to Dust) and Natalie Diaz (poetry, When My Brother Was an Aztec) as they discuss their work with executive director Paul Martone and reviewer Patrick McGinty. Listen to the podcast here.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Munro's Books

Pssst. For those of you out west, there's a little celebration happening on Thursday night in honour of Alice Munro; if you have a minute, or forty, or three hundred plus, I'd say it's worth going attending. Here's the description (courtesy of Rod Mickleburgh). Go! FĂȘte! Celebrate!

To mark this wonderful moment in our literary history, a few of us have organized a night of appreciation and readings devoted to Alice Munro’s prodigious body of work. The list of speakers/readers is impressive:
Shaena Lambert; Hal Wake; Anakana Schofield; Sandy Garossino; Actor Tom Scholte; Caroline Adderson; Anne Giardini (novelist and Carol Shields’ daughter); Cynthia Flood; Cathleen With; Aislinn Hunter (Alice’s cousin); Betsy Warland; Fiona Lam; Elise Partridge; and me.
Host for the evening is the Globe and Mail’s superb arts correspondent, Marsha Lederman, while the tireless Kerry Gold has been chief motivator.
We are calling the event, Munro’s Books, with the kind permission of her ex-husband, Jim, who runs the great bookstore of that name in Victoria. 
It takes place Thursday night, 7 o’clock, at The Tangent CafĂ©, 2095 Commercial Drive. Snow or no snow. Craft beer on tap. Free admission. Y’all come, now. It should be quite the evening. 
To whet your appetite, here is a 45-minute interview with the great Alice Munro, just posted on the Nobel Prize website.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Cullen in Vancouver Sun; Wilk on 49th Shelf

Afternoon, all, and happy Monday. We've had a lovely weekend chez Windsor, as (much to the balm of our Post-Holiday-Party Heads) there were a couple nice hits for Biblioasis titles. Nancy Jo Cullen's Canary was selected by Mary Ann Moore as one of her favourite reads for 2013 in The Vancouver Sun, while our own Cynthia Flood singled out Lucie Wilk's The Strength of Bone as her holiday gift pick on 49th Shelf. Both lists have lots of great suggestions, from presses big and small. Enjoy!

Oh. And because it wouldn't be me if I didn't say something: Happy Birthday, Milton. Best wishes to that glorious Form, that Light insufferable, And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty—with love from all of us chez Biblioasis

Monday, December 02, 2013

Flood, Wilk in National Post

Morning, all, and happy (Cyber?) Monday. The National Post was full of Biblioasis this weekend, with a piece running on Lucie Wilk's The Strength of Bone, plus what I'd call an all-out love-song to Cynthia Flood's sparse, strange short fiction. Thanks to Steven Beattie for the latter (and for doing his best to debunk the phrase "writer's writer," which as we all know gives with one hand and slaps with the other). "Flood is a highly accomplished stylist," writes Beattie:
whose technique is tightly calibrated and precise ... Anything superfluous is ruthlessly pared away, resulting in a presentation that frequently resembles pointillism ... discrete elements congeal to create something recognizable and aesthetically pleasing, but the whole is utterly dependent on the interaction of its parts: change one thing and the entire piece suffers.
Pretty heady praise to begin with. But then he continues: "The stories in Red Girl Rat Boy are brief, but dense, requiring concentration and attention ... [yet are] as emotionally engaging as any flat-out storyteller."

As for the Wilk review, yes, it was more qualified, more cautious, it eventually moves past its hums and haws to call The Strength of Bone "masterfully literary." Keep an eye out for more Wilk reviews in the coming weeks.

What else is on the horizon? Our second annual Holiday Party is coming up this Friday, with a 10% store-wide discount; we've got hockey events coming out our ears (including Bob Duff at the Walkerville Tavern on the 10th); we have FLASHY NEW T-SHIRTS and more of our FLASHY OLD T-SHIRTS; we hear rumour that Anakana Schofield was positively resplendent at the GG dinner; and and we swear that copies of the new CNQ will be arriving at the doorsteps of subscribers, you poor dear patient much-enduring subscribers, within DAYS. Stay tuned!