Monday, 16 August 2010

'A Sigh of Relief': An Interview with Bob Fingerman and Peter Lutjen

Bob Fingerman's From the Ashes, a 'speculative memoir' in comic form about Bob and his wife's adventures in post-apocalypse New York, was one of my favourite books from last year. With his new novel, Pariah, just out, he and book designer Peter Lutjen agreed to talk about comics, book design, art and 1950s Italian motorscooters.

* * *

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: First of all, Bob, you've been writing both novels and comics, with Pariah just coming out now, and From the Ashes last year. Do you prefer one form over the other?

BOB FINGERMAN: I took a fairly protracted break from drawing this year, only recently returning to the board. I like them equally, I think, but writing seems to be the direction I'm headed professionally. I like telling stories.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: I get the impression that, like me, you've read/watched a lot of end of the world stories, and are always on the lookout for more. Is it as satisfying as I suspect to actually write one?

BOB FINGERMAN: I am obsessed with apocalyptic entertainment, so doing it is a lot of fun. The recent cinematic offerings were a mixed bag. I hated 'The Book of Eli', but thought 'The Road' was quite good. Have you ever seen 'The Bed Sitting Room'? The film just came out on DVD in the UK, so I ordered it. I enjoyed it. Many years of wanting to see it and finally got to. It's very much in the Beckett/Ionesco camp. More absurdist than ha-ha funny.

But then, Pariah, apparently, is funnier than I'd thought. The critics all seem to embrace the dark humor. It's innate in what I do, I guess.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Now, Peter Lutjen designed Pariah. When you've designed so many of your own comic books, how is it handing that control over to someone else?

BOB FINGERMAN: It's luck of the draw. I have author friends who've been saddled with awful covers--just the worst. And generally, authors seldom get cover-approval in their contract. I didn't, but my editor, Eric Raab, was very sensitive to my background and kept me in the loop, so I had some say in fine-tuning Pariah's cover. But it was just little picayune things. It's all Peter's design and I am thrilled. Really, the first design I was sent I sighed with relief. He nailed it in one.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: And Peter, what is it like working with an author like Bob, who is also an artist and who has designed many of their own books in the past?

PETER LUTJEN: Bob and I didn't actually speak until after the jacket was close to finalized. Up 'til that point everything was passed through his editor. I didn't find out until later that Bob had done his own cover design in the past, which was fortunate as it might've added a layer of anxiety to the project had I known. I did look at his earlier books though, which were primarily graphic novels, and with Pariah being a prose novel I wanted to distinguish it from the others and decided early on to go with a photographic treatment rather than illustration.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Do you work solely for Tor, or do you do freelance work elsewhere?

PETER LUTJEN: As far as book jackets, I've done a few for other publishers, but it's essentially just Tor (and Forge, our non-SF/fantasy imprint). But I keep busy with lots of odd jobs -- letterheads and business cards, club flyers, brochures, etc.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: What's your background as a designer? How did you get into book design?

PETER LUTJEN: In a very roundabout kind of way. Growing up I spent a lot of time in record stores and clubs and had a summer radio show at a local university, and figured that would eventually lead to a career in the music industry. But during college I interned at a large indie label that put out a lot of the music that I loved, and I quickly realized that I hated the business side of music. I switched my major to philosophy, and after graduation worked in a record store for a year while I figured out what I wanted to do.

A number of my friends were taking jobs with publishers and seemed happy, so I went for a general interview with St. Martin's Press (Tor's parent company at the time) and liked the idea of an opening they had for an assistant in the art department. But I was thrown a bit off balance by my interview with Tor's art director (who I later learned would be leaving within weeks of my hiring). I knew that St. Martin's published the popular Let's Go! series of travel guides, so when I was told about the position in the Tor Books division I thought I'd heard tour books. I expected a bright office with posters of European landmarks, but was brought into a dark room filled with toy guns. We talked a bit about the position, but also about religious upbringing, dating, and other unconventional interview topics. During a brief walk through the offices I couldn't figure out why painting of spaceships and dragons were hanging everywhere. It wasn't until she gave me her business card at the end of the interview that I figured out what was going on.

I suppose I was able to mask my confusion well enough, as I started soon afterwards. That first job didn't involve any original design work, but I was enjoying it and enrolled in evening classes in design and typography at Parsons and eventually moved into design.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: How about you, Bob? How did you get end up as a comics writer and artist?

BOB FINGERMAN: I didn't read that many comic books as a kid, but the ones I read had a profound influence, it seems. It was a natural progression. I attended an art high school, but took Illustration as my major, because it seemed more serious and respectable. But I gravitated to doing comics. I never had any use for superheroes. I read the occasional Spider-Man or Iron Man, but that's about it. I had a Big Little Book of Fantastic Four—a chunky squarish book with full-page illustrations and text--and didn't even realize they were comic book characters until years later.

(The covers of two comics by the child Bob--the whole works are available at his blog)

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: The default setting for most SF/fantasy covers still tends to be literal paintings (digital or otherwise) of scenes from the book, whereas many of Peter's covers tend towards the style of "literary fiction", with abstract or tangential takes on the book's subject or style. Is this sort of work harder to get accepted by a genre publisher?

PETER LUTJEN: Not as much as it used to be. When I first started we were doing that traditional look almost exclusively, but when Irene Gallo took over as art director following the departure of my interviewer she really made the case for an updated style. I have a pretty good sense now going into a project what sort of look is going to make it through the approval process. An epic fantasy will usually require a pretty specific treatment, whereas we'll have a bit more leeway with, say, an urban fantasy.

BOB FINGERMAN: Well, these days there's too much Photoshop about. Some very good books have been tarnished with bad jackets. Too many try to ape contemporary movie poster design. Big head and inset scene of some background element. Then, either desaturate over oversaturate the color. Are you familiar with the cover artist Richard Powers? Powers was amazing. And one of, if not the first, to do sci-fi covers that weren't literal. Prolific, too. He did well over 1500 covers.

(Some of Richard Powers's many SF covers)

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Looking at collaboration, Peter, you must have worked with many different artists to create the final covers: what's the normal process here? Is it collaborative at every stage, or do you direct them with a specific brief, or is there another way you prefer to work?

PETER LUTJEN: I wouldn't say that I necessarily have a particular preference, and it varies from project to project. Some of our artists will read the manuscript and provide us with a few sketches that we'll do some preliminary design work on and we'll go back and forth until we nail something down; other times we'll have a layout or scene in mind in advance and give a specific brief. For those interested in how an artist might approach a fantasy cover project, there's a fascinating look at the process by Greg Manchess, who's done a lot of great work for us, here.

BOB FINGERMAN: I completely designed From the Ashes, and the few "tweaks" their designer inflicted on my design were all for the worse, included adding the only typo on the whole book because he had a problem with hyphenated words. But I've been fortunate. My book Connective Tissue was my art, but the designer, Jacob Covey, completed it with his design and I was delighted. I really admire Jacob's work.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: What are some recent covers of which you're most proud? What about older work?

PETER LUTJEN: Well, I'm really happy with the way Pariah turned out. The trade paperback edition is particularly nice with French flaps and rough cut pages. Visually, I tend to be most proud of the simple, bold, graphic, covers.

I like this Isaac Asimov reissue series that we recently wrapped up.

Of course, not everything I do in that style goes to press. Here are a few favorites that weren't used:

But I can be equally satisfied with a cover that I might not be personally thrilled with from a design standpoint when I find out that it made a notoriously difficult-to-please author happy, or helped bring in a larger than expected order from Barnes and Noble.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Bob, what books would you push on people if you had the chance? What should they be reading?

BOB FINGERMAN: I don't read many comics these days. My favorites working now have been for ages. Are you familiar with Jean "Moebius" Giraud? He's my idol. He's doing fantastic work to this day. His Inside Moebius series of books was astonishing. Moebius is a genius. Most of my fave comics artists are French. Nicolas De Crecy. Tardi. Boucq. Amazing talents. I am sitting here with a copy of a book that arrived today called Rand Holmes: The Artist Himself. He was a lesser known underground cartoonist.

Just finished a recent Chuck Palahniuk--Palahniuk tends to get decent covers.. He's a favorite of mine. My hero is Philp K. Dick. Terry Southern is another. Bruce Jay Friedman. Donald Westlake. All great for different reasons. With Westlake, I've yet to read any of the Stark books. But I've read about forty or so under his own name, so I'm pretty well-versed. He was amazing. I'm just about to start a Joe R. Lansdale. He, too, is varied and very, very good.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Peter? Is there any neglected book you'd love to draw to people's attention as something they should seek out?

PETER LUTJEN: "Neglected" is probably the wrong word for this one since it won the National Book Award, but I don't think I've ever met anyone who's read William Gaddis's A Frolic of His Own. It must be 15 years since I've read it, and I remember it as being fairly dense and difficult to get into initially but hilariously, absurdly brilliant once I was able to adjust to its rhythms, and it regularly had me laughing out loud on the subway. I love the title, which was taken from a 19th century English court decision regarding whether an employer can be held liable for an employee's actions when the employee is off on "a frolic of his own."


BOB FINGERMAN: Two books are in the hopper. The sequel to Pariah and The Hell of It (working title). I am waiting to hear from my agent which, if either, is a sale. And I have several more in mind. Right now, mostly genre stuff. With a twist... or edge... or something. That Fingerman touch.

(A prepatory sketch by Bob for The Hell of It)

PETER LUTJEN: Right now I'm working on a large, long-term project for a shop that specializes in the repair and restoration of Italian motorscooters from the '50s and '60s--a catalog of the thousands of parts they carry to keep these machines on the road. I've been looking at the catalog work that Ladislav Sutnar did in the '40s and '50s for inspiration.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: And Peter, if you could design, inside and out, without budget limitations, any book from the history of literature, what would it be?

PETER LUTJEN: Tough one. I actually don't find "without limitations" appealing -- I sort of prefer the challenge of working within certain limitations. I don't anticipate it entering the history of literature, but the catalog I mentioned earlier is a really exciting job for me right now. It's so unlike anything I've worked on before and requires thinking about things in a totally different way from what I'm used to.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Thank you, Bob and Peter!


Susan Scofield said...

HA! I have Spaceman Blues... I had never heard of it, I bought it because I liked the cover!! That's awesome.

Skid Maher said...

I have to say, that is a pretty badass cover on Pariah.

August said...

Great interview. I've seen some of Peter Lutjen's work before, and really enjoyed it.

And then I read this:

"The trade paperback edition is particularly nice with French flaps and rough cut pages."

And I died a little inside.

JRSM said...

Not a fan, then? Peter did say some people hate them. If it helps, the hardback has no flaps or rough-cut pages!

Bob Fingerman said...

Those deckle edges, man. They're the wedge issue of bibliophiles. Thanks again for featuring us here. And August, the hardcover is super sweet (and smooth).

August said...

I don't much care for hardcovers either. ;)

My problems with French flaps and deckle edges is purely practical: with the flaps, books tend to have tighter bindings and greater weight at the end of the page, making it far more difficult to keep the book from snapping shut on you when reading with one hand, or resting it on the couch, or what have you. I've lost my place in dozens of books hundreds of times that way.

And deckle edges just make page turning a huge pain in rear. I turn pages for a living (no, really; I scan public domain books for the Internet Archive, 4,000 pages a day), and I am *forever* grabbing two or three pages when I mean to grab one when the pages are rough cut. It's frustrating at my job; imagine how frustrating it gets when I'm trying to unwind with a book and the same thing keeps happening.

I go out of my way to avoid both those 'features' every time, even if it means I have to buy the ugly edition (as with Gravity's Rainbow).

Tulkinghorn said...

Deckle edges come from faux gentility: trying to ape the effect of cut pages, which, unless you do it well (use a playing card or other stiffer piece of paper) come out all torn looking.....

Kind of like buying a club chair with pre-distressed leather.

I could get into books with uncut pages in a big way.... but it's not happening.

Peter said...

Apologies for the flaps and edges, August! It's funny, I'm sort of opposed to deckled edges in principle, but in practice they never really bother me. In this case I thought they were nicely suggestive of the old rough brickwork and mortar that I imagine on the building on the front of the cover. So much of what I read for work is on loose manuscript pages that reading in any other format is a pleasure.

Thanks for the feature JRSM, and the kind comments everyone else.

Bob Fingerman said...

Uh, yeah. Let's not let deckle edges get in the way of what's important: people should read Pariah!

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