Sunday, 16 November 2008

"Please feel free to correct my dyslexia": an Interview with Michael Kellner

"Good design has very little to do with the materials you work with. It has everything to do with the designer's talent."

Last week we looked at the beautiful covers of California-based designer Michael Kellner. He was kind enough to agree to be interviewed, and was thoroughly generous with his time and his experiences. He also pleaded forgiveness for his typos when correcting the interview text (hence the title), but was, in fact, one of the most articulate interviewees I've had in 15 years of writing and editing.

So, without further ado...

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The full dustjacket for James Crumley's The Final Country, for which Michael built a tiny desert set "about the size of a ping-pong table". Click for a bigger version.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: What's your design background? How long have you been doing book design?

MICHAEL KELLNER: I was a self-taught artist before I was a self-taught graphic artist. Like most artists I needed to make an income doing something else. I've worked in factories, and I've worked in movie studios—which are also factories.

Eventually I got a job in a used bookstore. They were still flourishing in the '70s and early '80s, and for about five years I sold and scouted used books, modern first editions, and antiquarian books. I continued to paint, and read a lot of books.

The dustjacket for City of Bones uses one of Michael Kellner's own paintings. Click for a bigger version.

Those were great days in the book trade. I met more interesting people in a month of working in a used bookstore than I've met in any five years ever since. Every kind of person came into a used bookstore, from theoretical physicists to the certifiably insane. They all loved books.

When the used book business started to suffer, I figured I should try doing something else. My only skills are being an artist, so I bluffed my way into a paste-up job at a weekly trade paper in downtown L.A. I didn't even know what paste-up was at the time. Over the next 12-years I freelanced as a production artist and as an illustrator and I learned graphic design on-the-job, and worked my way up the ladder to art directing magazines.

In 1994 I introduced a writer friend to another friend who had some interest in publishing, and together we produced an edition of my friend's short stories [Trips by Charles Fischer]. We sold it out of boxes for $10 a copy and now I see it online for $75 and up. That was the first book I designed, inside and out.

Two years later I was introduced to Dennis McMillan, and I designed my first jacket. It won a design award, of all things.

Kent Anderson's Night Dogs, published by Dennis McMillan in 1996, and winner of the Anthony Award for Best Cover

For the next 10 years I designed jackets for Dennis McMillan Publications and I got a couple of gigs from New York. But I was also working full-time at magazines up until 2003. Since then I’ve been trying to make it on my own again.

CCC: Most of the photographs you use in your book covers are new pictures (often by Christopher Voelker), rather than stock images. What’s your feeling about the current fashion for slapping Getty images on every cover?

MK: I use stock images when they make sense to use, when I can find what I’m looking for, and I can afford to buy them. But I've also altered these a good deal so far.

In any case, no good designer "slaps" a stock image onto a cover. A good designer doesn't slap anything together, and a stock image can be exactly the right image you need. There are many terrific photographers who sell work through stock houses. There's nothing bad about stock images. There's only bad design. Good design has very little to do with the materials you work with. It has everything to do with the designer's talent.

CCC: Many of the books you’ve designed have a definite noir style. Is this a genre you’re particularly into, and if so, what makes it fun to design for?

MK: I almost never read crime, mystery, or detective fiction. I don’t have anything against it; I’m just into other stuff. But who I've read in the genre that I really like, are Chandler (I reread his books about every five years); Hammett (who I think is a better writer of American prose than Hemingway, and ultimately more influential); Charles Willeford (who's unconscionably under-appreciated in American letters); and I've read some Kenneth Fearing, Jim Tully, Horace McCoy, James Cain, Jim Thompson... But 95% of what I read is what you'd call literature rather than [genre] fiction. I started reading Kafka when was I was 15, so, you know, I just took a different path. I read for the language; for prose more than plot, and genre-fiction, as you know, is very plot-driven.

The dustjacket for Rick DeMarinis' A Clod of Wayward Marl: "Because this novel occupies two very different worlds—pulp fiction writing, and academia—I offered readers a choice of two front covers, each relating to one of those two worlds."

What makes designing for genre fiction fun, is not thinking of it as a genre fiction at all. I think of these books as novels; a writer's hard work to write a good book. And I think of a reader's enthusiasm for reading that book.

The beautiful cover for the Dennis McMillan story anthology Measures of Poison, from 2002: winner of another Anthony Award and also an award from PRINT Magazine’s 2002 Design Annual

I like writers enormously; most of my friends are writers. And I worked for twenty years with many fine editors, writers, and reporters. I always try to honor the intentions of the author, and give readers something exciting, attractive, cool to look at. I design jackets for readers.

Charles Willeford's 1973 essay The Ubiquitous Roach Clip, designed by Michael Kellner as one leaf folded to make four pages, laid into a printed envelope: published by Santa Barbara: Pride of Tacoma Press in 2003

I read constantly, and I hate reading a book that's got a lousy cover. I guess I’m snobby that way, or I don't know exactly what to call it. But a book that's badly designed, it's just hard to pick it up, even when it's a book I want to read. I feel bad for the book and for the author and for myself as a reader.

Another Pride of Tacoma publication designed by Michael, for a limited edition of 250: Anderson's account of a Ku Klux Klan rally in Hannibal, Missouri in 1981.

CCC: The work you do for long-established small press Dennis McMillan seems to mean you get to use production elements in your book design that have long vanished from the mass book market—things like quality Morocco and cloth bindings, marbled endpapers, etc. What’s it like to have access to these sorts of quality materials, above and beyond the design of the dust jacket itself?

MK: I make requests of the artist who creates the marbled-papers; I ask for a certain pattern and a specific palette. I select the paper for the end-sheets, and the cloth for the cloth editions, but since it has to be something already stocked, the choices are limited. That's the only part I'm involved in, but obviously it's a treat to make those choices. The twelve-course meal of designing jackets for Dennis McMillan Publications is the result of having earned the right to a free hand.

The jacket for the short story collection Monkology: "This jazz allusion inspired me to design the jacket as a classic jazz album, with the stories listed like song titles on the back and a record on the flaps... In fact, a CD of the author reading several of the stories to the accompaniment of a jazz combo is included in a map-pocket on the inside back board." Click for a bigger version.

CCC: What are you working on after the Voelker ‘Nudes’ collection [coming out in 2009]?

MK: I've got three or four more titles for Dennis, and I'm finally starting to get work from more publishers; books that sell at your local chain. I've been doing some business books as well as novels. I've designed for non-fiction before, and I think designing magazines has been great experience for jacket design. Any feature story in a magazine is essentially a book compressed into a very abbreviated space. The lead art and type design are often very like a book cover, and I've designed stories on hundreds of topics in my career; from business stories to war reporting, personal essays, articles on historical subjects, pieces on the movies and television, food and wine, travel, so forth. I have my preferences, but I can't think of a subject I'd feel at a loss for designing as a book jacket.

Some of Michael's magazine covers and interior spreads

CCC: What's your favorite rejected cover?

I was assigned the cover for David Foster Wallace's story collection, Oblivion. I just about fell over, because if there's anything I want to be doing, feel that I ought to be doing, it's designing covers for the kinds of books I like to read, and this was just flat-out fantastic. I was thrilled.

I received the stories in manuscript and they just blew my mind. They were bleak and funny, and so closely observed—hyper-observed—that they rendered human behavior, emotion, and motivation in fearless, fearsome detail. They're astonishing stories. As I read, I got a very strong sense of what unified these stories, and I had an idea of how to convey it visually.

I knew that Wallace was teaching out here at Pomona College, so I gave him a call at his office. We spoke briefly, and I asked if there was anything he wanted to say about the cover design. That was a great day for me. He said, "Wow, no one's ever asked me before. It's very nice of you."

At any rate, he didn't weigh in on the cover, but I had an idea I was keen on. I hired a brilliant Photoshop artist I know, to create an illustration for me. It's an eyeball, and I wanted it to look real but not so real that it was nauseating or too creepy. I wanted an eyeball that looked believable but artful and beautiful: a big, mute eyeball—an eye that can never shut, it can only keep on seeing.
I designed a cover with the eyeball at rest in an indeterminate white space, casting the elliptical shadow on a surface in perspective. I sent in my comp and waited to hear from the art director.

The AD wrote back, "I love it!!!! It's fantastic!" He said he’d show it at the Thursday cover meeting. When I heard back again, I was told it went very well. Everyone sort of held their breath (this was represented to me positively) and a long silence ensued. There was a good feeling in the room, I was told. They were "wowed" by it.

Later, the marketing people spoke up. "It's arresting," they said. That was the word. And they didn't think "arresting" was a good thing, which confused me. I'm thinking, gee, how can "arresting" be bad for a book cover? Doesn't that mean it makes you stop and look at it? And if you stop and look, maybe you'll pick it up, and if you pick it up, maybe you'll read the back or the flap copy, and maybe you'll buy the book. That's what I thought; and I knew my cover, cool and minimal in its imagery, resonated with what Wallace was doing in his stories.

I lobbied very hard for that cover, but a whole round of notes came and went and I did everything that was asked of me, with many changes of direction, and it became clear that they didn't know what they wanted. Finally the AD called to say that he really loved my first cover, he was sorry for all the indecision and so forth, and he guessed it was time to move on. Which just killed me. I wanted that cover so much. It’s been my only chance to do what I think I should be doing.

Eventually Oblivion was published, and they'd done a simple type treatment—they kept my Bernhard Modern font—and that was fine with me. Then the New York Times Book Review published its review, and the headline and deck were as follows:

"Staring Either Absently or Intently: The narrator of David Foster Wallace's stories is aware of everything, all the time."

And I'll be damned if that isn't the nearest thing you could possibly write to describe my design concept. The review even began with the word "One", and sure enough they illustrated the drop cap to look something like an eyeball...

I felt vindicated. I also felt worse than ever about losing that cover. And not just for myself. It was a great book by writer I deeply admire. I can't tell you how much I wanted that cover! And now David Wallace is gone. And the epilogue is that the illustration I art directed and paid $1000 out of my own pocket for is on the Home page of my web portfolio. End of story.

CCC: What would your dream book be to work on, from any era, if you had complete creative control?

MK: Okay, you asked. My dream book is the jacket of Thomas Pynchon's new novel. Pynchon has been my favorite writer for over thirty years. To my mind, he’s the best American novelist of any time, period. I won't bore—or maybe scare—you with all the details... But, I'm extremely excited about a new Pynchon novel coming out next summer. I can't wait to read it. The minute I heard he had a new book, I sent an email to the AD at his publisher. It was totally a note in a bottle. I wrote that I'd work for free. I said I'd pay them. After all, you don't put a price on your dreams, right?
Thomas Pynchon's only recent public appearance, on 'The Simpsons'

CCC: Are there any other book designers do you admire?

MK: There are lots of book designers whose work I admire. There are designs of staggering cleverness and genius. But I honestly don’t spend much time looking around the room to see what anyone else is doing. A kind of self-preserving amnesia erases these episodes of awe and envy. I try to just feel encouraged; but I also climb back into my head with a very loud, tearing-away-from-the-curb kind of sound ringing in my ears: “Do Better Work!!!”

Another DeMarinis cover for Dennis McMillan: "An offbeat novel set in Santa Fe with a sun-damaged appearance appropriate to the locale."

Books have been looking better and better every year for a decade, but the business is changing, and who knows what the future—supposing we get to have one—will be like?

An early Kellner: a limited edition printing of a James Crumley screenplay, with a simple circular pattern evoking both a target and the pattern on the base of a bullet shell

Parenthetically, I think design has—almost across the board, but especially print graphic design—long ago surpassed fine art for conceptual rigor and innovation, skill, beauty, chance-taking, and influence. I’ve been persuaded of this myself, and feel much less inclined to spend time making art, than trying to design interesting, challenging, and beautiful things.

CCC: Ever been asked to design/cover/illustrate a book you couldn't stand?

MK: Nope. But I know what my answer is. There are jobs I wouldn't touch with a barge pole. I'd rather lay out supermarket fliers.

CCC: Thank you, Mr Kellner!


Ian Koviak said...

Well, what can I say. Very delightful to read. Thanks Michael and CCC. Good one and keep up the stellar work. A Pynchon novel is coming to you soon via MK—I already see it...

JRSM said...

He was a great interviewee. And thanks again for putting me onto his work in the first place!

Anonymous said...

Michael is an amazing artist and designers. I have had the privilege of working with him & Voelker as a makeup artist on many of his covers. I am always proud to showcase in my portfolio.

Anonymous said...

Michael is an amazing artist and designer. I have had the privilege of working with him & Voelker as a makeup artist on many of his covers. Which I am always proud to showcase in my portfolio.

JRSM said...

Thanks for that, Melanie: some really lovely stuff there. And you're an ex-(temporary)-Australian!

Anonymous said...

Michael Kellner is the only designer/AD that ALWAYS produces a true original. His standards are high, his attention to detail and his research on the subject he is illustrating is cerebral magic. Pynchon would be delighted for sure to have his next novel designed by the most insightful & wildly creative designer, pocket watch and all. I doubt there are many designers that take a week off to be one of the first to consume his latest book. Mr. Pynchon your designer is waiting with a great visual representation of your next upcoming & much anticipated book, make a dream come true..

JRSM said...

The challenge is there. Mr Pynchon (and his editors/publishers)--are you man enough to accept?

PS: Mr Voelker, your photographs are amazing. Great stuff.