Monday 24 January 2011

Getting Paid to Draw Dinosaurs: An Interview with Christopher King

Having raved recently over the wonderful cover design work coming from Melville House (on absolutely amazing books, I might add), I thought it would be good to interview the publisher's new art director, Christopher King, and he kindly agreed to make the time.

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

CHRISTOPHER KING: My strongest interests when I was a kid were cartooning and paleontology. The dinosaur part didn't work out (I somehow failed to anticipate the viability of dinosaur comics), but I kept on drawing, and ended up studying graphic design at the University of North Texas, which has one of the most competitive art schools in the Southwestern US and which was, conveniently, close to my hometown of Fort Worth. I think my intention when I started was eventually to pursue editorial design, but being a bit of a bookworm, I decided to enroll in some literature classes, and they led to a real passion for great writers as well as a burgeoning interest in book design. I caught a lucky break when Rodrigo Corral asked me to intern at his studio in New York, and after that experience I knew I wanted to keep designing books. I moved to New York full time a year later to work in the art department at Doubleday, and since then I've also worked at St. Martin's Press and on my own as a freelancer. Last summer I took over as art director of Melville House, and, as I'm reminded on a daily basis, it's pretty much the best job ever.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Does working for a small, independent press give you more leeway for experimenting with cover designs? You don't have an army of sales reps and middle management to get interesting ideas past.

CHRISTOPHER KING: Well, we work with a distributor, so we actually do have a small army of (exceptionally smart and hardworking) sales reps, and they provide feedback on the covers at our seasonal sales meetings. You're right though—I do enjoy a great amount of freedom to experiment with ideas for the covers. Any designer who's ever faced the firing squad (a.k.a., packaging meetings) could appreciate what a relief it is to seek approval only from our two publishers, who are, remarkably, willing to indulge just about all of my harebrained schemes, and who are almost never heard to say, "make the title bigger."

Another difference is that I'm never asked to make a book "look" like a certain category or to directly copy another title, which most designers would probably agree is all too common in commercial publishing—one will notice that most American YA books now look like Twilight, and I'd be surprised if thrillers don't all start to look like imitations of the Millenium series in short order, based on the success of Peter Mendelsund's covers.. I think at Melville House we've found a niche in breaking from the norm, and I'm always encouraged to make our books stand out from the pack rather than blend in. As a designer it's a really exciting opportunity.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Melville House books almost never use stock images, going for new illustrative work or pure text. Can you talk a little about the decisions behind this?

CHRISTOPHER KING: This is definitely a case of using a little elbow grease to spin a limitation into an asset. Working at a small scale, our budget for art is limited, so, with some exceptions, I create most of the elements for the covers myself. It's a fun and rewarding way to work because it forces you to be resourceful, and it requires a level of thoughtfulness in your approach to the covers that you can't easily escape by finding a readymade image. In the end that thoughtfulness helps our books appeal to the kind of readers we're after. 

All of this means that when we do buy art for the covers, it's only in cases where it's especially meaningful or has the largest impact—for example, for our collection of final dispatches by the late Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose assassination is widely assumed to be linked to her reporting on the Putin administration, the cover features a striking photograph of the author by a Swedish photographer named Maria Söderberg. We'd kicked a few ideas around, but nothing seemed to work until I came across this photo. She looks so elegant, but there's a gravity in her eyes that betrays the magnitude of the atrocities she'd witnessed in Chechnya and elsewhere.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Are your beautiful Derek Raymond covers inspired by Marber? Who are your design heroes?

CHRISTOPHER KING: There's a whole soup of design references behind the Melville International Crime series, and mid-century Penguin covers are definitely a key ingredient—but in this case the Helvetica treatment is also intended to evoke the soullessness of Thatcherite Britain (think Trainspotting), which is the setting and subject of Raymond's novels. The biggest direct influence on the crime series as a whole, though, is Saul Bass's work with Alfred Hitchcock in the 1960s. That was an era when thrillers could be suspenseful and action-packed, sure, but they were smart too. So, while rehashing Bass's aesthetic wouldn't be productive (it's too emblematic of a specific period), his conceptual approach seems perfectly suited to this set of brainy international novels. It's a way of thinking about the genre that somehow got buried with the '60s, but it feels just as fresh now as it did then, and so I've tried to approach all the books in the series the way Bass might if he were working today.

As for design heroes, I have a whole pantheon of them, but I really admire designers whose work is always packed with smart ideas. Olly Moss's work is so simple, but so profoundly surprising and clever that the only possible response is to wonder why you didn't think of it first. Jason Munn of The Small Stakes and Jason Kernevich and Dustin Summers of The Heads of State crank out brilliant ideas at a rate that is frankly alarming, and Sam Potts's work boggles the mind.

Digging back in history a bit, George Lois achieved the kind of immediacy in his work, for Esquire especially, that I'm always striving for with my covers. I make no attempt to disguise the influence of pictorial modernists like the Beggarstaff brothers and Ludwig Hohlwein in my illustration work (Nazi propaganda aside), and the art and lettering created by the artists of the WPA during the Depression sneak in there sometimes too. And if the central challenge of designing a cover is to distill an entire story into a single compelling image, no one did it better than Norman Rockwell (although Adrian Tomine's New Yorker covers give him a run for his money).

Finally, I've had the great fortune to work alongside a lot of book designers whose talents far exceed mine, all of whom have left their mark in one way or another, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention them here: Rodrigo Corral, Ben Wiseman, Christopher Brand, John Fontana, Emily Mahon, and Greg Mollica, plus Steve Snider, Henry Yee, LeeAnn Falciani, Jason Ramirez, Rob Grom, and the rest of the gang at St. Martin's. And of course, my predecessor at Melville House, Kelly Blair, left enormous shoes to fill, and I only hope we can continue to live up to the standard she set.

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

CHRISTOPHER KING: The Lake was one of the first covers I tackled at Melville House and it presented a tough challenge, because the book is so hard to characterize—on the one hand, it's a simple, uplifting love story about two people overcoming grief through their love for each other. But on the other hand, there are elements of despair and dark mysticism. And although Banana Yoshimoto's writing has a quiet, literary quality, it's also accessible and broadly appealing. It took a number of tries to get the balance of all these elements right—first it was too dark, then too quiet, and so on—but I'm really happy with the finished jacket. Also, I can say without hesitation that The Lake is one of the best books I've ever worked on, and I think this one's going to blow up in a pretty major way.

Poetry After 9/11 was the first book Melville House ever published, and I got to design the package for a new edition, which will be released this fall to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the attacks and of our company. I wanted to communicate the book's central message—that there's still beauty after tragedy—with a cover that's sober and respectful, yet transcendent as well. One thing everyone remembers from that day is the image of papers raining down over the city, and my original instinct was to run a photo of them on the cover. But during the course of my research, I hit on a slightly different idea. I decided to ask my friend, the talented photographer Eric Ryan Anderson, to take on the challenge of capturing a stack of paper blowing away in the wind, and the image he created is so profoundly moving that it still leaves me speechless.

Among earlier work, Idiot America is a book I designed for the inimitable John Gall at Vintage last year, and it was a dream come true in more ways than one: as a huge NPR nerd, getting to work on a Charlie Pierce book is something akin to being an extra in your favorite actor's movie. But this cover also represented the fruition of all my childhood ambitions (see question 1). Needless to say, if you told my five-year-old self he would actually get paid to draw dinosaurs someday, he'd probably pee his pants.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: What yet-to-be announced books are you currently designing covers for (if you're allowed to say)?

CHRISTOPHER KING: I've just wrapped up the catalog for Fall 2011, and I'm still in the dark about what the next list has in store, so I'm curious about what's coming myself—I always feel a bit like a kid on Christmas when we launch our new titles and I find out what I'll be working on for the next few months. I do know that we have some really exciting projects in development for the tenth anniversary of Melville House in 2012, but I don't think I can say quite yet what they'll be.... 

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: If you could persuade Dennis, Melville's publisher, to let you design, inside and out, without budget limitations, any book from the history of literature, what would it be?

CHRISTOPHER KING: This one's tricky, because I'm probably too close to my favorite books to be able to approach them objectively, but for years now I've been telling anyone who will listen that I'd love to do a thorough job of The Sound and the Fury, the kind of sturdy hardcover you'd keep with you for the rest of your life. That said, the book itself is already so visual—the type changing with each fleeting memory, and all those stark pages when Faulkner finally dispenses with sentences and punctuation altogether—that it barely needs designing. 

And while there are countless editions of Walden out there already, I'd like to see someone publish Thoreau's work as a more fully realized set, with the books and major essays as well as selections from the journals, in a really elegant, timeless design and with beautiful illustrations throughout. 

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

CHRISTOPHER KING: Honestly, my colleagues are much better at finding these things than I am, so I'll defer to them: this is exactly the concept behind our new series, the Neversink Library, which aims to revive significant works of twentieth-century literature that have become neglected and fallen out of print. We have eight titles lined up for 2011, and I think readers will be shocked they don't know more about these books and their authors—that's been my reaction, anyway. Two of my favorites are After Midnight by Irmgard Keun and The War with the Newts by Karel Čapek, both of which were written in Europe during the years before the war and present a completely unexpected view of the politics of that era. 

Helping to bring important books like these to a wider audience is the reason I got into book design in the first place, and I feel really lucky to get to do it for a living. I'm having a blast and learning a lot working on all of these titles, and I hope it's evident when you see them on the shelf.



Amy L. Campbell said...

I love these. I think sometimes designers go a little too complicated with their covers. Also I've added "Idiot America" to my reading list based solely on the cover, which is something I rarely do. Washington on a dinosaur, brilliant.

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Beth said...

Wonderful covers indeed--and a good interview, too. Thanks!

Will said...

I am blown away by the covers for the Raymond books (it's like someone created the book covers of my dreams), the Poetry After 9/11 cover is breathtaking, the Capek is perfect (even his designer brother would agree), and I think the cover for The Craigslist Murders could make it a bestseller. Thanks so much for the interview. Will @ Journey Round.

H3NR7 said...

Great interview Chris. Your work is looking beautiful.
POETRY AFTER 9/11 is stunning.
Good one.

Ian Koviak said...

Holy shit! Great work and interview! That 9/11 poetry book cover is super. Idiot America, Lake, Craigslist Murders—all of it—super stuff.

apnasindh said...

Dinosaurs is very dangerous i have seen many movie of them such as Anaconda . well this is very informative topic .. thanks for sharing it