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Friday Book Design Blog: Leaving The Sea, by Ben Marcus

Jonathan Gibbs

marcus leaving the sea flam Friday Book Design Blog: Leaving The Sea, by Ben Marcus
There was no contest as to my favourite book cover of 2012 – Peter Mendelsund’s trompe l’oeil marvel for Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet. What better way to tempt people in to this strange, unclassifiable novel about a virus carried by the spoken language of children than these hyper-real paper cut flames, both carrying and devouring the three slips of text, like fortunes from fortune cookies?

Well, now we have the follow-up, a set of stories from Marcus entitled Leaving The Sea, and it’s equally delicious: vibrant, abstract and tactile, leaping off the object to grab your attention, at once childlike and darkly sophisticated. I asked Mendelsund to give an insight into the makings of this project, and he generously agreed – and was most generous in his answers.

(Most gratifyingly, for a layperson like me, the American Mendelsund is no trained graphic designer, but rather a concert pianist who slipped into this second career very much by accident – you have to hope he finds time to play still in his current roles as the Associate Art Director of Alfred A. Knopf Books and Art Director of Pantheon Books and Vertical Press…)

First, I asked him about the first book, and if Marcus had liked it.

“Initially, I was trying to create a cover for The Flame Alphabet that would depict or correspond to the world Ben describes in his novel (a world which is incredibly cryptic and unnerving). I wasn’t particularly interested in making a pretty book jacket.

“It was only after Ben and I spoke in person about his prior experiences with the publishing process and the difficulties of the literary marketplace that things dramatically changed course.

“After this conversation it occurred to me that Ben required a different kind of assistance from his jacket—by which I mean that rather than some kind of visual exegesis, he needed (I concluded) a graphical charm offensive in the form of an enticing, decorative jacket.

“But: ‘Enticing, decorative jackets’ weren’t—and aren’t—really, my bag. Cute, nice looking jackets kind of irritate me. There are so any of them out there these days… I can’t see why they’d be interesting to make. So it was a bit hard for me to put aside my scruples (or prejudices) here and try to make something that was just ornamental. Once I decided that this was the way to go, the idea for the jacket’s pattern emerged quickly (and emerged accidentally: the “flames” were supposed to be feathers—I was trying to make the book into a bird. but the pattern looked better upside down as flames. Which made the jacket doubly reprehensible—it was both a bit vapid, and overly literal)

“But I showed it. And when Ben saw it he liked it a lot, and so did his friends and relatives. I’m guessing that it must have come as something of a relief for someone like

“Ben, whose writing is mind-blowingly ingenious, but whose work is not exactly cuddly, to have a cover that was, is, (I hope) unapologetically inviting. (‘It’s decorative,’ I told him by way of preparation— and by way of apology—’like wallpaper.’)”

Well, I’m glad he liked it. A lot of people liked it – but did that make it harder to come up with something for the book of stories? Was there added pressure?

“I am an idiot. The fact that people seemed to like the Flame Alphabet jacket should have made my job so much easier when it came to Leaving The Sea, but, again, neurotically, I tried, at first, to interpret the book. I was convinced at first that the package for Leaving the Sea should echo the title story, and that the jacket should perform some sort of radically transformative act. And so at first I made a package in which (and this is kind of hard to describe) most of the text leaves the jacket and crawls onto the page-ends. Printing directly onto the edges of the pages was too expensive an option though, so I never discussed this direction with Ben.

“As soon as I knew that this production technique wasn’t viable, I thought, well, ok, now what, and mostly out of laziness I ended up doing the same thing as TFA all over again: the ole tried-and-true layers-of-colored-shapes technique, the whole time feeling pretty indolent and lame repeating myself in this way. Now, after the fact, it seems like the obvious solution. But I never arrive at the obvious thing first, or even easily. I wish I did.

“And as a footnote here, now the Ben’s books have a kind of brand, he’d better incorporate some other element into the title of his next book or I’m screwed. (The Air Diaries. The Earth Kerfuffle.)”

I asked about the paper cut process – it didn’t seem like something I’d noticed elsewhere in his work (which you can see on his website)

“I should mention, The Flame Alphabet was made out of cut paper only at first. As soon as I scanned the paper cutouts I had made, the result, maddeningly, ceased to look like paper. I hate to admit this, but the entire jacket ended up an unholy hodgepodge of scans, photoshop work, indesign drop shadows, and vectors. It took a ton of work in ‘post’.” ['post' meaning post-production, I guess - JG]

Finally, I asked if Mendelsund had a favourite design book – in part as a nod to his own book which is coming out this August, What We See When We Read. (In fact, Mendelsund has TWO books coming out that day, from different publishers: one a monograph on his design work, called Covers, the other WWSWWR. On his site he describes them thus: “WWSWWR describes what I see when I read; Cover shows what I saw when I read.” I, for one, cannot wait.

But, anyway, in response to my request for a design book tip, this is what Mendelsund said:

“Gosh, I wish I had a favorite design book. But I don’t really read design books. And having never studied design at school I was never assigned any design books either. I just don’t know the first thing about design writing. But I love looking at good design, of which there is plenty online. It is always inspiring to see how much good design work there is in the world. And the internet is great for providing a steady flow of beautiful work to ogle.”

Which is maddening, from a journalist’s point of view, but also rather endearing, from a book lover’s. It is heartening that some of the best covers in the business are coming from someone unschooled and responsive, rather than deeply immersed in the history and traditions of his trade. (I haven’t posted any pics of his other great covers here precisely in order to get you to click on his site and see them there, often with further fascinating elucidation.)


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