Monday, August 30, 2021

Book Cover: A Year in the Life of Death

I've been having a love affair with a book, the latest book I've been working on creating a cover design for. That's a pathetically clunky sentence, but I don't even care. I love this book that much. 

For one (small) thing, it's a bucket list book. I've never designed for a poetry collection before.

It's also a book written by a friend, which makes it extra special.

But beyond that, I have a history with this book. Back in March of 2016 I did a reading with writers Shawn Levy and Shannon Brazil at Salon Skid Row. Curated by writer Josh Lubin, Salon Skid Row was a great Portland reading series that I hope returns once we can get out and do live in-person readings again. 

Everyone who read at Salon Skid Row got their picture taken under the Off-Track Betting sign

That night, Shawn Levy read some poetry he'd written based on obituaries in the New York Times. It was unlike anything I'd see him do before. I was used to Shawn as the writer of books like DeNiro: a Life and Rat Pack Confidential: Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, Joey, and the Last Great Show Biz Party. These poems he read were like taking his interest in biography and, instead of going expansive with it, paring it down to the barest of details. 

The way he focused on the New York Times specifically touched my nerd soul. And I was completely enthralled with the idea of poetry based on obituary. It's about death but, more so, it's about tribute. It's about life.

What began with that reading at Salon Skid Row grew into a book: A Year in the Life of Death. And what a year that was. To borrow from Shawn's introduction, 2016 was, "the year that everybody died: David Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, Gordie Howe, Antonin Scalia, Nancy Reagan, Fidel Castro, John Glenn, Janet Reno, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, etc. … a roll call that was also a history of the 20th century."

I don't generally solicit design jobs; they generally find me—but when I heard this was going to be a book, I went after it. I sent a please-think-of-me email to the publisher, University of Hell Press. I sent one to Shawn. I may have made a pest of myself. I don't know. But I got lucky and got the job. And when publisher Greg Gerding sent me the manuscript I devoured it. I often don't have time to read a book I'm designing for, but I couldn't stop. Each poem was a tiny mystery story with the last line revealing the subject. I'd scroll and not allow myself to look ahead. I'd try to figure out who each poem was about before I got to the end. I was surprised by how many of them made me cry. Many also made me laugh. The book was more than I'd even expected it to be, indeed a history of the 20th century full of fascinating information and social commentary and nostalgia and, of course, human stories that ran the gamut from celebrities to folks I'd never heard of. 

I was over the moon. And not only was I hired to design the cover but he asked if I'd like to design the interior as well.

Yes, please, yes, please.

I got together with Greg on Zoom and we talked about the book, about book covers he likes, about thoughts both of us had. The main consideration he had for the cover was that, in my color scheme, I use a powder blue that could evoke the color of the blue bags the New York Times comes in.

Greg also had an idea of a tunnel of concentric shapes, much like this design for The Bell Jar, but the center or entrance of that tunnel would be the simplified shape of a gravestone rather than a circle.

I went to work on that idea and also did some concepting of my own. 

I thought about how to evoke the concept of a year. I mocked up an idea using the phases of the moon with a newspaper hanging from one of the phases. I thought about how to evoke the concept of death without being too on the nose. I mocked up an idea of a collaged lily, the flower of funerals, made of scraps of paper—scraps from obituaries, showing the names of some of the recognizable figures in the book. 

The original subtitle was NYT Obit Poems 2016, but as you can see, I screwed that up in my first couple samples, leaving off the word Obit. I liked the idea of torn bits of paper overlying my backgrounds and used that in my titles and author names. Of the two blues I tried, Greg preferred the lighter, so that was the color that continued forward into later samples.

Greg liked the sample using the grave-shaped tunnel and asked that I try it with cut paper rather than torn, with straight placement instead of skewed. All-caps for the title.

In the lower left, by the way, is the University of Hell logo, which gets placed on the front covers of all their books, often in fun, creative ways.

While making suggestions for the tunnel concept, Greg encouraged me to try other ideas, and I kept coming back to the names. What could be a better selling point for the book than the names of all the amazing subjects of Shawn's poetry? I tried the names running behind the title, obscured by blots of ink to evoke the newspaper printing process. I tried them hanging over the title on a torn piece of paper. I tried throwing them across the cover and piecing the title and author together from their individual letters. That one might have been a little strange.

Greg and Shawn chose the sample with the names on paper looming over the title. Now that we had a direction, we refined it, making the names smaller, more newspaper-like, added the ages in. We changed up the subtitle, tried different textures. In the end, when we had a cover we all liked, I sent it to my mom to show off. She said her first reaction was to be stunned by the names. By the sheer volume of the names. That reaction brought home for me, I think, what really works about that design. How you can't help but be surprised by all that came to a close in 2016. And the names on the cover are only a fraction. It truly is a history of the Twentieth Century, rendered in the elegance and thoughtfulness of Shawn's words.

A Year in the Life of Death is available for preorder through the University of Hell Press here. It officially pubs on October 12, right alongside another really great U-Hell book, 2020*: The Year of the Asterisk, an anthology of essays exploring that very fraught year. In fact, the publisher has added a $5-off "2021 U-Hell bundle" that includes both books, and that offer can be found here.

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