Monday, April 15, 2024

Book Cover: Like Every Form of Love

Designing the book cover for the re-release by 7.13 Books of Padma Viswanathan's memoir Like Every Form of Love presented me with an interesting challenge. Which is the kind of design job I really enjoy. Working with 7.13 editor Hasanthika Sirisena, I was given some graphic directions that author Padma liked and then asked to give them a particular twist.

Padma said she loved art nouveau, botanical illustrations, vintage aesthetics, the art of Ludwig Bemelmans. She loved art that strayed outside the lines. For colors she favored mustard, orange, chartreuse, rose.

I should stop and say that when she mentioned art nouveau I got excited. I thought it would be a lot of fun to create an elaborate and ornate nouveau design. But the more we talked about it, the more I thought that wasn't the direction for this design. Art nouveau had a good chance of making the viewer think the book takes place in a very different time period. Instead, I started looking at the very evocative floral textiles she shared.

I should stop, too, and share the original cover of this book. It has been published in Canada by Penguin Random House, and 7.13 Books is handling its American release. Here's the Canadian cover.

You can see the subtitle there: a memoir of friendship and true crime. In that original cover, the shattering of the rose symbolizes the fate of that friendship. Here's the description of the book:

From the Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist, a gripping exploration of class, race, friendship, sexuality, what an author owes her subject and what it means to be a good person—all wrapped up in a riveting Canadian true crime story.

Padma Viswanathan was staying on a houseboat on Vancouver Island when she struck up a friendship with a warm-hearted, working-class queer man named Phillip. Their lives were so different it seemed unlikely to Padma that their relationship would last after she returned to her usual life. But, that week, Phillip told her a story from his childhood that kept them connected for more than twenty years.

Phillip was the son of a severe, abusive man named Harvey, a miner, farmer and communist. After Phillip’s mother left the family, Harvey advertised for a housekeeper-with-benefits. And so Del, the most glamorous and loving of stepmothers, stepped into Phillip's life. Del had hung out with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Mexico City before the Cuban revolution; she was also a convicted bank robber who had violated her parole and was suspected in her ex-husband’s murder. Phillip had long since lost track of Del, but when Padma said she’d like to write about her and about his own young life, he eagerly agreed. Quickly, though, Padma’s research uncovered hidden truths about these larger-than-real-life characters. Watching the effects on Phillip as these secrets, evasions and traumas came to light, she increasingly feared that when it came to the book or the friendship, only one of them would get out of this process alive.

In this unforgettable memoir, Padma reflects on the joys and frictions of this strange journey with grace, humour and poetry, including original readings of Hans Christian Andersen fairytales and other stories that beautifully echo her characters’ adventures and her own. Like Every Form of Love is that rare thing: an irresistible literary page-turner that twists and turns, delivering powerful revelations, right to the very end.

I asked Padma what the title phrase, Like Every Form of Love, referred to and whether it occurred in the book, and she had this to say:

"Yes, the line is 'Friendship, like every form of love, points ineluctably to the future.' It is from a book of philosophy, called Friendship, by Alexander Nehamas. Elsewhere, I say, 'In fact, pace Nehamas, friendship is like every form of love, complicated in its own particular ways.'" 

I loved that and noodled on it as I started building a floral textile of my own based on the examples Padma had given me.

Like in the Canadian cover, we wanted something that would take the floral design I was building and give it a twist that could show the shadow side of friendship, the tension that threatens every form of love. I wondered what aspects of the crime portion of the book might be pulled out and referenced on the cover, so I checked in with Padma and Hasie about what those specifics are. Padma had this to say:

"There is a murder by shooting in the story (which remains unsolved), a lot of discussion of confinement (Del was imprisoned for a robbery but it's not clear what kind of freedom she enjoyed on the outside, as a working-class Canadian woman in the 1950s). The 'shadow' is another dark motif, as a metaphor for the writer's shady side, which I also explore."

I played with turning my floral design into a negative and perhaps in that negative realm the leaves of my flowers could be matched with the similar shapes of bullets.

Hasie and Padma didn't like the bullets in there, and the negative/positive color scheme thing, interesting in concept, didn't work well visually. Hasie suggested trying to render the floral design into a mask or a genderless face. Padma advocated for creating the design to suggest an explosion. Hasie liked that idea and told me to go for it. 

The explosion angle was super interesting and quite a challenge. How to take my flat arrangement of flowers and turn them into something dimensional and fluid like an explosion?

I tried...

and tried...

and tried...

Everything looked like it was shattering or dripping. 

Finally after a bunch of tinkering I found something that very much did evoke the idea of an explosion. I worked it into a layout that I was happy with and passed it along to Hasie and Padma for a look.

It felt quite dynamic and did get across what we were hoping for it to get across. But it had a comic-book-y feel that Hasie didn't think was right. Try as I might, I couldn't find a way to turn the floral textile into an explosion without having to invoke the two-dimensional tropes that pushed it over the edge into something cartoony. I wondered about taking it in a new direction and when I checked in with my idea, Padma said:

"From everything you've said here, it seems to me the most straightforward fix is to take the current idea and, as you say, slant it toward either shattering or tearing/fraying. I suspect where it's getting hung, conceptually, at present, is between the idea of a gun (explosion) and a friendship ending (shattering / tearing / fraying). I think the latter idea is more central and organic to the book, so why don't we try that?"

I did play around with the shattering idea, but I was more drawn to tearing/fraying. It would work more (to use Padma's word) organically with the floral fabric design, and when I thought of the tension that threatens every form of love, and particularly friendship, I figured it most often unravels rather than flying apart.

As I worked on the layout for the new direction, I discovered something great. (Discovery is as much a part of the process in designing a book cover as creativity is, at least in my experience.) I liked the idea that part of the fabric would be ripped to the point of nearly tearing away from the larger, frayed whole. My first impulse was to tear the word love in half. When I did that, I found that two words from the subtitle pulled away with the disembodied VE: friendship and crime. I loved that. What a great coupling of words to make sit together all by themselves.

Once I created the layout and Hasie and Padma were happy with it, I had to make it go from looking like a design to looking like frayed fabric.

Step one was to give it a fabric texture. I did this by finding a fabric I liked with no pattern and an easily discernible weave and marrying it to my design in Photoshop. I don't want to bore you by getting technical but the simplified version is that you open the main graphic, then click Place Embedded and place the fabric image within the file. Then in the Layers panel you set the blending mode to Overlay. And make adjustments from there.

Blogger isn't the best place to try to see the detail on this.

Step two was to add frayed threads all around. For this, I went back into Illustrator and drew the threads one by one. Yeah. Time-consuming. Here it is in progress.

I had been thinking of the text floating on top of the fabric, but Padma wondered if I could embroider it. Or, she was thinking about me maybe finding a font that looked embroidery-ish rather than just flat. I did find a font that did that, but I figured if I was going to go the sewn-lettering route, I should go all the way and create it myself.

Step zero: the font.

Step one: I recreated the lettering on top of that font using vector lines in Illustrator. Each line had a gradient applied to it so that it was lighter in the center and darker on the edges to give each "thread" dimension. There were three different colors of threads. I made sure to leave gaps here and there and threads connecting the letters.

Step two: I removed the font and saved this with a transparent background (the green is just for your viewing) and brought it into Photoshop. There, I created three layers of the same lettering with three different levels of brightness. Then I did some erasing until my lettering was dimensional.

Step three: I did some painting and erasing to create a shadow under the edges.

Step four: I added a texture, much like I did with the fabric.

In this blog, the above probably look like incremental changes or even, between some, no change at all. I lose a lot of resolution on the images I post in here. But I dropped the updated lettering into the Illustrator file, popped back to Photoshop to add some wrinkles and shadows to my fabric, and  in the end, when we finally had our cover, author Padma was so pleased she sent me the most lovely note.

It's stunning: eye-catching, original, evocative, luscious. All the little details with the threads pulling out!?!? The textures and wrinkles! It's my favorite kind of metaphor: it has obvious surface appeal and increasing rewards each time you revisit. 

I can't believe how lucky I am.

Which I share not to pat myself on the back, but to mention how beautiful to me those last few words are. " lucky I am." For some reason that comment just stuck with me, how special it is to hear someone say that about something you've made for them. Because it's one thing, a fantastic thing, to be told something you've made is good. It's so much more to be told that it has made someone else feel lucky.

Like Every Form of Love's American edition will be out soon. More information on Padma Viswanathan is here. More information on publisher 7.13 Books is here. Here's a taste.


Phillip was buff, with hollow cheeks and expressive blue eyes: flinty or inquisitive or fonts of loving kindness by turns. There was nothing femmy or camp about him, yet he affected a performative masculinity in public, brusquely calling security guards and checkout clerks “man” and “bud.” In private, he unloosed throaty, symphonic laughs, blasts from a rogue angel’s trumpet. (God, I loved his laugh.) He’d locked that hard body around a tender heart.

His defences dropped quickly; after that trip to the city, he pursued my friendship. My other project in this time, though, was a three-day fast (either confronting or avoiding my then-life’s most urgent subject, my disastrous marriage—I’m still not sure). And as my mother had told me, a food fast is traditionally done with a social fast. She used a Sanskrit word for it, maunam, silence.

Phillip didn’t believe in it, not like the fast conflicted with his beliefs, but like he couldn’t absorb the fact of its existence. He wanted me to come thrifting with him; he wanted me to taste a delicious cookie he’d bought. I caved on all counts. I had only a few days left in Genoa Bay, and was charmed and intrigued. He was so different from my other friends. His courtly manners, opening doors for me and making me walk on the side of the street away from the curb; the way he spoke, in a thick BC lilt, his speech peppered with “fuck” the way others use “like” or “um,” using colourful, unfamiliar idioms I’d repeat to myself and write down later. I heard the stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes in his waxings-on about his main topic, the pursuit of rough sex, “the game, the gay game,” as he put it.

After his haircut in Victoria on our first time out together, he ran a hand along his new fade and mused, “Maybe I’ll find me a long-haired motorcycle dude, with my soldier’s buzz cut.”

He told me he hadn’t been sure how I would “take the whole homosexuality thing, being straight . . .”

“And Indian?” I guessed.

“Well, yeah,” he admitted, “of the culture. But I used to work at a pulp mill, and all the guys there”—Sikhs, I supposed, since they’d been stalwarts in BC’s lumber industry for generations—“they’d be having sex with women, men, everyone. I’d get to know these guys and get to know their dads and go to bed with them.”

Stories: he had a million of ’em.

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