(upbeat instrumental music)
Hi, it's so great to meet you.
Hi there, thank you.
You're kind of a legend in the book world.
You do such a strange and interesting mix of things.
You're probably most known as a book cover designer.
Emphasis on strange. Yeah, primarily a book jacket designer.
But you're also editing graphic novels.
I edit graphic novels. Chris Weir, Dan Clowes, Charles Burns, just right this minute, a Japanese cartoonist named Gengoroh Tagame. A book called My Brother's Husband.
So you must have a really interesting point of view about story and what makes a great story.
I think I have a multi-faceted one.
So job one as a book jacket designer is to understand something essential about the story, would you say?
Yeah, I mean, I'm gonna jump ahead of that just a little bit and say that really the essence of my job, if I had to sum it up in one sentence, my job is to get more people to read books.
And what's your strategy?
ce them with a cover that makes them want, at least look at a book and say, "I want to know more about that."
What does that take?
It all depends on the author. It all depends on the author and it all depends on what that author is doing in that particular book.
So do you think of yourself as a person who can critique-- Not critique a story, but like grok a story and come to its essence and then try to find something that both moves the book but also speaks to the content or the themes?
I have to try and distill it and down to its most essential parts and then-- But it's very intuitive. And it's very-- Again, it all depends on the book. I've been designing jackets for Haruki Murakami for 23 years. He's such a multi-faceted writer and the new collection of stories is called Men Without Women and the answer, after about three different tries, was it's a very rough drawing that I did of a silhouette of a guy, waist up, and it turns out it's him, it's a picture that I took when I visited him about a year ago in Tokyo. Then the title of the book, Men Without Women, is very literal. It's really a collection of stories about guys who lost female companions one way or the other and their hearts are broken. And basically what I did was took the shape of a puzzle piece and cut it out of where his heart should be and then it's floating next to him like it's going away. That is gonna work regardless of language. If you just saw that image, it would mean something but not enough. If you just read the title, Men Without Women, it would mean something but not enough. But when you put them together, then you get the concept. You get the form and the content working together.
It's such a particular challenge. Is there anything else like it, designing a book jacket? It's both art and commercialism and it's graphic and it's literary and it's words, but it's images. It's a really incredible puzzle, actually.
It is a puzzle. Yeah, I don't know.
An obvious analog.
It's an intersection of art and commerce and design and sometimes illustration is involved, sometimes photography is involved, sometimes just typography. It all depends.
What makes you good at it, do you think? I know you're good at it.
Absolutely no idea.
What have you not done wrong?
Surely there must be pressures to cheapen some things just to move copies. There's so many opinions about this stuff.
I'm lucky because I work for Alfred A. Knopf and my boss is Sonny Mehta and he wants good stuff. I'm very lucky in that respect. I've been there for 30 years.
Is there-- what's the most complex cover you've ever put together in terms of the complexity of the actual idea that you were trying to get across?
Not to stay on one author, but a book called 1Q84 for Haruki Murakami. Also I'd say the subsequent novel, Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. It's hard, very hard to explain verbally. You have to kind of look at the--
What do you learn from editing graphic artists that helps you understand story better? Why is this one kind of story loan itself to being a graphic novel?
I don't really know if this answers your question but the thing with comics and graphic novels is that in terms of storytelling, what's going on between the panels is often as important if not more important than what's happening in the panels themselves. Does that make any sense?
Yeah, it's like the space between the notes in music. That's sort of an incredible thing to have to factor in as you're making choices about the pacing is, it has as much impact, actually, as the notes themselves.
Right, so if I'm thinking--
It's a little bit like negative space, would you say?
Absolutely. It's negative space and then how you get the reader to fill in the blank between it.
Right, right, which is when the engagement is at its highest, is when there's some work left to be done by us. And then we're--
Comics are often called a cinematic medium, which is completely wrong.
Because so much is left out.
Because so much is left out and so much is left for the reader to do. And it's like, of course I love movies and I love cinema, but basically you sit in a room and you turn it on and then you just watch it. You can pause it and reverse and forward if you want.
But it's moving. It determines the pace, not you.
You are passive. Comics, you are very much involved. If the artist is doing their job well. They are engaging you in a certain way where you've got to bring something to it.
So what kind of creative experiments have you taken with storytelling over the years? You've tried a lot of different stuff.
I've written two novels.
Yeah, and how is that informed by-- What are the lines between all these seemingly disparate activities that you're engaged in intellectually?
Writing a novel really helped me to sympathize with the authors that I work with.
Did you think it might have been easier when you set out to do it?
No, I didn't think it would be easier. It's very, very hard. But with my novels, I'm in the unique position of designing them as I'm writing them. Which is either really smart or really stupid. Because as a writer-designer, you're lulled into a false sense of "Oh, this is really good because it's typeset correctly." Does that make any sense?
Yeah, because it looks pretty. It looks organized regardless of--
It looks done.
Where the words are.
But I can't imagine-- The sympathy part is, I can't imagine putting the work in on a novel like for six years and then giving it to somebody else to figure out what it's gonna look like.
I've struggled every time. I'm four covers in and each time, it's been incredibly painful.
Yeah, so in that sense it gave me sympathy for them because they're giving up their child and I've got to dress them for school.
That's right. It's like letting someone else cut your child's hair.
What if I have bad taste?
A more likely way that it might go wrong is that it means something slightly different to you. Of course, the story is a little different.
It's interpretation. I'm an interpreter. If they don't like the way I'm interpreting it, that's totally valid on their part. The weird thing about creating a book cover is that it's making a creative thing that is in service to another creative thing that takes precedent, much more precedent. The text, over my creative thing.
Except your thing comes first in terms of the consumer. They meet your thing first.
My thing is how the reader perceives the text, usually. Now they may read an excerpt in the New Yorker and maybe that's the way they're introduced to the book. But in general, the jacket is the face of the book and that's how you meet it.
Tell me about a time when you really feel like you got it wrong.
We don't have that much time. Oh God.
It must be awfully painful work.
I've gotten it wrong so many times, but see, you don't get to see that because it gets rejected.
Is there anything you fought for mightily that in retrospect you think, "I don't even know if that was the right cover?"
It's pointless for me to fight for stuff.
Because you won't win?
Yeah, there's no point. The jacket has to convince everybody that needs convincing and if it's not, what's the point of me sitting there, trying to convince you?
That's right. The proof is in the pudding. If it doesn't taste good, it doesn't taste good.
Well, and the thing is, book jackets have to work on their own. You send them out into the world. They've gotta work on their own.
Nobody can stand there and say, "No no, but you see what I was really trying to do." Yeah.
Pointless. And the other thing I realized by writing novels is you get one read per friend.
So what I learned to do was I had like four readers lined up for my first novel. So you give it to the first person and you get their notes and then that's that. First of all, they have a life and they can't, usually their life is not being your editor. Your editor is something else entirely. Even they--
Only have so many reads in them.
Yeah, they only have so many reads in them. Two or three. It's a succession then, down the line. So by the fifth person, say, that's kind of it.
Also that introduces a level of complexity that I've recognized over time, which is that if you pick four people that don't have a relatively similar sensibility, you could get whipsawed. Because reader A could say, "I just really felt like "I wanted to see you more with your children. "I couldn't really imagine you as a mother in your house." And then reader B might be just naturally more inclined to be interested in the marriage. And say, "I'd love to see you with your husband, "blah blah blah." Then you're cutting and making room for reader B's edits, then reader C takes-- It's a very dangerous thing actually.
They give you your notes and then you either pay attention to them or some of them you don't. Okay, I understand that but I'm gonna override that because I'm the author.
I like sometimes just to ask, how did you feel in a given section? Were you feeling impatient? If you ever feel impatient, just jot that down. Or I'm a little bit bored or I feel like you're being redundant or I'm confused. When do you sit up? Will you write another novel?
Do you have themes that obsess you?
I shouldn't even say this because it's so much easier to talk about it than actually sit and do the work.
I'm working on two novels simultaneously right now which is really stupid.
That does seem--
Because it's like a crossword puzzle. Don't do two at once.
Because it's too easy to leave the one when it's hard.
When you get stuck, then you go on to the other one and then you get stuck and you go back and then you just go back and forth and back and forth.
It's like dating two people at once. As soon as they start to irritate you, you just go over to this one.
I'm such a superhero guy and I've written a Batman graphic novel called Batman: Theft by Design for DC Comics. I have an idea for a prose novel that's superhero based. But I'm stuck because Michael Chabon did it so well.
You know what I mean?
Mmhmm. Bastard. Bastard!
Chabon is so good.
But he's the nicest person on the planet.
He's a friend. The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay is so good that I've had this idea for years before I even sat and read that but I should never had sat and read it because that's part of what's getting me stuck. It's like, not only how can I do something different than this, it's not even about how can I do something better? I couldn't do something better. What other take on this extremely examined subject could I present? I do have an idea for it. For my first novel, it was about-- It's called the Cheese Monkeys, it's about studying graphic design in college. And part of that was I felt like I had a really interesting experience that I could turn into prose, and funny. But I also felt like-- And this is quite the claim, but nobody else had quite done it. I kept asking people.
Yeah, have you read a novel about studying graphic design in college? Nobody could really say, "Sure, X." In other words, there was a gap to fill. Similarly, not a novel, but somebody approached me from Workman Publishing, actually RJ Palacio.
We just talked to her this morning. She's so fabulous. I love her.
She's just darling.
She asked me to lunch and said--
She's a graphic artist.
Yeah, we'd known each other for years because we sort of did the same thing. She said, no one has ever designed a book to teach graphic design to children. And as soon as she said it, it was like, ping! And I was like, "Oh my God, you're right." There's a million art books for kids but there really wasn't one that dealt with image, working with typography in service of a concept. These things that graphic design are and do and I thought, I was just knocked out. I don't have kids. I don't know kids. I can't relate to kids. And I don't like kids.
I'm the perfect person to take this on.
Exactly. I am so out of my comfort zone with this project, that let's go for it. It was like figuring out what to do because I didn't really learn about graphic design, capital G, capital D, until college.
Now we were talking about 10 year olds. So how do you break it down? Form and content. What does something look like, what does something say? How do they work with each other? Which is its own kind of storytelling.
Absolutely. Absolutely, it's like the building blocks.
Yeah, why does the alphabet exist? How did it come into being, our alphabet? Do you realize there are 26 completely abstract symbols that in and of themselves mean nothing, but if you put them together in the right combinations, you can create anything? Anything. Unbelievable. Part of the challenge of that book, it's called Go: A Kid's Guide to Graphic Design, and here Raquel was editing this book for me while she was writing Wonder.
I mean, come on.
It's not fair.
I know, I can't deal with it.
It's not fair.
She worked for two years after that thing came out.
I know, I know. I did with her sort of what we're doing for a podcast for Random House. Like, right when it came out.
Yeah, yeah, that's amazing.
We put the cover of Wonder in the book because it's so interesting.
Did you do that cover?
No I did not. Most of the work that is in Go is my own stuff. I wanted to use examples. I had to do a cover for a book about Batman and bats hang upside down so I wanted to show Batman upside down, and I'm such a Batman fan. 70 years of the character and being a fan, nobody on the cover of a comic or a book about Batman showed his head hanging upside down.
You must have been so delighted to discover that. It was like--
I was psyched.
Space, there's space for something new.
Right, with Batman.
Per your novel problem, which is you're not feeling that space right now with that.
Exactly, so I put that in the book.
Novelistically, what are you good at? Do you like dialogue, do you like pacing, do you like tension?
I love dialogue.
Do you know why?
It's so easy. You don't have to describe anything.
Do you like reading dialogue?
I love it, and I think for years, I was designing for Elmore Leonard. I had to redesign his entire back list.
What a great assignment.
It was a great assignment. It was a little scary because he's very prolific but I had to really dive in and read Elmore Leonard like I've never read him before. His dialogue is stupendous. It's-- It's just clipped and right to the point. I think the yin to that yang is also reading and designing for Cormack McCarthy.
Oh, sure, sure.
Oh my God. Who doesn't use quotation marks. And reading everybody else too. But I love when people are having a dialogue and in graphic design and in these critiques in this class, they're like miniature courtroom dramas where it's set up that you get to know a bunch of students and their personalities and then the teacher gives them each an assignment and then they respond to the assignment. And then it's a back and forth and back and forth.
What eludes you creatively? What are you just not able to do that you'd really like?
I'm not able to write very well.
At the level you would like?
Yeah, because I read all these other writers that are so good.
I know, it's a very dangerous thing. My impression of myself changes dramatically depending on who I'm reading.
Okay, I have a little speed round to wrap up with.
Name a book you wish you had written.
Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli.
What is the last story that made you cry?
Well, I'm gonna cheat here and say it was Our Town by Thornton Wilder.
Why is that a cheat?
Because it's not really a book, it's a play.
That's all right. A story, any story. Could have been a story your sister told you.
Yeah, it make me cry every time. Yeah, Emily's speech at the end.
Do you reread it often?
I go see it. That's why it's cheating, because it's a play.
Story, story, story. If your mother wrote a book about you, what would it be called?
(laughs) Why Don't You Call?
(laughs) Who can't you live without, creatively speaking?
My husband, JD McClatchy of 21, going on 22 years.
That's all right.
He's a poet and a critic and Knopf publishes him. He's amazing.
If you could get everyone in the world to read just one book, what would it be?
(sighs) How To Be Nice to Other People.
Has it been written yet?
Not that I know of.
Maybe you should write it. Maybe it should be a graphic novel showing people.
Maybe I'll try.
Thank you so much.