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Friday, September 05, 2008

An Interview with Lisa Fyfe, designer of Paul Auster's Man in the Dark

In what is hopefully the first of many interviews here at The Book Design Review, I asked Lisa Fyfe, Art Director at Henry Holt to talk about the amazing art and design she did for Paul Auster's new novel Man in the Dark. Many thanks to Lisa for her graciousness and a stunning cover.

For those who want some background on the book, check out the Henry Holt site and these reviews in the Village Voice and the San Francisco Chronicle.

TheBDR: So I saw this jacket on the Henry Holt Web site before it came out, and I was immediately drawn to it. Before I read any previews or blurbs, the first thing that came to mind was the myth of the Golem, the mythical Jewish being created from inanimate matter, often made to protect the Jews from persecution. Of course, there's no Golem running around in Man in the Dark, but there are several characters is this book who go through hell and are in desperate need of protection. But I'm probably not even close, am I?

Lisa Fyfe: I can see the reference, though I was not thinking of Golem when I created this art: I was thinking of the men in the story. Their intense emotional journey, worlds/lives running parallel to one another, different and the same. One man, a soldier, caught in a bizarre war; another man, recovering from an accident, alone in bed, dealing with his own inner demons. Their stories of love, passion, war, anguish and loneliness are so compelling. Definitely men in need of a little protection.

The BDR: Auster has got to be a difficult writer to design for. Some of Auster's books have particularly strong visual images: I'm thinking primarily of Leviathan and the Statue of Liberty. But Man in the Dark doesn't really have one image that really pops out, at least in the sense of being the thing that you would have to try out as the designer. So how did you get where you eventually wound up with this? Was something purely typographic ever an option you considered?

LF: I did try a few other ideas, a clean, all-type version and a photographic treatment. You're right, there wasn’t one image that stuck out. I came to this concept because it was this scene early in the book that really resonated for me. One night, a man suddenly wakes to find himself at the bottom of a dark hole in the middle of a field, he hears the sounds of war, he is alone and scared. The last thing he remembers is being in bed at home, and now he is looking up a the night’s sky from an alternate universe.

TheBDR: Tell us more about the art itself.

LF: I wanted to create my interpretation of that scene: a view at night of this parallel world. I started by setting up a shoot in my living room using tons of dirt on cardboard. First, I created all of the type carved in dirt, a version I did show. Then, I worked on the idea of the man’s silhouette. It was a combination of carving the impression out in dirt, and layering it with an illustrated shape. This enabled me to create definition and depth. It needed to really look like a man walking, and not just a hole in the ground. It was a lot of trial and error. I think I took 50 pictures of men in dirt.

TheBDR: Auster's name and the title of the book are handled very conservatively. They pop because of the black text on the white bars, but they're small, and the illustration is really given room to breathe. Did you have to fight hard for this layout?

LF: It was great because everyone gravitated to this cover right away. We all agreed that the figure should be prominent. If the type was “designed” too much, it would have taken away from the figure. We even toyed with the idea of the man alone with no type (yeah, not this time). In the end, I made the type as small as they would let me, and let the silhouette do the work.

TheBDR: The production for this jacket is wonderful: there's embossing, there's debossing, there's spot varnish, and all of it creates a really nicely textured cover. I don't think it would be nearly as strong a cover without the production flourishes. How important are they to you?

LF: Effects were important. The idea of debossing was decided very early in the process. The figure should literally look as if it were sunken into the ground. Making the art matte also gave it texture and even more depth.

TheBDR: Was Auster involved at all?

LF: Auster did not get involved in the initial designing process; however, he had to approve and love it. I was lucky, when he saw the cover, he liked it right away. We made minor adjustments to the type, but the final was very close to the first version showed.

TheBDR: Last question: was the American flag there from the beginning?

LF: Yes, the flag was always there. I had buried a toy flag in the dirt, a hint to the political turmoil in the story. When working on the man’s shape, I placed the flag in his hand.

Buy Man in the Dark from


ushadesign said...

Wonderful idea, I love the idea of having "mini-interviews" of some book covers, also I really enjoyed learning about the process. Very interesting, loved the cover also. Great job! Gives a nice insight an what the creative process for some is like.

GH said...

As soon as I saw this cover I hoped that one of the cover review sites would post it - so I was even more glad to read the interview!

Arthur said...

Thanks for the interview.

If you like this kind of thing check out They do blogs about the challenges of book cover design. Quite interesting.

hello pretty city said...

Awesome interview!