The recent winner of the Bailey’s prize, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing features a cover by Faber & Faber’s art director, Donna Payne. In the latest in our Front to Back series, Payne talks through the process of finding the perfect image and typeface for this very different kind of novel…
Stylistically, McBride’s debut novel is unlike most contemporary fiction. According to Justine Jordan, writing in the Guardian last month, the novel is “the inner narrative of an Irish girl from before birth to the verge of death, written to capture what McBride calls ‘the moment before language becomes formatted thought’.”
The book opens like this: “For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you.” The text reflects the coming to consciousness of the main character, an unnamed girl – beginning with short, impressionistic sentences and gradually moving into a more regular structure as she ages. (A clip of McBride reading an extract from the book at the Baileys Prize Shortlist reading event is here.)
For Faber’s art director Donna Payne, the brief accompanying the task of designing the book’s first cover was equally as open to experimentation. Here, she explains the process behind creating the cover.
CR: As you’re reading through the text of a book that you’ll be working on, do you take notes? Do you record images or instances in the text that might have strong visual elements?
DP: Although I still read finished books in print, I tend to read working manuscripts on an e-reader these days, highlighting passages as I go. I’ll mark up recurring themes, settings and character details – passages that suggest tone.
I tend to show a selection of cover ideas at the first rough stage, so sometimes I stop and create covers as I go. The first visual I put together for this book was not a cover as such, more a description of content and how the book felt (shown below).
DP: Ideas for covers can sometimes come from a lengthy conversation with an editor rather than a full read, but this was an unusual book that demanded reading.
The ‘girl’ of the title is never fully physically described or indeed named, and the book spans her life from birth to mid-twenties. However, the writing is very descriptive and acutely visual – the various characters and setting in late 1980s rural Ireland, in particular.
But it also manages to skillfully convey intense feeling and emotion and I was keen to get that across, too.
CR: Did any particular image or scence from the book influence the development of the cover?
DP: The scene in which the girl immerses herself in a cold lake is a key part of the book and very evocative. It follows a life changing event and the theme of water and cleansing continues throughout the novel.
I looked at underwater images but that felt too literal; eventually the idea of making the book itself look like it had been dipped into a dirty lake came to me and I thought about whether just this, in itself, was enough with typography (shown above; detail below).
CR: If, as here, you go into working on a cover knowing that the brief is wide open, does that change how you approach the job at all?
DP: I am always reader focused in my approach to cover design, even when given a completely open brief. It’s important for the cover to be true to the text. This doesn’t mean a narrative approach, but a good cover should describe tone as well as pique interest.
My job is to produce something that will entice a casual browser enough to want to read the back cover, and perhaps an extract. What that reader finds inside shouldn’t be at odds with the packaging.
CR: Can you tell me about the typeface choice – it seems to echo the 1980s setting of the novel, but where did the stacking idea come from? Does it reflect the shorter sentence style McBride uses throughout the text?
Yes, I wanted to reflected the short, sharp sentences of the book without losing the flow of the design. My aim was for it to look a little off balance but not ‘wrong’ as such.
There’s also the early-1980s setting – particularly the teenage years, so old Jackie magazines and cheap make-up packaging (shown below) inspired the font choice. The one I used is a modern font called Lust Slim, but it’s based on other Didone typefaces popular at that time such as Fenice and heavier cuts of Bodoni.
CR: Finally, can you talk through the thinking behind the image of the apple?
DP: The apple as a symbol for temptation, innocence and femininity is a familiar one. The book questions any traditional notion of what it means to be a girl and this lead me to look to images of spoiled, over ripe fruit (below).
The idea of depicting something beautiful and familiar – which is perceived as ‘not quite right’ or ‘perfect enough’ – appealed to me. The girl’s relationship with her sick brother, and how other people view him, is at the very heart of the book and absolutely tied in with her emerging identity.
Eimear gave me a very open brief with just a couple of pointers on what she wanted to avoid: No images of tough sexualised girls – one such image had accompanied a newspaper article about the book, and it felt at odds with the complexity of the writing and with the ‘girl’ herself (who is never named much less described).
Hannah Griffiths, the book’s editor, also afforded me the rare luxury of designing from the heart – and with the reader rather than the retailer in mind.