I’d like to share with you a little about the story behind the cover design for my book. It may look, at first glance, like a miniature version of the game Twister, but it actually has a deeply symbolic meaning.
For those who haven’t seen the cover, check it out here: http://cup.columbia.edu/book/a-nones-story/9780231173940
When I handed over my finished manuscript to the folks at the press, they sent me what they call an “author questionnaire.” This is the writer’s big opportunity to express all the stuff she wants everyone involved in the book’s production to know. I imagine it is carried from office to office as the book is handed from one person to the next—like medical files for a patient. It’s a sensible way to allow the writer to have a voice about the various aspects of her book’s production while protecting the press’ staff from her progressive stages of blossoming neurosis.
One portion of the questionnaire is about the cover. It asks what colors you like and what sorts of designs you think would be appropriate given the content of your manuscript. It requests that you pick out a handful of covers from the press’ past releases that you find particularly becoming.
I had never thought so hard about book covers. I’m a fairly voracious reader. I’ve worked at bookstores and libraries of and on for years. I have seen thousands of book covers, been fond of hundreds, absolutely adored quite a few. I wanted the cover of my book to be cool and sophisticated, but what made a cover cool and sophisticated?
In thinking about this subject, I realized I preferred designs that were sparse. I liked an image that was simpler as opposed to one that had lots of little details. I scoured the press’ backlog of publications and picked out the ones with covers that spoke to me. I was drawn to contrast and bold colors. I enjoyed something that hinted at what was inside, though not in an obvious way. I liked when a book’s cover was a bit quirky, making me curious about what was inside.
On the form, I wrote down all these thoughts and more.
I worried that incorporating the well-known symbols we associate with each religion—like a cross for Christianity, Star of David for Judaism, etc. –would be too hackneyed, too easy. I wrote that down.
I supplied a bunch of suggestions that I thought might convey the main idea of the book, which was that of an outsider exploring these powerful belief systems. I tried to put myself in the mind frame of a visual artist. Was there a picture of a doorway or some sort of opening? Could there be, like, light emanating from the other side? I wrote a bunch of stuff that probably made the real designer laugh out loud.
But one thing I was fairly insistent about was the image of a circle. Throughout the journey depicted in the book, I had encountered circles as significant symbols. In religion, they imply unity and receptivity. At the same time, “None” in mathematical terms is depicted as a zero—also a kind of circle—meaning the absence of information. So, in this funny way, being a None is to lack something but it’s also to be wide open and receptive—to experiences, to ideas, to what comes next.
I sent back the completed questionnaire with a little prayer that I could accept with gratitude whatever the professionals involved in the process produced. This was one of those instances where I would have to let go—which, fortunately, had been one of the huge lessons I had learned in the actual book. Things happen that don’t match my expectations. At first blush the failure of reality to align with expectations can seem like a huge disappointment. If you give it time and the freedom to do so, the lack of alignment can offer something better than you were capable of imagining.
What came back several months later is the design you see, work by a man named Martin Hinze. Each religion I explore in the book is represented by a color: red for Christianity, blue for Judaism, yellow for Buddhism, and green for Islam. These just happen to be colors associated with each faith, though I had never focused on that fact too much. If you look closely (it’s more apparent with a bigger image), you can see that each circle—even within the same color grouping—is different. The outside is not perfectly drawn and the shading is inconsistent. Though he and I have never communicated directly about it, I interpret this as a graphic representation of the different way each individual expresses their faith. No two people understand or practice in the exact same manner.
Are the circles depicted supposed to be believers, each with their unique take? Or are they actual Nones being filled with the wisdom of faith? I don’t know for sure, but I love that it hints at these ideas—and does so with an element of surprise and graphic boldness. And even if someone looking at it sees nothing more than a miniature Twister board, well, that’s kind of awesome, too. The journey depicted under that front cover had me, at times, about as tangled up and uncomfortable with new ideas and people as a game of Twister.
Thank you, Mr. Hinze!
Only one tiny thing occurred to me a few weeks after seeing the design for the first time. I was thinking about what my own belief system would look like if it were one of the circles on the front. I realized it wouldn’t be just one color, that it would have all those colors, maybe more, in smears and blobs and dots. It would look like one of those circles as rendered by Jackson Pollock. So I emailed the publisher and asked if somewhere—perhaps on the back cover, which hadn’t been designed yet—there could be at least one circle that was a mixture of colors. I was promised a definite ‘maybe.’
I still don’t if my request will be honored, or if the designer has something else in mind. The back cover is being created right now, so we should all know soon.
I’m curious: what are your thoughts about the cover design? What did you see when you saw it for the first time?