This is Part 2 of a conversation I had with Ann McMan, the talented artist/designer who created the cover for my upcoming (March 2017) biographical/historical novel, The General's Women At the end of Part 1, Ann was saying that she does her best work when her clients trust her to make the right choices for their books. "It's also helpful," she added, "when an author has done the heavy lifting about essential themes before they approach me. That's what happened with The General’s Women. Of course, at the same time, that complicated matters."
Susan: I'm afraid I did--complicate matters for you, I mean. TGW is a book about real people. I wanted to emphasize the story's reality, so I asked you to use photographs of the three main characters. Photos of real people are typically used for biographies, not for fiction--so we're sort of breaking an informal rule here. That aside, what difficulties did you run into using real images?
Ann: Using actual images of real people does pose challenges—particularly when you’re forced to deal with source material that isn’t in the public domain. Fortunately for us, images of Ike, Mamie and Kay were all available through public (i.e. nonprofit and/or government) venues. For example, if you had written a fictionalized account of the lives and loves of Madonna and Sean Penn (indulge me here . . . it could happen), we’d have shelled out thousands of dollars in royalty fees and probably wouldn’t have been unable to alter the images in any way—even IF we secured permission to use them. But because your principals were well-known government/military figures, there were thousands (in the case of Ike and Mamie) and dozens (in the case of Kay Summersby) of public domain images available through various nonprofit and publicly-funded archives—including the Eisenhower Library, The United States Army, The Library of Congress, and Wikipedia Commons. Having said that, finding three images that could work together was a massive undertaking that involved many hours of sleuthing and exhaustive combing through digital collections.
Good thing I was a librarian in a previous life . . . (Susan: Good thing for me, too, Ann! Thanks for that extra effort!)
After finding the best three images, the task was to render them in ways that made them work together in terms of scale, color balance and placement. I wanted them to look like they originated from the same source—and that wasn’t easy. In the end, I combined them all together and presented them as a single, yellowed photograph with a crimped edge."
Susan: I love the "military" feel you created for the cover, Ann. What went into the overall design?
Ann: I chose a sepia-toned palette to give the cover a vintage feeling. You suggested tying an image of the White House into the design, and I prowled around until I found an old postcard image from the late 1950s—perfect for Ike’s tenure there—that worked very well as a subtle way to hint at the ultimate stakes of the story. I also added an archival image of a November, 1943 New York Times story about General Eisenhower’s service in London (when Kay Summersby would’ve been his driver)—and finished it all off with some vintage Stirling Heavy Bombers—the kind that flew so many Allied missions during the air campaign over Europe. Once the final collage was assembled, you suggested adding some bars of color—which bore fruit for the whole composition. I chose to deal with those like uniform stripes, and I think they worked well not only to anchor and enliven the design—but to reinforce a military flavor.
Susan: You've been doing covers for several years. What do you consider your most successful cover?
Ann: Wow. That’s oddly like Sophie’s choice. I am sure that you, as a fellow author, know that you can pick your way through the detritus of a novel you wrote, hold up a fragment, and proudly proclaim, “I really like this sentence a lot.” Cover design is not much different. I do have a couple of favorites, though. And among those, the one that I think comes closest to being just about right is The Liberators of Willow Run (Bywater Books). I love the energy of this cover. I like the way it immediately evokes a time in our history and suggests the spirit of the women who sacrificed everything to build these B-24 bombers at the Willow Run assembly plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I especially like the courage it took for the book’s author, Marianne K. Martin, to close her eyes and go with my idea.
My design firm, TreeHouse Studio, doesn’t yet have an online portfolio. However, I am happy to share samples of my cover work and details about pricing with anyone who contacts me at ann dot mcman at gmail dot com.
Big thanks to Ann for her work on the TGW cover, and for her willingness to talk about what went into it. We're already talking about some ideas for the covers of Gertrude In Arabia: Gertrude Bell's life as a British espionage agent--the first of a possible trilogy.
Reading note. Judging books by their covers is seriously underrated, and any book nerd who claims never to have done it is probably lying.--Amy Smith, All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane.