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An Interview with Jeremy John Parker: Book Design, Writing, Outlook Springs, and Life after the MFA

31 March 2017 on ArtStorm   Tags: , ,

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Amy and I were thrilled to interview Jeremy John Parker, a UNH alum, fellow writer, and artist of many trades. Jeremy is a writer, book designer, and the Fiction Editor at Outlook SpringsHis stories have appeared in The Normal SchooldecomP magazinE, and have been semifinalists for Carve Magazine’s Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, the Boulevard Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers, the Mid-American Review Fineline Competition, and Missouri Review’s Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. Jeremy was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, is a recipient of the 2015 Tom Williams Prize in Fiction judged by Kevin Brockmeier, and his short story collection, And When the Ghost Has Vanished was a semifinalist for the 2016 Hudson Prize. He holds a BA in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in fiction from the University of New Hampshire. To see more of Jeremy's work go to  jeremyjohnparker.com/design.

 

How did you get into designing book jackets?

—Sort of two-fold. I started out designing rave flyers, oddly enough. I then parlayed my design skills into a marketing internship during undergrad at the University of Wisconsin Press, where I mostly updated web pages and designed ads. While I was there, Norman Gilliland was talking to my boss about needing a book cover for his latest novel, Downeast Ledge, which was set in Maine. Since I had just returned from a visit to Maine, she suggested he hire me to do it. I used one of my own photographs for that cover and he was very impressed. When I left Wisconsin to attend University of New Hampshire's MFA program, I talked to the press about continuing book design freelance and the rest is history. I'm designing for nine other university and independent presses now.

 

Are there certain rules you keep in mind when designing a book cover? Is it to be as representational of the text as possible? Or is the main focus on making it marketable?

—I leave the marketability to the production and marketing people at the presses; they know the trends of what sells particular titles much better than I do. Or rather, as a firm believer in YES ABSOLUTELY PLEASE JUDGE THIS BOOK BY ITS COVER, I want the covers to be as representative as possible of the material inside, or at least to invoke an image or an emotion at the heart of the book. With academic titles, I'm often given an image or series of images of the subject matter, like a historical figure, like the cover for An American Diplomat in Bolshevik Russia. All they had was a distressed photograph of the diplomat, DeWitt Clinton Poole, and his staff. I was given the instructions to try, please, do something interesting to salvage it. For those books, I'm given a big hint as far as direction goes. With fiction and poetry books, it's more difficult.

 
10007383_10152422773806078_3236822393717748928_oAs both a writer and an artist, how do you find one informs the other when designing a book cover?

—Although I'm often given a marketing questionnaire with some ideas from the authors or the press regarding a direction to take, I'm often left to my own devices, which means I read or skim through the manuscript looking for images or themes or a tone that sparks an idea for the cover. For the cover of Achy Obejas' collection of short stories, The Tower of the Antilles, I took an image from the title story of a paper boat that was central to the heart of the main character and that worked out well. Sometimes the writer has a very specific vision for their covers and I much enjoy the presses that let me run with that. For instance, the cover for Christina Stoddard's poetry collection HIVE. She had a highly-specific vision, which I was able to reproduce almost exactly as described, so accurately in fact, that we hardly needed any other designs to choose from.

 

Has your design and artwork informed your writing? Have you discovered inspiration from one for the other?

—One more so than the other. I tend to think of stories in a visual manner; not necessarily the images in the story, lighting and objects, facial features, but in the shape of the story: it's beginning, it's climax, the quiet moments, the denouement. And it seems important to me to have a story's shape be like my design work, well-balanced, intentional, but with something striking, something uncanny, something flawed. It's flaws that make us interesting. Platonic ideals are boring; bring in the flaws. So in one hand, these stories have a shape and a pattern, like the oscillation of soundwaves frozen in a moment, but also, for instance, I'll imagine an event in the story, or a character's history as a physical thing, like a tower rising up, and I'll imagine a bright light, the sort of epiphany of the story, and how that light hits that tower, and think of how the shadow cast by that light and that tower shades the rest of the story. And so I end up with a sort of landscape of the story in a very three-to-four dimensional way. Also, when writing, I probably pay too much attention to the shapes of letters, of words, of paragraphs, the patterning of the positive and negative space on the page. I've changed dialogue or a description because it looked wrong, visually, on the page. Which makes no sense logically because when these stories get printed they'll be in different fonts with different line breaks versus the fonts and page sizes I write in. Dumb. Very dumb, but there you have it.

 

To what extent is the cover design process collaborative?

—Very much so, but it varies by the press I'm working with. Some, like the Stoddard book I mentioned, give me a title concept and I am able to render it pretty faithfully, so I am a sort of Star Trek replicator for art in that moment, and that's a very comforting place to be, where your art and another person's vision are absolutely in sync. And this happens quite often, surprisingly. Usually I'll make three-to-five initial designs and then we go back and forth until we narrow down the cover. Sometimes we nail it in the first round. In extreme cases it's run to 20-30 designs. And often that is nitpicking the size of serifs on the font. Other times you get through a dozen designs and someone decides to run in another direction. It's really not that different than, say, workshopping a story. You create something, show it around, take advice, revise.


You know how they say, “Never judge a book by its cover,” what is your stance on that?10714479_10152422775066078_20226700949898854_o

—I sort of covered that before, and obviously I have a bias as a designer. I am guilty of this for sure; I have bought books solely based on the covers and have been both delighted and disappointed. I think it's good to have that rule floating around in your head in a general way. It reminds us that the surface does not always reflect the contents. Scary foods may taste amazing. Pretty people can be evil shits. Calm oceans house deadly leviathans.

 

Do you have a favorite cover you designed? Why that cover?

—I'd have to say Stoddard's HIVE design. One of the most frustrating aspects of art is the translation of what's in your mind to what's produced in the world. Finding a way to close that gap is our real work, I think. And in the case of HIVE, that the gap between the ideal and the manifest was so small, which is so immensely satisfying. Stoddard wanted "two male human figures stand side by side in the foreground, up close to the viewer. Perhaps only their torsos are visible. They wear navy suits, white shirts, and ties (calling to mind the iconic image of young male Mormon missionaries without being literal; no nametags). Maybe one of the figures is straightening his tie—something to show they have human hands. But instead of human faces, the figures’ heads are the heads of bees, exaggerated in size with giant eyes. And standing behind each of the two figures and slightly off to their respective sides, in an army reflecting back to infinity, are two rows of identical bee-headed figures in dark suits. Two v-shaped lines of suited men, all the same, stretching back to the vanishing point until they fall off the borders of the page. Sort of threatening and creepy all at once." And that I was able to deliver that vision (and that it was a finalist for the DaVinci Eye Award) make it one of my favorites.

 

Let’s switch gears a little and talk about your work! Your short story collection And When the Ghost Has Vanished was a semifinalist for the 2016 Hudson Prize. Congratulations! If you could, would you want to design your own cover? If so, what would it look like?

—Thank you! I'm very divided on this actually. On one hand, I've seen so many bad book covers, or rather, as it's my profession, I'm very critical of book cover design (and design in general, especially in typography.) The first thing I think when I see a book cover is "Could I have done that better?" Under any other circumstance, I'm a proponent of the idea that we should trust professionals and experts, so the part of me that wants to design covers battles with the part of me that wants to let the press and their production and marketing teams do their job. And to bring it back to the idea of the writing workshop, I believe that often we don't understand things (especially ourselves) until we can have some distance, some perspective, so how could I view my own book from that critical distance? Like how you don't really know what you look like because you've never actually seen yourself. Only two-dimensional renderings in mirrors and photographs. Sometimes I think you need someone else to take that look and maybe find the thread that needs to be pulled to tie the whole thing together.

 

As art editors, we believe the written and visual roles are allies. What role do you believe cover design plays within the pages of the story?

—I'm guessing there's a subtle magic there. The cover sets an expectation of the contents that's either an affirmation or a disappointment. If you're lucky, there's a great synergy between the cover and the pages. Sometimes there's such a confluence between the two that the image becomes iconic of the book, like the Francis Cugat cover for The Great Gatsby, the E. Michael Mitchell cover of The Catcher in the Rye, or the Pernaciaro and Joseph Mugnaini design for Fahrenheit 451.

 

13422461_10153559234266078_3607211365065205384_oWhat are your favorite literary journals as far as aesthetics and style?

—There are sort of two camps I really enjoy: timeless and reinvention. ZYZZYVA is really beautiful in a clean, classic way that fifty years ago or fifty years from now, will/would still look current. Paris Review, for instance, falls into this category and we've seen how their basic design has stood up to the test of time, a template that allows for changing aesthetics without losing its, let's call it branding. Like the CocaCola logo, some things don't change for a reason.  On the other hand, others like McSweeney's (while they were publishing the quarterly anyway) were interesting because they changed up their formats so much, from traditional hardcovers to pamphlets to boxes to that damned giant newspaper issue that won't fit on my damned bookshelf. Sonora Review does this pretty regularly as well, but not to the extent that McSweeney's did, reinventing their style, their layout, experimenting with new ways to present text.

 

You are also the fiction editor of a new journal we love, Outlook Springs! Can you tell us about its mission, or what you hope for its future?

—Nothing short of world domination in at least seven alternate realities. We bill ourselves as a literary journal from another dimension, which translates to "we like weird things." Like most journals I suppose, we're interested in publishing the best fiction, poetry, and essays we can get our hands on. Our ideas were a strange aesthetic—weird, creepy, funny, hearty, smart, silly. We want literary fiction in conversation with experimental, science fiction, fantasy, slipstream, magical realism, minimalist, maximalist, comedy, et cetera. Like we're on a safari to catch the 65 feral love-children of Welcome to Night Vale and Tin House. I half-jokingly refer to myself as an interdimensional ethnographer. I've often thought of literary fiction as small ethnographies of our lives, these little records of our customs and cultures, and so, as fiction editor, I'm curating short stories/ethnographies from other worlds like our own, but off a bit. Streaks of the strange. Not surprising that I double-majored in creative writing and anthropology in undergrad when you think about it.

 

How do you juggle being a writer, editor, teacher, and artist? Do you find they begin to overlap?

—It's pretty nice actually because they're all facets of the same thing, which, coincidentally enough, is something my students were discussing in class this week. We have the locutionary act—the actual creation we are using to communicate, paired with its illocutionary act—what we intend that communication to mean. What we can't control is the perlocutionary effect—the received message. Our goal then is to make that gap between what we intended our utterances to mean—be it writing or image or sound—and the meaning received as small as possible. On a practical level, when I've hit a road block writing, I can move over to editing other's work, and when I'm tired of looking at words, I can move over to images via design work. I've always got something to do, but there's a great variation in the medium.

 

12968134_10153431086461078_5762063796241372937_oAny advice for current writers or MFA students? What about authors embarking on publishing and the say they may or may not have in the cover or their book?

—I attended a panel discussion at WisCon (world's leading feminist science fiction convention!) a few years ago about publishing with panelists ranging from self-publishers, to small presses, all the way up to large commercial publishers. Basically, the takeaway is that the larger the publisher, the less say you're going to have over the commercial product of your book. The advantage though is that you also don't have to do all of that work. If you, say, self-publish, you have to hire and editor, hire a designer, hire a distributor. You get a lot of say in the process, but you also have to be your own marketing department and production department, et cetera. If your book cover is that important to you, go that way. But if you don't mind losing a little control, let the bigger publishers do that work for you and trust the professionals. Do you want to focus on the writing or do you also want to work in editing and advertising and production? I guess the advice is to know yourself and what you want to do.

I'm hardly in a place in my career to be offering advice to writers, but the advice that's helped me the most came from the best description of writer’s block I’ve ever heard. Dan Harmon of Community and Rick & Morty fame said writer's block is the gap between how good you are and how good you want to be. Between actuality and potential. I think Ira Glass described it as having good taste but not the skill to match your own taste. But yeah, the only way to bridge that gap is to prove yourself right: You are a shit writer and you’ll never be amazing. Prove it. Write shitty. Because writing shitty is the only way you get to where you want to be. So go write some shit.

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