Red Axe Covers #8: Three Kinds of Kissing
When I'm asked by a publisher to design a cover for another person's novel, I'm taking on a responsibility – that author's creation is being put into my hands. For a new novel, the cover becomes the book's calling card, its face. So whatever I create as that face has to be true to the tone, the flavour, the heart of that story.
Helen Lamb died in 2017, shortly after completing Three Kinds of Kissing. It was her first novel. Helen's manuscript became the responsibility of her family, and through them – and publisher Vagabond Voices – it has made its way finally into print. Her book initially read to me almost with the flavour of a junior novel – the protagonists are teenagers, the trappings an adult world impinging on young lives – but its subtext is darker, more complex: spliced into this story are strains of alienation, guilt, shame and death. It’s this subtle complexity that inspired me to design one of my more unusual covers: a wrap-around image with key points of the story encoded into it.
There's a small pink heart in the middle of the artwork. It sits above the head of Grace, the narrator, like a thought, or an exclamation.
“We stopped to look in the chemist shop window and waited for him to pass. The loofahs and long handled brushes for scrubbing backs always made us shudder, and we both coveted the Hartnell in Love talcum powder in the pink plastic heart-shaped dispenser. But right then we were more interested in watching for Peter’s reflection.” (Three Kinds of Kissing, p. 141)
I wanted that little heart to be a quiet focus of the design as a whole. It's centred on the spine of the book, which often will be the only portion of that publication that you'll see when it's sitting on a shelf. Grace is there spanning the back cover, spine and front. The hand of Peter (Grace's best friend Olive's little brother), pointing his toy gun, leads in from the front flap; the back cover teases the reader with Olive leading out of frame, on to the back flap.
The idea of a panoramic illustration came to me while I was trying to figure out how to show the dynamic between these three characters. On the face of it the scene I've depicted is almost directly lifted from the pages of the book: when Peter pursues the girls along the street while wearing his cowboy holster, cap gun in hand, peppering them with shots. Grace infuriates Olive by responding to the ever-annoying Peter by suddenly deciding to play along with his game. She playfully returns fire, her fingers in the shape of a gun; it is a sweet and unexpected moment in the narrative. I knew this would be the perfect framework on which I could hang the cover design.
In Springfield Road, he drew his cap gun and took aim.
Just two words but a lot for him. I whipped around in time to see a puff of smoke rising from the muzzle of his gun, caught a whiff of sulphur. His eyes narrowed to vicious slits and he aimed again. The bang cracked through the air and crows took off from the rooftops squawking and wheeling in the blue sky. I ducked behind the nearest car and fired my imaginary pistol back.
“Don’t encourage him,” Olive said and stormed on ahead.
I pretended I didn’t hear.
We kept the gunfire going past the red phone box and on to the railway bridge. Olive was waiting for me at the far end, fuming. “Don’t you know what he’s up to? Whose side are you on?” (Three Kinds of Kissing, pp. 139-40)
Expanding my design across the entire cover, including its front and back inside flaps, enabled me to give more dimension to the story by providing the scope to show the relationship between Grace, Olive and Peter in its troubled form. Here was space to illustrate the separation that would reflect their relationships to each other, but that would also subtly mirror their positions in the narrative: Olive moving on; Peter shadowed by misfortune; Grace caught in between.
Three Kinds of Kissing takes place over two time periods: 1969 and 1973. I'm very deliberately playing up to that era with the style of illustration and the colour palette. Looking at period illustration from that time, I borrowed a discordant scheme: the spectrum of the illustration changes by degrees from sky blue, bubblegum pink and sunshine yellows, to a poppy orange, turquoise, to purples, gloomy navy and browns. From memory my own bookshelf was laden with books featuring that very distinctive style which seemed to span the late ’50s through the ’70s: stylised, heavy, ragged outlined figures, fragmented backdrops in lurid multicolour. The high street I have illustrated here is also a relic of the past. I can remember traipsing round these places with my mum in the early 1970s: chemists, grocers, toyshops, corner shops. Windows crammed with goods, colourful, varied. We can still see traces of that comparatively understated high street in today's more shouty and ever-larger signage. Those mosaic-tiled frontages hidden under layers of paint; tongue-and-groove panelling disappearing beneath sheets of PVC; hand-painted signage occasionally revealed when a shop is refitted.
A deep well of nostalgia exists for those of us who were kids in that time. So Three Kinds of Kissing chimed with me on many levels. Set in unnamed suburban Scotland, I recognised many of the elements that formed the backdrop to the story, as that was my era too. Helen has captured a sense of those very suburban, pre-Internet, sun-drenched summers: boredom in the park, gazing through shop windows; exploring woods and walking embankments. Elsewhere in the novel we read of the moon landing, and shoe-shopping. Saturday jobs and hints of hidden troubles in the lives of the adults in the orbit of the young people at the centre of the book. Everyday elements that shaped a time. The cap gun was a very key element of every ’60s and ’70s kid's toybox: the unspooling roll of spent caps gradually snaking from the top of the pistol, the wonderful, pungent smell of sulphur from exploded caps clinging to the die-cast metal. The toy gun is also something of a signifier of changed times; the way of life from fifty years ago is rapidly becoming obsolete. It was perhaps a less protective, less self-aware society.
I wanted to create a cover that spoke the same language as the novel, and that also reflected the period. I felt I had to draw something colourful but that also carried threat. A design that looked almost as if it were from that time, reminiscent of those junior novels on my shelf, but without becoming a pastiche. Working from memory and referring to photos of the time I drew out the row of shops in pencil line, then transferred my artwork to a digital format to apply colour and texture and to maintain control of the colour palette, which was key. By keeping the background elements tonally restrained, and using no other black but on the figures' heavy, ragged outlines, I gave them prominence. Their facial features I kept largely hidden beneath curtains of hair, with their eyes out of sight. And I photographed my daughter to capture the correct stance for Grace's finger gun toting.
I wanted to create a cover that spoke the same language as the novel, and that also reflected the period. I felt I had to draw something colourful but that also carried threat.
I felt from the early stages that the cover needed a really dominant use of typography. I found a typeface that said late ’60s/early ’70s hopefully without falling on the wrong side of kitsch. I spent a long time prepping the exact proportion and arrangement of the buildings and figures to each other and to the panels of the book. In practical terms I had five panels – two covers, two flaps and the spine. But without knowing the extent of the book in the early stages of its production, a spine width had to be estimated. So I had to keep the design elements flexible.
This is where traditional illustration techniques are eclipsed by modern technology: by drawing the high street separately and by making the children movable, separate elements that could be arranged independently, I left myself some wriggle room. Furthermore, I had to make sure I was leaving myself enough usable space for back cover text and flap text: the blurb, endorsements and author biography. Without having that copy available so early in the project, I asked the publisher if the necessary wordage could be kept as concise as possible (or reasonable) as a favour, to help complement my design. I'm grateful for that level of understanding from the publisher, which gave me the leeway I was hoping for, and I was able to bring my design to a satisfactory finish.
This is what I took from reading Helen's wonderful book: characters' motives and interactions that are largely hidden from view. I hope that I've stayed true to the book's character with this, my cover.
Mark Mechan (of Red Axe Design) is a designer of books and an illustrator. A Dundonian ex-pat living in Hamilton, he's been designing for over 30 years. To learn more about what he does, please visit his website.