So, right around when I was working with my cover artist for my recent release, Their Troublesome Crush, I saw this Twitter thread by artist and author Nilah Magruder, where she discusses how great it would be if more authors interviewed their cover artists. I got inspired by this and when I was talking about the launch with the artist, we decided to do an interview. I’m excited to share the interview with you!
First things first, take a look at the gorgeous cover Hannah Aroni designed for my cute queer kinky polyamorous romance novella! I adore it to pieces and it really got across the feeling I wanted for the cover: that the book is sweet and cute and romantic.
And now, the interview, with the wonderfully talented Hannah Aroni!
(As a heads up, the image included with the final question alludes to societal ableism and to controlling approaches to autistic people, including physical restraint.)
When and how did you get started in art?
I’ve been drawing literally for as long as I’ve been able to hold a pen – but that’s actually a kind of complicated statement.
Visual art runs in my family, going back at least to to my maternal grandfather’s mother, who was a moderately locally famous pencil and watercolour portraitist in her town in Hungary. I’ve always loved to draw, and my family say it was always pretty obvious I’d inherited the family aptitude.
But I’m also a visual artist with a neurological disability that affects my speed of visual focus, the way my eyes get fatigued, my gross and fine motor skills, and possibly even my sense of spatial perception, though sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s neurology and what’s a result of the things I’m disinterested in because of neurology.
So as a young kid I was both artistically talented, and someone who really struggled to grip my pen right, draw a competently straight line, or stay within an outline when colouring, even if I wanted to. The fact that I can do what I do now as an artist, that I can get very close to drawing forms the way I envision them, was a consequence of an attentive mother who thoroughly believed in supporting me when I was young, getting me the help I needed, and letting me use up sometimes absurd quantities of paper on endless fun sketches. It was also a consequence of a lot of good occupational therapy, to help me get properly in touch with my hands and my body.
In my digital work, I produce clean lines because I work with a delightful program called Clip Studio Paint, which does a bit of line smoothing for me, and because I can redraw things as much as I want. (I almost exclusively use Clip Studio because of this feature, and would heartily recommend it to other artists who have found digital art hard to approach, though it has downsides for those hoping to colour for print.)
In contrast, when you look at my traditional-media art, or even the digital work I do that’s designed to look a bit “pencil-y”, you can see how my brain and my hands have influenced my style. It’s especially obvious when I’m working in the medium which is my artistic first love, graphite pencil – my style involves lots of hatching and line feathering, a softness and sketchiness that allows me to approximate and gradually build forms rather than relying on the first-time precision that a lot of other artists prefer. I delight in the gestural, emergent effect that sketchiness can produce.
What do you value in a book cover? What are some of your favourite book covers?
When I answer this, I’m thinking about something I didn’t consciously learn until relatively recently: that book covers, film and theatre posters, images designed to draw a reader toward a text that isn’t purely visual, all these genres of imagery speak in languages that a lot of people don’t understand or don’t relate to. As an illustrator, I speak a visual language which is just meaningless to some people, and because I speak it, I approach book covers knowing all these genre conventions that aren’t inherently obvious, like, “Oh this font and this colour conveys that this book is probably aligning itself with the conventions of what publishers call‘chick lit’”, or, “This book wants you to know it’s a cozy historical because of the linework on the borders and the little flourishes and the lack of high contrast.” There’s so much layering in the language of covers even when they aren’t inherently exciting, and I salute the immense skill of the artists, designers and publicity/marketing folks who are subtly speaking that language. But I’ve started thinking more about what a book cover can do even for people who don’t speak that language at all, and can’t use those little cues to discern genre or tone or intended audience.
I’m interested in covers that speak a clearer language, that aren’t only about the subtle marketing but about more overtly echoing the book’s themes, characters or story. That probably also comes from the fact that before I tried my hand at covers, I did posters for theatre, back when posters and flyers were often seen in isolation from any other promotional material. You have to convey so much about genre and tone in a theatre poster, so much about a show’s dramaturgy, because you’re often working with even fewer words than a book blurb. I love covers that are actively trying to be complete, striking artworks that can be read alone. All covers of all kinds can be read as texts, but I love the ones that want to be consciously read as texts, and are blatantly announcing themselves that way.
I grew up in the 90s reading Tamora Pierce and Diana Wynne Jones, and I loved the lushly illustrated, fantasy-realism covers on the 90s editions of those books. I especially loved the absurd amounts of detail and the rich bright colours and Howl’s sardonic look on the cover of Howl’s Moving Castle, or the elaborate dressing gowns Chrestomanci wore on the covers of the Chrestomanci series; I believe all of those were by Tim Stevens. More recently my favourites have been Paul Kidby’s covers for Terry Pratchett’s books – they’re deeply characterful and bold, and often involve a visual joke referencing another image, an artist’s wink.
But I always come back to the image of protagonist Keladry of Mindelan on the cover of Pierce’s book First Test.
That cover centres this serene young girl gazing right back at the viewer, and she has this properly bruised, very incongruous black eye. When you read the book you find out that Keladry’s serenity is a consciously chosen performance, a part of the stoic philosophy she’s adopted. But even without that knowledge, the contrast of the cover is what draws me. It’s the contrast of the black eye, that strong statement that this character has seen violence and this book contains real danger and embodied consequence, with this image of a preteen girl who looks hopeful, confident, ready to face anything, but also tender and sweet and surrounded by woodland animals that trust her … I could look at it forever, because it radiates the feeling of “this character has had to be strong before her time and it hasn’t reduced her joy or power”. The quartet is called Protector of the Small, and the cover absolutely captures that feeling, that Kel is willing to get into some scraps to protect others. I love its detail, the feeling that the artist spent forever on the image, blending different colours into the strands of hair, because I love the idea that this book was honoured with a serious investment of time (and, I hope and dream, serious pay for an artist). I love artworks that clearly took a long time, probably because illustration is already a heavily time-consuming practice, which is one of the reasons it seems to have fallen out of favour for covers. And, look, I sure hope this artist was well compensated, because I haven’t been able to find their name online anywhere, and they aren’t credited in my edition of the book, which – yikes.
Edited to add (5/4/19): per both the author and a fan, the illustrator is Joyce Patti, and she was credited in some editions of the book.
And then in contrast, I also appreciate covers that play with form and use minimalism and subversion to captivate and intrigue. The cover for Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun, designed by Peter Mendelsund, is a great example.
Can you share how you used lighting, environment, and color palette to create the mood and emotion on the cover?
For this cover, I began by considering the colours that were “mandatory” – because you had a clear idea of how these characters looked, and some of the specifics of their outfits, I had a few initial colours to play with. I knew Nora had purple tights, a black dress with a cupcake print, and brown hair, while Ernest was a pale redhead. I also knew they were meeting in a cupcake shop, and you sent me some lovely reference images of the specific shop you had in mind, so I was also thinking about the generous and elaborate cupcake frosting Ernest and Nora were about to enjoy, and all the bright and beautiful colours of that frosting. I was especially anchored by Ernest’s ginger hair and the purple of Nora’s tights, and used orange and purple as central organising colours around which I chose the rest of my palette.
But I was also thinking about how I could convey that this was a cozy, happy romance with low angst and high joy, which for me meant thinking in a combination of – setting aside the technical colour terms, I would describe them as warm, relaxed brights and calm, faded pastels. And on top of that, I knew that in the scene I was depicting, the characters had just come in from a rainy day, and were experiencing the singular comfort of being somewhere warm and dry when it’s wet outside. All those factors together led me to what I think of as “hearth” colours, warm burnt umbers and yellows, which would give the cover’s background a feeling of homey comfort.
For the staging, I was inspired by Ernest’s inner monologue, and tried only to focus on those aspects of the scene that he was most interested in, that anchored or excited him – the cupcake case and Nora herself. Ernest is experiencing one of those heady moments of limerence where the world falls away and one’s crush seems like the only real being in the room, and I wanted the staging to reflect that.
Did the cover of Their Troublesome Crush require any particular research? Were there any specific artistic challenges/considerations with creating this cover?
You made it really easy to approach this cover, by giving me a brief full of reference images with lots of accompanying information – but there were still certain things I needed to tweak or where you needed to give me more guidance. The most obvious example is that Nora uses a cane and my first attempt at portraying that use was inaccurate, so you brought me a reference image I could use to get it right. I think you’ve remarked that such reference images are hard to find, and that this often results in inaccurate imagery of cane users. It was an easy problem to remedy, but also a great reminder that sometimes googling an image doesn’t resolve a question of visual accuracy, and some expertise is necessary.
Another interesting challenge was designing and placing the cupcake print on Nora’s dress. An image containing both a real and a stylised version of the same thing is always complex; it was important to design a cupcake print so different from the way I drew the “real” cupcakes that the viewer wouldn’t have to do any conscious work to think of them as both different and the same. And then each 2D cupcake had to be individually placed on Nora’s dress in a way that conveyed the print was a repeating pattern, but that the fabric was also clinging to the shape of Nora’s body, which would affect each cupcake’s final position or even result in some slight distortion of the fabric.
I loved working with you on this cover, and especially appreciated our back and forth about depicting Nora. Can you please describe the process of that collaboration, from your point of view?
Thank you! I loved it too.
When I first pitched to you that I wanted to draw one of your covers, I was aware you were looking for an artist who was inclined to portray fat characters accurately, respectfully and with care, and you noted that evidence of this ability was often lacking in artists’ portfolios. I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about why that is. The incredible artist Maya Kern recently wrote a great twitter thread on how artists’ fatphobia, including fat artists’ internalised fatphobia, stops them from drawing fat bodies in a way that is attentive, using the loving eye for form that artists usually comfortably grant thin bodies.
But I’m also interested in why art of fat bodies portrayed respectfully doesn’t make it into portfolios, and I think it has to do with the conflation of thinness with not just beauty but neutrality, the thin body as the coat hanger on which complex artistic statements can be comfortably hung.
I put myself forward to draw this cover because I was excited about the opportunity to be part of a change I want to see in the romance novel world, and also in the wider world. There’s a real dearth of images of fat people being adored. I wanted to add to the store of images of fat people being seen through a lens of admiration, infatuation, delight, respect. Rather than delving into my own history or histories of people I care about, I’ll just say that real damage to not just our self-images and our health but also our relationships with one another has been done by the lack of those images.
But despite those intentions, I still didn’t do a good job of drawing Nora at first, because I got her actual size wrong – I visually misread your initial reference image and drew Nora as midsized. You came back with not just useful clarification that she was larger than I conveyed in my early base sketch or my first lineart attempt, but also with a raft of more specific reference images and instructions about specific parts of her body. You had a specific vision about this, not just about Nora’s size but about her shape and the way specific parts of her body would work. This included little things like how fat might look on Nora’s elbows or the way her back folds might sit under her dress. I’m glad you kindly but firmly insisted I get this right, because some of my favourite fat characters in books and even in comics seem to end up slimmed down on covers, and it’s the worst. It undercuts the messages of the text.
You sent me images from a couple of clothing sites but also relied heavily on The Adipositivity Project, and I would recommend that site as a key resource for artists looking to improve their depictions of fat people. And I would also implore any artist who has ever had body issues to read that Maya Kern thread.
Another element we discussed about depicting Nora was her curly hair. There are a lot of kinds of Jewish curly hair. I’m Jewish with wavy hair, but I have a kind of wavy hair that is already represented positively in lots of art. Nora has a much tighter curl pattern, a really gorgeous type of Jewish hair that a lot of people of various non-Anglo ethnicities have, but that hasn’t always been portrayed as positively, basically because it doesn’t look Anglo. Again, you came back to me with some great reference pictures that helped me get Nora’s hair right.
I’m going to do something a bit scary and encourage you to post a screenshot of my original Nora lineart alongside the final Nora, because I think the contrast says a lot about how representation can be watered down or made more conventional-beauty-standards-palatable – and thus less powerful and transformative of our own perceptions and our cultural standards – without careful attention to certain kinds of detail.
And then there were elements of Nora where I got to have a bigger say and add some flair – I decided to put her in pink Doc Martens, and – this might sound strange – but I had the pleasure of deciding the specific way she might hold Ernest’s hand. There are an awful lot of ways to hold a hand, and each way can feel a little different.
What should an author keep in mind when working with a cover artist?
First, start your artist search and negotiation early. Different artists take different lengths of time to work, but more time means you and they have more possible choices available in terms of style.
Balance clarity and specificity about the things that are most important to you with a sense of trust in your artist. An artist can be a collaborator in a lot of different ways – they can take your vision of a specific scene or image and translate it into reality quite faithfully, or they can bring more of their own design concepts to the table based on the themes of your text. The clearer you can be about the kind of collaborator you want early on, the happier you’ll be – tell your artist what kind of collaboration you want, and check in about how they prefer to work. But also, do your best to choose an artist who you’re willing to trust to make some of the decisions.
Even if you’re also a visual artist or designer, and even if your cover artist is also proficient with language and verbal/written expression, it’s best to think of commissioning an artist as a task you’re undertaking using two languages, the verbal or written and the visual. If you run out of ways to express something in one language, or you struggle with clarity in one language, use another. Expect that each of you associates different connotations with different words, and in places where you need accuracy or specificity, use sketches or reference images as much as practicable, or express things in multiple ways. It’s amazing how far into a process you can get while still having a different vision from your collaborator.
Readers have commented on how much they love Nora’s cupcake dress, and I personally am really into her hair and the lines on her face, and Ernest’s blush. What are your favorite elements of the cover?
I love Ernest’s swoony smile, and the way colour shapes his curls – I’m such a sucker for drawing bright hair. I’m also very fond of the warm blushy colouring at Nora’s elbows and the softness on Nora’s upper arms. I also like the differences between the way Nora and Ernest smile.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
Note: the poster image for the upcoming play alludes to societal ableism and to controlling approaches to autistic people, including physical restraint.
I’m a writer and theatre maker as well as an illustrator, and my next two projects are in those spheres.
First, I’m one of the writers for upcoming podcast Supernatural Sexuality with Doctor Seabrooke, which is about a call-in advice show about sex, love and relationships, set in a world where magical creatures are real. It’s super queer, super cute, and produced by Passer Vulpes, the same podcasting studio that makes the adorable Love and Luck podcast, a queer romance-turned-community/found family story full of love and magic, told via voicemails. You can keep track of it here.
Second, I’m co-creating a play called Helping Hands, auspiced by neurodiverse-led theatre company A_tistic, which opens in August. To quote our marketing copy:
When the whole world wants you to be a certain way, what does it mean to get “help”?
In a world built for neurotypical people, sometimes autistic people need help. But … what does that mean, exactly?
Created in collaboration with a majority-neurodivergent cast, Helping Hands digs into questions of interdependence, normalisation, power, compromise, good intentions, and better living through goblin mentorship.
By turns surrealist and sweet, hilarious and horrific, Helping Hands explores what help is, and what help could be.
It’s being staged in Melbourne, Australia, but it’s actually going to be watchable from all around the world – we’ll be selling tickets to access a high-quality, captioned, streamable film of the production for a limited time after the physical production closes. We’re really excited by the show (and also pretty exhausted trying to make it all happen).
I actually just finished our poster illustration, a collaboration with the show’s photographer and lighting/set designer, John Collopy, so here’s a sneak peek:
Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to talk about this process. You were a truly wonderful commissioner/collaborator, and working on this cover was a gift.
In her arts life, Hannah Aroni is a writer, director, dramaturge and illustrator. She’s part of the arts core of A_tistic, a theatre, education and consultancy collective dedicated to telling autistic stories and spreading understanding of neurodiversity. Her writing has appeared in Overland and SBS Life. She’s worked in law, disability advocacy, academia and social work, and is a Board Member of Pathways Melbourne, an organisation that supports people leaving or changing their relationship with their faith or religious community. Hannah is endlessly fascinated by the complexities of interpersonal communication and the challenges of developing a utopian imagination.