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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Cover Stories: If I Stay by Gayle Forman

Gayle Forman is a great person with whom to get a mani-pedi, she's a former magazine staffer like me, and she's written one of the biggest books of 2009: If I Stay. Also, she has one killer cover. Here's Gayle with the story behind that:

"The only image that kept coming to me was one of hands. Not to give any spoilers or anything, but at the very end of the book, Mia fixates on her own hands and she visualizes a lot of things happening around her hands. So I had this cover image of two hands grasping for each other, almost touching, but not quite. I told Penguin about that, but I knew that it was a pretty prosaic, kinda boring image. Still, right off the bat I think we all knew that we didn't want a person cover, no girl-on-stretcher, girl-in-snow type thing.

"First, my editor and her assistant went through the manuscript looking for images that might stand out as cover possibilities. There were the obvious ones, like the cello. But I was against using the cello or a bow or musical notes on the cover. Though Mia is a cellist, I didn't think a classical instrument characterizes the book and frankly before I wrote this, I probably would never have picked up a book with a cello on the cover. Cello seemed boring. Believe me, I was as surprised as anyone when this character popped into my head as a cellist and though I love Mia and fell in love with the cello through her, I get why a cello or a bow would be a turn off. They seem heavy, baroque, boring, not exactly screaming interesting story or YA or love story.

"Also, I thought it was interesting that the book Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (which I adore) had
musical notes on the hardcover, which did okay, and a party scene on the paperback, which is when the book became this huge bestseller, and that seemed to further my misgivings about musical stuff on covers.

"At one point someone mentioned a charm bracelet, because Mia wears one in the beginning and it plays a pivotal role but then we remembered that a charm bracelet was
the cover of The Lovely Bones and given the comparisons the books were getting, that was nixed. Anyhow, none of the obvious images were really jumping out. We had a really short time to get ARCs out, so Penguin wound up getting a bunch of different designers to come up with concepts and they showed them to me once they had about five or six contenders.

"Out of those, only one was a photograph and I think that was a stock photo. The rest were more illustrations. When I finally came in to look at the finalists, Penguin was really excited because they had decided that they were going to do the jacket out of vellum (white transparent parchment-like paper) and have the image go on top of the vellum and have part of the image be on the book casing underneath. My editor was really pleased because the vellum was so special looking, but when she showed me the image they were thinking of putting on the vellum (sort of like an iconic bird) I was actually much more into this other image.

"It was dark blue and had these black branches and a flower. But I didn't say anything one way or another because all of these covers were going to go into a sales/marketing/art meeting and so I figured because everything was in such preliminary stages, I'd wait and hear what everyone else had to say before I chimed in. And the sales department came back and gave the thumbs up to the vellum idea, but chose to put the cover of the branches and the flower on the vellum with the fading blue background and white branches the title and my name in the branches. And that was the cover I'd loved all along.

"Penguin went all out for the ARC, so that it had embossed type on it. And when I first got it, I think I might have cried. I know I could not stop petting the flower. I went on a pre-publication tour and everyone raved about the cover. It was just so beautiful. At one point on the tour, we were at this very old-school hotel restaurant in San Diego and there was this waiter--40 something, in a tux, not exactly the book's demographic. He looked at the cover for like two minutes and said how it was about loss but also evoked hope. I was blown away. We hadn't told him anything about the book. But he got all that from looking at the cover!

"The only thing that changed was that the vellum didn't work out. Once they started looking into the production, it turned out there were all these complications. Like if we had to order reprints, it could only be done in certain months that were very humid (or were not humid, I don't remember which). Anyhow, it was very difficult and very limiting, so instead of the vellum they just wound up using this very nice quality, almost stationary-like paper. When my editor told me about the vellum, she seemed nervous, like she thought I was going to be upset, but I didn't care. In fact, I was sort of relieved. I was a little worried about the vellum's readability and I'd heard that booksellers didn't like it because it got dirty and tore. And it was really the image that I cared about, not the paper.

"The right cover fell into place. With every other book I've published, I have had to fight my publisher on the cover to varying degrees of success. I've never been fully in love with any cover before. But in this case, the cover I loved wound up being the cover they chose. I don't know what it was about the branches. Initially, it was just a visceral reaction. It just felt right. Later, when I tried to think about it analytically, I thought about how the flower amid the barren branches represented Mia holding on, the living thing amid all the death. But also how those branches represented the roots of her extended family that could sustain her if she chose to stay.

"I think it is a work of art. Truly."

I completely agree with Gayle! I love the simplicity and symbolism of this cover, not to mention the color contrast and the delicate balance between hanging on and letting go that it indicates. What do you guys think? Oh, and that's the UK cover at right, just for fun. I'm partial to the US cover, but this one is beautiful in its own way, too.

UPDATE: Gayle just sent the Dutch cover, below, and she calls it "arrestingly beautiful." How did she get so lucky? I love them all!

Forman_Als ik blijf-1.jpg


Melissa said...

Great post! I have this one on my night table - now I am looking forward to reading it even more.

Donna Gambale said...

Wow -- I'd always LOVED that cover, but it's amazing the story behind it. And I always interpreted the cover as exactly this: "how the flower amid the barren branches represented Mia holding on, the living thing amid all the death. But also how those branches represented the roots of her extended family that could sustain her if she chose to stay." Thank you!

Beth Kephart said...

I love how entirely involved Forman was—and oh my, that Dutch cover.

I now have to read this book.

Marjolein Reads said...

great post! The dutch book is indeed gorgeous, and I felt really lucky that I could interview Gayle when she visited amsterdam!

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