Win a copy of OLYMPIA KNIFE and a $25 Interlude Press gift card at Rafflecoptr!
Friends, I’m pretty happy to report that
a) the book party is over and I am under no obligation to appear in public again for quite a while (I am like a groundhog in this way)
b) from the donations of super wonderful book party guests, we raised a total of $200 for the queer, social justice-oriented circus/performance troupe Circus Amok (thanks, Jennifer Miller, for juggling knives) and the Ali Forney Center for homeless queer youth.
Since the bookstore space could only fit a limited number of people (about 25), this total makes me happy. Thanks to everyone who was able to give something!
If you are in the NYC area, come to the book release party for OLYMPIA KNIFE tonight, 7-9 pm at Bluestockings Bookstore. Performance by Circus Amok’s Jennifer Miller, cookies and swag! Dudes, there are clown noses.
CB Messer is the art director at Interlude Press, and is the designer who created the cover and interior look of both of my own novels. She has designed many other books, and is an illustrator whose work I absolutely love. Her works are whimsical and odd, but realistically lifelike, the combination of which has a certain beautiful and strange tension, a real thing which cannot be real. I feel lucky to have had CB design my first book, and asked that she design the second (which she probably would have done anyway, but I didn’t want to take any chances there).
I’ve wanted to pick her brain for a long time, and I finally got myself organized and courageous enough to ask her to let me get a glimpse of what goes on in her head.
ALYSIA CONSTANTINE: First off, I’d like to say how much I love your work. In particular, the graphite drawings you do are beautifully detailed and spot on. I still remember the first illustration of yours I ever saw, before I knew you—you’d illustrated someone’s story about a cartoonist/illustrator who slowly reveals himself to his love interest through a series of drawings (and, of course, all those drawings were actually yours). When I found out you would be the one to design my first novel, I thought your name sounded familiar, and I went back to look at the story, and sure enough, it was you! I almost jumped out of my socks with excitement. One of my favorite book covers you’ve done aside from mine distinctly maintains the weirdness and humor I associate with your work, despite its deceptive simplicity: the cover to The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths and Magic by F. T. Lukens. It’s all illustrated in silhouette, just the title and a guy being chased by a charging unicorn. Usually, if I see a unicorn or a dragon or some such thing, I run the other way. But this totally drew me in and made me want to read it. I think the silhouette helped—took all the fantasy romance out of it and made it humorous.
Some basic questions to start: first, what does an art director do? It sounds like a dumb question, but I mean this both literally (what are the things you must do?) and in a broader sense (what are the things you need to accomplish?).
CBM: This is far from a dumb question! The role of an art director caters a bit to the size and purpose of the studio or company one works for, but for the most part, we’re responsible for what I like to call “visual congruence,” or ensuring the visual components of a project make sense with regard to each other while also serving to achieve the campaign’s overall goals and objectives. At IP, I manage cover development and book design for contracted titles, artist commissions, and the visual side of company-tier promotional branding.
AC: When you’re acting as an illustrator/book designer, what do you do? Again, I mean this both literally (what are the things you must do?) and in a broader sense (what are the things you need to accomplish?). And because I can never leave ex-professor-me totally behind, I cannot resist going to the lexicographical authorities here to point out that “illustration” is about making something clear, bringing something to light. Is that an accurate way to see what you do?
CBM: You betcha! I’m happy to report the lexicographical authorities have not let us down here. Or rather, we haven’t let them down. Illustration, at least in the world of visual arts, is the process by which one visually represents a cognitive idea. In the case of IP, these ideas are stories (manuscripts), and their visual representations take shape by way of cover art and typesetting. Apart from the technical/manual aspects of creating cover-bound artwork (proper layout, rendering, etc.) and at the risk of sounding terribly maudlin, a good illustrator will concern themselves with making certain that the “heart” of a design matches/complements the “soul” of the story it’s representing.
AC: That sounds like it should go on a coffee cup or inspirational poster. I like that you think of the novel (or whatever you’re illustrating) as something alive, something with a heart and soul.
I don’t want to ask the question that everybody asks of artists and writers: where do you get your ideas? Instead, I’d like to know: how do you choose what detail or moment from a story to illustrate (or use for the cover illustration of a novel)? What criteria do you use? Or do you just somehow know? (I had a poetry professor once who said she could hold her hands over a poem and feel where the “heat” was in it—is it that woo-woo for you?)
CBM: Haha, I love that! But no, no superpowers for me. My approach is rather pragmatic. I look for things that characterize the book as a whole—repeating themes and motifs, symbols, and, you bet, when it makes sense and doesn’t give too much away, a specific moment or “scene.” There’s a limit to how much stuff we can cram onto a cover before it gets too convoluted, so what we choose to put there is methodical. I ask myself things like: Does this tease the story in a manner that makes sense, even out of context? Is it interesting? Is it unique? Is it congruent with the title? Are the characters and/or setting represented in ways that really matter? If the answer to each of these questions is “yes,” then I feel pretty good about moving forward with the idea at hand.
AC: What is your favorite illustration (or book cover) you’ve done? What about it do you love?
CBM: I do have favorite covers, but don’t tell the others! One is Sweet. Another is Rules and Regs. From the very beginning, I knew exactly what I wanted to pursue, felt so strongly about the efficacy of the designs I wanted to pitch, that I charged into those staff meetings ready to battle/bribe my way to green lights. There’s a beautiful simplicity to Sweet—a charming, don’t-let-the-details-pass-you-by quality that I was determined to capture on its cover. In the case of Rules and Regs, the story and concept just made me laugh. Literally, it was me, sitting alone in my office, pondering potential, laughing.
AC: Well, I could be biased a bit, but I love what you did with Sweet. Tonally, it’s so light and clear, and that sticky note (which is a reference to a moment in the novel) is an absolutely perfect detail on which to seize, though I didn’t realize it until I saw your work. Thank you for such an awesome cover, by the way.
Now I’m going to artlessly jump topics and ask: I know you’ve been in the military, which is not an environment in which one imagines an artist thriving. Did you thrive as an artist there?
CBM: I like to think that I thrived, but probably not as an artist. There’s an organized discipline to the military that suits me; I like knowing what I have to do, how long I have to do it, and why it’s important. It’s not the best environment for ambiguous free-thinking, but I was honestly fine with that. My mind was on other things, other tasks, and despite having used art as a mode of escapism for most of my life, I didn’t miss it all that much. It wasn’t until my commitment was coming to an end, and I had to decide what to do next, that I realized, oh wait, yes I do miss it. So, I can’t really claim my time in service was an intensive exercise in visual creativity, but it did expose me to things—people, places, perspectives—that, to this day, influence the way I perceive the world around me. And that bleeds into my work, for sure.
AC: Speaking of influences, who is the artist/illustrator you most admire? Would anyone guess your artistic heroes from looking at your work?
CBM: Oh, man. Ask me this again tomorrow, and you might get a different answer. But I think I can safely say, on any given day, that I have a minor obsession with Pascal Campion. There’s a candidness and near-multisensory quality to his composition and style that many within the visual arts community strive to emulate, myself included. But no, the odds of someone contemplating my work and saying, “What ho! This brings to mind Pascal Campion!” are extremely low. If you did, I’d thank you profusely for lying.
AC: And yet enough people think your work is wonderful that you’re now an art director! How did you wind up being a part of Interlude Press?
CBM: I first came aboard as an illustrator, but I’d been familiar with IP [Interlude Press]and the work of several of its authors (yours included) for quite some time. The art director at the time kindly approached me and asked if I’d be interested in working with her on some cover projects. Of course I said yes!
AC: Do you choose which books you want to “cover,” or are they assigned to you?
CBM: When a manuscript we’ve acquired enters our production pipeline, my desk is one of its very first stops. So I guess you could say that no one really escapes me. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing probably depends on who you ask.
AC: You’re one of the few art directors I have ever heard of who reads the book you’re designing (instead of just reading a summary). Why do you read the whole book? Does reading the book change what you decide to do as an art director?
CBM: I think maybe this is just because I’m odd. I don’t know. I can’t really say that it’s necessary, because full access to manuscripts as an art director/designer isn’t always guaranteed. But I’m given the opportunity to read them at IP, and so I do. I like knowing the story firsthand; it makes my job more comprehensive, which I appreciate, and having such familiarity means I can explore nuance in ways I might not otherwise attempt. In this sense, it probably does affect my design choices, hopefully in ways that make the resulting composition stronger.
AC: When I think of my favorite designs of yours, that really rings true. So many of the interesting covers you’ve done–for Sweet and Rules and Regs, as examples, highlight a detail from the book that would probably not be in a summary, and yet capture the flavor of the book so completely.
So, What’s the book you wish you could design or illustrate, if you could have a go at any book (written or not)?
CBM: I’d love to illustrate a children’s book. A clever little tale, probably by way of anthropomorphic animals or some such surrealistic silliness, because that’s what I drew all the time as a kid. (This is mostly because I found them easier to draw than actual people, but my affinity for the exercise has since stuck around.)
AC: I can’t tell if you’re teasing the project I’d proposed to you, or if I somehow hit the nail exactly on the head with my proposal! Either way, for those who don’t know (which is everybody except CB and me), I’ve asked CB to work with me on a book. With clever little tales featuring anthropomorphized animals. I’m so excited to get this rolling.
Do you write?
CBM: It’s in deference to public safety that I don’t.
AC: You’re a public nuisance.
I know I’ve told you before, but I think you’ve got a brilliant instinct for knowing exactly how a book should look, inside and out. The range of your designs—even the range of styles—is amazing to me. They’re all so individual and look nothing alike (though I can usually peg your illustration style if you draw something, which is the mark of… something wonderful… in an artist, I think). The covers of my own novels, both of which you’ve done, for instance, don’t look alike at all—they’re not even the same style. Sweet was clean and open and a little quirky, almost humorous, while Olympia Knife is darkly beautiful, complex, almost baroque. Both illustrations seem intimately tied to the novel with which they correspond. What’s the process that gets you there? In other words, how do you keep everything unique and intimate and specific like you do?
CBM: Mostly, I try to keep things as unique and specific as the story itself. Every book has a personality, and I do my best to honor that. The psychology behind cover art, when approached correctly, is to embody the story in such a way that attracts the author’s intended audience. I want potential readers to know what they’re getting, no surprises. These are the folks who’ll enjoy the story most! So, I suppose I approach the task from two separate angles: composition and style. A proper composition should, at the very least, impart subject: who or what the book’s about. Style, then, is an effective means to convey more subliminal messages like genre and “tone,” the latter of which is largely derived from writer’s voice. In the end, a young adult title should visually speak to those who are young (or at least young at heart), a comedy should appear funny, and so on and so forth. Visual processing is a weird and fascinating affair, and, lucky for me, something we can sometimes nudge/influence via simple techniques, e.g. stroke and color.
AC: What’s the most difficult part of this kind of work for you?
CBM: It would be really, really nice if there were 57 hours in a day.
AC: It strikes me that you must be really good at listening—both listening to the author and publishers, and listening to the story itself—to know what’s needed from any illustration. (And, maybe, this includes listening to readers, too?) Has there ever been a time when you’ve had to go in a direction you didn’t want, or design in a way you thought was wrong?
CBM: Those closest to me may need to corroborate these ostensible “listening skills.” But I do try! I do my best to communicate on what, exactly, I’m doing and why, so I don’t know that I’ve ever been forced to execute on a design I’ve been staunchly opposed to (or someone else has been staunchly opposed to), but there have been instances where I’ve needed to sacrifice ideas I’ve loved in order to achieve something else. Something more valuable than whatever plans I might’ve originally had. Quite honestly, when there’s a case for change, I’m all ears.
AC: Do you lean toward a certain color palette, or a certain style, or certain themes, or even modes of illustration?
CBM: There be far too many attempts at greyscale realism scattered amongst my personal projects to say “no” here. Tonal values (shadow and highlight, which, together, serve to create depth and dimensionality) are best observed in this profile, so perhaps this feeds into my obsession? I’m not really sure. For work, though, predispositions are tossed to the wind! (It’s the ones that end up boomeranging me in the face that are then, possibly, reconsidered.)
AC: What do you most love to read for pleasure? Is it the same stuff that lends itself well to illustration?
Perhaps I am a giant geek. No, for sure I am a giant geek. Apart from fiction of the lighthearted/comedic sort, I spent most of my time perusing children’s picture books, visual development anthologies, and textbooks on the human anatomy. (I majored in biology, so let’s pretend that last one isn’t as strange as it probably is.) As for whether any of this lends itself well to illustration, I would say yes. At least in the sense that I will always find lessons in aesthetic storytelling invigorating.
AC: I still treasure my copy of Gray’s Anatomy. Medical illustrations are so cool.
So, what’s better, computer or hand?
CBM: Ah, the age old question. One that has long been subject to zealous debate. I would assert, with complete sincerity, that each serves a purpose of equal importance. That “undo” button, though? Even the finest of fine artists will admit that thing’s downright transcendent.
AC: Paint or graphite or something else?
CBM: For me, personally: digital paint, graphite drawing, Star Wars characters in papier-mâché.
AC: Illustrating something already written, or creating something a propos of nothing?
CBM: Both! Every now and then, I’ll stumble across a little ditty that tickles me, and before I know it, I’ve drawn a frog in yellow rubber wellies. Other times, I’ll paint something just because the abstract notion of it makes me laugh. My favorite outcome, though, is when something I draw then inspires someone to write. This has happened a time or two, and I freakin’ love it.
AC: What are you working on right now?
CBM: Exciting, secret stuff! (Hint: 2018 pub calendar, here we come.)
AC: How can people get in touch with you if they want to tell you how cool your work is, or if they want to work with you?
CBM: Anyone who feels so inclined can hit me up at cb@interludepress anytime. E-paper footballs and airplanes welcome!
To see more of CB Messer’s illustration and design work, you should check out her website: http://cbmesser.com/
So, a reviewer sent me a review of OLYMPIA KNIFE to post, and I have to say it’s one of the loveliest reviews! I swear I didn’t write it!
M. M. Chandler wrote:
“Alysia Constantine is a maverick world maker. I first discovered her modern magical realism meets LGBTQ romance writing (which is just the perfect queer genre mashup, really) with her debut novel, SWEET. In SWEET, she crafts the most enchanting world of baked goods and broken hearts, filled with all the bitter, sweet, and bittersweet flavors of old loss and new love. In OLYMPIA KNIFE, the gloriously queer fin-de-siècle circus becomes Constantine’s stage, which she sets with lovingly fleshed-out and complex characters who are as flawed as they are endearing, and whose misfit misfortunes provide both a fantastical and familiar backdrop for explorations of queer identity, familial loss, and sexual awakening. Even though O.K. is an accessible work of fiction, it is also filled with multi-layered concepts and thought-provoking analogs; Constantine doesn’t just tell a captivating historical love story, but also hits upon deep themes that will resonate with anyone who has felt marginalized, non-normative, or invisible in their identity. I couldn’t help but break out my highlighter while reading, underscoring and earmarking entire sections that were just too rich and good to think about only once. In short, this is a beautifully and thoughtfully written work from an author who has quickly become a personal favorite, and who will soon be one of yours, too.”
Told you it was nice.
My new novel, OLYMPIA KNIFE, is out today! Get it at Amazon & other major booksellers. I recommend supporting small presses and getting it straight from the publisher Interlude Press: http://interludepress.com/post/167037702295/now-available-olympia-knife-by-alysia
Get it? I love that the title of my upcoming novel OLYMPIA KNIFE (out Nov 2) can be abbreviated OK.
Anyway, Forward Reviews just published a great review of it here: https://www.forewordreviews.com/reviews/olympia-knife/
That sounded dirtier than I intended. What I intended to say:
My first novel, SWEET, is now available on NetGalley: https://store.interludepress.com/collections/olympia-knife-by-alysia-constantine
My upcoming novel, OLYMPIA KNIFE, comes out on November 2. It’s a magic realist novel about a woman in a traveling circus at the turn of the century. You can pre-order it at most major booksellers, but I suggest getting it straight from the publisher–support small presses when you can (most booksellers take a cut of their profits): https://store.interludepress.com/collections/olympia-knife-by-alysia-constantine
Now, go read something.
(Oh, yeah, and if you’re in NYC and looking for something fun to do on November 5, stop by Bluestockings Bookstore from 7-9 for the book release party for OLYMPIA KNIFE. There will be cotton candy and other swag, a raffle for some good stuff (including books), a live performance by Circus Amok founder Jennifer Miller, a reading, and your chance to browse a fabulous feminist bookstore while eating a brownie.)
I’m here to contend that not all depictions of violence are equal, and the distinction between them has a lot to do with purpose. There is a real difference between relishing violence and bearing witness to it, but the difficulty is that in art (poetry, fiction, visual art, music, dance, film, etc.), witnessing is often bound up with pleasure and the two are hard to tease apart.
In her article about violence in The New York Times Magazine (“Battle Cry,” 8/20/17, p 9-11), Amanda Hess suggests that how violence is presented makes a big difference, too. Context matters, she says, as in cases ranging “from those who express extreme positions in polite tones [like the white nationalist Richard Spencer, who calls for ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’] to those who express reasonable positions in impolite ones” (11) like Black Lives Matter protestors have been accused of doing. The conclusion at which Hess arrives is that “[f]etishizing civility has a way of elevating style over substance” (11), so that we pay attention to the apparent politeness of the speech and not its incendiary content. She asks, essentially: should one be expected to politely answer to someone who’s calling for one’s extermination?
The implication here is that not all violence is equal, that there are more forms of violence than the physical (the verbal threat of violence is violence, too, as is hate speech in general), and that violence in many forms can be a necessary tool of resistance.
In the early 2000s, a travelling exhibit and subsequent book of postcards and other memorabilia commemorating the lynching of Black people in the U.S. (Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America, ed. James Allen) caused a ruffle of objections and questions wherever it went—photographs showed lynched Black bodies and their proud, rowdy white audiences. Should one look, or look away? Is consuming these images the same as participating in the violence? It was disturbing, to say the least, and heartbreaking. As a professor, I told my classes about the online version of the exhibit and warned them that what they would see if they looked was racist and violent, extremely hurtful and most likely indelible (this, of course, only seemed to entice most of them to look).
I’m thinking about this today, so many years later, because the question of violence and its representation has surfaced for me again, though in a much smaller way: my novel Olympia Knife contains several depictions of violence, and there was some discussion between the publisher and me about how best to handle this. The novel takes place in America in the early 20th Century and is concerned with the lives of those misfits who run away with the circus. There is a Black Creole fat lady who, as a child, saw her father lynched by white men. There is a white bearded lady who, as a young woman, was the victim of attempted sexual assault (which she successfully fended off by kicking her assailant). There’s the murder of a violent and dangerous person (I won’t give away who). None of these events are given more than a paragraph or two of prose, and none of the violent events are described graphically or pleasurably, but they are troublesome for me nonetheless.
I know many people are disturbed by such violence depicted in art, and many seek to avoid it. Of course, this is always a person’s choice to do, and only the individual can determine what’s best for them. But sometimes, I think, one needs to be disturbed. It’s dangerous to look away, to sequester oneself in constant, pillowy safety. Many of us, due to our identities (as LGBTQ people, women, POC, disabled folk, immigrants, or other marginalized people) do not have the option to avoid violence. As a queer, disabled, fat woman, I’m subjected to violent speech frequently, occasional threats of physical violence (once, a guy driving a van suggested he might run over a fat woman like me with no problem because I had ample “cushion”), and several occasions of seriously wounding actualized physical violence. I don’t speak, in other words, cavalierly about this subject. And I’m far luckier than many folks in this country, for whom violence is more seriously or more constantly waged, or institutionalized in our very social/governmental structure. It’s a difficult subject I don’t take lightly. It’s life-and-death for many of us.
I thought a lot about this back when I was debating how to address with my college classes the exhibition of the lynching photographs, and came to the conclusions that (1) I believe it’s important to confront the violent realities in which many people are forced to live, (2) it is a disservice to paper over the depiction of that violence with civility when many people have to live through it, but (3) such violence must be addressed carefully to avoid as best one can promoting voyeuristic entertainment from the suffering depicted (promoting, in effect, emotional tourism) and (4) other people may disagree with these ideas, and so there must always be the opportunity to decide not to look.
At the end of his heartbreaking film Bamboozled, director Spike Lee included a montage of his own collection of “mammy” dolls and other racist toys and decorations set against striking monochrome backgrounds and a mournfully beautiful song by Steve Winwood. It’s disturbing and painful (as is the film itself), but entirely necessary for the moment. The film also contains genius performances by Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson in a modern minstrel-type show, and the juxtaposition of pleasure at their humor and talent against the horror of taking pleasure in a racist show is part of how the film intentionally hurts its viewers. But Lee does this for a very good reason. It’s the pain that’s produced alongside the pleasure, and being asked as a viewer to confront how I can enjoy those quietly, politely violent things, that teaches me about locking myself mindlessly into pleasure at the expense of others and gives the film its meaning, its ability to convince and to affect me so deeply.
Too often, in art that attempts to depict the wounds of racism and other dangerous institutions like it, the racism becomes an abstraction. Through depictions of violence, it becomes real—it makes a real, physiological effect on the body: you cry, you go cold, or you shake, you cringe, it produces pain. Because I taught about horror film for so many years, I cannot stop myself from explaining that this very idea is what underlies the workings of many horror films—the combination of psychological and physical reactions to its contents (you jump and shiver, as well as worrying), ensures you are affected deeply and intensely.
A 1922 poster included in the Without Sanctuary exhibit quotes the NAACP: “To maintain civilization in America, you cannot escape your responsibility” (http://www.cnn.com/2000/US/01/18/lynching.photography/index.html?_s=PM:US). In light of frequent police violence against people of color, one strategy in recent years has been for bystanders to observe and even film police interactions, to make clear they will bear witness to anything that takes place.
Violence and repression, in other words, happen more effectively in the dark and in silence. Denial is powerful (see, for example, how effective Holocaust deniers can be; 16 countries have laws against Holocaust denial and even more have more general laws against denying genocide). It is our responsibility to bear witness, to others and to ourselves. It’s part of the reason repressive political regimes often quickly silence the press and arrest or kill journalists before doing anything else (or they may simply ban the press from the White House, as a more recent and local example).
In my aesthetic, joy is political and vital—these days, I’ll take it when I can get it. But just as vital are struggle and displeasure. Art must not be an escape from pain and difficulty, it should be our way to confront it. Finding joy must happen in the midst of grief, not in ignorance of it. Responsibility can only be shouldered by those who are willing and able to bear it, of course, but for those who are up for the fight, art is a way of bearing witness and—through that—salving one’s wounds. Respectfully, I urge that one must choose, as a way of being socially responsible, to look and to see.