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/