Brief encounters: Neil Gower on how to design for sensitive subjects with tact

Brief encounters: Neil Gower on how to design for sensitive subjects with tact

Neil Gower is the prolific and bestselling illustrator of, most famously, Bill Bryson’s book jackets and, more recently, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, a collaboration with author Alex Preston, which The Bookseller covered in depth last year. Yet his latest assignment is on a rather different scale: designing the cover for Clare Best’s The Missing List for indie publisher Linen Press. Gower gave us a glimpse into his process for designing the cover, as well as a look at some early sketches, and explains the challenges distinct to this brief.

"The cover painting for The Missing List emerged from a delicate balance of detachment and attachment.

When Clare Best asked if I would consider devising a cover for her memoir, my gut-reaction was, “How can I diplomatically say no?” The problem was, I knew Clare. I was an admirer of her poetry. I was also aware that the book dealt with the sexual abuse inflicted upon Clare by her father when she was a child. Its cover would require very delicate treatment and a clarity of vision that might well be compromised by our acquaintance. I felt I lacked the necessary detachment, and I decided that it would probably be best for us both, and our friendship, if I walked away.

Fate intervened, however, and following an episode of mistaken telephone identity involving two well-spoken Clares (a story for another day), I found I had agreed to design the very cover I’d resolved to avoid. With an uneasy cargo of a manuscript, a Moleskine and many misgivings, I boarded a train at King’s Cross, bound for Berwick. I shuffled the pages. I sipped coffee. I realigned my pencils and rubber. A whistle blew. I picked up the foreword. Before Finsbury Park, I was hooked. At the top of page 12, I saw precisely what was required.…

Then the figures are gone. The film quality fails now. Invasions of reds and yellows. At last the laddered squares of black. The end of a reel.

By Stevenage, I was scribbling thumbnail sketches.

  

Gower's thumbnail sketches (left) and the final cover (right)

Clare describes the book as “an act of compassion for my young self”. She relies on her journal, her reflections, transcribed recordings of her father’s account of his life, and his Bolex ciné-films. The result is a montage of vignettes which, unsurprisingly, given Clare’s background in poetry, read cumulatively like verses. What beguiled me immediately was the forensic beauty of the writing. The whole thing is composed with the ear of a poet and the eye of a detective but, crucially, never the voice of a victim. In order to attain clarity, and maybe as a precaution against what she might unearth, Clare builds a distance into her prose, assuming the role of observer.

This is particularly telling in the home-movie sequences. It is here that her wilful self-possession can be felt at its most absolute. Her descriptions of the footage are beautifully and clinically observed: the clothing, the cars, characters, colours, locations. In the inescapable intimacy peculiar to viewing someone else’s ciné in the dark, we are presented with her father’s edited visions of the family. We are lifted again and again with the camera to his face, to his detached but deeply implicated eye. I often talk about looking for the visual centre of gravity in a piece of writing; that point where the author’s intentions and imagery, conscious and subconscious, intersect. In this instance, I discovered it in that tiny gap between lens and eye, in the gulf between the infallibility of the visual record and all the dark, damaged history flickering and scratching at its margins.

Studying those ciné-film edge-codes, I was further struck by how all the lettering (“Kodachrome”, “Ektachrome”—a kind of poetry in itself) sat at 90 degrees to the frames. When I flipped the title to run vertically on the cover, it seemed to reinforce the sense of disconnection, of a world beyond, at odds with that of the viewer. It also gave a more abstract form to the words, drawing more attention to the individual letters that comprised them, but without losing legibility of the whole, echoing Clare’s “collage” approach to constructing the narrative. I have seldom received such an immediate and overwhelming sense of how a cover should look as I did from the opening passages of The Missing List.

Instead of compromising my ability to interpret freely, my lack of detachment proved a counterbalance to Clare’s wilful distancing. This dispassion, assumed in order to reclaim her young life with dignity, enabled me the space to step deeper into her words, to see and to distil them with the sharper focus afforded by our friendship. The power of this book lies in its quiet determination to make sense of the unspeakable; the key to its cover lay in painting the unseeable."