Happy Indie Story, Part Two: A Coversation with Artist Sarah Pruski

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Alternate A Boy Like Me Cover by Sarah Pruski.

By Jennie Wood

In this monthly series for Dead Darlings, I’m documenting the step-by-step process of publishing A Boy Like Me. For part two, Sarah Pruski and I discuss how she created the book’s cover. Sarah created multiple versions of the cover, including the one seen here and this final version.

Jennie Wood: One of the things that excited me most about publishing A Boy Like Me with 215 Ink was the opportunity to pick the cover artist. I spent a few days looking at favorite book covers and thinking about the kind of cover A Boy Like Me should have. My mind kept returning to your work which I’d seen on your blog and on websites such as Kelly J. Ford and Craft on Draft. You have an amazing talent for capturing the essence of a person or project. When a writer approaches you for a project like this, what’s the most helpful information he or she can give you?

Sarah Pruski: Whenever I begin a design project, I always ask the client for a collage…you know, just like the one you probably made in elementary school. Favorite colors, artwork, quotes, fonts, or anything and everything that will give me the strongest sense of the project’s narrative or goal would be in this document. Something wonderfully unique to a book cover project is the fact that this collage already exists in the book’s narrative, carefully baked into the settings, characters, and scenes. As such, I strongly recommend that an author allow their designer to read their manuscript.

Equally as important up front is the author’s vision for the cover and what they see as the designer’s role within it. Artists – authors and designers alike – create because they want to express their vision. While some may know quite specifically how they want that vision expressed, others may prefer the designer to take what they’ve been given and play around. Either way, it’s critical the author be honest about where they fall within that spectrum. Remember, it’s your work, your happiness, and your money at stake. If you know exactly what you want, tell the designer. If you haven’t the foggiest where to start, tell the designer. Honesty and clarity are the only things that prevent unpleasantries down the line in artistic disagreements.

And finally a creative’s least favorite part, outlining any specific timeline, budgetary, or other administrative constraints for your project. While difficult, unpleasant, or flat out snoozeville for many, I promise that getting these things out of the way upfront is the only way to make sure it’s a smooth and enjoyable ride for everyone.

JW: What I love about collaborating with artists is seeing where they go with ideas. I approached you with thoughts and images such as Peyton’s work boots, his car, drums, but what jumped out at you in the manuscript were other things like the stars, Peyton’s night sky, a very strong image that I hadn’t even thought about and I love that. Why do you think that particular scene / image jumped out at you?

SP: Walking into the project, I remember you having thoughts of work boots, bonfires, and cabin front porches, and tried to keep those images in the forefront of my brain. But as I was reading through the manuscript, this scene between Tara and Peyton in his bedroom was my light bulb moment where Peyton’s struggle leapt off the page and became three-dimensional. It was a moment in which Tara truly saw and accepted Peyton for the person he was, despite his lack of self-acceptance. The scene’s dialogue was beautifully coupled against Peyton’s preoccupation with an incorrectly placed, ceiling star stick-on set. His overwhelming discomfort both with himself and Tara culminates in his need to physically tear-off the upside-down Big Dipper from the ceiling, effectively paralleling his own ‘incorrectly placed’ image of himself.

After that, the creative floodgates opened with one element clicking into place after the next, from the mountains, the lake setting, and the color scheme to the piece that tied it all together – Peyton’s silhouette. It was tricky because one thing I knew even before reading the book was that I didn’t want to focus on or spell out Peyton’s face or body. I kept coming back to an interview I read with the extraordinary Laverne Cox, where the focus of the interviewer would consistently return to the physical or transformative experiences of the transgender community:

“The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences [including violence, discrimination, and unemployment]…If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.”

JW: That’s a fantastic quote. The media’s preoccupation with surgery and body parts is one reason why I wanted to focus on Peyton’s internal struggle, not on the surgeries, not on the physical transition. That’s also a major reason why I wrote it in first person and why I didn’t want his face on the cover.

There is one physical change that Peyton decides on in the book. He wants a haircut like his Uncle’s, a detail you use so well when giving us Peyton’s silhouette. Did a light bulb go off when you got to that point in the manuscript? If not, at what point did you realize that’s how you’d show Peyton, via the back of his head, his haircut?

SP: It wasn’t as much a light bulb going off as an audible whoop and high-five to my somewhat startled girlfriend sitting next to me. Peyton’s haircut was my favorite scene. It stood out as the first time he did something solely for himself. Throughout the book we see a number of Peyton-permutations where he tries on various hobbies, styles, and personalities to make himself fit into everyone else’s worlds. The haircut was the first time he tried on something in order to fit in his own world.

So really the haircut was the last element I needed for it all to come full circle and sew all of the patchwork elements together. Wanting to include some form of his new hair/self allowed for the natural progression to a silhouette, and then a creative baby-leap after that to use a vertical landscape gradation approach with the night sky and correctly orientated Big Dipper as the head and neck, and the mountains and lake as his shoulders.

JW: With the cover, you chose to have Peyton’s silhouette overlap the book’s title. It’s a daring choice, which I love.

SP: Deciding to have the title partially obscured was something that just happened when I was playing around with the silhouette’s positioning. When it clicked into the position it is now, it felt right both as an aesthetic twist as well as a little homage to the discovery process Peyton undergoes. Peyton is slowly revealed in bits and pieces to the reader (and himself) throughout the book, so it felt appropriate to have a little fun with that concept and obscure the full story (title) right off the bat. There’s always more than meets the eye.


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