(This behind-the-scenes look at the making of the In the Shadow of Blackbirds cover was originally published on the website for The Lucky 13s on March 4, 2013.) 

Today I'm chatting with the talented artist responsible for the design of my upcoming debut novel, IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS
She's Maria T. Middleton, Associate Art Director of Abrams Books
...and she's sharing some behind-the-scenes pics!

Welcome, Maria! When we’ve spoken about the In the Shadow of Blackbirds cover in the past, you told me that as soon as you finished reading the manuscript you knew a spirit photograph had to go on the cover. Did you ever consider creating any other design besides a spirit photo?

No, this is one of those rare occasions where our first idea was the right one. The spirit photography concept resonated so strongly with both the editor and me, we had to make it happen. My initial cover comp looked like this:

Combining a somber image with something supernatural was really appealing to me. This portrait, taken by the talented Ty Mecham, was a friend's profile pic that I borrowed specifically because of its beautiful, formal quality. And when paired with a ghostly blackbird, or—as with our final cover—a ghostly spirit, it created a really arresting image.

You’ve told me that some of your inspiration for the design came from FX’s American Horror Story—a great choice, especially when In the Shadow of Blackbirds is itself an American horror story. Were there specific images/promotional artwork for that series that particularly inspired you? 

I've always been inspired by the title sequences of TV shows and films—ever since my foundation year of art school when I was introduced to the genius work of Saul Bass. To me, a book jacket should be as cinematic as a title sequence because like a film's opening, it sets the stage for the story to follow. American Horror Story has one of those really gripping title sequences that's exceptionally creepy, but impossible to look away from. (And I'm someone who hides behind a pillow for really intense things!) Those images and the Art Nouveau-inspired typography grabbed me right away. I actually had a screen shot of the AHS logo on my pasteboard for inspiration when I was designing the Blackbirds title type.

Were you involved in casting the lovely cover model as my protagonist, Mary Shelley Black?

I was! Once I knew we'd be hiring a model for a shoot, Olive was my first choice. She fit Mary Shelley's description perfectly and was a complete joy to work with. Photo shoots can last for hours and it's not easy to sit in an uncomfortable arm chair performing take after take of intense emotion, but Olive was a trooper. She brought her own wardrobe (courtesy of her incredibly fashionable mum!) and a bit of a modern edge with her black nail polish. By styling hair, makeup, and wardrobe, we wanted her to believably look the part of a teenager from 1918, but at the same time, to remain relevant to today's young readers. I think casting Olive as our Mary Shelley perfectly bridges that gap and makes this cover more universally assessable.

When I first learned Symon Chow was the photographer behind the cover shoot, and I saw his collection of quirky, vintage-style photos on his website, I knew he’d be perfect for the job. Had you worked with Symon before? What was your collaboration process like for this cover?

I'll admit I was a little nervous at first: We were looking for a photographer with such a specific style, I didn't think we'd find someone who could authentically pull off the spirit photography concept. But my creative director, the cool-headed Chad Beckerman, had actually collaborated with Symon before and recommended his work. As soon as I clicked on Symon's homepage, I knew he was our guy. His style—this stunning combination of Victorian oddity and eerie beauty—was absolutely perfect.

I shared with Symon my initial cover comp and our spirit photography idea, and he responded with some rough sketches that essentially helped nail down the composition before the day of the shoot. Because his aesthetic was so in synch with our ideas, Symon had most of the props that we needed already on hand in his studio: These authentic 1920s-ish aviator goggles...

...and the patent leather shoes Olive is wearing in the final image. He also recruited a very obliging friend who, draped in a sheet for a couple of hours, played the part of our ghost.

When you're working with someone who really gets a project and is truly invested in the outcome, that's when the true collaboration happens. Symon was absolutely that person and the final cover speaks for itself.

Approximately how many photographs did he take that day, and how many were in the running for becoming the final cover image?

Oh, gosh—there were a lot! Fortunately, we only had two wardrobe changes, but Symon probably took close to a hundred shots of each outfit. Narrowing the choices down was pretty tough—there were so many terrific shots to choose from. But in a situation like this, it's always better to have too many choices than too few. In the end, deciding on the final image came down to a handful of factors: Olive's facial expression and body language, the angle of the chair, the lighting, and of course—the ghost. I wanted Olive to look as though we'd just captured the very moment that she realized there was someone—or something—behind her. As though the hairs on the back of her neck had just stood on end and she was preparing to leap from the seat. There were a few shots that were in the final running, but the image we eventually selected checked all of these requirements and then some.

Several people have commented on the stylish title font, which isn’t your typical gothic historical novel lettering. Was the decision to go for that bold look something you made early on in the design process?

Spirit photography is such a different concept for a YA cover, I wanted to elevate the idea further by using a typeface that was evocative of the early 20th century and that also conveyed an eerie, unsettled sense of tension—much like the American Horror Story logo. The face I chose, P22 Arts and Crafts, is based on the hand lettered typography of Dard Hunter, a champion of the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the 20th century. I loved the type's slightly irregular forms and sharp architectural shapes. And since we weren't able to include a blackbird in the actual photo, I added a graphic one to the type— just for a bit of balance.

I think readers will be in for a treat when they go beyond the front cover and discover that the visual artistry extends to the interior pages, from the gorgeous chapter titles to the historical photographs and the blackbird imagery. Did the interior design fall into place fairly easily, or did you have to play around with ideas for a while?

Once a cover's design is fleshed out, I find it relatively easy to adapt the cover elements for the interior and Blackbirds really did fall into place like that. I wanted to remain true to the time period by using typefaces and design references that felt authentic to the early 1900s. But I'm also a huge decorative border and ornament fan (must have lived in Victorian England in a past life!), so I love creating dingbats and doodads and other ornate elements when I'm designing. It seemed logical to bring those pieces from the cover into the interior, but the surprising element—at least for me—was the the little blackbird from the title type. I created him as footnote to balance the title, but he ended up becoming sort of a best-supporting character in the interior design. I had so much fun thinking about where he would sit within the layout and having him pop up in unexpected places. (Hint: You'll find him under the jacket!)

I love that little bird! One last question: here at The Lucky 13s, we frequently like to conclude our interviews by asking our guests about their superstitions. Do you have any?

Oooh, great question! Well, I actually consider 13 to be my lucky number. My first and last name both begin with M, the 13th letter of the alphabet, and I was born on September 13. It's not necessarily superstitious, but I like to think of 13 as an auspicious number in my life.

Thank you so much for joining me, Maria!

To learn more about In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters (April 2, 2013, Amulet Books), please visit CatWinters.comORDER AT AMAZON

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