Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Designing the Book Cover

Amontillado - A Novel by Kevin Koperski
Let me just say it: I love the Amontillado book cover. For a long while, I didn't think those words would escape my fingertips. Not for lack of effort. Not for lack of good ideas. I had simply ventured down too many dead ends to think I'd ever arrive at anything I could love. I was wrong.

Let me also say this: it couldn't have happened without help. While I can doctor up a striking color gradient in Photoshop, I'm not graphically inclined enough to produce anything of true merit, so I must seek out those with skills I envy.

Thus, two rather talented gentlemen found themselves routinely pestered over an 18 month period to mock up my ideas. Mr. Brian P Dean (I can't find his website, so here he is on IMDB), post-productionist / videographer / lighting specialist / sculptor / artist extraordinaire. And Mr. Erik Gloor (http://interfacemason.typepad.com/), UI designer / videographer / animator / artist guru.

They'll probably be afraid of what I'm about to show, because it was all done quickly as a means of experimentation. No worries, gentlemen, for I'll provide the disclaimer.

ARTIST DISCLAIMER: None of these covers are completely representative of each artist's talent. They are preliminary mockups, not final production images. The covers do, however, illustrate how quickly the artists can arrange conceptual mockups. Except for Mr. Gloor's sketches, I believe every one of these covers came together in a few short hours (at most).  END DISCLAIMER 

So let's see how it all went down.

Amontillado by Kevin Koperski (cover concept)
Mr. Dean's early label concepts

Amontillado, the beverage, is a type of sherry aged in large barrels called casks (hence the title of Poe's short story). Initially I saw the book cover as a label similar to what one might find on a sherry bottle. Mr. Dean, after having read the screenplay (yes, Amontillado was initially drafted as a screenplay), spent an evening mocking up some ideas. Early fans of the Amontillado Facebook page may remember one of these as the page's profile photo.

Amontillado Preliminary Cover Sketches - Koperski, Gloor
Mr. Gloor's Cover Sketches
Eventually, I found the label idea too limited, so we switched gears. Mr. Gloor and I brainstormed a bit over beers one night in Chicago.  I, of course, had preconceived desires for the tone and style of the cover. The story of Amontillado began with the conception of a single scene: Jacob and McComber meeting beneath a streetlamp. I wanted that scene represented. Erik listened politely, no doubt thinking me insane, eccentric, and laughably unrealistic. But when he returned a week later with sketches, I was thoroughly impressed. He came up with the idea of allowing us (the viewers) to witness the scene from behind a wall, as though we're being buried behind it. It was a great idea given the events of the novel, and it worked well.

The Bree Sketch
Still, something wasn't right. Erik and I met again to brainstorm new ideas until a different option emerged. Why not focus on the female lead? One might argue she is the story's main protaganist, and a majority of readers are women. It certainly seemed worth a try. Erik vanished to what I always imagine is some artsy abode, and he returned with a shadowy version of Bree (the female lead) holding a book to her chest, silhouetted by the streetlamp in the distance. Again, he used the brick wall concept to create a vignetting illusion. As a sketch, it worked great, but the idea reminded me too much of a romance novel. And the sketchy look just wasn't working the way I had hoped.

Meanwhile, I mentioned the wall concept to Mr. Dean, and he spent another evening alone with a green screen, a camera, and photoshop to create some new mockups.

Compositing Experiment
The result is pictured to the right. It screams book cover. My favorite part, obviously, is the fact that Brian Dean is shooting himself under a streetlamp (yes, he played both parts himself). As someone who has directed short films starring Mr. Dean, let me just say he looks great on camera whenever he's wearing a rimmed hat (tip: ask him how he eats his pizza; you'll get a laugh. And when he's concentrating, shout "Me! Who? Who?" You'll get another laugh.).  Anyway, this quick mockup looked great, but again, I was after something different.

Amontillado takes place in a nameless city, during a timeless period of modernity. How can something be timelessly modern? I have no idea. The concept drives some readers nuts, but I love the surreal feel created by detaching the story from specific times and locations. I wanted the cover to convey that timeless, faceless, nameless city, but I had no idea how to achieve such a thing in a medium with which I had very few skills.

My answer was to spend an entire Saturday scouring Google Images. I planned to experiment, to formulate an idea, and to iterate through it. I wanted stylish, noirish, surreality, but I didn't know where to start.. I thought perhaps I could flush out a concept to more clearly illustrate a style to the artists.  These are some of the key iterations:

Amontillado Book Cover Iterations
Kevin's Amontillado Cover Iterations

By that last iteration, I knew I was onto something. I had Bree alone (literally, though her solitude is more figurative in the story), a park bench, street lamps, and Marcus confronting Jacob in the tunnels under the city. Best of all, there were very few tangible details to give away time or location. It was all shadows and light. Dark, noirish, mysterious, and perfect.  I sent the concept to Mr. Gloor and asked him to create the images I would need. Characters, lamps, bench, cityscape, etc..  He came through magnificently, producing the images below.

Mr. Gloor's final characters and illustrations

All I had to do then was create a textured background and settle on the composition. I played with many iterations, some with all three characters the same size, some with Bree much larger, others with the bench on the front cover. Within a week, I arrived at what would became the dust jacket. A slightly modified version will grace the paperback in the coming months. Here it is:

Amontillado by Kevin Koperski - Book Cover
Full Amontillado Book Cover - Front and Back

And that's the story of the Amontillado book cover. As with any creative endeavor, you try various ideas until you discover one you like, then you iterate until you're satisfied. Thankfully, with the help of Mr. Dean and Mr. Gloor, I came away with something much greater than simple satisfaction, and I wanted both of these gentlemen to get some acknowledgement for a job well done.

Thanks for reading!  - Kevin

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Amontillado Book Club Discussion Questions

In Amontillado, a book club meeting introduces us to one of the novel's main characters. That same book club later provides a bit of insight to propel the story forward.  Obviously, then, book clubs play an important part in Amontillado. Do they play a part in your life? Are you a member of one? If so, why not suggest Amontillado as your next read? These discussion questions might help start the conversation.  Feel free to suggest others. And keep in mind, there are minor spoilers nestled into these questions, so you might want to avoid reading them until you've read the book.

And if you're already planning to read Amontillado as a group, or if you plan to suggest Amontillado in the future, we'd love to hear about it. Leave a comment here or shoot us a message (and maybe even a photo of the group!) via the Amontillado Facebook page. Thanks!

"The cellar is cold and the Amontillado tasty. Tonight, we usher in the unknown, and we embrace it. " Cheers!

Discussion Questions

1. What sort of tale is Amontillado? It's been called a literary mystery, but there's no such genre. Is it general fiction? Mystery? Does it fit into any single genre? Should it?

2. Throughout the novel, we return to the present day as police detectives interrogate Jacob Lyons. Each time we revisit the scene, the detectives reveal a new detail about the crime(s). Did these scenes add suspense? Did they drive the story forward? Did they contribute to the mystery? How did the plot structure add to or detract from the story as a whole?

3. Who is most responsible for the state of Jacob and Breeana's marriage? Are they equally at fault? They obviously don't take the best path toward trying to resolve their issues. Was their fate unavoidable?

4. Breeana's gynecologist is a family friend, a close acquaintance of her husband. Is this a bad idea?

5. Who is Daniel Jefferson? Is his behavior justified? Would a male friend do for Jacob what Daniel did? Was Daniel motivated in any way by his attraction to Bree or the failure of his own marriage?

6. Amontillado takes place in a modern world with modern technology, but it's also set in a fictional city where rain is constant, where electricity is unreliable, where men speak with overly formal and flowery language, and where fedoras are an everyday piece of decorative apparel. Does this bother you? Does it add a sense of timelessness to the tale? A sense of the macabre? Would the story be better served in a fix location and period? Why?

7. Of Jacob, Daniel, Marcus, and Breena, who is the story's true protagonist? Who is most sympathetic?

8. At the end of the book, are Bree's actions justified? Think about her state of mind, the outcome of her previous decision making. Better options always exist when seen from afar, but what if you put yourself in her shoes? Can you understand or rationalize her motivation?

9. The oft-quoted line from Edgar Allan Poe's tale is, "I must not only punish but punish with impunity." Who receives the harshest punishment?

10. This is a mystery novel about murder. Did you guess how it would end? If so, when? If no, why not? Were you mislead at all? Were you shocked when you realized the truth? Was the novel solidly plotted, or was the resolution too contrived?

11. Amontillado was first conceived as a movie and written as a screenplay. Does knowing this fact affect how you perceive the novel, from either a story or mood/atmospheric sense?

12. Breeana is a strong character, but her strength is tested and weakened throughout the novel. She obviously feels as though events are moving beyond her control, yet she makes many of the critical decisions that propel the story forward. Is this a symptom of depression? Or is she simply confused, responding to a difficult situation based on emotional needs instead of rational decision making? She makes constant demands of herself to gain more control. Are those demands warranted? Can anyone ever gain control when surrounded by so many competing interests?

13. Breeana believes many lies throughout the story. Is she simply gullible, or did events put her in an emotional place where she lacked the defenses and reasoning abilities to fully grasp the intents of the men around her?

14. Jacob writes a novel as way to apologize to his wife. Is this a genuine romantic gesture or a self-serving, passive attempt at manipulation?

15. If you could say one thing to each character, what would it be? And at which point of the book would you say it?

16. The novel pays tribute to Edgar Allan Poe with countless allusions and parallels. Do they work? Do they add to the tale? Do they justify any of the author's decisions regarding language, setting, plot, etc.?

17. Given that most of the characters are dead at the end of the book, a sequel is unlikely. What if the author were to entertain the idea of a prequel? Which character(s) would you most want to visit at an earlier point in life?

18. The story unavoidably ends on a somber note with Jacob alone facing an uncertain future. Did you have any compassion for him? Did you want a more concrete resolution? Did you expect something different, and if so what?