Sunday, November 15, 2009

An Interview with Lucy Ruth Cummins

I recently got in touch with Lucy Ruth Cummins, Senior Art Director at Simon and Schuster, to ask her a few questions about this arresting jacket image:

Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick
Simon and Schuster - October 2009

Before I get to that interview though, I want to linger over the cover for a minute. In a bookstore I would want to pick the book up simply to think about how someone took that photo. Maybe with Photoshop available, people have stopped wondering about how someone got a particular shot. But I'm old-fashioned - I wonder. (For answers about how it was done, see the link to the James Porto interview, below. Here's one fact: It took six hours to get it right - a full day shoot...!) I'm usually not a great fan of photographs on covers - not sure why. Many of them seem static to me, especially if they trump the imagination by giving us an implied image of the main character. A photo of a landscape can be interesting, especially if the landscape itself is static - in that case, something is  functioning as a metaphor for the emotional arc of the story. But a photo of a person can be too direct and too literal for me (I'm a poet - I have an excuse for preferring indirection.) The trend in YA books lately is to provide a photo of a teenage girl who is far too beautiful (read: sexy eyes, gorgeous hair, perfect skin, lush lips, bare midriff and a come-on look) to be the protagonist of the story we're about to read. As an example, see my previous post here  - about the first cover of Justine Larabalestier's LIAR.

But the photo for HUSH, HUSH is anything but static. Though you might not be able to see it in this image I've posted,  the feathers actually get redder as they "float" away toward the top of the image, so there's metaphor for the metaphor-junkies among us, me included. The decision to go with mostly black and white pays homage (even if it wasn't intentional) to the great cinematographers and photographers of the 30's and 40's - they knew how to do extraordinary things with light.  And then there's the extreme arch of the angel's back, his torn wings, the musculature of his left arm, and the hands held as if he's in pain, not to mention the shaft of light shining directly on to his skin, brightest at the most vulnerable spot on his torso. All the sharp physicality in the image is mesmerizing. The font used for the non-capitalized title, too, is wonderful, with its hint of something growing, vine-like, organic but a little satanic (am I imagining things?)  Well, I love a photo that sets the imagination in play. And I love that book jacket.

So, let's see what Lucy Ruth Cummins can share about how an art director approaches a project like this:

JL: The cover art for Becca Fitzgerald's HUSH HUSH is pretty spectacular! The first question anyone who sees the book will ask is "How on earth did they get that photograph?" I'm dying to know, too! Can you tell us what your role was in the design of the cover?

LC: On any jacket design project, initially the editor will give me a finished manuscript or a work-in-progress to read and get a handle on. Emily Meehan is Becca Fitzpatrick’s fantastic editor, and when she gave me the pages of “Hush, Hush,” I totally tore through them! It was absolutely un-put-down-able! I came to her after finishing my reading and we both agreed this jacket had to be bold, different and absolutely eye-catching to match the thrill of the book itself. That’s when the hunt for an artist who could meet our exceedingly high expectations began!

JL: Who was the photographer? Have you used him for other book projects?

LC: I often pull out pages in magazines and print things that catch my eye: illustrators, photographers, even models who just have a look that I think might come in handy somewhere down the line. The walls of my office are covered with these things! But for “Hush, Hush,” I absolutely wanted something that didn’t resemble anything out there, so that’s when I started an exhaustive hunt on the internet for serious talent.

There are many sites which host portfolios and collect interviews with photographers, and I must have viewed hundreds of them before James’ work leapt out at me. I went to his portfolio site and I was absolutely in awe of his work – to my mind, he’s a fine artist first, a photographer second, and I could see from his carefully composed pieces that he was brilliantly creative and talented. It appealed to me that his work hadn’t been captured all that often for book jackets, and when I shared his pieces with Emily, and my art director Lizzy Bromley, we all cheered  - we had our man!

I phoned James’ representative, Ralph M. and spoke to him first – he was excited, too, when I gave him the gist of the story. I promptly got a call back from James who was excited about the possibilities, and once he had read (and loved!) the manuscript, we were ready to roll.

 3. Can you help our readers understand the collaborative nature of book jacket design? Editor, art director, marketing and publicity people, and maybe even the writer - what kind of role does each play?

Great jackets are like a big stew of love and ideas that come from all directions - “Hush, Hush” is one of the most perfectly spiced ones I’ve worked on. This speaks a lot to the very evocative way Becca wrote her story, it was so meaty, so beautiful, so exciting - it was like being given a gift.

On a project like this, one that’s so driven by the unique voice of the jacket artist, usually the conversation starts with sketches. I’ll pow wow with the editor and my art director (and frequently, anyone within ear shot!) until we have a definite favorite among those the artist has shared.

The next step, with a photographic jacket, is to get the shoot underway. I can’t say enough how great James was in arranging this. He chose a model that was 1000% Patch and we were on board right away. Then came the trampoline...but I’d love for him to speak to that!  [Note from JL: See link below to an interview of James Porto about this cover.]

After the photos are shot, the photographer starts playing around to get a striking image. Once we’ve all done some back and forth and feel it’s where we’d like it to be, we share it with our sales & marketing folks to get their take based on their expertise and knowledge of what’s out there and what’s selling.

At the unveiling of this cover, which we do at a large meeting and on a big projector screen, I was elated to find it met with gasps and goose bumps! The ultimate compliment!

JL: Do you have any stories to tell us about other book covers you've worked on - maybe a long-haul to get to a satisfactory cover, or maybe interesting details about rejected covers, difficult personalities, mixed messages, missteps or the opposite of all this - that is, great successes, personal victories, splendid collaborations?

LC: I am a firm believer in not kissing and telling! But I assure you there’s enough drama to fill a reality show, and enough happy endings to sew up Library of Congress full of fairy tales! Some books are a snap, and some can at times seem impossible, but working on a range of projects definitely keeps things interesting.

JL: Do you have a few kids' book covers (from classics to contemporary - maybe even from your childhood) that are your favorites? (We'll try to post images of any of your favorites!)

That’s a toughy! I’m a big reader and sometimes I think my wires get crossed and my favorite books for reading get crossover credit for their designs. (I’m most sentimental about a copy of the Catcher in the Rye that had no jacket, just a beat up old black cloth cover with no type at all that my mother shared with me as a teenager.)

I don’t think I could ever make a short list I’d be satisfied with presenting – it’s a designer’s worst nightmare to have to pick favorites! That said, I feel very fortunate to work with so many insanely inspiring neighbors here at S&S Children’s – I often get blown away just waiting by the color printer!

Many thanks to Lucy Ruth Cummins for cheerfully providing me with answers to my questions, especially during such a busy season for art directors and editors (preparing their Fall 2011 lists already!!)  For Becca Fitzpatrick's thoughts on the cover art for her book, go to this post over at WONDROUS READS. She also has a website of her own that you can browse, and there's an interesting interview over at YouTube.  And for an interview of James Porto, the photographer who performed the magic for Becca's cover, see the appropriately titled FALLEN ARCHANGEL blog. You can see more of Porto's work at his own website, and there's a sketch he made for the cover art, right here (be sure to scroll down all the way for the sketch.)


  1. What a great post, Julie! I'm the author, and even I learned quite a few things I didn't know - so thanks for that! :)

  2. Great interview, Julie. I think this comment, ". . . there's enough drama to fill a reality show, and enough happy endings to sew up Library of Congress full of fairy tales," pretty much sums up why the art and business of book covers is so fascinating.

  3. Becca- So glad to see you here. Congratulations on the success of HUSH, HUSH. You must be thrilled by that cover - it will be getting (and has gotten already, hasn't it) lots of attention!