THE EVOLUTION OF A COVER – James R. Benn

After submitting my manuscript last year for the upcoming Billy Boyle novel—the sixth—titled A Mortal Terror, the good folks at Soho Press asked for some cover ideas. Readers are often interested in what goes into the design of a book cover, and how much input authors have. In my case, I’m lucky to have plenty. Here’s a review of the thought and design process that went into A Mortal Terror (to be released September 13, 2011).

The book delves into a story as old as warfare. Combat Fatigue, known today as Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. It has had many designations, including Soldier’s Heart, from the American Civil War, a name that seems to me more descriptive than any modern medical term.

I began to think about the Thousand Year Stare, a phrase created during the Second World War to describe the empty, unfocused gaze of a solider after the psychological stress of battle. One of the more well-known images from World War II, below, shows the Stare perfectly, caught on the face of a Marine after two straight days of combat on Eniwetok in the Pacific. I thought this would be an evocative image to create a cover around, and added it to the file of images to be sent to the artist.

Another indelible image of the Stare was created by Life magazine combat artist Tom Lea. This painting, The Two-Thousand Yard Stare, showed a Marine on Peleliu in the Pacific, but it could have been any solider in any battle. Another powerful and haunting image.

A Mortal Terror takes place in Italy, much of the story taking place within the ruined landscape of the Anzio Beachhead. One scene takes place in a ruined church, and I passed on this photo of a G.I. in church, gazing up into the light filtering through the blown out roof. I especially liked the play of darkness against light, and the soldier’s reverent pose.

Another image that I collected was taken in Korea, by U.S. Army combat photographer Al Chang, in 1950. The original photograph shows a grief-stricken soldier being comforted upon hearing of the death of a friend. It is a tender, and terrible, picture. The G.I. in the background is from Graves Registration, and the interplay of his calm and routine demeanor as a backdrop to the emotional scene in the foreground was haunting.

The images above went off to the artist and designer, with some commentary about the plot, which includes playing cards as a key feature. The first pencil sketch came back as shown below (the title is from the previous novel, used just to show placement).

Here we have the church, the grieving soldier, and the playing cards, but all standing seperately. The attempt at the thousand-yard stare didn’t quite come across. The next version, below, still didn’t work. The artist also likes searchlight images in his work, and introduced them here, even though the scene is in daylight. So we kept at it, emailing ideas back and forth.

Eventually we dropped the thousand yard stare and moved the scene inside the church. One reason for that was to enable the artist to have shafts of light, to replace the ubiquitous searchlights, which had been a prominent feature on several past covers. That did the trick. Everyone liked the pencil sketch shown below. Green light for the cover art!

When the final artwork came back, I knew we had a winner; the design elements now appeared integrated in a single, powerful image. One of the best covers of the Billy Boyle series, in my opinion. For a look at more of Dan Cosgrove’s superb design art, see:

http://www.cosgrovedesign.com/

A Mortal Terror, the sixth Billy Boyle WWII mystery, will be released on September 13, 2011.

The 2012 release, tentatively titled At Death’s Door, finds Billy Boyle in Rome, with the city under German occupation. I took the photo below last year on a research trip (tough job, yeah) to the Eternal City. It is in the Piazza Navona, and shows one of the sculptures in Bernini’s Fountain of Four Rivers. This one symbolizes the Nile, and his face is covered since the source of the Nile was not known. It seems the perfect image for a mystery…but only time and the design process will tell!