Author James Sie’s debut novel, Still Life Las Vegas, is a coming-of-age story with beautiful, heart-wrenching graphic illustration by Sungyoon Choi, which reveal the journey of Walter’s mother Emily: how she left everything to chase a vision of Liberace across the country; and how Walter’s father Owen went searching for her amongst the gondolas of the Venetian Hotel. James Sie got together with his cover artist, Young Lim, to discuss the cover design process.
James Sie: I was expecting the usual single image on the cover. Instead, you blew me away with a series of images that perfectly encapsulated the whole book. Where did you get the idea for that?
Young Lim: The interior design of this book is so unique in its use of graphic novel inserts, that I wanted to convey that aspect of the book on the cover. Normally I shy away from using multiple images since they might make the cover visually too busy. But when it was all put together, the cover echoed the complexity of the story. This book is very different from any other book I’ve read and the cover evokes the uniqueness of the writing.
JS: What’s your usual process in deciding on the look of a cover?
YL: There isn’t a usual process for me. It varies depending on the book that I am working on, especially since I get to work on many kinds of books: fiction and non-fiction. Sometimes I know exactly what to do just from reading the brief of the book, or I could struggle for months developing ideas and coming up with a solution. If the book is a memoir, or about a historical event, at the start I might be given a batch of photos to work with. I might not even be thinking about the book, and by chance come across a visual that inspires me. So my process varies greatly. A couple of things that I always consider are defining the target audience, and determining the overall mood of the book. I pay close attention to the tone of the writing and try to emulate it on the cover as closely as possible. A design can be beautiful, but if it doesn’t match the tone of the writing, then that cover just does not work for me.‘
JS: I’m guessing you have to read the books you’re designing for. Has this job made you a different kind of reader than before? What happens when there’s a book you don’t relate to?
YL: I’ve become a reader who tries to relate myself to the book as much as possible, especially if I’m designing the cover. I’ve always wanted to work in an art-related field because art has always been a way of expressing myself. Also, I wanted to create things that are meaningful to me. Designing book covers can often feel like problem solving rather than self expression. But once I read a book and it becomes intimate and personal to me, then designing the cover becomes an act of self expression. I become even more passionate working on the cover and the task becomes extremely enjoyable.
JS: The main character in Still Life Las Vegas is a young artist, someone who will eventually write graphic novels. Did any points of his journey connect with you?
YL: The obvious points that I could connect with Walter are the facts that we are both illustrators and Asians (Walter is half Vietnamese, half white / I am 100% South Korean). But even aside from that fact, there were many points I could connect with Walter emotionally throughout his journey.
One particular aspect of Walter’s life that I could connect with was growing up with a single parent. My dad passed away when I was six years old and my mom raised me and my brother by herself.
JS: How long have you been designing covers? Do you do other kinds of illustration as well?
YL: I’ve been designing covers for about 7 years now. Being an illustrator and a designer, I try to incorporate my illustration in my design as much as possible. I also keep a sketch book where I draw purely for pleasure.
JS: I know I wrote to St. Martin’s with some ideas about the cover — how do you feel about author input? Is it usually helpful, or do you cringe when you see an email from a writer saying, “Just a Few Thoughts…”?
YL: The author obviously knows their book the best, and often times, their ideas can work well for a cover. But, authors are so close to their own work that they sometimes lose sight of the fact that the audience knows little to nothing about the book in the beginning. The cover must make them interested enough to pick it up. If an author’s idea is interesting for me, I’ll try it as an option along with my own ideas. If the idea is very strong and it excites me and I am completely on board with it, then I go full steam ahead with it from the get-go. But if I detect problems with the author’s idea, then I have to think up my own solution that I believe will work and proceed with it. Plus, the images I created in each panel for this cover were greatly inspired by your input. You even shot the balloon photo yourself! Your input was very helpful and I am glad you provided it.
JS: I’ve heard from other authors who hated their book covers…am I just a lucky bastard?
YL: I am as pleased with this cover as you are! It’s one of my favorite covers that I’ve designed. My goal was to create a cover that fits this beautifully written book that I so thoroughly enjoyed reading. I was definitely the right designer for this book. So I would say yes, you are a lucky bastard, and so am I 🙂