I love noticing book covers, and paying attention to what I like and dislike about them, and it was really run to talk about them with a professional. Today I’m talking to multi-talented book-cover designer Jessica Bell about “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson. Jessica examined the cover of my copy of the book, and we talked about why it worked on me. Even better, we talked about the insides of books, and why this one, in particular, is hard to describe and even harder to forget. It’s a book that sticks with you forever, particularly if you get the quotes inscribed on your coffee mugs!
Jessica Bell is a multi-award-winning author/poet, and singer-songwriter who was born in Melbourne, Australia. In addition to having published a memoir, five novels, three poetry collections, and her bestselling Writing in a Nutshell series, she has been featured in a variety of publications and radio shows such as Writer’s Digest, Publisher’s Weekly, The Guardian, Life Matters, and Poetica. She is also the Publisher of Vine Leaves Press, and a highly sought-after book cover designer. She currently resides in Athens, Greece, with her partner and son, and a pile of dishes that still don’t know how to wash themselves despite her consistently teaching by example
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Discussed in this episode:
Can You Make the Title Bigga? By Jessica Bell
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Home by Marilynne Robinson
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Giving Birth to Motherhood by Amie McCracken & Katie Rössler, LPC
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Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is the story of sisters Ruth and Lucille, who grow up under the competent care of their grandmother and then under the scattered care of their eccentric aunt Sylvie. The live in the town of Fingerbone, not far from the lake where their grandfather was killed in a spectacular train accident and their mother drove off a cliff. I realize this description sounds like a big fat downer of a book, but it’s quite the opposite. Housekeeping is a meditation on growing up, loss, survival, love, and what it means to keep a house.
Hello and welcome the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we get to know interesting people by asking them about their favorite book. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today I’m talking to Jessica Bell, an author, singer/songwriter, and book cover designer. I love noticing book covers, and paying attention to what I like and dislike about them, and it was really fun to talk about them with a professional. Even better, we talked about the insides of books, and this book in particular, which is kind of hard to describe and even harder to forget.
Julie Strauss: Hi Jessica. Welcome to the Best Book Ever podcast.
Jessica Bell: Hi Julie. Thank you so much for having me today.
JS: Let’s start with the background first. You are a multi-hyphenate artist, which I find thrilling. Will you tell our listeners all of the different things that you do?
JB: Well, I am a singer songwriter, author, poet, graphic designer, publisher, and voiceover artist. I dunno how that I managed to do all of that in my life. But I do.
JS: Do you focus on one at a time and kind of move phase to phase? Or do you kind of always have your fingers and everything?
JB: No, my fingers are pretty much in everything. In any one given day, I will work on a book cover, I will do admin for my publishing company, I will listen to some music that my music partners produced and think of some lyrics that might go with it. I might sit down for 10 minutes and have a coffee and try to write a poem. It’s all happening at once. I don’t think I could do it anyway if I just focused on one thing at a time. I get really bored.
JS: Were you raised to be creative? Where did this wellspring of creativity come?
JB: Well, my parents are musicians and they’re also, very, very good illustrators, though they both never did anything with it. My father paints and my mother draws, my mother’s a guitarist, so is my father. My mother sings and write songs. I grew up with music around me every day of my life in the moment I was born. I started writing music myself when I was around 12. all because my mother had left her 12-string guitar at the front door, ready for someone to come and pick up and buy, because they had a parking fine they couldn’t pay. I opened it up and it was just in this beautiful red velvet lined case and I was just awestruck by this instrument and I said, Why are you selling this? And she said, Okay, I won’t sell it if you learn to play it. So from that day, I started teaching myself how to play guitar, and I wrote my first song, plucking one string. I have it recorded somewhere. I have to dig it out one day. But yeah, that’s how it all started.
JS: You now have a family of your own? How are you fostering creativity within your own family?
JB: Well, I’m always singing to my son and reading books and watching great movies and, it’s really funny that it’s caught on because he’s started narrating, singing his movements during the day. I mean, he’ll sing, “I am going to build a house!” It’s absolutely adorable. So yeah, we’re a very creative family too, and my partner is also a photographer and film director as well. So, it’s in the blood.
JS: My kids are all older now, but for me the key to creativity was always being unafraid of a mess. And my kids are all very creative kids, and I don’t have talent other than books and words, but I like to think it’s because they destroyed the house with all of their projects. I feel like if you’re afraid of mess, then you’re never gonna get the paints out. You’re never gonna let them bang on a musical instrument until they figure it out.
JB: That’s true. And if you’re afraid of mess, facilitate the mess somewhere where it’s okay. Like go outside, set out area where there’s paint and dirt and whatever, and smash it out there. I mean I don’t think art can happen if you’re inhibited anyway. I mean, I always start a book, especially non-fiction, when I’m writing non-fiction, I’m always saying to myself, I don’t have to publish this. Just be honest. And that’s the way to the best non-fiction. I think it’s by just really giving yourself permission to say exactly how you feel. ,
JS: Tell our listeners about the book you just released.
JB: It’s called Can You Make the Title Bigga? The Chemistry of Book Color Design. And I’ve
JS: “Bigga’” spelled the Australian way.
JB: The slang way. Yeah. With an “a” on the end, which has proven really good for search results, because it’s not used. I’ve been working as a book cover designer now since 2011, so it’s really everything I’ve learned about what makes a good professional book cover that’s going to sell a book. It talks about color theory, emotional symbolism, practical advice like trim size and page count and paper color and binding and all that stuff that an author needs to know, along with artistic ideas and lots of examples of book covers and what makes covers striking and makes a reader wanna pick it up.
JS: Isn’t it funny that we use that phrase, ‘Never judge a book by its cover,’ a phrase that’s it’s commonly used in everyday life. And the thing that’s funny to me about it is it’s what we all do. Every reader I know has picked up a book solely for the cover.
JB: Exactly. It’s the first thing you see. Everybody judges a book by its cover.
JS: Always. I have also rejected books that later found out they were a practically written with me in mind, but hated the cover so much that I thought, No, that one’s not for me.
JS: It bums me out a bit I, that I am so susceptible to the visual aesthetic.
JB: Well, it’s advertising. It’s marketing. It’s all part of how to hook your reader in that very first instant. Meaning, if your book cover doesn’t entice you, you’re not gonna read the book description, are you? Unless it’s recommended by a friend.
JB: I think word of mouth is the only thing that’s gonna overcome the power of the book cover.
JS: What is your professional opinion of this copy of Housekeeping that I have? Listener, I’m holding up an American copy of it. It’s a, well, it’s very drab colors. It’s a sort of rickety house and the land surrounding the house is flooded.
JB: I’m not a fan of it.
JB: Because I have a copy that I like more. Mine is the illustrated version. I can’t remember which year it is. Late eighties or nineties. It’s illustrated watercolor with white and pastel blues and greens and sort of peachy tones. So it’s an old-fashioned looking cover, but the colors are very warm and inviting. I think your cover looks a bit depressing. The story is depressing, but it’s also not at the same time equally very inspiring as well. You can’t choose all the elements that are inside the book to represent on the cover. You need to choose which audience you want to target and, and guide the look of the cover towards that.
JS: As I was reading it this time around, knowing I was going to talk to a book cover about it, I was really thinking about this cover. The thing is, this copy, it has my maiden name on the inside, which means I bought it probably when it was released. I’ve been married 28 years, so I’ve had this for a long time. I probably thought it was a little bit quirky at the time. I’m sure it appealed to me at the time, but I look at it now and I just think it’s a time sensibility thing. Whereas I look at it now and I think, God, these colors are a bummer. A weird sort of dirty, greenish yellow tone. but I love the idea. I love the way the house is reflected in the lake. There is something about it that’s quirky and appealing.
JB: That cover actually reminds me of my favorite quote in the book, which I have written down somewhere for you. This is it: “It was the kind of loneliness that made clocks seem slow and loud and made voices sound like voices across water.” I love that line. I had it written on a mug.
JS: Did you really?
JB: Yeah, yeah. Actually, sorry. My Vine Leaves Press partner Amy had it painted on a mug for me and sent it to me for my birthday. I told her it was my favorite quote. It was one of the most thoughtful presents I’ve had.
JS: I never thought of that before. What a thoughtful gift. Cause I’ve had so many people tell me their favorite quotes from books. I’m immediately thinking my best friends. I know exactly what they’re getting for Christmas now. Exactly. I know that’s the thing I know about my friends is their favorite book quotes. What a great idea. And you’re right that this picture really exhibits that perfectly. It’s because it’s sort of echoy and haunting and very lonely in this cover
JB: Yeah, I mean it is really beautiful. You can hear just by that line. You can hear the loud and slow clock ticking, echoing across that flat lake. I mean, you think it’s echoing and ticking and trying to reach the disappearing voices of loved ones that you wished exist. You know, I think it’s just beautiful.
JS: Do you remember how you found this book?
JB: I was at school, I had to study it in high school. I think I was the only student ever to like this book when everyone thought it was boring. I mean, when you’re 15, it’s not a really a book that would appeal to a 15-year-old, but it did to me. Some reason, I think maybe cuz of my musical background or my new found love of writing at that time too.
JS: How does your musical background affect what you read?
JB: I really, really enjoy the sound of words, so I’m very aware when something doesn’t flow properly. The best thing about a book is when you are reading and you don’t realize you’re reading. I mean, I think that’s, one of the, my favorite aspects of reading. I just think of the cadence of the words, and I think that really affects the way I write as well.
JS: Do thing where when you’re reading, you actually hear it, hear the words?
JB: Yeah. I hear my voice. Yeah. You?
JS: I don’t think I do. I see that going around on social media a lot where people talk about if they hear the words or not, and I don’t. It’s always very visual to me. A movie playing in my head, I don’t necessarily hear someone reading the words to me.
JB: I think it depends on how it’s written. If it’s in first person, I think it’s more likely that I hear the words. But if it’s in third person, I’m reading a story that’s already been told, so it might be different. I’m not sure. I’ll have to take note of it next time I read. Yeah. It’s funny though, I can’t get into audio books. I feel like it goes through one ear and out the other. I need to read it to comprehend a story. It’s really strange, it becomes background noise. It’s like people talking over a loud speaker in the supermarket or something. It’s sort of there, but I’m not understanding what’s happening. If there’s no melody, it’s just monotonous voice talking to me. And because I live in Greece too, and I’m not a hundred percent fluent in Greek, sometimes I don’t understand everything someone’s saying, and I’ve sort of learned to ignore what I don’t understand and pull the gist of what someone’s saying so that I can respond to them appropriately. There’s a mixture of hypersensitivity to what’s being saying, and the complete opposite. So I think that’s a little bit like that with audio books too.
JS: How interesting.
JB: Yeah. I’ve just uploaded for distribution my first audiobook, my own of my latest novel. Like I haven’t done audio books for anything else. So we’ll see how that goes. I narrated it myself.
JS: Did you enjoy that?
JB: It was really good. I found quite a few errors actually. And it’s really funny too, the difference between reading a book and listening to it. There are certain aspects of the way a book is written that do not translate well into audio. Like you can see from the line breaks on a page who is speaking without having the speech tag. When you read it aloud, those transitions aren’t as apparent. You have to really distinguish between the voices.
JS: Do you do voices when you are recording?
JB: In my typical voiceover work I do, because I do a lot of kids’ books, so I do differentiate with cartoony sounds or whatever. But for a novel, I really had to try and change the intonation and tone rather than my voice so that the character of the dialogue was coming out rather than the sound of a voice, if you know what I mean.
JS: Yes, I know exactly what you mean.
JB: Yeah, it’s challenging.
JS: I think so. And my favorite audio narrators do it seamlessly, but it’s one of my personal pet peeves. That thing that you’re talking about, about changing the intonation, that’s a skill.
JB: So let’s hope I did it successfully. We’ll see.
JS: When you’re writing a book, are you thinking about the cover as you’re writing?
JB: Not straight away. It’s usually somewhere towards the end of the book that I start thinking of a cover because I like to draw on themes and symbolisms a lot more than facts from a book. But I need to have finished a book before I really understand the book myself. Usually I have a plan and chapter summaries, but never, ever, ever have I kept the same ending than what I planned. It ends up being a completely different book. I’m never really sure entirely what the book is about until about two thirds of the way through, and then I go back and make edits and mold it all together.
JS: And then at that part, you start thinking about which cover will appeal to the reader?
JS: How fascinating. okay, let’s talk about this book, Housekeeping, which you read in high school. That kind of boggles my mind.
JB: I’ve read it a few times more since, but think it’s been about 10 years now since I’ve read book.
JS: Will you tell our listeners what it’s about?
JB: Well, it really is an exploration of loneliness and family relationships. The dynamics between family members and the way individual perceptions of each other are completely different, and you really don’t know the truth about somebody unless you’re in their shoes. I think it’s a very complex story. I don’t think there really is much of a plot to this book. The overall feeling you get from it, which is very, very deep and profound. Trying to think back to what made me wanna read it over and over. It really was in the beginning, the way it was written, and I think I always aspired to write like that. I just wanted to be able to touch people’s heart and souls with a sentence and not an entire book, which I think this book can do.
JS: What kind of reader were you at 15 that this appealed to you? Because, as I was reading it in preparation to talk to you, I kept thinking the word elegant, and there’s no way I understood this in the same way the first time I read it as this time. It’s very much a book that I can see really changing every time you pick it up at different phases your life. When you were in high school and it was assigned to you, what were you reading on your own time?
JB: I really liked ca character driven stories. I really liked the Gathering. I can remember, I loved Great Expectations too, by Dickens at that age. I was really attracted to internal struggles, and I think it’s because I was going through quite a lot of internal struggles at that age too. I mean, my mother was very sick. And I was having issues, an identity crisis, and trying to rebel and be different. And I didn’t really know. I sort of wanted everybody’s attention, but I also wanted everyone to piss off.
JB: Yeah. So I think I really got into the books that dug deep into a person’s being rather than what they are doing on the surface.
JS: It’s funny because when I read this, I had been on a streak of strictly genre fiction for a while. And this one felt to me like, a very restful escape. You know, I sort of melted into this one, and it’s funny because a lot happens, but …
JB: A lot happens and nothing happens Like you can’t, you can’t actually explain what happens in the book. That’s why I sort of, Got a bit blocked when you asked me to tell your listeners what the book’s about, because there’s no way you can, for example, create an elevator pitch for this book.
JS: That’s why I was curious to hear what you would say because if you just reduce it down to: “two girls are left without parents and their sort of kooky aunt comes to take care of them.” That is a terrible description of this book. And you would expect something completely different if you describe it that way. If I were to hand this to someone, I think I would just say, You’re just gonna settle into this family story.
JB: Well, this is something I wrote down in the margins of the book, which I’ve written down to say to you. “Read this to feel your heart beat in your ears, the emptiness in your chest and the melancholia you can’t seem to place.”
JS: Oh my gosh. Did you write that on a specific passage or that was your review of the whole book?
JB: No, that was my, that was the whole.
JS: Beautiful. Do you have other passages that you have underlined that you your favorite one that you quoted for us earlier?
JB: I did write: “Have you ever wanted to savor a meal because you’ve never tasted anything so good? Well, that’s how I felt when I read Housekeeping. To me, a good book is a meal, intricate sense flavors and textures that are unrecognizable until I spend a little more time with them. I love to focus on smaller, more self-contained elements when I read because they hate having that feeling of needing to finish.”
JS: Wait, tell me what that means. You hate having the feeling of needing to finish meaning as an obligation?
JB: No. Well, yeah. If you are reading a book and it’s very plot focused, you wanna know what happens next. You wanna get to the end to find out. There isn’t any of that in this book. You don’t want to find out what happens. You just want to experience what’s happening on that page.
JS: So in general, you don’t like, say, thrillers or something.
JB: No. I love them. It just, it’s different tastes. One day I’ll feel like a burger, and one another day I’ll feel like eating paté, you know? Depends on your mood.
JS: Yeah, and I think, as I said, my sensation was sinking into this and I, that’s part of the other reason I like this cover so much with all the water taking over. So much of the visual space is, weird and murky and water does not belong on a house, and yet you do just want to rest into it and listen to these words and listen to these people. And what’s also funny is Sylvie, this slightly kooky aunt, which is a terrible way to describe her, there’s so much more to her than the fact that she’s kooky. So it’s funny reading this how deeply I loved her and how much I rooted for her. When you stop and put it into real life terms and you think, if an aunt moved in with two parentless children next door to me and the house started to become derelict and she wasn’t feeding them, and the kids weren’t going to school, and they are hoarding…
JB: Yeah. You’d be on phone to social services.
JS: Oh my God. You hate those women in this book because these young girls, they’re you just want them to be loved and they love each other so well and so imperfectly. And obviously I kept thinking these are all, these are right people for each other. But in that book, I would be one of those fussy old ladies showing up at the door, asking, Have you fed these children?
JS: But in book, just please let them go on their adventures with Sylvie out into the woods. Just let them do that. That’s what these girls need. But there’s something about her language that drew me outside myself wanting this life for and for the girls. Even though I, though in reality it is absolutely not who I’d be.
JB: Yeah, it’s romanticized, isn’t it? I mean, the way it’s written, you really romanticize the situation that is destructive.
JS: But it feels very healthy in the book.
JB: It does, doesn’t it? She’s brilliant. I love her.
JS: Have you read other Marilynne Robinson?
JS: And what did you think of them?
JB: Nothing beats Housekeeping,
JS: What are you reading right now?
JB: I’m reading, Giving Birth to Motherhood. It’s a nonfiction journal type book which helps you come to terms with a birth trauma and write your birth story. My birth didn’t go the way I wanted it too. And I think that’s a story of many, many mothers.
JS: Oh, that’s such a shame. I’m sorry.
JB: Oh, that’s okay. I’m gonna write about it. This book is helping me write about it.
JS: Why don’t you share with our listeners where they can find you in all of the, all of your artistic pursuits?
JB: You can find my portfolio website. There you can access my designer website, my author website, my publisher website. Is there something else?
JB: Music. Oh, how could I forget my music? Yes. You can also sign up to my newsletter. I send a monthly digest about everything I’ve been up to.
JS: And your book is wonderful. Even if you are not a writer or not interested in book design, I highly recommend reading it simply because of the fact that it is fun to learn, as a consumer of books, why you like what you likeSo many times I would turn the page and see a picture of something you were describing and think, Oh, of course this is the right design for that book. Without fail, I would think, That’s the one I would pick up. And it’s really fun to get that sort of insight into your own psychology as a reader. highly recommend Jessica’s book even if you are not shopping for a cover designer. So, I want to thank you for joining me today, and it’s really fun talking to you. I hope you’ll come back any time you have a book you want tell me about.
JB: Well, thanks very much. It’s been really nice speaking to you, Julie.