A good cover conceals and reveals a book’s content. It spills just enough narrative to interest potential readers, but it leaves much to the imagination. Consider Lauren Wakefield’s recent cover for Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song a primer in walking the line between closure and exposure: dichromatic scallops envelop a near-faceless woman’s poised body, the sharp line of her cigarette disrupting the rounded pattern. Then the title, big and bold and white, enchants us with just enough late-1950s flair to transport us to a smokier, sexier era. Only a cover this demure will do for a book about Truman Capote and his relationships with a group of elite, secretive society women he dubbed his ‘swans.’ After several initial visuals—some too vague and some too on-the-nose—Wakefield created a cover that recalls the charm and darkness of Capote’s social circles.
Wakefield jumped at the challenges and opportunities Swan Song offered: “As soon as Swan Song was briefed I knew I wanted to work on it! [The book’s editor] spoke so passionately about it that I knew I wanted to help her and the author bring the cover to life. The brief was to make the cover desirable, glamorous and immediately identifiable and we were also keen to use a black and white theme to pay homage to Truman Capote's famous Black & White Ball in 1966.” That passion, however, was accompanied by a nearly overwhelming amount of motifs from Capote’s world. “There was such a huge wealth of beautiful imagery from Capote's era that I couldn't wait to get started! Using photographs of Capote and his 'swans' for the cover seemed the most obvious way to begin, so I tried various crops and grids to showcase the stunning images we'd found,” Wakefield said.
The result, however, offered too much narrative, so Wakefield returned to the drawing board (er, her computer). “As another option I also began looking at more general images from the 1950s and 1960s to see if I could find something that captured the right feel of the time in the book. There was a particular visual with a woman's hand holding a wine glass in the air that both [the editor] and I thought worked beautifully, but ultimately it was felt that the cover needed more narrative,” Wakefield said.
Finally, all of Wakefield’s swirling ideas converged, and she began working on what would be the final cover. “[I began to] look at some earlier visuals where I'd been playing with the idea of just using a pattern for the cover, but feeling they needed something more, I began adding female figures to them and making the pattern appear to be their dresses. It was quite tricky finding the 'perfect' woman that was in the right pose/clothing/era, but once we did find her, everything just seemed to fall into place!”
As all the stars aligned and her final design came to life, Wakefield was thrilled to create a cover that not only captured the essence and mystery of the book but also pleased the editor and author. “Everyone in house loved the cover, but the best reaction was from the author! She was so enthusiastic and is by far the cover's biggest supporter! I think it's a designer's dream to work on something that the author will love as much as you do, so it was such a privilege to be able to do justice to Kelleigh's fabulous writing.” To do what you love and do it well? A dream indeed. To inhabit the space between too much and not enough? A well-executed feat. As Capote said, “I believe more in scissors than I do in the pencil.” Wakefield’s brainy, minimalistic design would make the swan man proud.
Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song is scheduled to publish June 14th, 2018 by Penguin UK
Mary Ryan Karnes is a freelance writer and a Master's candidate in fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi.