“Every project feels like the first time,” says designer Alban Fischer, despite having designed over 300 covers in his career. Before the full translation of Sara Mesa’s novel, Four by Four, was even complete Fischer knew “it was right up my alley.”
Four by Four (Open Letter, May 5, 2020), tells the story of the descent into chaos of an isolated boarding school where the wealthy keep their kids safe from the chaos erupting in the cities. Through insinuation and gossip, multiple points of view slowly reveal the details of a sordid mystery. The novel explores the relationship between powerful and powerless and how fear of the outside world can create monsters. “I was drawn to both the dark quality of the story and the unorthodox style of the writing itself,” said Fischer.
Fischer’s cover took shape around the main character, Celia, and her fascination with the owls she hears outside the school. Owls have a freedom that Celia lacks. Owls are territorial and their call is meant to keep out those who don’t belong. Even the way owls can turn their heads almost 360 degrees to keep a sharp, watchful eye on their domain conveyed the oppressive feeling in the book. Playing with imagery of owls, Fischer landed on an image that heightened that observed feeling by overlaying the owl's eyes onto the back of a human head.
Fischer got into design by accident. He is a poet with a book, Fake Moon, due out in 2020. His writing led him to start a literary journal, Trnsfr, in 2009 which he chose to design himself. From there he began taking on other design work.
Though his process is different for each project, due to his writing background, Fischer frequently begins developing cover ideas by brainstorming words inspired by his notes from reading the book. From this early stage, Fischer knew he wanted a drab, dispiriting color scheme for Four by Four. His word brainstorming leads to sketches. Then when he is ready to take the sketches and start building the cover he begins by getting the right font. When lettering the cover for Four by Four, Fischer wanted “a handwritten look that had the unsettled psychic state of children in the boarding school.”
In the novel, the dorm rooms are described as four-meter by four-meter cells. That is the detail that gives the book its title, and the idea he used for his other two preliminary covers. One conveys the feel of the inside of a cell. It has an inaccessible window that is clearly defined, but the world inside the cell is vague and abstract. Fischer describes it, “I wanted the interior of the room to parallel the way what is happening in the school is unclear to the reader.”
The other preliminary cover took the idea of cells and combined them with a calendar. “The novel describes how time doesn’t matter in the school as each day just piles up, so I had the idea to use the calendar to organize a tight grid of cells.”
This third idea is more typical of the style of Open Letter Books. In fact, Fischer had considered not sending the owl eye cover because he thought it was too dissimilar to the publisher’s look. In the end, he took the chance and both the publisher and the marketing director agreed that the owl eye cover perfectly captured the tone of the novel. With some minor adjustments to the author byline for clarity, the cover was complete. “I have a tendency to doubt my inclinations,” says Fischer, but with the cover for Four by Four he followed his instincts and found exactly the right design.
Alban Fischer is the founding editor of Trnsfr and Trnsfr Books. His poems have appeared in NightBlock, Tallow Eider Quarterly, Untoward, Vinyl, and elsewhere. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI, where serves as art director for Sarabande Books, and YesYes Books.
Elizabeth is a writer, designer, professor and dedicated bookworm.