Jakob Vala Explores the World of Taxidermy for Mostly Dead Things

Jakob Vala is Senior Designer at Tin House. Here he takes us through his process for designing Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things.

Mostly Dead Things tells the story of Jessa-Lynn Morton, who takes over her father’s taxidermy business shortly after his suicide. Still grieving, she struggles to keep both the business and her family from falling apart. While Jessa buries herself in work and alcohol, her mother begins making lewd window displays with animals from the taxidermy shop. Jessa's first love—also her brother Milo’s wife—ran out on the family years before, leaving Milo with their young daughter and her troubled son from a previous relationship. Struggling to cope with her absence, Jessa and Milo remain locked in a pattern of resentment and grief.

As an in-house designer at Tin House, I’m assigned about half of our titles every season. I was thrilled to be the one to design Kristen Arnett's weird, funny, and heartbreaking debut novel. Kristen's writing is deeply rooted in Florida (Alexander Chee calls her “the queen of the Florida no one has ever told you about”), and it was important for the cover to signify that environment. I was also asked by publicity, editorial, and Kristen to include an animal, dead or alive. The challenge was to establish an oddness without veering toward the whimsical. 

Most of the cover comps shared by Kristen were guidebooks and nonfiction. The earliest directions were taxidermy-focused. I took a deep dive into the world of taxidermy and pored over enough photos of stuffed and mounted animals to last a lifetime. There was a strong push from publicity and editorial for hand-lettering, too, so I asked Tony Perez, the book's editor, to contribute his signature slasher-style, which I eventually redrew after he tired of looking at his own handwriting.  

The first round of ideas is a good time to establish a general aesthetic. I like to show covers in a range of styles.


We were all stuck on this eerie flamingo-skin photo from Fine Taxidermy for a while. I tried several variations with type and hand lettering, cropping the photo any way I could. The lettering did a good job of balancing the beauty of the photo, but, ultimately, it was deemed too elegant and sparse. 


The second option was one of my earliest ideas. I'd like to use this illustration by Victoria Maxfield on a different cover someday. At the time, I thought it fit the book perfectly—there's a formative egret moment in the story and I love the way the skull and bones peek out—but the publicity department felt it looked too much like a collection of fairytales.


These lion and bird photos are from Marc Dantan's Immortels series. In 2008 a fire destroyed 90 percent of the stock in Deyrolle Taxidermy, a Paris institution (it has since been rebuilt). Dantan photographed the damage. I liked the idea of a subject that was crumbling and scorched, but also beautiful. The setting of these photos also alludes to an important moment in the book. However, the bird didn't strike the correct tone at all. It was too serious and creepy. And while I adore the lion and its awkward pose, it wasn't right either. 


At this point everyone was keen on the idea of a more illustrative style. A dead bird was specifically requested. I found this yellow bird by Groenewold Mauricio and replaced its original x'ed out eye with one that is wide open. Everyone liked this cover and it felt like I'd hit the mark, but it reminded us too much of Chuck Palahniuk's Lullaby and we tossed it.


I couldn't quite get over the idea of using actual taxidermy, so I mocked up a cover with this donkey by Danielle van Ark. The photo was taken in the storage room of a natural history museum. It has an absurdity and a sense of ennui that fits the book well, but looking back I'll admit that it's not a strong cover. It still makes me laugh, though.


I'd been working on a kitschy postcard idea with a different animal hide in each letter. I added it into the mix and it was well-received, but not a clear winner.


By the third and final round, we'd honed in on a modern illustrative direction (no more strange taxidermy photos for me). I'd looked at this flamingo by John James Audubon dozens of times, but had dismissed it as too old-fashioned for such a contemporary story. Tin House Art Director, Diane Chonette, encouraged me to take another look. Audubon killed and taxidermied his birds before painting them, making the image thematically appropriate. There's also something unnatural about the posture of this particular flamingo. Cutting out the background in Photoshop and placing the bird on a bright green field completely changed the look. The green reminded me of a lush Florida landscape and gator skin. Pairing it with the vibrant pink flamingo resulted in some of the kitschy feel I'd been looking for in the postcard concept. 

Once I drew in a new shadow, I started playing around with placement and lettering. The flamingo worked best in its full, gangly glory. Tony's original lettering had the right emotion of barely-contained chaos, but it was too fine, so I drew new, Tony-inspired lettering with a chisel-tip sharpie. I thought the words should be as large as possible to fully display Kristen's brilliant title. Layering them over the flamingo created just the right amount of tension. 

I also reworked the postcard idea and added a new swampy background, just in case the flamingo wasn’t the top choice. 

Everyone in the office was on board for the flamingo. So was our sales team. Kristen’s reaction was the one I cared about most and she loved it, too, writing, "I legit screamed in the parking lot of 7-Eleven when I saw it last night . . . I almost died, it's perfect, I am thrilled to DEATH!" I couldn't have asked for a better response.


Final cover


Later, when it came time to design the full cover, I knew I'd have to fit a lot of text. I used black type to reflect the black of the flamingo's beak. I included bits of the flamingo on every surface for continuity and to reference the taxidermy process. The elegant wing on the back cover and back flap gives a sense of beauty and intrigue, while the surprise leg on the front flap cracks me up. It was important to me that no part of the cover feel static. 


Because this is a hardcover, I was able to consider the book case as well. The case itself is flamingo-pink with the white lettering from the jacket. I wanted a garish package, like a taxidermy display under fluorescent lights. The headbands and endpapers are black like the beak, encasing the pages in a morbid sheath. The entire package is meant to strike the same balance of humor and sadness as the story inside.


Design Editor, Painter, Designer, Lifelong bibliophile.