A Conversation with Peter Mendelsund on Writing

In recent years, Peter Mendelsund has been shifting his career from designing books to writing them. The former Associate Art Director of Alfred A. Knopf already has a couple of non-fiction titles to his name – What We See When We Read and Cover, with another, The Look of the Book, on the way – and has now stepped into fiction with Same Same, a twisting metafictional meditation on creativity. We asked him a few questions about this latest adventure between the covers.

Book tours, editors, interviews, etc. – it's a heck of a shift from the solitary calm of the cover designer. What is it like seeing the other side of the publishing circus?

It’s amazingly satisfying! First off, I’m not sure my life as a designer was ever particularly calm. Working in-house meant that I was constantly at the beck-and-call of editors, marketers, sales team members, publicists, production folks … basically anyone who felt that I owed them something. As an addendum to this thought: it never particularly mattered how well-received my work might be in the world; how much I read; how much I wrote; how adept or credentialed I was as a consumer and critic of prose; how much I knew about the marketplace or the business of selling books…. I was always, in that job, looked at as an underling. As a member of a service bureau. So there was that. This also meant that the sheer volume of work—especially at the beginning of my career in design—was staggering. And mostly of the stupid, “I don’t like what you made, make something else,” variety (or worse, the “keep what you made, but make all the elements of what you made different.”) 

Writing though, is solitary, and calm, as you put it. I have lots and lots of time alone now, serving no one and nothing but my own taste. I get to decide was works and doesn’t. I’m not attending the whims of capricious and often under-informed deciders and gate-keepers. It’s heaven. I honestly don’t know how designers and art directors stay in these positions of subservience for so long. It would’ve driven me mad after a while. 

I truly enjoy working with editors now: but as the talent, rather than as the servant. My new editor at FSG is incredibly erudite, keen person and professional. I trust his judgement about my writing implicitly. 

In terms of interviews, the only difficulty I have is trying not to repeat myself.


It's billed as a homage to Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. Did that feel like a natural fit, interpreting an existing text into something new?

That’s so interesting. It never occurred to me that there was something structurally similar between the act of writing of this novel and the idea of re-interpreting a text as a cover. Huh. I guess it was a natural fit! 

I do have to say, my preoccupation throughout the year of the novel’s writing was with the ideas of duplication, simulacra, commoditization, recapitulation, and hyperreality. The ways in which everything—or at least every consumable artifact—is essentially a copy or collage of some preexisting material. So, I suppose what I’m saying here is that it is also true that everything is an homage, and a re-interpretation.

Same Same is filled with procrastination and blank page anxiety and the struggles of motivation – are you exorcising some demons?

They say “write what you know,” and, while one is writing one’s first novel, all one knows is: the writing of one’s first novel

It seemed somehow more honest to let the facts of my life as an aspiring novelist colonize the text than to concoct something new or resurrect some older biographical material. And, as it happens, I did spend a fair amount of time during the composition of the book combating ennui, frustration, despair. There were doldrums and longeurs. Writing a large novel is a form of insanity. And so the novel took that form. The hardest thing about writing a novel is the sheer strength of will it takes to stay at the thing, in the face of boredom, confusion, anxiety…It’s very hard actually. So yes, the book became jam-packed with my worries about making books.

What's your writing routine like? Do you write where you design?

I write in the mornings and at night (at home), and on the subway (often I’ll email myself a chapter I’ve written on my phone from the train) and in any free moment at work (on a laptop). I don’t design really anymore, so there isn’t, in fact, a place where I design. Sometimes I write freehand, sometimes on the computer. Sometimes I’ll text a passage to myself. I have no set routines, and don’t fetishize any either. It seems like the important thing about writing is that you write. By hook or by crook. Words on the page. Accumulate them, hour by hour, day after day.

You illustrate with type throughout the book, playing with the constraints of prose text to create diagrams of scenes. Do you find yourself switching to design mode in the middle of writing?

Ha. Yes. It seems strange for writers to ignore the shapes and colors made by typography on a page. I can’t not see pictures in things. But for Same Same I wanted to explore, in a playful fashion, the various ways in which these “pictures” can be constructed through the arrangements of words. This is, in fact, more like concrete poetry than design really. By which I suppose I mean, super lo fi, and heavily constrained in terms of technique. I don’t think of these prose pictures as pretty, or smart or compelling in anyway. It’s all just me exploring the idea of things standing in for other things in an almost extra-linguistic way. It is the same reason that I included charts, lists, word maps and interviews in the book as well. A novel is, like it or not, a visual medium on some level. We’ve just trained ourselves not to see words as pictures, but rather transparent signifiers.

So what's it like designing covers for your own work? Is it easier or harder to work without that layer of reinterpretation?

It’s very, very hard. I made so many covers for this thing. In the end I needed someone else to choose one for me. For my next novel (The Delivery, pubbing in 2020, FSG) I’m going to let someone else do it for me. For the first time. I can’t go through it all again. I have no perspective on the thing. No arm’s length at all. 

Daniel is a book designer and writer based in York. danielgray.com