Tag Archives: e-books

Interview: Les Petersen – Cover Artist

I was lucky enough to win a competition recently. The prize: a cover for an ebook created by artist and writer, Les Petersen. I’m in the process of compiling a special edition of my Witch Honour and Witch Faith novels, complete with extra material. To your right you’ll see the magnificent cover Les created for the book.

I’m delighted with the result, and particularly with the different elements of the two novels he’s managed to weave into the cover without clutter. The picture has a lovely balance and he’s captured those two characters very well.

Les had created cover art for a lot of Australian writers, including Ian Irvine, Karen Miller, Trudy Canavan, Isobelle Carmody, Tony Shillitoe and Jennifer Fallon, so I feel especially chuffed to have my own Les Petersen cover!

Cover art is a specialist skill, of course. We’ve all been won over by lovely covers, or been disappointed by covers we didn’t think captured the essence of a favourite novel. I decided to ask Les about the process of creating good covers, and some other things about his own work.

Les has a special offer for people who need cover art either for their ebooks or their published-on-paper books. More about that at the end, though.

Les's cover of The Stone Key by Isobelle Carmody from her Obernewtyn series. (Design by Cathy Larsen of the Penguin Group)

You captured the essence of my two Witch books very impressively for the cover of The Witches of Tyne. How do you go about absorbing and synthesising someone’s novel to achieve that?

It’s a kind of magic. 😀 I suppose synthesising someone’s novel is like capturing the images that form in your mind when you read books. You hear the writer’s voice and it creates a texture of a story: best described as the internal movie that plays in your daydreaming mind. Then it becomes a purely mechanical action of putting together an image that gets as close to that movie as you can.

All illustrators have a personal visual repertoire and style/language they use, an arrangement of symbols and parts of symbols that go up to make the whole image, which they feel more than see in the beginning. So, it’s taking that personal repertoire, challenging your skill in using it, using a few references to help make sense of the vague ideas you have, and making the image work as best it can to fit the story.

Or, if you prefer a simpler explanation – “it’s magic!”

A lot of your cover art seems to be for fantasy or SF books. Do you prefer to create art for those genres? What other genres do you work in? Is there a genre you’d like to do art for – crime, westerns or romance for example, that you haven’t done yet?

I’ve been lucky to work in the fantasy genre, with a smattering of sci-fi as well – and they tend to be the kinds of commissions that come my way.

I’d work in any genre, except maybe overtly romantic images with bare-chested men and frocked women. That doesn’t challenge the image creation enough when you are restricted to a very narrow visual language. Horror also doesn’t interest me that much though I have done a few. My preferred direction would be to do more relaxed, “childish” images, like the cover I did for Ford Street. James Roy’s The Gimlet Eye.

You’re a writer as well as an artist. Has that influenced your approach to designing covers?

What an interesting question! At first I was willing to say the act of writing hasn’t really influenced the style of image I create, but on reflection, as we all know, both writing and image making are ways of telling stories. All images have narratives, or should, IMHO, so I suppose the construction of an image includes beats or suggestions of the story you are illustrating.

You should be able to look into the image and see details that suggest plot points. Insufficient image details make it all feel slick, I suppose – and maybe that’s the difference between design and illustration. Both look interesting, but one tells you more. Or maybe I’m getting to wrapped up in answering the question…let’s move on.

What do you think is the essence of a good cover?

Ok, I’ve spoken about the narrative of a cover, and that’s important. Also, there are the craft-based requirements: composition, colour harmony, style etc. And all publishing houses have their own ‘livery’ (for want of a word), but the difference between a good cover and a bad cover probably is ‘intrigue’. The art of being able to draw a reader into picking up the book off the shelf. If the marketing team have done their job well, the customer will buy the book. How do you create intrigue in a design. Ummmm. My, doesn’t the sky look wonderful today!

I know you are interested in animation. Who would be your favourite animation houses?

Les's Firebug, from his portfolio work.

It’s hard to go past the work coming out of Pixar, which have great story lines and wonderful character designs, but the ones that I am continually drawn to are Studio Ghibli’s collection – magical to look at and wonderful stories.

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is also superb (I’ve watched that over and over again) and as he’s a gob-smacking amazing illustrator, I’d almost say he’s the top.

However, if I was to choose just one animator to wave the flag for, it would be Jonathan Nix and his inspiringly beautiful work, with evocatively whimsical music. I recommend his The Missing Key.

For the tech-heads – what are your favoured tools for creating cover art?

Photoshop. Smith Micro’s Poser for figure marquettes, Vue. And a Wacom Tablet to draw with. BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY pencil and paper. Without using those, for me the rest is distracting and I end up with rubbish.

Les's cover for the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild's anthology, Outcast. (2006)


Les has very kindly offered a special rate to readers of my blog who need cover art for their e-book or print book.

Until the end of June 2012, you can commission Les for an e-book cover for $300. If you want the full works with e-book, high res and small images suitable for print as well as digital, he’s offering the special price of $1200.

If you are interested in taking Les up on this generous offer (the prices are significantly less than his usual charges) email me on narrelle@iwriter.com.au with the subject line Les Petersen and I’ll get you two beautiful kids together.

See more of Les’s work at his website.

Review: The Devil’s Mixtape by Mary Borsellino

Disclaimers front and foremost: the author of The Devil’s Mixtape is a friend of mine. I’m a huge fan of Mary Borsellino’s work, and of Mary herself. She has a habit of introducing me to new ways of looking at the world which are like a bucket of ice water to the face. Frequently unexpected, but ultimately refreshing and, by god, it makes you wake up and look at things. As I’m a fond of saying, just because I’m biased, it doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Mary wrote the five-book The Wolf House vampire series, which I love. It’s full of horror, cruelty, compassion, love, art and rock music. The Devil’s Mixtape is her newest book, and it has all the power, passion, razorblade insights and ice-water dousing of her vampire novel, condensed into a single volume. Mary Borsellino does not choose safe, easy subjects – or protagonists – but she grabs everything in two fists and propels you to places you never saw coming. The other writer who most recently made me feel like this was Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games trilogy

The Devil’s Mixtape has three interwoven stories, all about fierce women who do not even pretend to play nice. The very first chapter throws you right into the deep end with letters from a girl named Ella Vrenna. Ella once led a shooting spree at an American high school, and died at the end of it. She’s in Hell, writing letters to her little sister, now a grown woman and a rock star.

The second thread of stories follows Sally, a part aboriginal teenager, travelling across Australia with Amy, who isn’t really a girl. The third thread is told in excerpts from a book, in which rock journalist Charlotte interviews the band HUSH on the road. The members of the band are all linked, in some way, to the Ella, Sally and Amy.

Those are the bare bones of it, but the layers of storytelling and theme are so rich, deep and varied that I can’t begin to cover them all. But I’m going to give it a shot.

There’s a lot in here about identity. Ella is no longer her whole self but reduced to ‘ellavrenna’, her full name always spoken in a breath, made a monster by a monstrous act and losing the rest of who she was in the process. Even in the way she signs her letters, Ella is always confined, but always changing.

Identity features in lots of other ways too. The sainted Stacey, one of the school shooting victims, the other side of Ella’s coin, is also remembered more as an icon than as a person.

People you know by one name in one thread are actually going by different names in other parts of the story. Where some people are building an image or identity for themselves with careful iconography, others, like Cherry from HUSH, are using Twitter to break down the icon, communicate with the fans and become more real than the rock idol. Sometimes having more than one name is a way of showing that there is more than one truth about who you are. Even Charlotte turns out to have a secret identity.

The Devil’s Mixtape is full of families and siblings torn apart by sickness, violence and death; and full of people forging new families for themselves in the aftermath. The characters are frayed, sometimes broken. They are all terribly flawed and tragically human – even (or especially) the monsters.

God and the Devil are mentioned a lot in this book. Hell, too, since that is where Ella resides, along with a lot of other people who haven’t done things half so evil as she has. But I don’t see God here really as a religious God. This god seems a personification of a conformist society, intolerant of difference: if you’re queer and won’t pretend not to be; if you’re a girl and won’t be sweet and pliable; if you fail to conform (and if you’re angry that everyone wants you to) then this God will send you to hell.

A key element of this notion is the story of the wolf and the dog, told in the early parts of the book, ending with the moral “It is better to be hungry and tired and free than to be fat and sleek and at a master’s mercy’. God will put a collar on you, so perhaps it is better to be damned but free. But being damned is not the same as being without compassion or love. The book is full of people who choose damnation selflessly, protecting others.

The Devil’s Mixtape is about refusing to conform by hiding who you are; but also about trying to find a place to belong, where you can be accepted as your whole self. It’s passionate, defiant and fierce. It’s also full of stories, parables and fables about wolves and fierce women and love. It’s full of people who are strong and vocal. They’re not always nice, but they are always, like the wolf, free.

Themes aside, the writing itself is superb. It switches from voice to voice cleanly. Ella’s letters to Tash differ in tone and style from Sally’s present-tense narrative, which contrasts with Amy’s past-tense narration even though they share a timeline. Charlotte’s use of reporting alongside verbatim interviews with the band give another tone again. This technique keeps the large cast of characters airborne and distinct and provides texture and momentum.

Then there are the turns of phrase, the unexpected observations and the sudden insights that make Mary one of my favourite writers. On this second read-through (I read one of the later drafts a few months ago) I kept finding more interlinking themes, phrases and ideas that weave the three threads together. It’s an intricate, tightly woven story that is as rewarding in rereads as the first gripping time.

The Devil’s Mixtape is part horror story, part declaration of love for non-conformists, especially those who embrace being outside the norm. It’s passionate, smart, powerful and at times incredibly beautiful.

Get The Devil’s Mixtape e-book, published by Omnium Gatherum, from Amazon.com. It’s only $3.99 and it may be one of the most disturbing and compassionate books you read. It’s like a bucket of ice water to the face; and that’s not at all a bad thing.

NEW: Just released on Amazon! The Devil’s Mixtape paperback

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, iPhone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.