Next up in our Q&A series is Angel Guerra who teaches Humber Publishing students all the ins and outs of cover design, designs for Cormorant Books (and many others!) won the Alcuin Prize in book design… but doesn’t have a website. He does have some interesting stories to tell though.
Here he is in his own words:
AF: Who is Angel Guerra (in a nutshell)?
AG: I’m a sometime artist, sometime photographer. I thought I was going to be a musician but after several unruly episodes in my Grade 9 music class I was exiled to the art department. What a lucky break. I could still act up but I was expected to take my animus and apply it to the canvas. I know I should have been able to do that in music class as well but my teacher was a hardcore type. There would be no burning of instruments on his watch.
AF: How did you come into the world of book cover design?
AG: In an off hand way. The thing is I decided not to go to art college. I spent a lot of time around books and writing. Writing I saw as a kin to art—stringing words together is all about image making. Creative writing was not a University specialty back then so I went off to journalism school. Went on to work in the newspaper and magazine business. Quickly wore out my welcome and ended up working in a bookstore. Through a sales rep I landed a job in the marketing department of a Canadian publishing firm. I bounced around a bit and then I got a big break. David Kent (now pres. Harper Collins) introduced me to a maverick publisher named Jack Stoddart. You’d have never thought that looking at Jack but he was outsider to the core. He gave me room to run and the rope to hang myself if I chose to do it. Stoddart quickly was on the end of law suits by the British and Israeli governments. Set a former Canadian prime minister’s world ablaze, published many major bestsellers, and bought firms like House of Anansi Press. We rebranded Anansi, relaunched the CBC Massey Lectures and then like all good and daring enterprises we finally blew up. At Stoddart I met Marc Cote, publisher of Cormorant Books. Marc and I have been collaborating ever since. Marc is a man who thrives out on the thin ice. He’s edited a number of great new voices in Canadian fiction. You could say he’s the farm system for the big boys who gain from his keen eye for talent.
AF: From your experience, what is the relationship between designer and publisher? Designer and author?
AG: You could call it creative dissonance. Everybody is in on the process, aunts, agents, neighbors, even a cab driver or two. The key is to listen to all sides. It is, after all, collaborative work. It helps if you can read the book in question. If you can’t, ask a lot of questions. If I can be a bit flippant here, I’d suggest all book designers learn to sail, know when to tack up wind and when to run the rigging. Know your depth and seize the currents.
AF: Describe your creative process.
AG: For the most part I work late at night. Between 1 and 4 am. I use my days try to live off the publishing grid—shopping, cooking, traveling to my son’s soccer matches. I do try to travel with my camera, a notebook and a pen. An idea can come at anytime, anywhere. When I’m reading a book I take notes. Sometimes an idea for a cover will hit me on the first page. Sometimes it takes a lot of sketch work and map making.
AF: How would you describe your own style? How has it evolved?
AG: I don’t know much about my style. The one thing I do know is that if I’m snapping a pic I seem to want to get close up, almost on top of my subject. I’m a detail hunter.
AF: Do you have a favourite cover of yours? If so, what is it?
AG: It’s one of my early covers—Save Me Joe Louis by M.T. Kelly. It was a novel about boxing. It was before I knew how tough designing covers could be. I’ve been trying to capture that experience ever since.
AF: How does the book influence the cover design?
AG: I believe we dissect our world along lines laid down by our native languages. Writers have their own way of saying things. My job is to learn that language and translate it to the book cover. So the voice of the book is a big influence.
AF: How (in your opinion) can the cover influence the book?
AG: I’ve heard stories where that was supposed to have happened. But I never experienced it until recently. I was working on the cover for a novel by Gilaine Mitchell called The Breaking Words. It’s due this Fall from Cormorant. Marc was working with the author to create a turning point moment in the story. Gilaine started to consider what that change could be. She looked at the cover rough I did and then it stuck her. A while back I had taken a photograph of a girl after a show in a strip club. That night this girl told the other strippers that she was going to change her luck and picked up a pair of scissors and lopped off chunks of her hair. I snapped the pic to commemorate the moment for her. Gilaine liked the image and wanted it for her book. But when she looked at it again she realized that unlike the girl on the cover, her character had long hair. That’s when she hit on the idea of having her character cut her hair near the end of the book to mirror the cover image.
AF: Tell me your philosophy on colour.
AG: I love colour. I don’t see enough of it on literary books. I know colour should be there but I seldom make colorful images. If I use color it’s often muted. I love going into shops like Holt Renfrew and studying the colour techniques used by cosmetic makers on their packaging. How lithe and beautiful those colors are. And yet, it’s not part of my palette. I study book designers like Chin Yee Lai who are masters of the colour wheel. To no avail. My colour palette seems to be made of material from the dark side of the moon.
AF: Besides your own, what style of book cover do you love/appreciate most?
AG: I love anything by Bill Douglas. We brought Bill in to give Anansi a new identity. His work on Sheila Heti, Lisa Moore, Michael Winter and Rawi Hage’s novels set Anansi on the path to a revival. His type work is beyond the marvelous and he has a wicked eye for imagery. Check him out at cover-love-etcetera.blogspot.com.
AF: What do you like to read?/What are you reading right now?
AG: I’m into books by or about scientists. Right now I’m reading two books The Theoretical Minimum by Leonard Susskind and a book on analogy as the fuel and fire behind thinking called Surfaces and Essences by Douglas Hofstadter.
AF: Where can we find your work?
AG: My design work is here and there in bookstores. I’m behind the times. I don’t have a blog spot or website but I’m starting to sell my photographs and art work to private collectors here and in Europe so I’m now in the process of building a website. In terms of my career my wife tells me I’m the only passenger left on the slow boat to China. So maybe it’s time to abandon ship and slide on to the digital slipstream.