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Cover Stories: John Irving’s ‘In One Person’

Among the reasons why printed books have survived in the age of digital media, the appeal of a well-designed cover must rank high on the list. This summer, SVA Features is presenting notable recent titles whose covers were created by School of Visual Arts alumni, with comments from the designers and the books' authors. Some originally appeared in the article "Color Commentary: Book Cover Design," in the spring 2016 Visual Arts Journal; others are online exclusives.

This week's entry: In One Person (Simon & Schuster, 2012) by author and Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Irving. Jackie Seow (BFA 1984 Media Arts) designed the cover. Seow is executive art director at Simon & Schuster.

In One Person
Fiction A bisexual man narrates his life and sexual awakening
Author John Irving
Designer Jackie Seow

Seow: At this point in my career I mostly work on the high-profile books. Part of my job is to figure out how much the author wants to be involved. John Irving is very clear in his vision and it’s important for him to be involved. I embrace that and I think it’s worked out well for us.

Mr. Irving had three very specific ideas for the cover. All were from scenes in the book and stuff that you just can’t find in stock photography. I knew I needed a photographer who was flexible and nimble enough to work out all three directions and could also capture the literary sensibility. I had worked with Mark Dye before and knew he would do a great job. We knew that the image had to be black-and-white, to give it the necessary literary gravitas. Mark did the initial casting call through Craigslist—a whole other story, but Mark did make sure his wife was there at all times—and took test shots and we narrowed it down to one teenage boy. The scene from the cover takes place in the ’50s, and the industrial, no-nonsense look of bras from that time are nothing like what we see in Victoria’s Secret today. Fortunately, Mark’s wife works in the garment industry, so she was our prop stylist.

As for the typeface, when the author is the biggest selling point, you need the name to be prominent. I tried a bunch of fonts but it mostly came down to the fact that I loved the way his name looked in Aviano Flare.

Irving: This was my first collaboration with Jackie. We’ve since collaborated a second time, on the cover of my 14th novel, Avenue of Mysteries. I love the work that Jackie does and look forward to working with her again.

For the cover of In One Person I gave Jackie a few suggestions: a boy reading in bed was one, another was a strong-looking boy with a wrestler’s body but a woman’s face. The third suggestion, which we both liked best, was that of a girl or a boy—a sexually ambiguous person—fastening or unfastening a bra. It was important not to see breasts—just the person’s upper back, perhaps a little of an upper arm, and his or her hands. No head, no hair, nothing below the waist. Jackie sent me some shots and I chose one of a perfectly androgynous model; I remember my wife and I argued about whether the model was a girl or a boy—we couldn’t be sure.

For some reason, I long believed that the model was a female rower—with a big back and broad shoulders, but delicate wrists and hands. But Jackie has assured me that the actual model was a teenage boy. I think the image is so successful that people seeing it for the first time imagine who they want the person putting on—or taking off—the bra to be. Hence I imagined a female rower, which is a reflection of one of the novel’s opening lines: “We are formed by what we desire.”

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