When Michael Morris, a designer at Crown, began conceptualizing the cover for Still Here by Lara Vapnyar (Hogarth, Aug.), it didn’t yet have a title. “The working title was Virtual Grave," he says. “Our publisher kept describing it as ‘the Russian St. Elmo’s Fire.’ ”
The novel follows four friends, all Russian immigrants to New York City. One of them develops an app called Virtual Grave that allows a person to maintain an online presence after death.
After reading the book, Morris says, “I narrowed the story down to four elements: New York, immigrants, technology, and friendship.” He tried to incorporate all of those components, “but any combination of New York and Russian elements spoke too much to the Cold War. Friendship was also an important part, but the characters were so equally represented; the only way would be to show all of them, which almost always makes the cover look like a band photo or movie poster.”
Morris settled on highlighting New York and the Virtual Grave app. Even after the title had changed to Still Here, he says, “I liked the idea of using a tombstone.” He kicked around a few more concepts, including using the tombstone shape to represent apartment-building windows (above).
In order to better showcase the technology element, he reintroduced an early idea he'd had, which involved a phone. He found the art close to home: “My phone’s screen was broken at the time, which I decided worked with the story. I set the type with a tombstone shape and an image of the night sky, sent it to my phone, and took a picture.” (above)
Ultimately, when Morris and his creative director, Christopher Brand, presented the ideas, an even earlier concept (above) won out. “I’d taken the tombstone and combined it with neon lettering,” Morris says, inspired by the publisher’s description of the book's plot. In the movie St. Elmo’s Fire, the characters frequent a bar called St. Elmo's. "That gave me the idea of using the sort of signage that would be outside a bar." He shaped the sign around a window, added New York City imagery, and the phone on the floor. "It has the elements I wanted to convey, in an eye-catching layout, but doesn't give too much away."