Marisa Silver’s newest novel, Little Nothing (Blue Rider, Sept.), blends realism and fantasy in a story whose setting is unspecified. But Rachel Willey, who designed the cover, had some ideas. “While the novel never directly states what time period or place it's set in,” she says, “it’s clearly somewhere in Eastern European at the turn of the 20th century.”
When she began brainstorming cover ideas, Willey looked into popular Russian art forms and came across Lubok prints, which appealed because of their “mythical, fairy tale–like look,” she says.
In order not to give away any plot twists, “I tried to avoid any obvious imagery that might spoil something in the story,” she says. “After pulling inspiration, I played around with vague, type-centic comps. I began by drawing the cover with a Sharpie on tracing paper, with the intention of inverting it in order to mimic the woodcut style.” Below, a scan of that drawing and then, the scan inverted, with a photocopy texture added to make it look more like a print.
“After showing this fake-out version of a woodcut to Jason [Booher, art director at Blue Rider and Plume], he wouldn’t stand for faking an art form like that and insisted that I make an actual linocut,” Willey says. “I had very little experience with linocuts going into this—I watched a lot of YouTube videos during the process, trying to master the art of it.” Below, a test block Willey made.
For the actual linocut, below, a piece of linoleum, in this case mounted on a wooden block, was carved out to use in printmaking. “I adjusted the design of the original test and made the type have a little more authority than it did before,” Willey says. “I drew the design by hand, photocopied it, and then used a transfer marker to transfer the design onto the linoleum. Jason ended up doing most of the actual carving.”
“After the linoleum sheet is carved, you use a brayer to roll out ink on a piece of acetate, or another smooth plane, to get a completely even coating,” Willey says. “Then you roll the ink on the linocut and press it onto a sheet of paper. I made quite a few prints with varying degrees of success and then cobbled them together in Photoshop to make sure everything was readable.”
“Some gold foil—a lot of gold foil—was added into the design to give it a whimsical and magical feel better representative of the book,” Willey says. Below, the remains of a heat transfer foil sheet used for the mockup; essentially, after a multi-step process to achieve the desired affect, what's left is a negative of the design.
“We took a big risk, putting so much time and effort into this comp without knowing how the editors or author would respond,” Willey says, “but luckily everyone was happy with the outcome.” After the editor and author approved the mockup, the line “Author of Mary Coin” was added, which meant another block needed to be carved. Below, the final results.
Without giving too much away, the abstract design does relate to a plot point in the novel, Willey says—it’s meant to evoke the golden fur of a fantastical wolf. “Since I know what the intention was,” Willey says, “I always feel like I could actually pet this cover."