Cover Versions

In Spring 2015 I got a message from Minneapolis writer and musician Dylan Hicks asking if I would provide some artwork for his forthcoming second novel. Before I responded, I took a deep breath and vowed that I wouldn't humiliate myself by revealing how much of a fan I was, at least in the first 15 minutes.

Dylan is a songwriter, novelist, critic, and lately also a great word puzzle crafter. I read and enjoyed his first novel, Boarded Windows (2011). Its accompanying CD "Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene" is always near the top of the stack in my studio. And anyone cool who spent the late 90's in the Twin Cities knows his melodic, witty songs "Rocketship" and "100 Dollar Bill." 

His second novel, Amateurs, has an entwined cast of characters; we follow them from their late 20's as they mature (well, some of them) into early middle age. The characters are connected by Archer, a trust-fund kid who's a (sort-of) writer. Kirkus reviews describes the book as a "sprightly tale about friendship and courtship, money, love, assorted complications - and writers." If I worked at an independent book shop and had to write out those little "staff picks" cards I'd display Amateurs near Meg Wollitzer's The Interestings with a little sign: "If you like this, you'll also like..."

To make the cover, I took notes on images that jumped out at me on my first read-through. The first was a Little Free Library (I've got a half-written song about these.) There was also a great passage that describes one of the female character's changing opinion of an unconventionally attractive guy: "As a kid she'd always hated the Buffalo City Court Building...Then in college a friend told her that the building was a distinguished example of brutalism, and instantly she recognized his overcast beauty, became one of its staunch defenders." 

The novel also has several references to The Incredible String Band, a psychedelic folk band from the late 60's. A Google search revealed an interesting album cover. Because I had filled sketchbooks copying faces and figures from album covers as a child (see my Sgt. Pepper homage) I decided to begin the project here.

Dylan liked the ISB image, but thought an outright copy would be problematic. He suggested I keep the group arrangement and forest setting but change it up by inserting some contemporary figures. Not only did I find it hard to work without a reference, the book's characters kept coming to mind. Luckily we agreed on the idea of character portraits and Dylan helped me to hone in the on details of their appearances. For several of them I thought of who I'd cast in a film version and made alterations. Archer, for instance, is a less-appealing Jessie Eisenberg.


Once I had everybody sketched I made a master drawing. I made a half-dozen versions by tracing and adding spots of color over my template on a light table. I added stencil print work and rubber stamp on top of these. I wasn't sure if hand-lettered text would be well-received, but I felt like things came together when I added my title.

After settling on a favorite, I moved it into Photoshop to make some tweaks. I enjoy editing on the computer but it's easy to get carried away with possibilities. It was important to me that the thumbnail version of this cover be compelling. As a frequent nocturnal reader on my phone, I am aware of the influence of (smaller than) stamp-sized images on book selection.

The team at Coffee House press helped me select from this batch and refine it. I am so thrilled with how this turned out. If you are looking for a fun, smart read, give Amateurs a try, and let me know if you can identify everyone on the cover.