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Cathy Larsen

Cathy Larsen talks to Nalini Haynes

Cathy Larsen and friends

UPDATE:  Cathy Larsen, a book design professional with many years experience including designing books for Isobelle Carmody and Ian Irvine (covers and text) is now freelancing book design (a result of the economy :-/).  Cathy can be contacted on cathy.larsen@optusnet.com.au.  

Cathy Larsen, book designer at Penguin, talks to Dark Matter about her work in publishing, including working with Ian Irvine and Isobelle Carmody.  This was an early recorded interview where I needed to learn how to manage the Dictaphone etcetera, so this interview is only available in text format.  (Maybe once I’ve got time on my hands and I’ve learnt to do all my own sound editing, maybe then this will change.)

Cathy was wearing an awesome gothic style costume at Supanova, so I bowled up to this complete stranger and asked for a photo. This lead to Cathy telling me about her reason for attending Supanova – as a personal friend of Isobelle Carmody, who was one of the authors signing and speaking at Supanova. Excited about talking to someone involved in a different aspect of publishing, I asked Cathy for an interview.

A few weeks later I met Cathy and three of her four cats for an interview to learn more about designing books.

Hi Cathy, thanks for talking to Dark Matter.  You said you’re a designer and you work with an illustrator; what is the difference between a designer and an illustrator?

As a designer you are responsible for the total look of the book – not just a picture but how everything – type, images and colour all fit together. You are in charge of coming up with a concept, whether it be illustrative, photographic etc. In the case of an illustration you work with the illustrator to get the desired results so you’re the intermediary. You are solving a visual problem posed by the brief.

Does that cover brief come from the author or the publishing company?

The cover brief comes directly from the publisher who commissioned or chose to publish the book and the editor who is working directly on the manuscript.

Ok, so they come up with a brief, how much flexibility do you have within that brief?

Sometimes it’s very prescribed, other times it’s much more open ended. A brief will give you an idea of the book’s market, age group, genre etc and include a short synopsis. They usually suggest a direction whether they see the book as being typographic, photographic or illustrated. There might be a clearly defined direction with a really good idea or it may be more open ended. One of the things everyone asks is ‘do you read the book’ It is probably only at manuscript stage when you’re actually designing it, so may not be available at the time. Sometimes I will read manuscripts but it depends. If the book has a really involved photo section where I need to know all about it in order to make decisions on the choice and placement of photos then I probably will read the manuscript or at least pieces of the manuscript to get an idea of what to choose and what it means. A lot of the time the editor will give me some references, maybe include a chapter or something for me to read. It would be impossible for me to read every book because I’m usually working on about 12 books at any one time. When I get a cover brief, I’ll also get a text brief.

What is the text brief?

If it’s a novel it’s not a big deal. Basically what you’re controlling is how the text sits on the page, the look of the text, the kind of headings, any other elements.

So it’s not just the cover, it’s the whole book?

It’s the whole book. Basically we’re responsible for the whole book from the beginning to the end. We’ll have a schedule for the cover and the text. For the text there’s a sample set, which will get approved. They’ll say the manuscript will be so many thousand words, here’s the digital file, and we want it to be 420 pages.
So you have to make the text fit the pages. That’s got to be challenging at times.

You get a good feel for it, whether you want a very open text, whether you want to bulk it out, you get an idea of whether it’s going to be tight or loose, you get a starting point and then if you need to adjust it you just make the type a bit smaller, less leading, or more leading, adjust the margins a little bit, its all about little increments… Cast off, you’ve probably never heard about cast off.

Not in this context, what is it?

You do everything in multiples of baseline grids. The first thing I do is throw a grid through the whole text, set up master pages, margins and everything, running heads and folios, whatever other repeating elements I have. You have your chapter drop, you’ve usually got less text on that page, you have the title of the chapter, you might have an epigraph or little quote or something. You count an average of how many words in your chapter drop, then times it by the number of chapters, then subtract that number away from the total word count.Then you get an average of how many words there are in a full page and divide it into the balance. This gives you a rough number of total pages. Add your number of chapters to your number of full pages and there you have your estimated extent.

What software are you using? This is sounding a lot like Adobe InDesign.

Yes it is, I’m working in InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop essentially. I do a cast off based on my initial text design which I can adjust if I need to have either less or more pages.

I’m sure that experience makes it easier.

Yes. It’s also what kind of typefaces go best together because I might have a poem at the beginning, set down text, all sorts of things. Some authors want to show email or text messages. There will be a text brief to draw attention to the various things in the text. I assign a code to each one of those. Typeface, point size, leading…
So it’s not just cover design.

People say ‘People design text?’ Cover design is about giving a person a little bit of a taste or sparking the interest of the person who might like to read the book. Sometimes I think I’m trying to do too much on the cover, trying to show the whole book. It’s better to show a little hint, kind of an emotional feeling or something on the cover.

Sashiko  with some of the covers Cathy has designed
Sashiko with some of the covers Cathy has designed

You have 3 books here, they are all very different.  A House in Fez really looks like its building a life in the heart of Morocco, with a door that needs to be opened.

That was the idea. On the back there’s an image through the door, the market and the cat.

A House in Fez

I love the cat. On the cover there is a border at the top made of Moroccan tiles – It looks genuinely Moroccan.
Oh it is, but I’ve had to step and repeat to achieve the tiled border. One of the photos shows a Moroccan laying tiles, which I have taken and extended in photoshop. You notice the Islamic design with the numeral on the outer margin of the book? The practical idea is that when you thumb through the book you immediately see the folio.

Is this a book you would have read before you worked on it?

Some of it. I read certain things. With this one I had to get a fairly good idea of what they were doing in order to choose the photographs.

How do you choose which bits you’re going to read?

The editor is in charge of doing the structural edit on manuscripts, between the editor and the publisher they pretty much know the most representative part. They might give me a chapter in which the main character starred or a particular scene they want me to illustrate.

Darwin's Armada cover

What about this one, Darwin’s Armada? Not only is it a beautiful contrast with A House in Fez but it has this traditional tall ship.

Sometimes I have a real image in my mind of what I want. Sometimes it’s about finding the images, hunting on the net. One image on the cover of Darwin’s Armada is of a tall ship. While doing a search for Darwin’s ship the ‘Beagle’ I found this wonderful painting, done by a German nautical illustrator for a box for a model kit. I managed to track down the manufacturer of the kit, to ask him who’s the illustrator; he turned out to be a friend of the manufacturer. He supplied the high resolution image. Unfortunately I needed to extend quite a bit of the sea around the ship in photoshop.

That’s part of the image and then you’ve got Darwin up the top.

Yes, there are a few layers to the image. The diagram there is Darwin’s tree of evolution. I’ve also shown some of the engravings from the ‘Origin of Species’. The end pages show Darwin’s letters. And there are all sorts of engravings, I found a cartographer and briefed the maps. Often they publish in a C format so you’ve got to keep in mind that it will be reduced later, when you design the cover you have to design it for a reduction grid for either a B format or A format.

Is that like a trade format and normal format?

All paperbacks are called Trade paperbacks as distinct from hardcovers. A C format, which is 152 by 230 (also called a Royal) has more prestige and is usually the first edition unless you are doing a hardback. The next is a B format which is 121 by 198, then the smallest which has been nicknamed the ‘airport novel’ is 111 by 181.
So the biggest one is C. It seems a little funny they call that the C because my understanding is the hardcover comes out first if they’re going to release a hardcover.

I don’t know why.

Keep Rockin' Billy Thorpe cover

Then you’ve got Keep Rockin’ Billy Thorpe which is very different to the first two, with a photo on the front. The contrast between these books is really good, really interesting.

I was presented with a huge stack of material, grouped into chronological folders, it was quite overwhelming frankly. For each chapter I chose a colour. The chapter opening photograph is tinted to the chapter colour. The text is composed of many elements – the main narration of his wife Lyn, pieces where friends have written their memories of Billy, Interviews, Billy’s own comments, pieces of his unpublished work (with a stamp to identify it). There is a different style of text for each element, so you can recognise who is saying what.The book is done like a scrapbook – there are press clippings, objects, a book within a book. There are interviews with other people. There are all sorts of things, bits and pieces of notebooks, bits of paper, tiny little cuttings, here you have these tips with sticky tape on the side which means he’s making a comment about that particular photo. Contact sheets of photos, with colour picking out particular people.

It definitely has a feeling of a scrapbook.

There were actual fan scrapbooks as well. I was given everything. There was the basic text but a lot of material was left up to me as to how to arrange it. There is some lovely retro stuff. The endpapers show all his album covers. Through the chapter pics in the contents you can chart the various looks in the stages of his life.
There is so much work that has gone into this book. How long did it take you to work on this particular book?
That was a pretty big project, 3 or 4 months, straight through.

Just one project or were you doing other things?

A few little things, I tried to get as much stuff done as possible but 3 or 4 months straight through.


Here is a series of covers for Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles.  I wanted to work out a branding for Isobelle’s name so I worked out a distinctive type in Illustrator, which is actually a mix of a few typefaces.

In the PDF you sent me, you had an idea and showed how you got to the outcome. Did your idea come first?

Yes. The thing is I end up seeing it in my mind and then madly search through stock image libraries to see what I could make of it. With the Obernewtyn Chronicles the problem was initially I imagined them all to be illustrated. The illustrator did great backgrounds but the faces weren’t suitable for what I had in mind. I had short deadlines, so it was all pretty rushed. I did a bit of a trial myself in case I needed to illustrate the whole series, but they said let’s use the background and do the images photographically. The computer thing is a bit of a double edged sword, instead of doing a little sketch you more or less have to show them before it’s actually done. Then they lock into that idea, so I have to make everything out of found images, splicing it together. It was taking days to look through various photo libraries to get a girl who could possibly be the main character again and again.

Is she a found image or a model?

She is a found image, so is the cat. I’ve had Les do the background, the turban and the plaits and then I’ve spliced it together. And put this glow in.

That’s really difficult to put it together so the light is consistent.

I’ve given him the rough idea and told him I wanted it painted like this.

That’s a huge amount of collaboration.

Yes, well, we ended up becoming really good mates at the end of it. That’s the test I painted (artwork on the cover of Dark Matter).

Obernewtyn test painted by Cathy Larsen
Obernewtyn test painted by Cathy Larsen

That’s really haunting.

I used to do illustration many years ago which means if something’s wrong I can spot it. I used gouache as a student so I’m used to it, and I do line and dot using technical pens.

I think author branding in a series is important. I did this for Ian Irvine’s name.

People also like to know their books are going to be a set.

Yes. People who are collectors will wait for a certain edition. Ian supplied me with this idea of the 3 worlds that are one, painted in a red gold and silver colour. With the first series that is the logo and it gets painted in the corner. Each of the 3 series is different. Each of the series has a different variation of the logo ghosted on the cover. The series have different fonts, but Ian’s name is in the same font. And this border, wasn’t that fun. Ian was saying there was all this really exotic writing around the mirror and there is a view from the mirror. So this was supposed to be the edge of the mirror. So I said what is this writing supposed to look like? So he sends me back this piece of paper with some writing on it, but I said “Ian! You did that in half an hour!” It had no progression, it didn’t look like a set. So I took it on myself using the pen tool in Illustrator using a mouse.

So it’s freehand with a mouse, you didn’t have a wacom or anything?

No. All this stuff is done with a mouse. I have a wacom now but I’m a bit in trepidation of using it because I spend half my time deep etching things, like deep etching that cat’s whiskers (on the cover of Matthew Flinders’ Cat).

I did a colouring book adapted from Grame Base’s Waterhole. I think it’s a colouring book for complete obsessives just frankly. I had prints of his pictures on my lightbox, which I traced onto fineliner paper, using 4 widths of technical pen, constantly making judgements about which line weight to use for each part.
And here is me thinking the artist did it!

He said my line work was much better than his.

That’s a compliment!

I did it for freelance on top of my other work as well, so every 3 days I had to turn over a double page spread that took about 8 hours. Basically ruined my social life, I didn’t have one. I worked until midnight every night on the light box. And there were the invisible animals put in with the 0.18 pen. So if you look at it you can feel my pain.

That brings a whole new perspective to that book.

The cover was done by blending my line rendering into the coloured-in linework into Graeme’s illustration. I laid photos of pencils across the cover. People have no idea how much work goes into these projects sometimes.
Back to Ian Irvine, I did an alphabetic progression with a pen-like quality and sent it to him. So he promptly sent me back an arrangement for going around the mirror. This was all in Illustrator as a border. It meant that the sides of the book were static but every time the spine changed I had to equalise the spaces to make the border fit. I had made a rod for my own back. This illustrator was Mark Sofilous and he did this beautiful bridge but he was working too hard so he pulled out later. We decided originally should we have characters in it, but it ended up looking too childish with characters so we decided this alien landscape would work. It’s all very formal and centralised because of the way the type fits. I ended up ghosting that symbol on the cover for the second series. I had the illustrator draw up this sort of moebius strip of the 3 worlds in Illustrator, which was ghosted over the cover image in Photoshop. That’s the huge crystal cave.

crystal cave

He’s very practical, Ian, he’d give me really good descriptions. Sometimes I’d ask what this thing looked like and he’d say he hadn’t got that far. We got to this telescope idea and how it all worked. So Mark Sofilas and Nick Stathopoulos did the covers for this set. Nick is quite famous now, he’s done work for the Archibald Prize. And this is Les Petersen’s work, on the covers of a later set. Sometimes we’d send each other little black and white sketches then I’d look at it and bounce that to Ian to find out if this was how it would work. We’d communicate in these little black and white sketches until we had the composition right. And then we’d go ahead.
How does that work? To me seeing this in black and white would be worlds apart from seeing it in colour. In colour it looks absolutely gorgeous.

It’s just placements of elements – composition. Les is more the one to do rough concepts in colour. When I briefed the artist I would supply them with the grid of the cover with all the type that needs to go on the front back and spine. The landscape wraps around the book. The part on the back cover needs to be dark and featureless enough to have the blurb reversed out of it.

So you know how thick the book’s going to be?

Not always but I’ve got a fairly good idea. With Ian the books just started getting thicker and thicker. One time Janet, an editor, turned up with his manuscript on a trolley. I think she sent him an email, ‘next time write a shorter book!’ I just couldn’t get over it, he’s not a man who is over the top word wise when you meet him. Obviously as soon as he gets in front of the keyboard it just runs. Otherwise he’s just very practical, he’s not hyper or anything. You might think he’s the sort of person who can’t stop talking but that’s not it at all.

Someone who is an author said it’s a very isolated profession so maybe they need to be introverts?

It’s the same thing with illustrators. I’ll be out and about and yak yak yak but the very nature of the process means I’m sitting alone at a desk for most of the day. It’s the very nature of the process. You know about the ice berg principle don’t you? It’s the 1/10 above water. Particularly illustrating can be isolating because you’re just there at your desk for hours.

Obviously you need to be able to talk to the illustrator and the author but you’re working independently.

Pretty much. You’re responsible for the whole look of the book. The text, cover and then there are the maps. When asked to do maps Ian asked about the maximum scanning size. I said 700 by 500mm. Then these enormous maps turned up! I thought Oh My God. What am I going to do with this? The other thing is I had to work out the scale. He just had these on big sheets of tracer, not labelled so I had to do the labelling. These are so dense that I had to put a layer underneath the label with a white box so you can actually read the label. I had to work out the scale from one map then translate that to the other maps. Then I had to put the legend together.

When we commission the artwork we are only paying for reproduction rights. Generally unless we have specifically bought the artwork it remains the possession of the illustrator, or in Ian’s case, the author.
I also do maps myself for various things, like the latest Isobelle map. A map for Finnekin and the Rock by Melina Marchetta. I’m a bit like The Goodies. I do anything anytime. I have to be fairly adaptable. Not all graphic designers can draw, quite a lot of them can’t. Other graphic designers get me to do extra things. I often do maps and hand lettering.

Big Red Hen cover

There was one children’s book, Terry Denton and Margaret Wild did Big Red Hen and I ended up hand lettering the book. There is software where you can turn any kind of a script into a font. So one of the guys asked me to do a few more letters and now we have Cathy’s Big Red Hen font which is essentially my hand rendered Bembo. Since then I’ve seen it used in about 4 books.

I also do things like Moncia McInerney’s romances. I used to paint the Monica McInerney covers. Now they are all updated to be photographic. With The Wrong Thing I designed the compositions for the illustrator – graphic design can be very hands on. It’s a child’s book about a little fairy that gets into the house and the cat sees it.

Thank you for talking to Dark Matter.

Spaced Out
Spaced Out

Cathy is an active participant in Spaced Out, Melbourne’s SF club for the GLTB community. That is for any science fiction fan who is gay, lesbian, transgendered or bisexual. Supportive friends are also welcome. Spaced Out is a non-profit science fiction club run by volunteers. It’s a social group with monthly meetings and social outings. They get together once a month, have dinner and chat then watch a DVD. It is very friendly and casual. Activities include movie nights, discussion of SF, dinners, picnics etc, mini conventions, guest speakers, Pride March to name a few. The newsletter is called ŒDiverse Universe¹ and welcomes stories, articles and artwork.

Photo of Spaced Out courtesy of Cathy Larsen, photographer unknown.

Note: Cathy Larsen made a cameo appearance in Outland, a TV series about a gay science fiction club.

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Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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