We are excited to reveal the cover for The Third Hotel (publishing in 2018), Laura van den Berg’s forthcoming novel. Van den Berg takes us to Havana, Cuba, at the peak of the newly flourishing tourist season. A widow arrives at a film festival and tries to come to terms with her husband’s death—as well as the truth about their marriage—in a story that pulls readers into a mystifying world of film, psychological reflection, and metaphysical mystery. We asked Sarahmay Wilkinson, the FSG cover designer for The Third Hotel, about her process for designing this cover: the use of digital and analog media, overcoming “designer’s block,” and the collaborative process behind this stunning design.
What was the concept for The Third Hotel and how was it developed?
At the onset of the design process, Emily Bell and I agreed on themes to explore: looking/being viewed, surveillance/stalking, hotel design/decor, film noir.
The book has a confused darkness about it. The reader quickly becomes disoriented by both the faulty reporting of the protagonist and the narrative structure, hopping between locations and through time. Nothing quite makes sense because we are seeing it all through a fractured lens.
Typically my process goes something like this: read, research broadly, rest, research deeply, design, design more. Then I share. Always with FSG Associate Art Director Alex Merto and Creative Director Rodrigo Corral first, then the editor, and then the author and publisher. After the rounds of sharing, the whole thing can become a more collaborative process. In the case of The Third Hotel, both Laura van den Berg and her editor Emily Bell provided thoughtful and constructive feedback, pushing the cover to a stronger place. Collaborating with them on this title was a total pleasure—we made a good team, and I love where we landed with The Third Hotel.
How and do you incorporate digital tools into your design process? Did you draw or paint any of the cover?
I tend to start and end on the computer, but the middle is always a mystery. Either I stick to the computer (because the title calls for it) or I start drawing, painting, making, photographing, etc.
For The Third Hotel I painted and drew almost every element, then scanned those elements, refined everything in Photoshop, and composed the final layout in InDesign.
If you get stuck while designing, what do you do?
When stuck I typically do the following things:
1. Get up and walk away (sometimes just to stretch my legs for a few minutes, sometimes for the night or the weekend). Distance makes the heart grow fonder?
2. Return to source: go back to the manuscript, original research, inspiration, and sketches. Course-correct accordingly.
3. Simplify: strip back and reduce to the essential elements.
4. Share with Associate Art Director Alex Merto. He is my rock. He gives clear feedback and direction, and great pep talks when needed. The art department at FSG is the best of the best, I trust them implicitly.
Do you know when you’ve “nailed it” on a given cover?
That’s a tough one. As a book cover designer, 99% of your work is rejected or goes unseen, so identifying the 1% can be tricky. But at a certain point, I usually feel like I have something that I can bring to Alex and Rodrigo, at which they will push me a little further, making the work a lot better. I don’t show anything to anyone outside the art department until I have their approval.
Do you have a “look” or does the book dictate the direction you go?
I really hope not. The words dictate the work.
Did you try any other concepts for the cover design before arriving at this one?
Yes. Countless. Always.
Can you talk about the special effects for this cover?
Sure. We hope to print on gritty matte, with a deboss, spot gloss, and spot color. We want to create a sense of depth with the deboss, a lushness with the spot gloss, and the spot color will highlight the hidden illustrations within the jungle.
If you weren’t a book cover designer, what would you be?
The thing I like about being a book cover designer is that it allows me to exercise many of the things I want to be, or would otherwise be: a painter, an illustrator, a designer, a photographer . . . Like most worthwhile pursuits, this job demands a lot but also gives a great deal in return.
Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida. Her first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth (FSG Originals, 2013), received the Rosenthal Award for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her first novel, Find Me (FSG, 2015), was long-listed for the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize. She lives in the Boston area.
Sarahmay Wilkinson is a designer at FSG.