Today, we are proud to continue our Debut Author Spotlight series with an essay from Ruth Joffre, whose debut story collection Night Beast is out today from Grove Atlantic. This collection is especially near and dear to our hearts because we had the pleasure of publishing the title story, which won our Fall Fiction Contest judged by Kelly Link. In this essay, Joffre discusses the joys and challenges of finding the perfect cover.
“When my editor at Grove asked me if I had any ideas about what the cover of Night Beast should look like, I admit I felt a bit paralyzed. What single image could represent all the short stories in this collection (which is itself so varied in form and style, including stories written in the second person and the third, the present and the past)?”
Night Beast has always felt like a particularly evocative title. I drew the title of my short story collection from the final story in the book, “Night Beast,” which won The Masters Review’s 2016 Fall Fiction Contest. Neither too specific nor too vague, the phrase “night beast” brings to mind images of a dark, ferocious predator without identifying any particular animal or even requiring the beast to be an animal. As is often the case in the collection, the “beast” can be a product of our own untamed desires. Fierce, territorial, and unrepentant, the beast raises its head when you least expect it, driving the narrator of the title story to pursue an ill-advised affair with her brother’s fiancée, a sleepwalker wrestling with her own demons. It’s beautiful and terrifying and refuses to be restrained.
How, then, to convey all this in a cover?
When my editor at Grove asked me if I had any ideas about what the cover of Night Beast should look like, I admit I felt a bit paralyzed. What single image could represent all the short stories in this collection (which is itself so varied in form and style, including stories written in the second person and the third, the present and the past)? Every writer must go through this: the immediate fear of getting it wrong followed by the elation, however preemptive, at the thought of getting it right. I began to fantasize about what my cover would look like, and eventually I realized that the fantasies were starting to self-segregate into discrete artistic directions.
I chose three to send to my editor.
The first direction was inspired by the artwork that accompanied “Night Beast” when it was first published in The Masters Review. Mysterious and surreal, the photograph features a woman in a white wedding dress walking through a verdant forest. Her back is turned, and she’s climbing a staircase, lifting the dress so the train won’t drag through the dirt; but there’s no one around, and there’s nothing to explain how the bride came to be here. She just is.
The second direction was inspired by my lifelong love of film. In the first story in the collection, “Nitrate Nocturnes,” the main character attends a fundraiser for an independent cinema, where a guest speaker gives a brief lecture on nitrate film and how flammable it is. Inspired by that, I sent my editor a number of stills from decayed, hand-painted nitrate films, thinking that these surreal, abstract images could act as a jumping off point for the designer.
The third direction—the one we ultimately ended up going in—was the one I was simultaneously most excited and most worried about. This was the one inspired by Black Swan. Specifically, the international film posters, which were dynamic, geometric, and thrilling. This seemed especially fitting, because Sydney, the sleepwalking fiancée from the title story, is herself a dancer, and the film Black Swan was in my mind while I wrote about Sydney “pirouetting in the night.” The only problem was: the posters all featured an animal, and I was determined to avoid having a specific animal on my cover. I expressed my reservations about this to my editor, pointing to book covers that featured animals particularly well (Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours).
Then I crossed my fingers.
In hindsight, I should’ve sent fewer options and been more specific about exactly what direction I envisioned, because what the designer sent back was both exactly what I asked for and not what I wanted. The cover options included some of the surreal qualities from the first direction and the abstractions of the second but none of the geometric elements of the third. That absence was how I realized that was what I really wanted most of all. I knew then what I should’ve known before: the third direction was the right one.
Thankfully, the lovely people at Grove understood where I was coming from and went back for a second round of cover designs—something for which I am extremely grateful, because redesigns like this don’t always happen and aren’t guaranteed. The cover options my editor sent the second time around were spectacular, so it was difficult to decide between them. Ultimately, I chose the one that best evoked the title Night Beast. This final cover utilizes the same red, white, and black palette of the international Black Swan posters and manages to convey the often dark, monstrous nature of desire while maintaining the sexiness and the mystery. I couldn’t be happier with it.