Under The Covers - Designing Alan McMonagle's Ithaca

12 December 2016

Award-winning book cover designer, Jo Thomson, explains how she created the beautiful cover for Alan McMonagle's darkly comic debut novel, Ithaca.

I really wanted to work on Ithaca after reading the brief; it asked for a cover that was illustrative, with some hand-drawn typography and a smattering of mythology. Sign me up!

After reading the first few chapters of the novel, looking at comparison titles to get a feel for the tone and voice of the book and doing a little brainstorming (I find these easier than sketching…) I began to get some ideas together.

At the beginning I got quite hung up on old hand-painted signs (the kind you’d see on a pub, road, old shops etc) and using that kind of style to make the title lettering.  I really liked the idea of the cover having a sense of the history and disrepair through the peeling signage. The swamp was also an element of the book that gave me ideas to explore, so I tried some photographic and illustrative visuals with it in mind.

In the novel the main character, Jason, conjures up imaginary adventure in mythical places. This gave me an idea to build a scene with collage and paper cutting, for a naïve and youthful feel. As this would be quite time consuming to create I made a quick mock up in Photoshop to convey the idea.

I took all my visuals to our weekly cover meeting and after some discussion the paper scene one was chosen (Yay!) so now I had to make the real thing (ah…).

This part of the process was a bit daunting – I really wanted to make it myself but a small part of me was concerned I’d end up with a half falling down box with bits of paper taped to it…but I was up for the challenge.

I went over my sketch with the editor and then began the process of working out how to build the actual model. We decided to pare the cover right back and use shades of cream and white with a pop of copper foil to help give the Irish landscape an ancient Greek vibe. 

I bought a load of different shades of textured paper (turns out you can get quite a few variants on white) and began cutting out the different pieces.  Using masking tape, I tacked the different bits onto hills I’d placed within a box – this was so I could easily re-arrange them if need be.

Originally we wanted the title to be dangling from behind the clouds on clear thread but the letters were too light to hang straight so we ended up using a wire that was later photoshopped out.

Photography isn’t my strongest skill so when everything was in place I coerced my colleague Stuart Wilson into helping me with the photos. Stu knew how to light and shoot the model in order to get the best out of the details, we ended up with a lot of different options to choose from. 

After a little bit of retouching and the addition of the type and little copper foil embellishments the cover was done.

Ithaca is Alan McMonagle's funny and poignant debut novel about a lonely boy's search for his absent father.

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Watch Alan reading from Ithaca