Like the rest of us breathe air, so Charlotte Strick designs book jackets: It's just what she does. For 14 years she was an art director at book publisher Faber & Faber and when Lorin Stein took over as editor of The Paris Review, Strick was promptly installed there as art editor; her company Strick&Williams, which she co-founded with her friend Claire Williams Martinez, was tasked with the magazine's design (the title "art director" doesn't exist at The Paris Review). Strick was also the art director of paperback design at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and, when it came time to redesign the back catalog of Flannery O'Connor's books, Strick tapped June Glasson, an illustrator with whom she's collaborated in the past.
Glasson, an artist and illustrator based in Laramie, Wyoming, worked with Strick on the five covers over the course of a year and the result—beautiful watercolor-and-ink "frames" and unique typography—is astonishing. Flames seem to flicker, as does a serpent's forked tongue; splashes of water cascade on one cover as a peacock's tail feathers do on another: there are so many throughlines across the covers but all are tied together by Strick and Glasson's sensitive observation and bold treatment. We chatted with them about their process, and then asked them to create an original illustration for us. And—wouldn't you know it—they agreed!
Tell me about the genesis of this project. What brought the two of you together?
Charlotte Strick: Many years ago, while absentmindedly flipping through a magazine in a doctor's waiting room, I serendipitously stumbled upon a piece about "affordable portraiture." June's "Near and Dear" series was featured, and I thought her work had a seductive and unique beauty all its own. I contacted her to draw a portrait of my husband as a holiday gift. A few years later, while at The Paris Review, I presented June's work to Lorin Stein. He and I both thought that her ink paintings were a perfect match for a Rich Cohen essay on Jean Lafitte, the 18th-century pirate who reigned over New Orleans. In 2013, I approached June about working with me to repackage Flannery O'Connor's backlist being published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I sensed that June might already have a connection to the writing, and—lucky for me—I was right.
Charlotte, you have spent years working with illustrators all over the world, especially as art editor and designer of The Paris Review. What do you look for in someone's work when a new project comes along?
C.S.: Pairing artists and authors together is a bit of a leap of faith, but like all art directors, I just act on instinct. I grew up in a family that's made up of writers and visual artists. It was great training for thinking about the connections to be made between written words and the pictures they inspire.
You sound like someone who likes to collaborate with illustrators, not dictate to them. How do you approach that process and, June, how was it to collaborate with Charlotte on this project?
C.S.: I keep a large digital database of work that excites me and when a new manuscript calls for an illustration or photograph, I'll refer to those folders. Usually, I'm already picturing what it is that I wish I could draw or paint myself, and then I look for the artist with the talents I wish I possessed myself!
June Glasson: I've always loved O'Connor's writing and was thrilled when Charlotte reached out to me about this project. In my own art practice I tend to spend a lot of time working alone in my studio, so it was a real pleasure to collaborate with Charlotte. There was a lot of discussion about the writing itself and a lot of back and forth as we worked through different concepts, mediums, and styles for the covers. Charlotte was also very patient with me as my illustration process can sometimes be very lengthy—for our first cover we probably went through about 30 different sketches to get to the final draft!
What were the first things you discussed about redesigning the back catalog of Flannery O'Connor for these paperbacks?
J.G.: What the previous covers looked like, and the stories themselves.
C.S.: The initial inspiration came from Milton Glaser's hypnotic 1967 FSG book jacket for O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood and Charles Skaggs's iconic 1971 edition of O'Connor's Complete Stories. The latter, with its vivid border of graphic peacock feathers and bent tree bough, gave us the idea to create organic "frames" that surround each of the five titles—with the exception of Wise Blood, which just had to be that portrait. The head, in that case, is the frame.
It's quite a lot of responsibility! Did that factor in?
JG: I think having to create covers that referenced the back catalog was really quite enjoyable. We had certain guidelines to work with but we also had a lot of freedom to create covers that were fresh, and very much our own.
The covers are at once abstract and poignantly specific. Which are your favorites?
J.G.: I definitely think my favorite is The Complete Stories. This is the first cover we created and it took the longest, but it came out so wonderfully and in it I can clearly see my own hand as well as Charlotte's. O'Connor was extremely fond of peacocks and spent her final years surrounded by them, so it seems only fitting that one has always graced the cover of her story collection.
C.S.: It's not easy to pick a favorite from this group, but when pressed I'd have to say Everything That Rises Must Converge. What is now water began as blood or maybe fire. It was almost too violent and over time it morphed into water. I loved so many of June's paintings of birds that I hated to lose any of them. I thought it would be interesting to play with the idea that the larger fighting birds at the top of the cover were being reflected in a pool of water below, and so I flipped a more abstract version of them and changed the scale, which in turn helped to complete the frame for this title. With each of these finished covers, June would send me mountains of scanned sketches from her studio in Wyoming and then I pieced them together. In my memory, this is the cover that took the most time and is composed of the most layers.
For us, you did an original cover for Flannery O'Connor's most famous story: A Good Man is Hard to Find, which accompanies Rebecca Makkai's essay. Thank you! How was that process and what were some of your key considerations?
C.S.: June and I reread the story and asked ourselves if an early painting of handguns, which we both love and that were originally intended for the cover of The Violent Bear It Away, could finally have a home with you! June created some new type that I then worked into the composition, and we're thrilled that this artwork wasn't completely lost to history!
Do you have a favorite O'Connor story or novel?
C.S.: A Good Man Is Hard To Find is a brilliantly paced story that creeps up on you and lodges in your head, and it's perhaps my favorite. Of her books I might have to say The Violent Bear It Away.
J.G.: Good Country People is definitely one of my favorite O'Connor stories. It's dark but humorous.
What's on the horizon? More Glasson/Strick collaborations?
C.S.: In 2014 I opened my own design studio, Strick&Williams, with my longtime collaborator and friend, Claire Williams Martinez. So far we've collaborated with June on two book covers both due out this year—"Margaret the First," by Danielle Dutton (Catpult) and "Vessels" by Daniel Raeburn (WW Norton). Working with June is pretty darn dreamy; I'm excited to see what we do next.
J.G.: We've also been working with Elizabeth Wylie at the Andalusia Foundation in Georgia—which was Flannery O'Connor's final home. In 2017 the foundation will host an exhibit based on the covers and our sketches.