Bringing the Making of “Blackouts” to Light

Posted inDesigner Interviews

Can a novel also be a design book? The answer is yes. As an object, Blackouts by Justin Torres stuns with brown text on cream paper and text matched page by page with illustrations and photos expressing an annihilated, distorted, and ghosted history.

The storyline follows a long-ago conversation between two gay Latino men, one near death, the other young and eager to learn about life. A 1941 compendium of case studies titled Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns acts as a literary and visual motif. The older man owns a rare edition he’s bequeathing to the younger, two heavily redacted volumes covered with black marks that obliterated the findings, so all that remained were words and phrases like ‘narcissistic,’ ‘tendency to femininity,’ ‘abnormalities,’ and ‘mincing.’ 

The winner of the 2023 National Book Award for Fiction, Blackouts is replete with memories, dreams, descriptions of the mental institution where the characters met, family histories, and other references, including French and English literature, the Bible, films, and song lyrics.

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), the book has been called “a masterpiece,” “magical,” and “an artwork.” I was privileged to enjoy online conversations with Na Kim, who designed its jacket, cover, and endpapers, and the interior page designer Gretchen Achilles. Both designers worked with Torres, editor Jenna Johnson, and production manager Nina Frieman.

(Conversations edited for clarity and length.)

Ellen Shapiro: First of all, congratulations on the excellent reviews and the National Book Award. To begin, how do you generally approach the design of an illustrated novel?

Na Kim: We get a questionnaire filled out by the author with broad guidelines of what they’d like to see, if there are any visual inspirations for the book, any artwork they’d like us to consider, and what they absolutely don’t want on the cover.

ES: Do the cover designer and the interior book designer work together or independently?

Gretchen Achilles: We work separately (on different production schedules) but often consult each other and try to coordinate design elements when possible and appropriate.

ES: Do you usually present one design or more?

Achilles: For interior designs, we present a set of layouts to the editor and author, showing the front matter and an example of each design element as it will appear in the text. From there, we revise or tweak the design until we have approval from both.

Kim: Some books run through rounds and rounds of designs, and there are others when a single cover is presented with a strong sales pitch. We often present three to five options to the editor, but I find that presenting one with real conviction can be the most successful.

ES: Gretchen, did you research and find the illustrations and photographs? Was there any back-and-forth about which ones to use and where?

Achilles: They were all supplied by Justin Torres, and he determined where they needed to fall in the book. For the redacted pages, he made color photocopies of torn pages from his copy of Sex Variants and made the redactions in Sharpie. We scanned them in-house and manipulated the images to sharpen the text and heighten the contrast so they could be seen as part of the reading text rather than stand-alone art like the photos.

ES: So it’s not true that authors have little or nothing to say about a book’s design. At FSG, how much is the author involved? 

Achilles: The author is involved as much as they want to be. We are an author-centric house. We incorporate suggestions and advise on the best ways to visually achieve what they are looking for. Justin was very involved.

ES: Justin, did you need to get permission for every piece? Looking at the three pages of illustration credits, that must have been quite an endeavor. 

Justin Torres: Getting permissions for the images was insane. I didn’t know anything about how complicated the process would be. I had to hire a freelance editor to help hunt down the permiss images; some are from children’s books illustrated by one of the characters, Zhenya Gay, others are from Sex Variants, some are photos by Thomas Painter, another character in the book, whose archive is at the Kinsey Institute. Other images are personal.

ES: Was there any pushback about male frontal nudes?

Torres: Not at all. My editor is the best, and her constant refrain was, ‘Make the kind of book you need to make; let me worry about the rest.’ If there was any internal pushback, she didn’t mention it. We had some conversations about why certain images were important, and we definitely made a lot of jokes about just how many penises are in the book.

ES: Let’s talk about the redacted pages from Sex Variants. Was there a method for choosing which lines of text to black out and which to leave in? 

Torres: Each blackout poem had its own method. For one, I focused on the word ‘to,’ transforming the text into a kind of ode. For another, I focused on reducing the language to simple first-person declarations: ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’ Another focused on internal rhyme. I varied my approach with each blackout.

ES:  The New York Times Book Review chose Blackouts as one of the year’s most notable book covers. Tell us about the black gloss rectangle on the dust jacket.

Torres: When asked to describe my ideal cover, I said something like, ‘All black, only my name and the name of the book in embossed gold lettering.’ I wanted the cover to recall the original Sex Variants book, which my novel circles around: all black with gold titling.

The brilliance of Na’s design is that it’s the exact shape of one of the erasure poem images. I recognized the shape instantly and just loved it. The rectangle-with-one-torn-edge is the shape of the torn page that recurs throughout Blackouts. I made those erasures myself by photocopying the Sex Variants pages and tearing the photocopy to make it appear as if it had been torn from the book itself. I’m not sure how many readers realize the source of the shape on the cover; it’s a subtle connection. 

Kim: The black-on-black also nods to the stories within the stories, shadows existing in the dark. The peeking hyena is pulled from the illustrated children’s book within the novel.

ES: Justin, do you have a special relationship with or feelings about the hyena? What does the animal mean to you?

Torres: Impersonating the hyena’s laugh functions as a queer cry of recognition, a code, so certain characters can recognize one another.

ES: Is there a reason the typeface used for the chapter titles and initial caps isn’t on the cover or jacket?

Achilles: I chose Poster Bodoni, with its ‘censored’ rubber-stamp look yet classic literary feel that would marry well with the Adobe Caslon text. It’s heavier than the font Na used on the cover so that it would drop out of the solid torn rectangles.

ES: How did the choice of brown ink on cream stock come about?

Achilles: That’s a long story! Justin and Jenna wanted the book to have black text and sepia-toned images. I suggested doing it as a two-color job, black and dark gold Pantone 124U ink. We made duotones with the two inks to create a sepia tone, kept the text black, and used the gold in accents like the drop caps. Nina ran estimates every which way, but the book was not making margin (that is, keeping production costs in line). We could make margin with a lower-grade paper, so we settled on that, but when we were routing the page proofs, Jenna looked at me and asked, “Is this book really going to look good on this paper?” And I had to admit that I’d never run a two-color job on that kind of paper. So Nina and I reviewed the pages with redacted text and concluded that the [lower-grade] paper wouldn’t hold the detail. We returned to the higher quality, smoother, cream-colored sheet we’d originally wanted—the paper we stock for poetry titles and books with art that can carry the extra cost. On that paper, dropping the second ink, the book made margin. Jenna didn’t want to lose the sepia-colored images, so I suggested printing in one color, a deep brown (Pantone 2322U), so the text would be dark enough to be legible and so we could manipulate the images to create the ghostly sepia feel the author wanted. All the printer had to do was clean the press and replace the black ink with the Pantone color, and we wouldn’t have to pay for a two-color job. FSG is a smaller house, and we have smaller budgets.

ES: Thank you for sharing insights into what most graphic designers used to do, specifying ink on paper. In-house designers often get short shrift. I sometimes hear comments like, “When there’s a really great project, we send it out.” What are the plusses of being an in-house designer?

Kim: We’re pretty democratic regarding who gets to work on ‘big’ or ‘fun’ titles. Each of us has individual strengths and talents, and we work hard to make sure that everyone in our department of four gets an opportunity to work on a title they’re excited about. The plus-plus of being in-house is the relationships we build with our authors and editors. There’s a lot of trust. If there’s negative feedback, it’s easier to take when you know and like the person behind the remarks. It allows for more clarity and understanding about why something does or doesn’t work. 

Achilles: The biggest plus is that you are part of a team working in different ways for a book to succeed. Here at FSG, a smaller company, the publisher and editors make you a part of something we’re all doing together. The important thing we do is create a mood and support the text in a visual way that helps the reader make sense of it. The text is the star. The most successful designs are ones you don’t notice because they’re in service of the text rather than distracting from it.

ES: When you go on speaking tours and give interviews, do journalists and reviewers usually ask questions about the design?

Torres: I get a ton of compliments on the cover, but not really in the form of interview questions. The interior design comes up quite a bit, though. The brown ink really makes an impression on people. It’s so unusual for a novel not to be printed in black and white. No one asks such design-specific questions, but they do wonder why it was important to me to create such a stylish, visual book.