A Book in Search of a Cover

Meet Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Maybe you’ve heard of him. I hadn’t. He was an Expressionist painter, German, early twentieth-century. He painted the work on the cover of The Storyteller.

Readers love that cover. They keep asking how we chose it. Haphazardly, is my answer. But that haphazard was a jagged journey; it was not a success merely through chance. Here’s what I learned:

First of all, there is no perfect match. (Resonance is not the same as logical fit.)

Made from Homebase wallpaper samples. No, I am not a visual artist.

Early on, working from conscious metaphors, I tried to create visual images to match the words I had put together in the book. I created strings of paper women like children make because there were paper men in Rachel’s mind. Robert was kind about those; but they were terrible. My sense is for words. I have no visual creative sense.

Robert steered me towards photographs. We looked at vacant young women in hospitals.

We looked explicitly for sinister shadows and doubled images. We explored having one woman off the edge of the picture, only her shadow encroaching on the younger woman in the picture. I googled for pictures of ‘old women’ and got hags. The young depressed women on Shutterstock were all too beautiful, too clean. The closest we came to a photographic cover was a girl’s legs swinging from a hospital bed, her torso and face out of the picture.

Cropped medical examination
Cropped by my brother. He has more visual sense than I do.

When Robert switched to suggesting paintings the process began to click. I suggested Picasso, for doubleness again, and for distorted faces that show madness or twisted emotions. The great man’s estate was having none of it. We looked at art deco pictures for Iris as the lady she actively seeks to portray herself. We looked again for old women with younger women. We were still using logical minds to depict what the book showed.

Oddly, not that striking.

But then the non-rational began to take over. I found that colours mattered to me. It was important to me to reflect the white calm Rachel is seeking through Part I of the book. Marketing killed that one: the cover, I was told, needed to stand out on a pile of books, and black and white, with more white than black, was not going to do that.

We looked at more pictures. I discovered that I had a pseudo-synaesthesia about the tones that ‘matched the book’. It had to be blue-toned, I said repeatedly. Nowhere in the book is blueness made explicit, I hadn’t thought of blueness before we came to the cover. But now I knew it had to be predominantly blue.

Blue cubist cover
Too ladylike. And it doesn’t leap off a shelf.

It isn’t, of course. Because ultimately we settled on Kirchner’s Seated Girl. Or a portion of it, to be precise. We chose her because she worked for the book. It is a stand-alone brilliant work of art which by definition makes a striking cover. (That cover was born for Bookstagram.)

Many things about her are wrong. The Girl is dark-haired, as neither Rachel nor Iris is. Her style is that of neither woman. She is not, by any stretch, a cool, depressed blue.

More essentially, she is perfect. She looks directly into your eyes. Her look is challenging, deeply personal, intimate, vulnerable. She is the book, pulled up another level.

She works because different modes of artistic expression interlink across time. (The Collective Unconscious, if you take Jung as your guide.)

Kirchner was a man of repeated breakdowns. He was dependent on barbiturates, alcohol and, later, morphine. He shot himself in 1938.

Full image of Seated GirlKirchner’s ‘group’, Die Brücke, sought to reveal raw emotion without apologies. They had a manifesto, written by Kirchner, which said: ‘Anyone who directly and honestly reproduces that force which impels him to create belongs to us.’

Kirchner’s nudes, landscapes, and scenes of urban life on the eve of World War I are known for their unsettling effects of psychological tension and eroticism,

‘There is often an explicit erotic quality in his work and sometimes a feeling of malevolence. His forms are typically harsh and jagged, and his colours dissonant.’1

In short, Kirchner was The Storyteller’s sort of man.

None of this connection was deliberate: the book was already at the printers before I looked up either Kirchner or the painting. But beyond the level of logic nor were the parallels merely those of chance. Writing fiction, unlike writing non-fiction, is not about logical connection. It is about resonance. Kirchner resonates with The Storyteller over a century of space. I love that cover, too.



  1. Quotation from the Kirchner entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists.
  2. Find more Kirchner here.

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