Jekyll & Hyde, beating the shit out of each other

So it’s almost time to choose my book cover, and I’m running an online poll to help me make up my mind. Vote for your favourite here…

The process has brought me back to one of the classic themes of Scottish literature – that of the split personality. I find myself caught between Jekyll and Hyde mood swings – at one moment thinking about my novel cover as a writer (in a self-righteous flush of artistic purity); the next moment as a marketer, intoxicated with thoughts of how to sell the book.

So who is winning in this metaphorical fist-fight? Who in the pub car park is jumping on the other’s head?

I’m not sure yet. In the early days of the contest the writer was kicking the marketer senseless. I was done with the publishing industry and wanted to do things my way, trust my own judgement above everyone else’s. In my head I had unformed images of how the final cover would look – a distorted picture of Amsterdam, the light and the dark captured in one clean and bold image, something that would remind people of arthouse movies and Edward Hopper paintings.

But then the marketer started to fight back. I realised that many of the images I loved were too intricate, too detailed, and would work better as traditional book covers or as posters. I started looking at entries from a distance, on the other side of the room, to see which thumbnails roared off the screen. A voice in my ear whispering that what I really needed was an image in bold and violent colours that would imprint itself in people’s brains, haunt their dreams.

There are three in particular that haunt me right now.

The first is the blue design by Saza. It shows an Amsterdam townhouse, floating adrift on a foggy sea. I love it not only for its striking image, but because it reminds me of when I first moved to Amsterdam on an October evening in 2002. I got up the next day to go to my new job to find that a cloying, milky fog had descended on the city, and the simple walk through the Jordaan to the train station was suddenly a maze of canals and mist-shrouded buildings. This design really spooked me as it reminded me of that first day: a city unmoored like a ghost ship, drifting into the unknown (much like me on that first day).

The second is Ijulagogo’s black-and-red design showing the man dangling from an open window. Personally I prefer the version with the empty window – something about it reminds me of Mad Men and Don Draper’s melancholic loneliness (I was watching a lot of Mad Men when I wrote the book and it influenced the development of the main character, who works as a marketer for a whisky brand). This design leaps out at me, makes me wonder what is through that black window, what kind of darkness the man is trying to escape from (or climb into). This fits the theme of the book quite well.

The third is KPGS’s piranha mouth (the lips and teeth cleverly made from a twisted and warped Amsterdam townhouse). It reminded me of a section from the book in which one of the minor characters, an Ulsterman called Morrow, rants about the city after several pints (Neil clears throat, looks around a little embarrassed, then reads out loud…)

“This city shouldn’t exist. Built on soggy marshland, lashed with rain and wind, populated down the centuries by waves of religious and ethnic and sexual and narcotic refugees, all the odds stack up against Amsterdam, but still it fucking thrives on. It’s a bit like me, all those years of booze and Ulster fries and ciggies, but I’m still going fucking strong, getting better all the time. But you pay heed to some advice – don’t be tempted by the city’s vices. Stay true to who you are and you’ll survive the place. If you start to dabble in Amsterdam’s many pleasures, then you, my friend, are truly fucked.”

I like this idea of the city having teeth, swallowing those foolish enough to get too close to its dripping fangs. Again, this matches the story quite closely (and reminds me of some of the lost boys I met on the expat scene).

It’s a difficult choice. The poet Joseph Brodsky said: “What I like about cities is that everything is kingsize, the beauty and the ugliness.” I need my winning design to capture Amsterdam’s beauty and ugliness in one image, and also stop my inner writer and marketer beating the shit out of each other. A tall order…

Next steps? I will choose the winner towards the end of next week and then it’s on to the final edit of the book…


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