Suzanne Dean, the designer behind the cover of Sara Taylor’s stunning new novel, The Shore, talks the Penguin Blog through the creative process, exclusively for #onthepage.

I was given the manuscript, along with an open brief – to create a cover that was striking and beautiful. Two sentences into this debut novel and I knew I was reading something remarkable. I was hooked and wanted to do the author’s work justice. The Shore is set on a group of small islands sticking out from the coast of Virginia into the Atlantic Ocean. It has been home to generations of fierce and resilient women whose interconnecting stories form the deeply affecting core of the narrative.

My ideas for book covers tend to happen two different ways. Having read the novel, I either work through numerous ideas and themes over many visuals, or when I’m struck by a really strong and immediate idea I quickly know what single path I want to take. In The Shore’s case it was the latter.

Absently she tracked through the marsh, skirts tucked high, the black mud oozing silkily up through the gaps in her woven shoes and between her bare toes. If her father could see her now . . . Andrew had never spoken it directly, but she knew he despised her for her wildness, even though it was the quality that had made him trust her in the first place. I didn’t want to feature a woman or girl standing at the shoreline. That would have been too predictable and didn’t suit the tone of the book.

The Shore is flat as a fried egg; on a clear day from our upstairs porch it feels like you can see into tomorrow, and usually you can just about see the dark smear that is Chincoteague Island off to the northeast. We are one of three islands, off the coast of Virginia and just south of Maryland, trailing out into the Atlantic Ocean like someone’s dripped paint. Just portraying a landscape of the Virginian coast on the cover wouldn’t have looked profound or playful enough as the novel had more of a dreamlike quality than this approach might have suggested. I wanted to allow the reader some room for thoughtful interpretation. I believe, when a cover design is less obvious, it can trigger the readers’ imagination to a greater degree.

The novel frequently mentions the long, sandy bay, the clam and oyster beds and the rough, noisy oyster-shell roads that criss-cross the islands. If she looked back the way they’d come she could see the house, with its thick columns and sagging porch, where the oyster-shell road joined the gravel road out to the highway. If she looked hard she could track the white smear through the potato field, like a snail snot trail, to where it turned off into the woods to go down to the dock. The seam where the shells met the gravel was stark, the line of demarcation beyond which she was not allowed to wander alone.

the shore 1

From left to right: Karl Blossfeldt, Eugène Séguy, Blaschka

I started to look for visual inspiration. I researched widely, first remembering Karl Blossfeldt, best known for his close-up photographs of plants and living things, published in 1929. Also, the 1920s series of prints Pochoir Insectes by Eugène Séguy and the nineteenth-century glasswork of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, who created highly-detailed sculptures of marine life, came to mind. This led me to the work of Ernst Haeckel, 1834-1919.

Haeckel produced over 100 detailed, multi-coloured lithographs of animals and sea creatures. The trail-blazing images he produced were rendered with astonishing detail in colour and composed with a discerning aesthetic eye.

the shore 2

Ernst Haeckel

After considering many different options, I decided to put together my own panel of shells inspired by these artists. I wanted to evoke a period-feel but also subtly introduce some of the novel’s themes. I designed a layout containing mostly oyster-shells, but also a large tooth that would blend in but also be shockingly incongruous. The tooth winked up at Becky from between strands of dead brown grass like old men’s hair, and she broke step to stoop and pick it up. … It was a molar, complete with roots, thick and square, the crackled off-white of old teacups. The shells were sourced from pages of a Dictionary of Natural History, 1849, the British Library, that were illustrated by the nineteenth-century French botanist and geologist Charles d’Orbigny.

the shore 3

Charles d’Orbigny

I carefully sorted which shells I needed for my composition and placed them against a soft lilac tone. Where a shell was used more than once, I subtly adjusted it, in Photoshop, to make it unique, and the overall design more coherent and natural.

the shore 4

The tooth was tricky. I had to find reference that was accurate to the text and then recreate it in exactly the same style of illustration. I painted a base layer and then morphed printed tone from the shells in Photoshop. This was a long process, as the tooth had to look like it too had been painted in 1849.

‘Hear what happened to Cabel Bloxom?’ … ‘They found him waist deepin the mud in Muttonhunk Creek, had his face shot to pieces and all swole up with being in the water. His girlfriend had to identify him by the tattoo on his back.’ I needed to address the tensions within the novel, the blood and fates that connect the characters. I photographed drops of red ink diffusing over a wet background. When combined with the shells this gave the effect of blood drifting at the waters edge.

The cover is printed on sealed paper stock reminiscent of the early lithographs.

The Shore high res

About the book: Longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015, The Shore tells of a collection of small islands sticking out from the coast of Virginia into the Atlantic Ocean that has been home to generations of fierce and resilient women. Sanctuary to some but nightmare to others, it’s a place they’ve inhabited, fled, and returned to for hundreds of years. From a brave girl’s determination to protect her younger sister as methamphetamine ravages their family, to a lesson in summoning storm clouds to help end a drought, these women struggle against domestic violence, savage wilderness, and the corrosive effects of poverty and addiction to secure a sense of well-being for themselves and for those they love.

Their interconnecting stories form a deeply affecting legacy of two island families, illuminating the small miracles and miseries of a community of outsiders, and the bonds of blood and fate that connect them all.

About the author: Sara Taylor is herself a socially anxious product of rural Virginia and the homeschooling movement. She traded her health for a BFA from Randolph College, and her sanity for an MA in Prose Fiction from the University of East Anglia. Following the MA her supervisor refused to let her leave, so she remains at the UEA to chip away at a double-focus PhD in censorship and fiction. She spends an unprecedented amount of time on delayed trains between Norwich and her husband’s house in Reading, and tends to get lost, rained on, and chased by cows with unsettling frequency.

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Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. […] Dean, ‘The Shore: A Cover Story‘ on the Penguin […]

  2. Really great read and a great cover design to boot, thanks for sharing.

  3. Another UEA champion emerges! I had no idea Sara Taylor was bumping around campus. That’s so exciting!


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