The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with Peter Mendelsund and Tom McCarthy


In the early days of The Casual Optimist I scribbled out a short list of book designers I wanted to interview. More designers have been added since then, but a few of the original list remain un-interviewed. At the top of the list has been the name I actually wrote down first: Peter Mendelsund.

As Senior Designer at Knopf, Mendelsund’s designs feature here regularly. Much as I love his covers, however, Peter has been interviewed extensively elsewhere. I just haven’t known how to approach his work in a way that he would find interesting.

That was until I saw the shockingly subversive jacket design for Tom McCarthy‘s new novel “C”. The pairing of Mendelsund, the designer who is a musician, and McCarthy, the author who is an artist, was — it seemed to me — inspired.

A perfect opportunity…

What follows is primarily an interview with Peter about that design for “C”. But over the course of a few emails, Peter and I both decided to bring Tom into the conversation. I had met Tom shortly after the release of his debut novel Remainder and Peter had, it transpired, met Tom in New York after Knopf had signed “C”. It made sense to both of us.

It is a long, but absolutely fascinating exchange. Peter kindly answered my questions more fully than I had any right to expect and Tom, who was contributing from Stockholm, was more than gracious in less than ideal circumstances. I’m grateful to them both.

(Left, Peter Mendelsund; right, Tom McCarthy. Photographs courtesy of Knopf)

DW: What was the brief for the design?

PM: I was following the same tacit instructions I follow every day, for every book I work on: to make a jacket that represents the content, tone, and underlying message or meaning of any given book; and to make that jacket bold, attractive, witty, or just plain unusual enough to attract the attention of book shoppers in order to sell it to the broadest possible audience. I am trying to please (in no particular order) the author; the publishing house and all it’s constituencies; and myself and my aesthetic sensibilities (along with the audience of my design peers looking over my shoulder).

The brief only becomes complicated when any of these demands are in direct conflict with any of the others. In this case, on the face of it they seemed to be. What the sales and editorial folks wanted, and what I perceived Tom to want…all different. Kind of. But I’ll get to this later.

If the brief had been simply to visually epitomize Tom’s book, that would have been difficult enough in and of itself. “C” is an extremely complex narrative — though I think there were many people in the industry, here and abroad, who kind of celebrated the fact that this book arrived in the form of a classical bildungsroman. There was a kind of collective “Yay, Tom McCarthy’s new book is not only a coming-of-age tale in the classic mold, but it’s a period coming-of-age tale to boot!”

Except that it isn’t. It is not only not your run-of-the-mill realist period novel, it is the anti-realist period novel. It is, at it’s core, the negation of everything conventional one might mistake it to be.

So, Despite the fact that one can read “C” straight through as, I suppose, the story of this young man and what befalls him, the book is just laden with meaning, complex metaphor and reference. And it is these motifs and undercurrents that turn out to be, as it were, the stars of the show (rather than the main character’s inner development, say). The book’s complexity is, at least when compared to Remainder, Joycean really — in the sense in which meaning must be unpacked, not just at the narrative level, but at the linguistic level as well.

For instance…

…in the first few pages, a doctor arrives at an estate called “Versoie” in order to deliver a baby (as well as coils of copper wire — which is important for many reasons). The estate houses a silk factory managed by the child’s mother, as well as a school for deaf children, managed by the father. Well, aside from the echo of “Versailles” in the manor’s name, which is itself crucial in many ways, the name also recalls the French term “vers a soie,” meaning “silkworm.” “Vers” is also French for “towards” and “ouir” means to hear — so both parents, and their functions within the house, are effectively represented by the house itself. The boy being born, our protagonist, is named “Serge Carrefax”. “Serge,” is both “surge” in the electrical sense (the book is very much about conductivity, transmission, and the emergent technology of the period), and “serge” the fabric; as well as, it turns out, the name “Sergei” (more on this later as well). “Carrefax,” one of the “C’s” the title refers to, is a very interesting compound of “fax” in terms of a transmittal, and “fax” in in the sense of a facsimile or copy. And if it isn’t enough that his full name is so rich in significance (and there’s more, even), his initials are as well. You see what I mean by Joycean.

Not that the book reads like Finnegan’s Wake, just, one has to be constantly alert as a reader to the broad range of references TM uses in laying out his central arguments.

So, as I was saying…

if I had just read, and interpreted, the book according to my druthers, for an audience of one (or two if you include TM) I think I would’ve initially done something very different from what we ended up with.

But literally while Tom was sitting in my office discussing his book and agreeing on a direction for his jacket, I get a phone call, and it’s Sonny (Mehta) and he says without preamble “what are you going to do for Tom’s book?” And so I run upstairs and Sonny impresses upon me (as only he can) the fact that this book, complex and rich in code as it is, is also a ripping yarn and that I shouldn’t start down the path of complexity (as I have a tendency to do) and we discuss it and (as always, Sonny was absolutely right) and that if we play our cards right we can take this massive genius and give him the even larger audience he so richly deserves…

And thusly I return to my office, completely defeated before ever having started designing.

Because two of the most respected men in the world of books want seemingly completely opposite things for this particular book. Ripping yarn, or extremely experimental text about communication, the significance of the mechanical, the architecture of mourning, encryption…. And if things work out well: a bona fide literary genius will be granted a larger audience. No pressure. Compare and contrast to the brief for Remainder when TM was relatively unknown. Now he’s big time and I’ve got to pony something up. That was the brief. As they say on Project Runway, “make it work.” Fuck. Me.

DW: How aware of all this were you Tom?

TMcC: I remember the phone call from Sonny while I was in Peter’s office. I was a bit jet-lagged. I wasn’t aware of being one of the most respected men in the world of books or a genius – very kind words there.

DW: How much attention do you usually pay to the cover designs for your books?

TMcC: You write the thing, and it’s all about the text, the architecture of its correspondences and echoes — then it becomes an object, with a picture on. No matter how much you stress literature’s symbolic mode, its immateriality and so on, you can’t deny that it goes through this very material moment. So the cover is very important: it’s your book’s face, the first thing it shows the world. I follow the designing process with great anticipation and anxiety.

DW: And were you familiar with Peter Mendelsund’s design work before this book?

TMcC: When I learnt he was designing it, I looked at his other books and was very excited. It strikes you straight away how encyclopaedically visually literate he is. For example, he makes use of all these Constructivist and Bauhaus and generally high-Modernist motifs, but overhauls them and gives them a whole new life in the transformation: it’s the exact visual correlative of what I think contemporary literature should be (but usually isn’t) doing.

DW: So, after all that, what was your creative process like for this cover Peter?

PM: Well, I had, after reading the book the first time, something vague in mind for this book — something abstract, resembling the work I did for the French Avant-garde music label Rotorelief, or for Innova:

I wanted to do something that was almost a forensic diagram of the novel, something that sort of mapped its various currents, rather than portrayed its settings or characters.

After discussing the book with Tom I felt like I had a pretty solid grasp of what should happen cover-wise. But the conversation with Sonny put the insta-freeze on that direction. Basically I started to think about what kind of cover I would make for this book if it were what the publishing industry felt like it was. So I thought about character. And I thought about setting, and I though about big typography.

I started to wonder, “so, who, after all, IS this Serge fellow” aside from his various meanings? I found this incredible painting…it’s in the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery in Bournemouth of all places. It’s by Frank Brooks, a classic turn of the century English School painter from Salisbury. His dates would have been roughly similar to Serge’s. And he made lots of portraits of Whitehall luminaries and WWI brass — which also seemed fitting.

So here’s this boy with this haunted gaze. I printed him out lo-res and wrapped him around a book and then affixed these black plastic bands and dot things to it, and it just sat on my desk tormenting me for a while.

For what it’s worth, the circles and lines are supposed to be, on one level, Morse code (as code, reading around from the back to the front of the jacket they are, not indecipherable, but meaningless. Except for the spine, which reads “C”).

They also represent part of an important fever-dream Serge has at the very end of the book where he imagines he and his bride wearing black big typewriter ribbons around their heads, and “handmaidens…holding black circles aloft.”

They are also, broadly speaking, some form of negation. They cancel out the human presence behind them, and they conjoin with it as well. I also thought of player-piano rolls — the kind of ampico rolls those of Serge’s generation listened to. They are comprised of dots and dashes also. Strangely enough, the user interface for most Midi sequencers continues to use the same shapes:

Recently, Tom sent me an email:

“I showed your cover to my friend Rod Dickinson and he said … that it reminded him of how film with images on was used as tape to store data on in the early C20th…

‘German engineer Konrad Zuse had been building a computer in the living room of his parents’ apartment in Berlin. Zuse’s machine was the first working digital computer. One of his innovations was program control by punched tape. For the tape Zuse used discarded 35mm movie film’ ”

and Turing punch cards:

In other words, make of these patterns what you will. They are code, and mechanical languages in general.

But back to our story:

So, in terms of imagery, iconography, I was pleased thus far. I loved the way the character is hidden — peering out. The lad is kind of beset by these codes — and in some weird way transformed. The dots over his eye and the one that appears on but almost in his mouth have both an aspect of affliction (they are kind of pox-like) as well as an aspect of adornment (like an eye-patch and a ball-gag). It’s a weird image, I admit, but it represents Serge’s Slothropian relationship to technology pretty well I think.

Then I thought about color…

The original painting, as you can see above was predominantly bluish and dark — which is nice, but there are strong color cues in the text — and I wanted to honor them.

Serge is described as seeing the world through a predominantly brown veil. He is born, pupa-like, in a caul, there is a beautiful scene in the silk workroom at Versoie where the very young Serge looks at the world through a moth’s wing — turning everything a gauzy brown. When, later, he is a pilot during the war, he wears a pair of brown pantyhose over his head. There are murky brown sediment-filled waters; dark, inverted earthy skies; not to mention the whole closing section of the novel which takes place on the Nile where the world’s colors are “merged to brown….” There are constantly brown membranes and chrysalides between Serge and the world — and I wanted to use those color values. So I altered the painting so that it would look as it might if seen through a moth’s wing. (Also, on a more practical level, the more faded the image, the better the black stood out, and the better the type read.)

Finally the type:

I just set it as simply as possible. My first inclination was to place it inside the black bands, but this detracted from the 2001 monolithic blackness of the dots and dashes (“none more black” in the words of Nigel Tufnel). The info had to be big. This is one serious difference between a paperback original and a Knopf hardcover by a known quantity — the type has to be ginormous. Gild the title, spot-gloss the bands and circles, and Bob’s yer uncle.

Were you aware of Tom’s previous work as an artist and author when you started?

PM: I LOVED REMAINDER. It was the single most profound reading experience I’ve had since I started working here. And it’s a very different book from “C.” If “C” is Joyce, then Remainder is Beckett, or Bergson. It is, I feel, more a work of philosophy than one of literature. I felt changed after reading it.

I’ve also read some of the INS (International Necronautical Society) stuff, and some of TM’s criticism here and there. There’s a great piece he wrote recently in the London Review of Books called “Stabbing The Olive,” about Jean-Phillipe Toussaint that I very much enjoyed. It is, obliquely, revelatory about TM’s own work as well. I haven’t read Men in Space yet, but very much hope to.

DW: How much input did Tom have?

PM: As I mentioned, Tom and I met in my office and discussed the book. I had some half-formed ideas at that point about how I wanted to proceed and he was incredibly enthusiastic and generous, and I felt like we had a similar sort of vision for the book. That was, of course, before I “went upstairs.” After that it was back to the drawing boards, though Tom wasn’t privy to the fact that I was asked to proceed in a more conventional direction. When the jacket, as it is now, was finished enough to show in-house, and subsequently approved, we sent it off to England. When the editor sent the cover off to Tom and his agent, there was this very brief moment of air-silence — like a day at most, when we didn’t hear back and Tom’s editor Marty (Asher) and I sat around wringing our hands like a couple of nerve-cases. But it turned out that he liked it. I’ve never been more relieved by an author approval. If he had hated it I would’ve gone out the window head first.

DW: How many iterations did this cover go through before the final one?

PM: This one was pretty much the one-and-only. I did some quick sketches of a more abstract direction, but didn’t follow through for the previously stated reasons.

DW: Did you have a sense of when to stop, that you’d nailed it?

PM: I can’t say that it is definitely, objectively, “nailed.” But I knew that this particular jacket hit all the points on my personal checklist. It looked “big” and marketable (per Sonny); it looked like a period novel; and it looked subversive and modern despite its commercial viability. It had some emotional resonance, specifically in the boy’s one uncovered eye, but also had a kind of flatness of affect that works well with both Tom’s prose and with the character of Serge himself, who is somewhat autistic in his own lack of affect. All I knew was that I was ready to show it, and get a read on it from the people whose opinions matter to me (Tom, Marty, Sonny). And luckily for me they liked it.

DW: So Tom, you had the final say on the design?

TMcC: I approved it — but I can take no credit for the brilliant design Peter came up with. It’s utterly inspired: it’s a perfect mesh of the melancholia and the realm of encrypted signals that are so central to the book.

DW: And Peter, was it always your intent to create something dissonant and disturbing?

PM: Yes it was. That is to say, I wanted to make something that nettles a bit, but I didn’t want the cover to be completely off-putting, and I hope it isn’t. What I wanted was a cover that spoke to the complexity of the prose, and the depth of the subject matter.  But it also had to be tweaked, and weird. There is a great piece by Zadie Smith in the NYRB in which she says:

“In its brutal excision of psychology it is easy to feel that [Remainder] comes to literature as an assassin, to kill the novel stone dead”

I think making a jacket for Tom that is complacent, and not dissonant on some level, would be a great disservice to his writing. I didn’t want to be, in Tom’s own words (in his capacity as INS General Secretary):

“merely the executor of a brief dictated by corporate market research, reasserting the certainties of middle-brow aesthetics”

Hells no. Freaking God forbid.

On the other hand…I like my job and don’t want to lose it. I have bills to pay. And I do, after all, work for a corporation that is the business of making money selling books to all kinds of readers. So there’s that.

In any case, the important thing is that the stricter the parameters I have to work in, the happier I am. So it worked out fine.

DW: To what extent do modern art movements of the 20th Century like Constructivism, Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism feed into your work?

PM: Broadly speaking, that modernist moment continues to be a favorite of mine in almost every medium. It’s the confluence of the old and the new that fascinates- It’s the shock of the new-fangled, built on, and sometimes in, the armature of the classical; the confluence and simultaneity of future and past. This duality is very much at play in Tom’s “C.” There are the classical tropes, but they are subverted, imploded, inverted. It’s that interplay of tradition and novelty that I love.

Of course, in the visual arts, the movements you mentioned helped re-draw the boundary between Art and Design. So they will always have a special place in my heart for that reason alone.

DW: So, to get back to the book before we wrap up, could you tell me a bit about it Tom?

TMcC: “C” is about the age of wireless: the roar of transmission, signals flung from towering masts, global reaches crackling out of earphones. And empire. And insects. And incest.

DW: And having read Tom’s description of the book, what do you think ‘C’ is really about Peter?

PM: “…insects. And incest…,” and “ink sets”!

Well, “C” is about whatever Tom McCarthy says “C” is about. All I could possibly add is highly subjective — but here is some of what I have gleaned:

I would say that the book is also about mapping, graticulation, and the intersection of geometry and ontology, and Orpheus and Eurydice and the penetration of underworlds and communication to and from underworlds, and psychological constructs made corporeal, and, of course, the advent of new technologies.

And, more specifically, I believe “C” is also based somewhat on Sergei Pankejeff — the famous, tragic case study (also known as “the Wolf Man”) of Sigmund Freud’s. There are many, many similarities between “Serge’s” biographical details, and neuroses and Sergei Pankejeff’s. I haven’t spoken with Tom about whether or not this is coincidence — so I can’t say entirely for sure. But I noticed when reading the book that parallels kept mounting. I’ve read a fair amount about SP and I would state merely that there is a very strong element of this man and his mental, emotional world in Tom’s book. No one else seems to see this, so I might be completely off the mark. However — aside from the similarities of the name, and the fact that their initials turn out to be so critical to their respective tales…SP’s sister, with whom he had an incestuous relationship poisoned herself (as does Serge’s). SP was raised, like SC on an estate with his sister, mother and father, maid and gardener. SP liked to pull the wings off of insects (see the moth-wing incident referred to earlier — and Tom’s comment about “insects”). SP witnesses an act of copulation as a child that makes him obsessed with a particular form of intercourse that happens to be the very one our Serge enjoys. SP forms a melancholia that is abated only through enemas (see the Kloděbrady scenes in C). There is much more in this vein — specifically great material regarding mourning and loss in SP’s case material — but most of the truly interesting stuff about SP (and the writing most germane to “C”) exists in the psychoanalytic literature subsequent to Freud. Suffice it to say that if one follows up doggedly on the SP angle one will find, if not answers to many questions — at least partial help in deciphering, decrypting the text. Of course, in true Tom McCarthy fashion, Serge is, as I mentioned earlier, many things.

In short: this is an awe-inspiring work, and that Tom is a genius of the highest order, and I cannot wait to read the next one.

TMcC: You’ll have to wait! I’ve hardly started it. But it’s true: SP looms large in Serge’s make-up. But so does a compound of Carter and Carnarvon, and of Alexander Bell and Marconi, plus a whole bunch of semi-Arcadian ghosts from Sidney and Nabokov, and other stuff. But SP is a major template — especially Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s SP, with his ‘cryptonymy’.

PM: Oh wonderful — I am not crazy then.

I’ve had so many questions about your book, Tom…I am dying to know more (in particular) about (the character) Widsun: Usurper, father figure, corrupter. Sun king?

TMcC: With Widsun: well, the figure in the book emerged from Bell’s friend Wheatstone, and became this kind of shadowy, sexualized adult presence. Then he acquired, by virtue of his name and the shadow-puppet sex scene (it’s clearly him behind the sheet), a set of associations with suns, black suns, eclipses, ciphers, CC’d — i.e. carbon-copied — texts, and a chain of other shadowy things. He is a kind of usurper, as you say. And I wouldn’t be surprised if a bit of his DNA had found its way into Serge…

PM: I had been thinking of him as a kind of sinister interloper, corrupter. But as I thought about the name “Widsun” (“with son!” “wit;” “sun”) it occurred to me he might be Serge’s dad- and the echoes of “Versailles” in the name “Versoie” led me to wonder if there wasn’t an element of Louie 14th in him as well in terms of his being, somehow, the legitimate “Lord” of the estate, and father to “the dauphin” as it were.

So Tom, have you considered appointing Peter to the appropriate INS committee?

TMcC: INS operational data remains at all times strictly classified. The Chief of Propaganda releases intermittent briefings and updates. I have nothing more to add.

Thanks Peter and Tom. Amazing.

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  1. Thanks for this truly insightful and fascinating correspondance. Peter Mendelsund seems to be one of the most educated and interesting of contemporary book designers.

  2. Sounds like a book to spend some time with. And a cover to help in that time of absorption. There is nothing better than a cover that allows you to sink deeper into thought about the books content as you read, put it down, read again and finally let it rest on your shelf—face out—to haunt, thrill, and further make it’s impression.

    The complexity is profound here. On the one hand it seems like an assignment like any other—but taking the time to raise it to an art form really sinks it into the cultural mindset. I think the more this kind of conscious approach is taken in the design of everything, the more we can hope to inspire positive change in how we as humans view the fascinating world around us.


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  4. When I came to the crack in the wall in REMAINDER, I said, “He’s not going to do THAT!”

    When I came to the first page of C, I thought, “Omigod.”

    The conversation between Tom and Peter was fascinating and erudite. The one point that makes Tom’s work so miraculous and able to appeal to a public school boy from Brooklyn like me, is that it’s all fabulously readable as sheer story. And as an editor, to me that’s point one….and two….and three.

  5. Thanks so much for your comment Marty — It made my day!

    It’s great to get your perspective. But I suspect a “public school boy from Brooklyn” is different from a public school boy from say Winchester, England right?

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