Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Under Covers: W.H. Chong

‘Speaking as a reader, this is one of the most exciting reading opportunities I have ever come across’, W.H. Chong said. And Chong should know. He is the designer of the covers for Text Publishing’s new Text Classics series and Chong has read all thirty books in the newly published series.


‘Some of the books I had read a long time ago, like Cosmo Cosmolino. I had a lingering feeling and image from that book from my first read, and because that image had stayed with me it grew into the cover. I really couldn’t tell you what the story was, just this feeling of the night sky’, he said.

In the shop now, this series puts back into print thirty classic Australian titles. Some of the books are by writers none of us have ever heard of, some are early books by writers now household names, some are re-prints of contemporary classics and some are out-of-print Miles Franklin winners. The list of titles includes The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume (first published in 1886), Ned Kelly’s The Jerilderie Letter, Careful He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott, The Glass Canoe by David Ireland, and The Plains by another award winning author, Gerald Murnane. 

Reading all of these books must have been overwhelming. ‘Of course’, Chong laughs, ‘skim reading isn’t recommended but when there are so many books it is hard not to feel the pressure. Keneally’s book, Bring Larks and Heroes, though, slowed me down. It is so modern and yet, incredibly, it was first published in 1967’, he said.

Chong is an award winning book cover designer, a sketch artist, and painter and takes time in thinking about connections and the words required to translate the reading, designing, discussing process.

To be given the task of designing the covers for this series must have been daunting. ‘Oh yes,’ says Chong. ‘Jokingly, I said to Michael (Heyward, Text Publisher), I’ve got a spare weekend, let’s do it! But really, it was thrilling when Text offered this series of books to me. It was the start of a marathon’, he said.

Chong believes there is a distinct difference between designing fiction and non-fiction covers. ‘I think you can find a way of visualising a cover of a non-fiction book by reading around the edges of the manuscript but literary novels are a bundle of lines and feelings and to be able to reduce them to a representation on the cover, you have to read it to have a sense of where the lines lead and where the emotions gather. Hopefully, while I’m reading the book something materialises for the cover’.

Discussing this process feels like a grasping, or a reaching for tangible glimpses of ideas, it is almost an esoteric exercise. ‘I don’t want to sound too precious’, Chong said, ‘ but I feel that I need to respond to the book with the responsibility of an artist. The writer uses words and I use images,’ he said.

The series covers are startlingly bright and bold while being individual and resonant of each individual book and I wondered which one was Chong’s favourite.

‘I think the most startling book for me is Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower. I asked around and mostly no one had heard of her. If they had, they hadn’t read her. And why? The Watch Tower is a contradictory and powerful book. It’s full of darkness but is sunlit throughout. It has a real pull of shadow and gravity. An amazing novel but how do we not know this author? And Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant is like reading Jane Austen with wit. We have these extraordinary authors who seem to have been shut away – why? – when these writers are as good as anything from England.’

It is a list that will be extended into the future with more of David Ireland’s work to be re-published later in the year. I wondered where this first list had been drawn from and Chong comes back to Michael Heyward’s passion for Australian writing.

‘Michael came across Watkin Tench in The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, by Tim Flannery, and pursued him to the State Library. When Michael read Watkin Tench’s diaries from 1788, they, quote unquote, ‘blew his mind’. But, no one reads him now,’ Chong said. ‘So, this series is Michael identifying literature he thinks is important.’

The design for the series had to cover off a few objectives but initially, no one really knew what they wanted, Chong said. ‘Working out the wrapping was the hardest task. It had to be something that competed with Penguin and Vintage and really made a splash on the shelves. But once we had that, it became easier because I could fill the tableau of each cover. Yes, I needed to find thirty different illustrations but that was the fun part,’ he said.

As an aside, Chong also designed the cover (and won an award for it) of my favourite book of 2010, Lloyd Jones’ Hand Me Down World. It is a beautiful, blurry painting of an African woman in a blue coat side on to the viewer. He discusses his design process for that cover on his blog Culture Mulcher where you will also find more of Chong’s world of literature, books and art.

Further reading:
The Nation That Lost Its Own Stories - A great article from the Sun-Herald about the Australian ‘canon’.
Culture Rescue - Michael Heyward in The Zone on Australian literature.

- Pip Newling

The first 30 Text Classics are out now! You can read more about Text's new collection, a brilliant celebration of Australian writing, on their website.

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