Today I welcome Helen Giltrow to the blog to talk about the cover to the paperback of her novel The Distance. (You can read my review HERE.)
Helen Giltrow is a former bookseller and editor whose writing has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award and the Daily Telegraph’s Novel in a Year competition. Her debut novel The Distance – a dark suspense thriller set in the world of criminal espionage, with a strong female lead – sold on the eve of the 2012 London Book Fair after a five-way UK auction; US and Canadian auctions followed. Translation rights have since been sold in nine territories including Germany, the Netherlands and Japan. She lives in Oxford.
I love the cover Helen. It’s muted and understated but conveys so much. Were you able to have any input in the design and if not, are you happy with the results?
I’ve spent most of my working life publishing highly-illustrated books for the educational market, and I’ve briefed a lot of covers in my time. So crossing over and becoming an author – where you don’t get to talk through image options at the outset, or take part in discussions to pin down precisely what sort of book it is and who you want it to appeal to – has been quite strange. All those discussions happen within the publishing house, and as an author within a trad publishing set-up you’re just not part of them.
I did have a brief chat with my editor at the start, and one thing we agreed on: if my main character was to feature on the cover, her face should be partly hidden. Charlotte Alton runs a successful business selling secrets to criminals – she spends much of the story hiding her identity, and I deliberately don’t describe her in the book. We both wanted a bit of mystery about her appearance. So: a woman – but you can’t quite see her face …
With covers you never know quite what’s going to fly. Often the most unexpected approaches can yield a brilliant result, so you’ve got to be prepared to try some quite off-beat ideas. The early treatments that Orion sent me were very varied. One had quite a futuristic / SF feel. Another was very strong, but the image used (a silhouetted woman at a dingy window, gazing out at a tree) was perfect for domestic noir – which The Distance definitely isn’t. Another, which featured prominently London’s skyline and especially the merchant banks of Docklands, looked a bit too financial-thrillerish to me.
None of these covers seemed to convey the book. But chatting to my editor on the phone, I mentioned another cover that I liked, which centred on a really strong depiction of a woman. Women tend to be photographed straight-on, or from above, but in that cover the woman was shot from below, which is quite unusual – and very powerful.
Orion found the image of the woman on this cover, and as soon as I saw it, I thought: Perfect.
It has drawn me in with the subtle colouring but with the action scene running along the bottom, I’m intrigued. What can you say about the book?
I think the split-screen effect is clever because it reflects the structure of the narrative. Throughout, two characters take turns to tell most of the story: Charlotte Alton, alias Karla, and an old client of hers, a professional assassin called Johanssen, who’s taken on a job infiltrating an experimental prison to carry out a hit on an inmate, and comes to her for help. As she tries to find out what’s really behind the job, he must track down and get close to his target – and try to stay alive.
It’s interesting that you mention the colours. The first version of this cover had a highly saturated orange wash over top half (the woman), leaving the paler background for the bottom half of the cover (the running man). To me, that orange wash gave the cover a retro feel. It also made the figure of the woman visually less prominent, while the man stood out more against that paler background. So I asked Orion if we could tweak the colours a bit. They produced four, slightly different options, all with paler backgrounds – I thought they all looked great, but my editor had a clear favourite, so we went with that.
The Distance? That holds implications. I’m rubbish with titles. At what point did the title come to you?
The book has had that title right from the beginning, when it was just a three-thousand word opening section that I entered for the CWA’s Debut Dagger competition. It’s stuck through numerous rewrites, sales to publishers on both sides of the Atlantic, and several discussions with editors when we wondered if we should change it. But when I was preparing the book for publication I started to note down the number of times the images of distance, separation and isolation appeared, and soon realised the word ran right through the text. When the book opens, Charlotte Alton’s trying to distance herself from her past. And throughout the action, both main characters are also isolated – by fate and circumstance, physically and emotionally distanced from each other and the people around them. The more I looked, the more resonance the title seemed to have.
In the end we all agreed to stick with The Distance, rather than change it to something overtly thrillerish. For one thing, so many thrillers have similar titles and it’s getting increasingly hard to find one that stands out. But choosing to keep a title like The Distance has implications for the cover design. If your novel has an obvious thriller title – conveying danger and death – you can opt for a more enigmatic cover image. If you’re going for a non-thriller title, you have to convey that ‘thriller’ identity visually – through the image, the colours, even the typography.
I’m now trying to find the right title for the sequel – I’m scribbling words on the backs of envelopes but I’m definitely not there yet.
When is the publication date?
The Distance comes out in paperback on 26th February.
And without giving anything away, if you could be one of the characters, who would you be and why?
I suspect I share a few characteristics with Charlotte Alton. For a start, I think we’re both naturally quite private – though she has far more interesting secrets to hide. But where she’s got nerves of steel, I know I’d make a rubbish criminal. I’d be far too afraid of being caught. Maybe that’s part of the appeal of writing about her: I’ve always been one for following rules – like a lot of women of my generation I was brought up to toe the line – but Charlotte’s never afraid to break them … Maybe there’s some wish-fulfilment there.
Thanks for talking to me Helen, it’s been great having you and can I just say, I loved The Distance!
Thanks for inviting me, Rebecca!
This post is part of a week-long blog tour for the paperback launch. You can find Helen Giltrow in the following places throughout the week, so do pop by!