Tommy Twice, Cover to Cover: An Interview with Nathan Leslie and Jamie Keenan

It’s easy enough to get a take on a new book from reviews like this one, but nobody knows quite what’s gone into that work of art you’re holding like the author and the cover designer. Luckily for us, when it comes to The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, both of these guys are very obliging. Read on for insights from author Nathan Leslie and cover designer Jamie Keenan on just what all went into this playful, dark, and unpredictable orphan’s tale.

Rather than a realistic account of the travels of a child between several deranged relatives, you create a world that feels more like folklore bordering on fairytale. Aside from the obvious David Copperfield comparisons that could be made, you create the same sense of exaggerated reality that Dickens is known for. Why did this tone and element make sense for the story you wanted to tell?

Nathan: It was an intuitive choice, I suppose. I don’t fully know. This novel revealed itself to me like a dream. Since I believe the best fiction is an experience unto itself, if I analyze this novel too much it takes away from what’s on the page. So I guess I’ll let the book reviewers answer this question.

Generally, when working on a cover, do you read the book cover to cover for inspiration and direction? In the case of Tommy Twice, what were some of the major ideas or impressions you wanted to communicate with the cover?

Jamie: I try to read as many of the books I work on as possible, but I don’t have time to read everything.

A lot of the non-fiction I work on involves putting together a cover which will convey one central idea, so the subtitle is sometimes just about all you need to read and it’s all about getting that idea across in an interesting way. With fiction it seems like you have to read every single word, because you never know which tiny part of the book may suddenly point you in the right direction.

Did any specific scene or portion of the novel primarily play into the final cover, or perhaps another cover that was eventually abandoned?

Jamie: With Tommy Twice I came away from the book with the impression that Tommy was being squeezed to death by the story and attempting to escape from it, so I decided to put together a literal version of that. The feel I was going for was a kind of gothic fairytale. It reminded me a lot of The Tin Drum–a real mix of the real and the unreal and the effect it all has on an ‘innocent’. Having a big book on the cover combined with the word ‘tale’ is the reassuring part of the cover, a young boy being crushed to death is the nasty part. I wanted to give the impression of a modern day version of The Brothers Grimm–naive and disturbing at the same time. This real/unreal approach fits the end of the book too–which reinforces the idea that what you’ve read could be completely true or pure fabrication.

Tommy Twice makes the rounds with some bizarre family members over the course of the book. Without throwing anyone under the bus, was Tommy’s family inspired by some personal experience?

Nathan: No, not at all. It truly is a tall tale, and I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular family-wise. Any and all likenesses are accidental. There were a few names from the real world which I made my own. I like stealing names from the real world and plopping them into my fictional world in a different form.

One thing that stands out is the absence of a father figure in almost every home Tommy visits. (Gaga’s husband is dead, Tess’s is a trucker, Penny’s is only home for the holidays, Chelsea is single, etc.) Is part of Tommy’s quest to fill that void, and how does this shape his childhood?

Nathan: Yes, among other things. It shapes his childhood immensely—in every way imaginable. Tommy is an orphan and many children in such situations have an identity crisis at the bare minimum. Tommy is searching for himself, without much in the way of assistance.

Which home/setting/relative was the most fun for you to write?

Nathan: It was all fun for me, really. This novel is a departure for me, and when I was writing it I just went into some rambunctious corner of my imagination. I just enjoy writing and this book was a pleasure from start to finish.

What, if anything, was the most challenging aspect of creating a cover for a book that is so sprawling in its geography?

Jamie: The sprawling geography of the book was something I decided to avoid completely. Book covers are strange–as a designer you’re asked to get across everything about the book without actually showing anything at all (because that’s the reader’s job)–and as a result, less is generally more. The minute you start to refer to specific parts of a book, you get into problems of it not being the actual building/horse/rocket/part of California mentioned in the book and it’s easier to avoid those problems and instead convey the overall mood of the book rather than what happens on page 32. It’s basically translation–converting something written into a visual equivalent.

Now that the book is published, do you find the final product is very different from what you originally thought it would be, or is the final copy close to what you imagined at the outset?

Nathan: It’s just perfect. The cover is great and I’m very pleased overall. When I’m composing fiction I never really imagine what the book will look like as a product. Only when I begin hunting for publishers do I think of such things. Atticus Books did a top-notch job with my book, I think.

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