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The BA Band: Molly Regan

 

Madison Utley speaks to Book Architecture’s favorite graphic designer, Molly Regan, about how she expanded into book design, the process of creating the cover for Stuart’s second and third books on writing, and the best and most challenging parts of working with authors. 

 

Q: Talk to me about what it is you do/the scope of your services within the book sphere. 

A: My main jam is logos and branding, but I also do a lot with brochures, posters, packaging, and signage. Stuart was my gateway to book cover design, which was something I’d always wanted to try. When I first did a cover for one of his clients, I realized it was really just poster design, but on a smaller scale. It can be hard to make a cover compelling enough that people pick the book up, while keeping all of the info legible, especially if there’s a big title and/or longer subtitle, but I’ve found I really enjoy the challenge of a tinier canvas. 

I also expanded into interior graphics for books. Trying to make charts and graphs interesting can be really fun. I especially like infographics. Right now, I’m actually working on some “loose illustrations” for a glossary of terms, and I will admit it’s challenging! I’m not really an illustrator, but it feels good to exercise different creative muscles. 

 

 

Q: How did you first get connected to Stuart? 

A: Alright, well, this is a little embarrassing. I had an old college project/poster listed on Craigslist, that I really thought someone would buy only for the frame. The poster featured some 1950s Olivetti typewriter ad graphics, which is how Stuart came across the listing as he’s a big typewriter collector. Anyway, he ended up buying it! And, some time after that, he contacted me to do a book cover… Craiglist unites!

 

Q: Tell me about the process of creating the covers for Stuart’s second and third book. 

A: They were both super fun projects. Stuart’s second book was my introduction to the Book Architecture method – the series, grids, rearranging scenes, etc. In our meeting, I remember him saying he was imagining something Mondrian-esque, which really complemented the grid process outlined in the book. It came together pretty organically; just playing with forms, sort of ‘painting’ in shapes. We both felt good about the cover we came up with. It’s geometric, but also lively.

For his third book, my initial designs were too tame and not the vibe Stuart was going for. With his input, I turned towards more of a comic-book style – which provided a good framework for featuring stills from the stop-motion videos that were released in tandem with the written book (!). It was the right look for the tone of this book, and definitely more fun.

 

Q: How do you go about figuring out a client’s vision and getting it down onto the page?

A: When a client comes to me with a clear idea that they’re already set on, I accept that brainstorming is off the table and instead focus on making a good design out of what it is they want. When they’re more open, I’ll shoot around ideas of what I think they might want or need and, if they connect with something, I’ll run with it. It’s always fun when a word or doodle I come up with during a meeting or from the notes I keep becomes the driving force of a project.

 

Q: How does the process change when working with a hard-to-please client?

A: It is sort of heartbreaking when you present a good idea and the client passes, especially when their reasoning is unclear. It’s rare, but there are times when you have to let go of any creative input and instead simply become the facilitator of your client’s vision. I think of those projects as ‘work-work’ and not fun work. That kind of work will definitely never see the light of day in my portfolio, and that’s okay. 

Stuff We Love: A Writing Ritual

The notion of writer’s block has always upset me. It is presented as something that comes externally, like bad luck, which you can’t fight against. In general, I have a problem believing that we can’t get better at any activity we concentrate on, and that would include writing. I believe there are ways of improving the chances of having a good writing session—no guarantees, of course, but what fun would that be?

 

Developing a writing ritual can help you increase those odds. Rituals are supposed to be kept private, but people sharing theirs in broad strokes helped me shape my own, and so perhaps I can do the same for you. I should note that the ritual presented here begins after any number of other activities. After meditation and/or running and/or reading at the coffee shop and/or meaningless errands, etc. What all of those activities have in common is their ability to help me drop the outer world, in preparation for the inner. Eventually, I will step inside of a sacred center — see, there you go, now you know whether to start reading something else — and there I will cast the circle that helps me take time to stop time.

I don’t have a wand, or any crystals — although my relocation to San Diego puts the latter in jeopardy (check back here). But I might use statuary, such as the figurine of Piet Mondrian, who reminds me to embrace the structural ideas that come, as well as content-based ideas; ideas about the thing I’m writing, as well as ideas for the thing I’m writing. I might use talismans, such as this baseball I speared on one clean bounce at an MLB Spring Training game to remind myself it’s time to Play Ball!

I might use candles — okay, I will definitely use candles — even though I forget why certain colors are important. I have heard it said that working within the light in this way helps uplift others and also yourself. I have also heard it said that, in candlelight, the mind is rendered receptive to spiritual energy. I will add, as regards any aspect of a writing ritual: If it works, stick with it.

In the circle, I include functional items, especially those functional items that are also talismans, crossing the real boundary into practical magic, objects that you need and that also remind you of your history—the times you got it right. I find it useful to arrange whatever ritual implements I am using in a half-circle on my desk. This arrangement connects them to each other so they share energies and form an unbroken arc which I sit in the middle of. This circle can be continued behind you in terms of additional lighting, incense, etc. so that it takes up the entire room with you in the center of it.

 

 

Now, I know what you’re going to say. It sounds like you have an office. I do, but when I travel, I also pack a smaller bag of ritual implements. Wherever you are writing, you can cast a circle. It might be bounded by the train car you are riding in, or have an obstacle in the form of a water heater taking a bite out of one of your arcs. There are always cures, as they say in Feng Shui, for a recognized problem. Everything can be overcome with intention.

The boundaries of a circle can also just be traced with the mind and blessed, as you bless yourself. Entering the circle is an important step away from the world of business, time, and relationships — those relationships where you have to do something now regarding them, anyway — in order to see some of them in their truer nature. Stepping inside the circle establishes protection. Protection from the quotidian and from low self-esteem. Protection from our enemies, in the form of forgiving them.

It is the essence of writer’s block to have someone else stuck inside your own mind; when you can forgive them (except in a few places where you are using them for fuel, albeit with a higher intention), when you can let go of them, you are free. If you can’t forgive a particular person from a place deep down, at least call some kind of truce in your mind: you know, something like we’re all broken in some way, we’re all in process

Writing exposes you to enough self-criticism without other voices attacking you while you are vulnerable. We don’t have to allow anything unrelated to the writing to approach your flow of words, unless it wants to be used in an imaginative form.

Inside here we are free to be present on just this subject.

 

P.S. If you get really far out there, don’t forget to blow your candles out when your writing session concludes. I then take pictures of them, in the state of being unlit, because I have a level of anxiety about some things that needs practical assistance.

 

Daddy Doesn’t Do Courthouses

This excerpt from my upcoming memoir, Amnesty Day, was originally published in Hippocampus Magazine

I was among the first wave of fathers to do at least 50 percent of the childcare. I can’t prove that, of course, except by telling you how out of place I was made to feel.

If your mom and I took you to the doctor, the nurses wouldn’t even look at me. They just kept asking Bonnie, Is the car seat facing the rear? How much of the bottle does she take? How many ounces? These questions were of real concern to us because you were always underweight (or “puny,” as we had taken to calling you).

The only problem was, I was the one with the answers.

“Did she eat anything today?”

“Yes,” I ventriloquize through my wife, “she had two four-ounce jars, one of peaches and the other of mixed garden vegetables.”

One time when I took you to the emergency room, the admitting nurse actually said to me, “Oh… Daddy didn’t know what else to do!”

I was both worried and relieved when you had a temperature of 104 degrees. You see, I’m not an idiot! Now, don’t take me too literally on that; in those days, when the first star appeared in the sky, my first wish was always for your health. Everything else was relegated to wishes two, three, and four.

I started calling it the Mommy Conspiracy. Mothers came up to me in the supermarket to point out that there was a harness in the front part of the shopping cart where you should be strapped in, when you would be in the main carriage, eating escarole. Does this happen to women, too? I don’t know. I just know that I was told you were going to need your hands washed after we were finished playing at the park—I was actually told that dirt was dirty—or that your foot was dragging behind the wheel of the stroller where you always put it. You loved to feel the road.

Around this time, they started showing the first commercials aimed at stay-at-home fathers. Like the one where a dad is vacuuming while giving two very young children a piggyback ride at the same time: I’ll buy it! I know we already have a vacuum. They’re targeting me, can’t you see!

What I’m describing is almost commonplace now, but in those days I couldn’t win. If we were playing tag at the outdoor shopping mall on Saturday, they would tell you, “I can see somebody’s going to be a real daddy’s girl!” If they saw us at 1:45 p.m. on a Tuesday, it was like, I wonder what he does for a living.

I was a waiter. Well, really, I was a writer. I was sensitive to the criticism, of course, that’s why some of it stuck. It was a better time for your mother than it was for me: She was getting her doctorate in psychology and was surrounded by passionate people. I was writing a novel about suicide, which might tell you much of what you need to know. But then we had you. And the arc of my life that had been trending inexorably down suddenly banked upwards with the same unmistakable force.

Your mom would let me sleep until she left for her graduate school classes, and then I would be on: feeding you, finding ways to entertain you, saying no to candy, often, or changing your diaper for a third time during your pre-nap dramatics.

Bonnie did certain things better than I did. She made up the best nicknames, and little songs like when you were just getting your spatial relations down. Stack ‘em up, stack ‘em up, stack ‘em up cups, she would sing, as you made your first pyramids of plastic. She could soothe you far more easily when you were teething and I got frustrated.

“She’s just a little girl,” she would say.

In truth, we were glad there were two of us, for the massive amount of work a kid is. I just wanted the credit I was due. I was the one who took you to every single playground in the county where we lived north of San Francisco. They each had a nickname, like Pinchy Fingers, for the time you got your hand caught in the gate. I was the one who distracted you from your pain after falling off a swing from a decent height; I walked on the balance beam and pretended to trip, throwing myself headfirst into the sand a dozen times until you stopped crying.

I’m almost finished complaining. The worst of the Mommy Conspiracy came at Gymboree. If you don’t remember precisely what that was, it was not just a clothing store. Beyond the outfits and light-up shoes was a giant playroom filled with brightly painted jungle gyms and learning toys that lay strewn on multicolored mats.

The first time you laid eyes on that, the look on your face changed. All right! your gleaming expression seemed to say. Now we can get down to some serious playing!

It was very hard to resist you when you had just glimpsed a new possibility. There would have been reasons to leave. Sitting in a circle and singing songs with strangers was not up my alley then (or, really, now). Opening up to that situation was made much harder, however, while I was also being observed with such scrutiny. One day a mother whispered fiercely to me, “She can’t see you!” when you kids were playing under the parachute. You were an independent child. You didn’t have to see me all the time. In fact, it was better if you didn’t sometimes. Then we would have a little reunion, and in the meantime your confidence would have grown at the same pace as your puny body.

This was why we had to find our fun in unconventional places. We would pile into my leased navy blue VW Jetta and let the day direct us. Our demands were not high. The pizza place had a sticker machine, and for two quarters you might pull out Strawberry Shortcake or a SpongeBob-themed $2,000 bill. We might buy a fresh pack of baseball cards and go through them one by one or visit the farmers’ market and sit in the audience, watching Twee-Twee the clown make balloon animals, while the sunshine poured down on us.

But the best thing of all was a bouncing ball. No bigger than a quarter, if it was flat, a good bouncing ball could always surprise you with the way it ricocheted off walls and rocks and trees and across streets—Don’t you dare go get that!—and up stairs and down escalators, animating every scene it entered.

The farmers’ market was held in the parking lot of the Civic Center, which included the Marin County Superior Court. You wanted to take your bouncing ball in there one day. Except Daddy doesn’t do courthouses.

You can’t tell a three-year-old about all the arrests and infractions that led to a well-attended trial in college—which, if I had been convicted, I would also have been expelled from school—such was the nature of town/gown relations. My brushes with the law stopped about the time I quit doing drugs, and then you were born, and I quit drinking, too.

Some part of me still didn’t feel free, though. We had a little stand-off outside of the Civic Center. You were never one to take ‘no’ for an answer even when there was a good reason, let alone when all I could come up with was a fumbling, half-conscious reason.

Of course you won that battle. I was pretty sure I was safe with you. You charmed security guards and harried lawyers and struggling souls weighed down by multiple misdemeanors. Pretty much everybody stopped to give you your ball back.

The building was gorgeous. I should have gone in there earlier. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, it nestled into the low-slung terrain like a stucco aqueduct. The earth-toned colors blended into the chaparral and oak woodlands, and it had fountains both inside and out.

You bounced your ball into an operating fountain. It was an apotheosis of enjoyment for you, and only a minor hassle for me to take off my shoes, roll up my pants, and wade in to retrieve it. You bounced it in again and again, your head thrown back just before laughter, while I decided that if this was what I was going down for now, I would be just fine with that.

 

Clients Crushin’ It: Elizabeth de Veer

Madison Utley speaks to Elizabeth de Veer ahead of the release of her first published novel, The Ocean in Winter, about the power of persistence and —perhaps, more importantly— how she refused to let the tumult of finding an agent or publisher put a dent in her love of writing.

 

Q: When did writing start to become a more significant part of your life?

A: In 2003, I decided to start taking writing seriously. Until then, I had jobs that weren’t just full-time jobs, but were all-the-time jobs. I’d be in the office until 9 or 10 o’clock five days a week, and come in on the weekends as well. I knew I needed a job with less responsibility, where they respected that I’d get the job done, but also that I had this other role in my life as a writer. I ended up in a great situation where I worked full-time a few days a week, and then had a few days I could just write. That’s how I got through my first novel, which is about the Dust Bowl. That’s where the journey began.

Q: Tell me about that journey. 

A: By the time I finished my second novel, I had been looking for an agent for years. Many agents were interested and wanted to see the full manuscript, but nobody was ready to go forward. At some point during that period, I had posted my first novel in its entirety on this website where other writers could read it and leave feedback and many left really encouraging comments. My husband saw them and he was amazed at how many people liked my book. He took to the Internet and ended up finding a new agent who agreed to read my manuscript. One thing led to another and I ended up signing with him, which was really exciting.

Q: Did that feel like a turning point?

A: Absolutely. It was great having someone in my life who believed in me as a writer. Unfortunately, though, we didn’t find a publisher for my first and second novels. Then, I went back to a project I had been working on before my daughter was born. I looked at the first couple of pages and realized I needed to start over. It takes courage to say, “Don’t try to fix this. Think about what you love here, and take those pieces and use them to plant a new garden.” So, I started afresh. My daughter was in preschool twice a week then, so I’d go to a cafe to write those two days. But so much time passed between those writing sessions, I’d spend most of my time flipping through what I had written before. I’d end up spending these incredibly precious, brief periods of time trying to remember basic things like my character’s names. After a while, I realized writing every day, even if it’s only for ten minutes, helps you remember what your ideas were yesterday and then when you do have more time, you know what your intention is. That way, you get to sink your teeth into the questions that mean more.

Q: When did Stuart enter into this process?

A: I finally got that third manuscript done and I gave it to my agent; he shopped it around but it still wasn’t quite there. That’s when I worked with Stuart. He got me thinking about things on such a different level. It’s incredible, the power of having somebody smart read something, somebody who gets what you’re trying to do and understands the impact you’re trying to have. The feedback he gave was so helpful. He was able to explain things to me and bring certain ideas forward in my consciousness.

Q: From there, how did things come together with Blackstone Publishing?

A: Someone said yes! I have been really thrilled to work with the great team at Blackstone. And now I am very excited that my book will be coming out this summer.

Q: What pushed you to keep writing through the years, even when you weren’t finding the traction you were looking for with your completed manuscripts?

A: I truly love writing. My advice? Even if you do get published, it still has to be about love. You have to be ready to write your truth, whatever form that comes in. Even if it doesn’t make sense to anybody else, you have to be willing to put yourself and your writing out there. You have to be brave about being creative and brave about being self-critical. And to know when one is needed and when the other should take a back seat. I felt a tremendous amount of freedom, and still do, with having a day job so my writing doesn’t have the responsibility of paying the mortgage. My writing can be whatever I need it to be. Sometimes it’s frustrating because time is an issue. But writing is the thing that makes me feel like I am the person I am. If you find the thing that makes you feel that way, it only makes sense to organize your life around it.

Q: What is your main takeaway from having been writing in earnest for nearly 20 years now?

A: Writing in any form, even if you’re not focusing on one project, should make you feel like you’re five years old, playing in the sandbox. You know how you could spend hours pouring the sand through your fingers, sitting in the moment and daydreaming about the world? It’s magical that when the sand is dry it’s one way and when it’s wet you can build castles out of it. And then you can smoosh those castles and start over. That’s how you should feel when you’re writing. Of course, it isn’t always like that. Sometimes it can be so discouraging after you’ve had another rejection, but creativity should bring you joy. I want everybody to find a way to feel that way: climb into the sandbox, play with the sand, have fun, and find that joy. Isn’t that what it’s all about?