Cannibals in Love is propelled by angst. A coming-of-age story set in Bush-era, post-9-11 America, the debut novel from Mike Roberts is told in 18 vignettes, weaving between the wonders of adolescent romance, the thrills of underage drinking, and the anxieties of growing up in a time period marked by tragedy, war, and paranoia. It’s centered on Mike, a character based in narcissistic-teenager clichés (and with enough cynical wit to give Holden Caulfield a run for his money) but also drawn with surprising soul and depth. He’s a writer, too. When describing his upcoming book project, Mike explains his intent in stark terms: to reveal the “negative spaces between two bodies … with the intimacy of a stabbing.”
One take on this provocative image is represented on the cover of Cannibals in Love. As envisioned by artist Na Kim, the cover immediately appears both intimate and horrific, graphic and dreamy—an aptly complex visualization of the bumpy emotional plane on which Cannibals in Love lives. It’s the product of several scrapped design concepts, with varied tones and premises.
I spoke with Kim about what led her to her final design, how her thinking on Cannibals in Love evolved and changed, and why the book’s depiction of a post-9/11 world resonated with her so strongly.
I wanted to start by broadly asking about your relationship to the novel. As I read it, it’s cynical and jagged but not without a hopeful side. What was your impression of the book, overall?
It’s an accurate description. I think [the novel is] also about the lengths we go to preserve ourselves; the constant push and pull of what we feel. There is definitely some tongue-in-cheek, backhanded humor throughout the entire book. Nothing and no one is sacred. Maybe it’s because in times of turmoil, sometimes all we have is our sense of humor.
What do you think of the tension in the book between this sort of familiar, funny, angst-y teenager story and the broader political and social context in which Mike’s coming of age?
I think the author does a great job of showing that the two are not mutually exclusive and that the broader political and social context will always be there regardless.
As young adults, we are prone to being absolutely insufferable. We carry that “violent narcissism” that the narrator talks about. I can confidently, humbly say that I too took my turn acting like a garbage person. It’s kind of a rite of passage for growing up. Things are dramatic because everything is so important to us at that age. If there’s someone out there who was ever above that teenage angst, bless your heart! But one of the many reasons that I enjoyed the novel so much was because it was so relatable. I know it’s a novel, but it feels honest.
One reason I’m curious is because your final cover feels so visceral; the spliced flesh gives a simultaneous sense of intimacy and horror.
In reference to his own work in progress, the main character talks about wanting his book to “express those negative spaces between two bodies, where the relationship breathes … belly-to-belly with the intimacy of a stabbing,” and I think the same can be said about Cannibals in Love. Hopefully the cover successfully embodies that.
You definitely capture that in your cover. How did the quote speak to you?
There are a lot of dichotomies in this book, and I think that quote helps you visualize them. Mike’s inability to let go of things he doesn’t even want. The constant shifts and changes that Mike experiences. The hardships of being in love while showing the tenderness of it all. It’s funny and cringe-inducing at the same time.
Talk me through your process. Your scrapped covers are really distinct from one another, including the final design. How did your ideas shift from cover to cover?
As a cover designer, it’s important to keep in mind that even if it looks great, if it’s not right for the book, it just isn’t. Some covers you get right away, and others require rounds of work and a lot of pushing until you find the right solution. For Cannibals in Love, it was a case of the latter.
The cover that we landed on was a result of balancing the author and the editor’s contributions [and] feedback with what my art director and I were visualizing. There were some talks about making further edits to the final version, but it was pretty immediate to my art director and [me] that this was the one. Luckily, the author came around to it, and I’m glad we stuck to our guns!
It looks like you chose to go darker, and more lifelike, as your designs progressed. Would you say that’s accurate?
The earlier rounds are lighter because they focus more on the hopeful side of the novel. My immediate interpretation of it was that it felt laughably real. But obviously there’s a lot more to the book than that, and the author rejected them—in hindsight, rightfully so. So you go back to the drawing board, and if one direction doesn’t work, you try out another, then another until you find the right one. The choice to go darker wasn’t so much a conscious decision but rather a result of rereading the text and reconfiguring what the book is really about.
Right. Your initial cover featuring a broken heart has a lot of structural similarities with the final cover—but from the colors to the font choice, you get a completely different feeling from it.
I think the shift in sensibility shows the difference between listening and hearing. This book is personal, and that’s what was missing from a lot of my earlier comps. I mean, the main character even shares the same name as the author. It was important for the cover to begin and end with the body. The body is everything and [everything] in between. It’s fragile but strong and visceral. We know the feeling of it more than anything else.
Do you hope people give your cover a deeper look, as you did to the book? Or is the immediacy of the image enough?
I think as a cover designer, your priority is to get the book into the hands of readers. By no means is a book defined by its cover. Ultimately, it’s what’s inside that really counts. But as something being consumed, the book as an object needs to stand out. It needs to be distinct, and I think there are many ways of doing that. My preferred way is to evoke some kind of emotion in the potential reader. Immediacy is definitely what we are going for, and it’s much quicker, [more] effective to go for the heart [rather] than the head. My goal is to make a fantastic cover, and if I did that, I’m happy.
One scrapped design that stood out as really different was the cover with the yellow backdrop, where the title’s letters all have little designs on them.
I was trying to have a cover that would embody “the millennial’s lament” in a humorous way. I wanted to use the emojis [and] icons as a way to represent subjects that are presented in the book, while simultaneously showing the title getting lost like the main character. But this interpretation was too playful and digital for the book, which mostly takes place on the cusp of the smartphone era.
Speaking of “too playful”: What do you make of the book’s time period, visually? This is a narrative consumed by post-9/11, Bush-era America.
It’s alarmingly vivid: 9/11, the financial crisis in the late 2000s, George W. Bush somehow winning a second term. On top of the horrors of transitioning into an adult, we were dealt with what at the time felt like an impossibly shitty hand. But you still go to school, you fall in love—that’s life right? The author really captures [the] absurd time period and landscape that the current generation has inherited. It’s a time period that is defined by angst and ennui.
I think it’s also notable that [the story is] told from the perspective of a person who has lived in both worlds: pre- and post-9/11. At this point we’ve become so desensitized to this constant underlying fog of paranoia that we don’t even notice that it wasn’t always like this. We wonder: How the fuck is Trump running for president? This novel, in a way, serves as a reminder of how we got here.
Did your own relationship to 9/11—from the political constraints and tensions of the period that followed, right through to Trump, as you say—influence your design at all?
Maybe not intentionally, but as someone who experienced growing up along the same timeline [and] locations: It’s so personal. Your entire 20s are personal. I’m sorry I keep saying personal, but this is a very personal—and thus relatable—book! The towers falling don’t signify the end of the world, but a fight with your lover does. Every corner is filled with so much conviction, even though we’re constantly changing and leaving our old selves behind.
That’s a great point. I think of the moment near the end of the book, when Cokie is describing the absence of the Twin Towers to Mike, and he is deeply, unexpectedly moved. His reaction gets at that complexity.
That scene in particular is so great, because they don’t see the actual lights of the memorial, but they stand and imagine them there. Kind of like the quote [I] mentioned [earlier]. They represent the negative space that quietly defines the world around you.
Given these nuances and how personal this book was for you, did you find your artistic instincts challenged by it?
As someone with an illustration background, sometimes I’m tempted to use it as an easy out [or a] solution to a book cover—a crutch, per se. Reversely, I often find myself doing my best work when I don’t rely on my illustration skills. When I’m pushed to think outside the box and force myself to scratch that little part of my head that makes me think with a fresh perspective. I think a lot of times, that’s where a great art director comes in. The journey can be painful, but 99 percent of the time it’s rewarding. Entering the unknown and facing challenges can be fruitful. I think this cover is a pretty good example of that.
See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.