Beautiful Books: Music from a Strange Planet

June 30, 2021

Barbara Black's debut collection  Music From a Strange Planet (Caitlin Press) is a genre-bending mix of provocative and philosophical stories that takes readers from the ravaged streets of dystopian cities to the inner battlefields of its characters. Mirroring the zest and energy of the book is Barbara's own collage art and design work on the cover, which won out because "it was dynamic—the woman exiting through a doorway implied an urgency, an action, and a passage to somewhere else, which in turn alluded to transformation, one of the themes in the book." Below, Barbara tells us more about designing her own book, the challenges of designing a cover for a short story collection, the “cross-fertilization” effect of writing and art-making, and more. 

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All Lit Up: How did the idea of using your collage art come about? Did you start with a particular story in mind, or did an image remind you of a story and inspire this collage?

Barbara Black: Monica Miller, Caitlin Press’s former marketing and promotions coordinator, came across my collages on my Instagram account (@bblackwrites) and told Vici Johnstone, Caitlin’s publisher, about them. Vici, herself a talented cover designer, asked if I’d like to collage my own book cover. What an opportunity! I started with some imagery inspired by the story, “Strangely Luminescent in the Dusk,” but the result was a little too sci-fi looking. Instead, I decided to collage the story, “The Watcher and the Watched,” in which an artist transforms herself into a caribou.

ALU: Were there any contending cover ideas for Music from a Strange Planet? If so, how did this design win out? 

BB: Overall, I did seven designs, then chose the top three. The runners-up were both visually interesting, but not as arresting as the one we chose. That design won out because it was dynamic—the woman exiting through a doorway implied an urgency, an action, and a passage to somewhere else, which in turn alluded to transformation, one of the themes in the book. Also, she looks directly at and engages the viewer through her caribou mask. So, rather than readers passively scanning the book cover, they get an image that elicits an immediate response. I chose a turquoise background because I love that colour, but apparently it’s also a colour proven to capture people’s attention because it “pops.”


BBLACK BOOK COVER 2 telescope (3)

BBLACK BOOK COVER 3 Moth woman (3)

Contending covers for Music from a Strange Planet





Final cover 






ALU: Did you run into any challenges designing a cover for a short story collection?

BB: Yes. After I chose the story I wanted to collage and had constructed the caribou woman, there was something missing. It looked marooned on the page. I went in search of a background, not knowing quite what I was looking for. Voila! I found the green door and that cinched the image. (Serendipity often plays a part in my collages.) On top of that, when I went to photograph the image for Vici, I had weighed down the paper with an old pocket watch of my father’s. As I reached to remove it, I realized it looked good on the mock-up and added an element of surprise, so I left it in the image.


ALU: As a visual artist and writer, how does your art-making inform your writing, if at all? And does your writing inform your art?

BB: As one who works with words a lot, I find it refreshing to dip into visuals just for a change, but also for the “cross-fertilization” effect. Visuals seem to have an entry into a different part of my brain. That’s why I enjoy doing ekphrastic writing (writing from a piece of art), especially with flash fiction or poetry. It brings up new, surprising language.
When I collage my words, I’m compelled to distill a central idea or mood. I have to find a visual that portrays the most prominent emotion in those words. It has to be almost visceral, not intellectual or abstract. It’s interesting to look at stories with this different focus. As for art feeding back into my writing, sometimes after I’ve excerpted a passage or poem for a collage this newer version is more succinct and I go back to the original and edit it.


ALU: Are there any book designers or artists you’re loving at the moment?

BB: I’ve been reading a lot about historically underappreciated female artists lately, and two I find stunning are Artemisia Gentileschi and Sofonisba Anguissola. There are lots of good artists on Instagram, as well. One I really enjoy is Lewis Rossignol, who’s very adept with pencils, pens and charcoal. His work is beautifully “sketchy” and free and leaves lots of white space, something I admire. I’m also inspired by the torn paper collages created by multimedia artist Amador Sevilla García.





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Barbara Black_credit Erin Clayton Photography

Barbara Black writes fiction, flash fiction, and poetry. Her work has been published in Canadian and international magazines including The Cincinnati ReviewThe New QuarterlyCV2Geist and Prairie Fire. She was recently a finalist in the 2020 National Magazine Awards, was nominated for the 2019 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize and won the 2019 Geist Annual Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest. Her recently-published short-story collection, Music from a Strange Planet, was longlisted for The Miramichi Reader's 2021 Very Best Book Awards. She lives in Victoria, BC.

Photo credit Erin Clayton Photography











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