Beautiful Books: If Sylvie Had Nine Lives

From the time I began sketching out the idea for If Sylvie Had Nine Lives (Freehand Books), I knew what an important role the book’s design would play in helping me tell Sylvie’s story or, more precisely, her several stories. I had granted my character nine separate lives that were, to borrow a phrase from Stephen Leacock, going “madly off in all directions.” Readers would need a visual guide to help them find their way each time they, and Sylvie, jumped from one life to the next. I was immensely pleased when Freehand Books told me we’d be working with Natalie Olsen, and that Natalie loves a challenge.


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Leona Theis: Natalie, beyond all the creative work involved in cover design, typeface, layout, and other decisions that I can only guess at, part of the designer’s job with this novel-in-stories was to help orient readers to which of Sylvie’s lives they were entering in each new section. We needed a series of visuals that would say “you are here.” The first chapter mentions Sylvie’s lives branching off “like a delta.” I’m curious to know whether you considered other ideas or metaphors to visually represent her branching lives? What did the delta allow you to do that, say, a branching tree or some other idea would not have? Natalie Olsen: The book is full of water imagery in all its forms: rivers, floods, lakeshore shenanigans, backyard pools, oceanography, skiing, glaciers and snow, melting and freezing… there was no doubt in my mind that flowing streams in an icy shade of blue would be the best fit to represent Sylvie’s adventures.Another reason to use streams, is because structurally they don’t come to an end point the way a tree branch does — they can continue flowing right off the page, suggesting endless movement and more story to come. There is a line in the book that captures this perfectly: “Is want a river that never finds the sea?” 

Early in the design process, Leona sent along this map,

showing the rivers branching off, as inspiration.

 LT: The structure of this book is intricate. The fact that Sylvie has nine lives is only the beginning. She ages by five years each time we jump from one life to the next, and each version of her life shares at least some history with one or more other versions, before veering off on its own path. As the author, my somewhat insecure temptation was to load up the interleaved visuals with far too much information. You created an uncluttered, flowing design that still tells readers all they need to know. Can you talk about how you settled on just the right amount of information to portray? NO: It’s true that the map has conflicting objectives: it needs to emphasize how unpredictable and wild Sylvie’s various storylines are while at the same time showing exactly where she is in the tangled mess. So the end result is a balance of information and white space. It says: this is complex, but don’t be confused. You are here. Dive in and spend some time to figure it out, because we promise, it will be so rewarding when you do.Another thing I considered is repetition. Readers see the map ten times throughout the book. After finishing the first couple sections of the book and seeing how the map and story work together, the reader learns what we’re up to.

The manuscript of If Sylvie Had Nine Lives included an early look at how the book’s timeline worked. Later, Leona hand-drew templates of the maps.

 LT: Sylvie is 19 years old when the book begins, and 59 in the final chapter. You had to visually lead readers across a span of forty years, and you had only the width of a single page to work with. At the same time, there are complicated patterns of overlap among Sylvie’s several lives, not to mention other, imaginary lives that I like to assume are unfolding somewhere, even though Sylvie inhabits “only” nine lives in the book itself. How did you handle the level of precision needed to fit all this on the page?NO: The concept for the book is very inventive and ambitious. My first thought was to match this by going big with the map: it could be a full-colour, multi-panel, fold-out timeline showing all forty years, with page references, and symbols, and other hidden treasures. But ultimately, the map plays an auxiliary role to support the writing, which is so good on its own. The map is just an extra anchor for the reader. It provides a quiet moment between chapters to step back and look at the various fragments of Sylvie as a whole interconnected piece.And Leona, you sent along great, detailed sketches of the maps that I could work from. Really, all I had to do was bring your idea to life. 

The final map, placed within the finished book

 LT: The cover design relates well to the river-like maps inside the book. I especially like the way the flowing streams that I see on the front continue on the spine and around to the back cover, even to the point of flowing over on corner of the box where the barcode appears. One of the earliest mockups you sent had blue streams running behind, over and through the title font, and the finalized cover uses this same effect. It’s one of my favourite things about the cover. I wonder how that treatment came to you. I guess I’m asking for a window into how the magic happens for a designer. Do you “see” ideas in your mind and then try to realize them in an actual design, or is it a process of working with your hands and/or on screen until you arrive at something that works, or both?NO: Your hand-drawn sketches sparked the beginnings of a vision for me early in the process. I saw the greyscale pencil lines as having a certain colour and texture. Having the letters in the title overlap and interact with the water was a way to create more interest, movement, and playfulness. A sense of going with the flow.It was important to me that the cover and map be closely connected to create a cohesive package. I had to work on the cover mock-ups and the map drawing concurrently to ensure the streams fit both uses aesthetically and functionally. So it was constantly morphing as I went back and forth, which affected the process in an unusual way. 
 LT: When Freehand asked me to send examples of covers I was drawn to, I think I included quite a few recent designs that were what I’d call “narrative” in spirit. But when you’re dealing with nine different possible lives, each centred on its own story arc, it becomes less practical and probably less wise to tie cover design too closely to one incident or one life. Can you talk about the challenge of designing a cover for a story that goes off in all directions?  NO: You articulated the challenge very well: above all else we want the cover to communicate that Sylvie is a character who contains multitudes who experiences many shifts in direction. There is no single object or scene that can portray this fully. So I set out to abstractly capture Sylvie’s spirit and the unique novel-in-stories structure instead.

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A special thank you to Leona Theis, Natalie Olsen and Freehand Books for joining us in this edition of Beautiful Books to share the design story of If Sylvie Had Nine Lives. Grab your copy on All Lit Up!