Plays Inverse Press presents “The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish” and how it came to be
From Tyler Crumrine, founding editor of Plays Inverse:
At Plays Inverse Press, one of our top priorities is quality design. We believe that dramatic literature can be more than just an instruction manual for performance, and one of the ways we try to help legitimize plays in the eyes of readers is by giving our texts interesting and inviting covers (you know, like REAL books). We publish plays intended for a life on the shelf as well as in the hand, and pairing each author with an appropriate cover designer is a crucial part of our publication process.
When I first accepted Mike Kleine’s The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish, though, he already had a designer in mind. Austin Breed—a comics artist, game designer, and Creative Director in DC—had designed the covers for each of Mike’s novels over the last 4 years, and Mike was eager to work with him again. According to Mike, “he’s like my Chip Kidd I guess; so then I would have to be his Haruki Murakami.”
I brought Austin on to the project and was immediate impressed with the speed and ease of their collaboration. Over time, I realized that Mike and Austin’s history went back further than just cover design too. Curious to learn more, and eager to share some of Austin’s process behind The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish with other design enthusiast, I interviewed Mike and Austin via Gchat to try and get to the heart of what makes their creative relationship so special.
Tyler Crumrine: Let’s start things off with how you met. How long ago was that?
Austin Breed: Let’s see… It’s been a while. I’m going to guess 6-8 years ago? We were teens.
Mike Kleine: I want to say more than 6-8 even… more like 10-12 years ago.
AB: You’re right, at least 10.
TC: And was that IRL or online?
MK: This was online. I used to reallllly be into art, so I would always be drawing and making things daily and then animating as well. We met on a forum that was hosted on the artist Dan Paladin’s website (he is the artist behind games like Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers, etc.). This was a really tight-knit community of maybe 50-ish artists/creative kids (all about the same age) just posting what they were doing every single day and then getting feedback, etc. There was no money involved. No sponsorship or endorsements. Just creating art for the love of art.
TC: Oh yeah, I remember playing Alien Hominid back on Newgrounds. Was it connected with that?
MK: Yes. The owner/CEO of Newgrounds, Tom Fulp, is a coder and is responsible for coding the aforementioned games, and Austin at one point developed a really strong professional relationship with Tom and was running contests on Newgrounds during the summers.
AB: A lot of us used to collaborate on movies and games with the intention of uploading to Newgrounds. It was kind of in the middle of a lot of it.
MK: So then Austin got into coding and making his own games—and they weren’t traditional games either. More, games that incited conversation. And I loved that so I reached out to Austin and said, “Let me make music for your games.” I think we worked together on maybe 5 games total?
AB: There was also a group of us that we’re talking on Skype pretty much every day, during the summer and after school and stuff. That’s probably when we were doing the games stuff.
MK: That’s right. Like 5 of us. Almost every day.
TC: Was this before your electronic music project Fancy Mike, or were you already putting music out there as well?
MK: Fancy Mike came about during the summer of 2007, right as I had finished HS and was going into college, so all of this was before Fancy Mike. At first, I would record guitar music exclusively. That’s all I had, a guitar and amp and crappy computer mic. So I used that to record music and people seemed to like it. As I got more experience with recording, I’d throw in some keys and synths and the sounds got better and better. That’s how Fancy Mike came about. But as Austin said, we all did a little bit of everything at first. Then sort of all found our niche, so to speak. There even was a time where Austin made music, believe it or not.
TC: And eventually you asked Austin to do the covers for your Fancy Mike EPs. Was that your first collaboration beyond gaming?
MK: Yes. The very first cover Austin ever created for me was for the Fancy Mike EP. That came out in 2008. It was essentially a bunch of demos. The start of the Fancy Mike project. I think it took Austin 2 minutes.
AB: Haha wow. Who knows where that photo came from.
MK: Yes. For Madison Square Gardner—my first proper release—I had a guy, Nate James, make the cover because he had made the cover for Lorn’s NOTHING ELSE, which I loved. But then, there was something about Austin’s aesthetic that I just really loved for Sigma Chi Primavera.
TC: So this is 2011 that you start working on the EPs together. Austin, were you designing professionally at that time or still just making art in your free time?
AB: I wasn’t designing professionally, but I was making a small bit of money from the games.
MK: Yeah, one day, Austin Paypal’d me some money and I said, “What is this for?” And he said, “The games.”
TC: Had you and Mike stayed in touch since then, or did the request come as a surprise?
AB: We obviously don’t talk every day anymore, but we’ve stayed in touch on Facebook and such.
MK: Yeah, the Sigma Chi Primavera piece was actually something Austin had already worked on and I wanted to appropriate the piece for my release. Then I had another artist involved who added some colour and texture tweaks. It wasn’t until Mary B. James that Austin was involved from the start, proper.
AB: Oh I also contacted Mike for music for my university thesis project.
MK: Yes, this is a fact. Which was pretty neat, what you did.
TC: What was that?
AB: I made a fantasy board game called Ghost Lords.
TC: That’s pretty amazing. Although Austin and I have already bonded over a love of D&D, haha.
AB: Yes. I’ve tried to get Mike to play for years.
TC: So smash-cut to: 2012. Mike writes Mastodon Farm and it gets picked up by Atlatl Press. At what point did Austin get brought into that process?
AB: Mike collaged a drawing I did for my school art anthology haha.
MK: Exactly. Yes, funny story. I wrote it. Submitted while in France. Didn’t expect to hear anything. I arrive in the US and don’t check my email for a little bit. It’s been accepted and they want to do a summer release that same year. So things get fast-forwarded. What ended up happening is the mountains are designed by Austin and I had copy+pasted them and asked Austin if he could make some additional art, but I think he couldn’t meet my deadline.
AB: This is true. I still called myself an ‘artist’ then and didn’t really know how to put together a cover in InDesign or what have you.
MK: Then the pixel car is an artist in Sweden who I had been in contact with and then the grass and sky is just free license stuff. I came up with the concept one Saturday, just as I was waking up, oddly enough. Or, it felt like I had dreamt it and then could recall every detail of what I wanted it to look like immediately after waking up.
TC: Yeah, the frontmatter says illustration by Austin Breed, pixel artwork by Richard Blok.
TC: But Arafat Mountain was a collaboration beginning to end, right?
MK: Yes, that was the first proper collaboration for book cover work.
Austin had said, after Mastodon Farm, “Let me know when you write your next book.” And I did.
TC: And this was… 2014?
MK: I think, yes. Maybe late 2013.
AB: Yes. I remember I was on a road trip to attend a funeral in Indiana. Mike sent me a mood board that includes bright colors and some religious artwork. I did the sketching on my aunt’s breakfast bar.
MK: Yeah, pretty much. My feelings were: we’ve already done blue with Mastodon Farm so this needs to jump-cut to the other spectrum, warm colors.
TC: I really love that cover. Before you submitted to Plays Inverse I remember seeing a review of Arafat and seeking out the designer, which is how I started down the rabbit hole of Austin’s work.
MK: Yeah, I have had people randomly tell me, at readings and live events that they really enjoy the cover for each release and that makes me happy.
AB: Haha oh that’s nice to hear.
TC: In your first response to my Seventeen Pilot Fish acceptance email, you were already dropping Austin’s name and asking how I went about picking designers.
TC: Which was perfect, since I was going to ask in email #3 if you’d be comfortable reaching out to Austin about another collaboration, haha.
MK: See how the stars align like that sometimes? I still think it’s phenomenal what you were able to do this year Austin, with Seventeen Pilot Fish & KANLEY, at the same time, pretty much! I don’t think we’ve ever had 2 of my own projects running together like that, simultaneously.
AB: Ha that’s awesome. I like working with Mike because our communication feels seamless.
MK: Yes. I feel, usually what would take maybe 3 or 4 email interactions with someone else, we can do in just 1. And then you somehow anticipate what I am going to suggest next and have it ready in mockup 2 and then mockup 3, etc.
TC: With Arafat Mountain, though, were you full on illustrating and laying out in InDesign then? Was this your first proper book cover project?
AB: Yeah I suppose it was my first cover design. I can’t think of any I had done before. I did a lot of zines in college and at least one cover for that.
TC: Speaking of KANLEY STUBRICK, your next novel coming out from We Heard You Like Books, was it a similar scenario getting Austin on board for that as well? Did you pitch him to Jarrett [Kobek] or was it the other way around?
MK: Jarrett already loved the covers for MF and AM and asked me if I had created them. So then that’s how Austin came up. And he looked into it and gave me the green light. And I don’t know, didn’t Jarrett reach out to you, Austin? I called you, the night I spoke to him to tell you he might email you.
AB: He did, communicated a brief and then work started.
TC: It’s a beaut. And now you guys have this real dynamic duo thing going on.
MK: Yes, that’s what it was.
TC: Enough about other presses books, though, lets talk 17PF, haha. After we got Austin on board, the first thing I asked Mike to do was put together an index of images to help get a sense for your aesthetic / hopes for the book. Mike, do you remember how you went about gathering those? I remember being really impressed with the variety. Usually when I ask authors to put together one of these incoming interview mood boards it’s a collection of their favorite book covers. But yours was a lot more album covers and theatrical posters.
And I think one Russian novel.
AB: I think Mike has better taste in design than me, the stuff he finds is always great. I think it has to do with his art/design background. And it makes sense, his novels are so visual.
MK: Yeah. I very rarely will say, “Look at this book cover and that book cover—I want both of those combined into one.” If anything, I will point at five covers, and say, “This is what I don’t want.”
AB: No eyeballs, for instance. Haha.
TC: Did any of those initial images surprise you, Austin, or was it more just like “Yup, this all makes sense.”
AB: It’s always surprising and it takes a while to get the tone down so I can build on it. A mood board communicates something, but it takes time and work to understand what. Sometimes it’s the colors, sometimes it’s the space or the type.
MK: Austin knew this already I think, but the mood boards are only to give him an idea. After that, what he comes up with is on him. I am not saying anything he does has to look like anything on the mood board.
AB: We talk through everything as well.
MK: Yeah: colour, font, spacing, aesthetic—everything!
AB: Sometimes I’ll do little doodles on paper and text photos, make sure we relay everything.
MK: And then I’ll draw on napkins and send it to Austin.
AB: Haha yeah. The KANLEY cover was like that.
TC: So next Mike and I sent you a few documents… a draft in progress and a handful of quotes/images from the text. We also sent some specific ideas, but with the caveat that we wanted you to feel free to drive the bus. Once you had all this seed info, what did your process look like Austin?
AB: After an extensive few days of research and reading the excerpts, it’s about noting assumptions about the brief or what I found from the text that might make a good cover and testing those assumptions with prototypes. The prototypes are those black and white mockups.
MK: Every single one of those mockups is an amazing cover.
TC: Agreed. Although I remember Mike’s first response was “I want A to be the cover; I absolutely love it.”
AB: I once bought a grizzled old designer a whiskey in exchange for life changing advice. He told me: “Give the client 3 options: what they asked for, what you want, and something extremely out there.” So that’s what I tried to do.
TC: Yesss, I love that advice.
MK: It’s the best advice you could give to anyone.
TC: As a publisher, the big thing for me was which covers would work well for a different book, and which ones could only work for THIS book. As well as the usual questions of does this look like anything else out already and what captures the imagery of the book best.
TC: Ultimately we narrowed it down to A, F, & G, adding the floorboards to A to make it a bit more specific to the house in the book rather than just fish in the ocean.
TC: F was especially hard for me to let go of. I love that sad fish so much.
MK: Yes. There’s definitely something there, with the tear and all.
AB: Haha. And it was going to wrap around.
TC: I still want to use it as a poster graphic for our first staging. Poor little guy.
TC: But ultimately we decided “why go with one fish when you could have a whole bunch.”
MK: And an octopus, eel, blow fish, stingray…
TC: G was stylistically beautiful too, but by that point I think we were all feeling the fish.
MK: Yeah. G is for a 15th edition re-release.
AB: Yeah that was fun to do.
TC: Which came first, the lettering or the fish?
AB: The lettering with abstract shapes. Fill the shapes with fish later.
TC: I love it. Especially all the micro-expressions on them.
MK: Yes, there is a lot to look at.
TC: Then it was color treatments.
TC: Was there a method to the madness, Austin, or was it more or less just shotgun effect?
AB: Hmm similar to before, I mocked up many combos and tested their effectiveness against the objective and picked out a few that worked. Then we all came together to pick out the winners. The colors in general began with the mood board
TC: Eventually we wound up going for the blue/yellow contrast. The only big tweak was changing the color of “The Mystery of the” to yellow to correspond with the rest of the title.
MK: Picking a winner, as I recall, was tough.
TC: Yeah. It helped that you’d worked on so many other projects together before, though. The orange we liked but decided against because it was too similar to Arafat Mountain. I think ditto with the purple/pink tones and KANLEY. I of course had PI’s catalogue in mind, but I think it’s nice when an author has a bit of variety in their own too. If only so you can tell everything apart on a bookshelf, haha. Or better yet a merch table.
MK: Yes, if we had to do it all over again, the orange is still by second favourite.
And yes, I think us having worked together before really helped streamline the process. Furthermore, I think with something as specific as cover design work, it allows for the banality of being polite and nice to be removed and we can just get on with: “No, I want this instead of that,” etc.
TC: And after that it was just a matter of polishing and inserting blurbs as they came in.
TC: So Austin, now that you’ve gotten your feet wet with Mike’s books, do you have any interest in designing more covers? Say if some publisher reads this and is like “Damn, that Austin guy’s got some chops.”
AB: Well duh! Books are my favorite thing to design for.
MK: Someone asked Austin at a bar recently, as he was working on one of my covers, if he does this professionally. And he said, “Yeah, I do.”
TC: Yeah, you work at a design firm now, right? Does any of this kind of work come your way or is book design more on the freelance side of things?
AB: Freelance, most of the illustration work I’ve done is for the web.
MK: I think the biggest thing to take away from Austin, which this entire discussion is going to reveal, is how much he actually offers during the creation process. Not that I am discounting any other artists, but something as simple as the 3 mockup rule is seriously a game-changer.
TC: Agreed. We’ve been lucky to work with excellent designers on each of our books with Plays Inverse, and working with both of you was no exception. Really awesome.
AB: You too Tyler! It was great working with you.
MK: Tyler, it was a real pleasure. You seriously are the most impressive editor I have worked with, so far—and I want to make that known.
TC: Aw shucks, thanks guys. So if folks wanted to see more of your work, Austin, or contact you about freelancing, where should we send them?
TC: How about you Mike? Other than the upcoming readings for The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish (Aug 30) and KANLEY STUBRICK (Sept 13).
Taking any music commissions?
MK: I periodically update my Twitter: @thefancymike (since it is directly linked to my Goodreads account.) But nowhere really, that is constant. I’m a little all over the place. I am slowly getting back into music, but it’s not the Fancy Mike project anymore. Things will happen and we’ll see what comes up next. As for writing, I also have something new and different in mind, but who knows how long that is going to take.
TC: And of course you’ll be able to find ordering information, updates, reviews, and etc. for The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish and other Plays Inverse titles at http://www.playsinverse.com/ and via @playsinverse.