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Julian Barnes in conversation with his long-term designer Suzanne Dean

The Booker Prize-winning author of The Sense of an Ending and Elizabeth Finch discusses the cover design of his novels with his designer of 20-plus years.

Alex Clark
Photograph of Suzanne Dean and Julian Barnes from shoulders up, laughing to one another.
Julian Barnes - Letter
The UK paperback of Julian Barnes' Letters from London

Let us go back in time. Twenty years or so. Tell us about the first book that you worked on.

SD: Letters from London.

JB: Which was a collection of my journalism; I was London Correspondent at the New Yorker for five years. And I’ve always had the rule when I reprint journalism that it should be as an original paperback not as a hardback because I think it’s been paid for once. I think it should be made as widely available as possible first time round. So you knew that you had a flapped paperback.

SD: I hadn’t met Julian before. I read the text and came up with this idea of objects that had been sent through the post that represented different articles. I trudged round London, finding various things like a bowler hat, put stamps on them to make it look like they’d been sent through the post, and photographed them. There were a lot of stages and thankfully Julian approved it.

JB: It was a lot better than the American cover. I think all their images were benignly English, a beefeater, a Devonshire cream tea… but all Suzanne’s images relate exactly to the book.

SD: Which proves I read it.

There is always this issue about collectability and obviously this has changed over the years as there are so many editions of the book. How much does that play a part in how you design things, for posterity and making something last?

SD: I never sit there thinking like that. I will just respond and do the most beautiful job I can. I’m trying to get the most perfect essence of the text each time and I don’t sit there and think this has to stay forever. I hope that the cover for The Noise of Time becomes iconic. The book is so brilliant that it should be that package where it becomes bound up, the image and the text and everything unites.

JB: I remember when I won the Booker Prize and in my speech, I made Suzanne cry because I said she’s the best designer in town. But I also said that it’s increasingly important that the physical book, in order to resist the challenge of the e-book, should be something that makes you want to pick it up, buy it, give it to people.

You work with many writers, who all have an opinion about what they want their book to look like.  But Julian has a very visual sense, is very interested in art, has written extensively about it. What’s it like working with someone who’s so practised in thinking about visual images?

SD: What’s so nice about working with Julian is the trust; I think that’s really important. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than producing something and someone can’t understand what you’re trying to show them. I think over time you build up that trust and you know that I’ll be working my very hardest to give you the best cover I possibly can. I really am so desperate to produce perfection each time and I want it to be better each time.

Much like being a novelist. You want each book to be better, don’t you?

JB: Indeed. Actually I’ve just opened Suzanne’s copy of The Sense of an Ending, and my dedication says ‘To Suzanne, is this your best yet? (It is until the next one.)’

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