catnav-interviews-active-3Post #225 – Memoir Writing – Matilda Butler

Interview with Author/Book Designer/Creative Talent Robin Brooks

Part of the fun of WomensMemoirs is that I meet (virtually) such cool and creative women. Robin and I have corresponded over the past six months about several issues. I thought her particular blend of talents and her take on book design might intrigue you as much as it does me.

Remember how our mothers always told us that the way we dressed at least partially determined the way people treated us? Well, it turns out that the same thing is true of our books.

Matilda Butler of Women's MemoirsMatilda Butler: Q. 1: Robin, most of us know little about book design. We’re too concerned about our writing. We probably even treat the look of a book as an afterthought. I wonder if you’d share how you got started designing books.

Robin BrooksRobin Brooks. Thanks, Matilda, for welcoming me to WomensMemoirs. I’m always happy to share my perspective on how book content and book design work hand-in-hand.

In answer to your question, I have been an artist all my life. These days, as I have the time, I make healing art. I am also a writer.

When I got out of college way back when, I figured it would be difficult to make a living as an artist, so I did what I considered the next best thing—graphics, and I have been a graphic designer ever since, for 40 years. I have designed everything from ads, newsletters, magazines, brochures, corporate identities, websites, to even a town flag—and I have designed books.

After a while I wanted to do more work that had meaning.

I had been designing books since the 1980’s, notably some for Viking Penguin and for the Waldorf Schools of North America, as well as others. In 2007, I landed a project designing a family history for a successful philanthropist in Boston. This led me to the Association of Personal Historians. Along with my other work, I began designing personal histories and memoirs—graphic design with meaning.

I now focus mostly on books, and even though I design ones on spirituality, art, and poetry—with a little fiction thrown in—I specialize in personal histories and memoirs. It’s what I love most, and these are the kinds of projects that mostly come to me now. These are the stories of people’s lives, their challenges and victories, and the lessons learned from their experiences and from choices made.

I work intuitively, designing according to the author (or client), story, and audience. I love the fact that I get to be the one who creates how someone’s story is clothed, bringing the story more to life, giving it its outer presence.

Matilda Butler of Women's MemoirsMatilda Butler: Q. 2: I’m glad that you mentioned you are also a writer. I’d like to ask you more about that in a minute. First, I wonder if you’d tell us a little about why a memoir manuscript needs a book designer. In the “good old days” publishers concerned themselves with such issues and the author didn’t need to know much about that.

Robin BrooksRobin Brooks. You’re right, Matilda. Many writers are self-publishing these days. I think that’s great. Many are using CreateSpace, which I often use, along with Ingram Spark. But you can always tell when a writer has done a DIY, rather than hiring a designer.

When a writer has gone to the trouble of writing an entire book—quite a feat—to then putting that work inside a package that does nothing for it, this defeats the purpose. It also makes one question the author’s belief in what she or he has created.

A book is sold first by its cover. When little effort has been put into this or when it looks homemade or unprofessional, a viewer will take one look and figure the writer isn’t serious, isn’t committed to what he or she is doing. The reader won’t trust the writer. If a reader does get past the cover to the inside and finds clumsy or awkward or even annoying design, this detracts from the actual reading of the book.

A book designer makes decisions on appropriate design to reflect the book’s message. A designer also makes many practical decisions, like on font choices and their relative sizes and weights, margins, space between the lines (leading), how page numbers (running head or feet) are presented. A designer also handles things like widows and orphans and follows the general rules for the way a page is designed. These come from years of experience.

All of this comes together to create a design that is professional, works well for the reader, and supports the flavor and genre of the story.

I always say that the best design is one that looks like it was the simplest to create.

Matilda Butler of Women's MemoirsMatilda Butler: Q. 3: Robin, I wonder if you’d say a little more about how a book, a well-designed book, helps to carry the book’s message?

Robin BrooksRobin Brooks. A good design reflects the story and the writer. It speaks to what the story is about, who the writer is, and, in the actual reading, successful design gracefully holds and allows the story within.

When a book is well designed, right away it tells the reader what the writing will be like, what the energy of the story will be, whether it is bold or gentle, mysterious or humorous, light or intense.

A book doesn’t get much time to be picked off a shelf or from a selection online. In scanning over many books at a time, a viewer relies on the cover to make a decision on which book to choose, which book fits what that reader is looking for. The design has to carry that book’s message right up front.

The interior design continues this work. If the story is about a woman and her dying mother, the interior might be quiet and gentle. If the story is about a firefighter saving someone’s life, the interior might be strong and assertive.

The design of a book needs to support and reflect the intention and character of the story and theme. If done well, the design becomes part of the author’s promotional team.

Matilda Butler of Women's MemoirsMatilda Butler: Q. 4: Robin, you make a persuasive case for using a book designer. Would you share with us what we should look for when seeking someone to design a book or even when comparing two people who might offer this service?

Robin BrooksRobin Brooks. The first thing to make sure of in seeking someone to design your book is that the designer you’re considering be a book designer. There are lots of designers out there, but not all of them are familiar with the art of designing books. This is really an entirely separate field. There are so many things to know about the designing and production and then printing of books that are different from, let’s say, a newsletter or a brochure.

Then, of course, it’s important to use a book designer whose portfolio is pleasing to you, one that attracts you. You may be someone who likes bold, outspoken design. Or you may like books that are clean and simple and quiet to read. The designer you choose needs to fit what you like.

You also need a book designer who is not afraid to tell you what would be best for your book. In other words, you may not have a sense as to what you are looking for in terms of how your book should look. You need to choose someone you can rely on to make sound recommendations for how your book will come across.

It’s important that a designer can offer you the knowledge of and guide you on the various choices of book printing possibilities, like short-run, print-on-demand, and even traditional offset. Your designer should be completely competent to oversee this part of the project, as well as coordinating your schedule with the design schedule and that of the printer and any other outside services. You must feel confidant that your designer will be able to meet deadlines without question.

More than anything, this is your book. You have spent countless hours, sweat and tears on creating it. You need to feel comfortable with and trust the person whose going to create how your book will be viewed by the world.

Matilda Butler of Women's MemoirsMatilda Butler: Q. 5: Looking back at your own design work, would you share with us a couple of your favorites. I know that is like saying which child you like the best, but I hope you’ll let us see a few cover design designs that you are especially proud of and let us know what you wanted to achieve with each.

Robin BrooksRobin Brooks. Yes, it is hard to choose. But here are three that represent not only what I have done, but how the covers carry the theme of the story.

Memoir book cover for Winning Silver1. Winning Silver: I loved working on this cover. The author’s original idea was to use a staged shot of him on the ice—very similar to a famous hockey player’s cover image. Instead, I found within the pictures I scanned for him this wonderful postcard FROM the actual Winter Olympics in 1952 where all of the athletes, including the author, created their initial parade onto the ice. I had to do some work in Photoshop to add to the sky so that I could place the book title, but it worked out just fine. I loved using the dulled silver stamping on the title. I enjoyed finding a way to set off the scan of the silver medal Don received, by surrounding it with the U.S. Olympic colors, also his favorite colors.

Memoir book cover for Blooming of the Lotus2. The Blooming of the Lotus: As I was writing the hundreds of poems for my poetic memoir over a period of five years, I kept playing with different names for my book. Then, I realized how important the symbol of the lotus was for my healing process and came upon the name The Blooming of the Lotus: a spiritual journey from trauma into light.

It was my therapist who “saw” that I would be drawing the lotus myself which I did do, with much difficulty. I am an artist but it requires much focus to draw so realistically, especially in watercolor crayon which allows no mistakes. I finally drew one that I felt worked. I also loved finding the grunge background which strengthens the feeling of the lotus being a symbol of light coming out of darkness.

Book cover for Memories of the Spanish Civil War3. Memories of the Spanish Civil War is probably my most favorite client book I have ever designed and designed for. The writing is gorgeous and tells this old man’s story of when he was a four-year-old boy leaving Spain with his British mother. His Spanish father had to stay behind. A particularly poignant scene describes him in line at the train station with his mother. He sees his father standing in another line nearby and wants to go to him. He’s heartbroken that his father does not seem to recognize him. It turns out that his father did this so that his son could escape to freedom. The only thing the boy took with him that he cared about was the doll on the cover–a doll he still had.

More about Book Designer and Author Robin Brooks

Web Designer: I recently started a web design business for small businesses ( Over the course of designing several websites for myself and for others here and there over the years, I decided I’d like to share my abilities in this area.

I have come across an excellent program that both allows my clients to easily maintain their sites themselves and also works well across all devices.

I see things clearly and in an organized way. I decided I wanted to help others find clarity in what they are doing and also instill confidence in what they provide.

Artist: I am still an artist, although I don’t get as much time in the studio as I would like, but this is a part of my life that will always be with me, so much so that when I haven’t had time in the studio lately, I dream of studios.

Writer: Matilda, I know you wanted information about my memoir. Let me begin by saying that I am always a writer, and I do write a lot. I have published my own poetic memoir, The Blooming of the Lotus: a spiritual journey from trauma into light, about the process of healing from a brutal childhood. At first, I self-published through Ingram Spark and CreateSpace. I was then picked up by a publisher.

Speaker/Workshop Presenter: I speak to audiences from and about my memoir and also lead healing workshops to women survivors of childhood abuse.

Gardener: I grow organic vegetables, as much as I have time to, and spend as much time in nature as I can. For 32 years now, I have lived on an old farm in rural western Massachusetts that borders 2500 acres of state forest. I feel as if I grew up here, starting at the age of 31. This earth has helped make me who I am.

Information for Reaching Robin:

Book Designer, The Beauty of Books

Web Designer, Robin’s Webs

Robin Brooks, Author, Artist, and Healer


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