Last year South African illustrator Joey Hi-Fi, a.k.a. Dale Halvorsen, took the UK's British Science Fiction Association Best Artwork Award for Zoo City and now he's just won France's Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire 2012 for best cover for the French edition of the novel, published by Eclipse.
I'm insanely proud of the cover, which is extraordinarily beautiful, but I’m also thrilled to see him get the recognition he’s earned for his work.
Dale is crazily talented but he's also one of the nicest, most hard-working and humble people I know.
He's also generally quite shy.
So I rounded up a bunch of other people to talk about his work and what it means to them. Quite a lot of us think that he's going to need to clear some space in his figurine shelf for more awards in the future.
Dale and I actually started out in books together. The first cover he ever designed was for the first book I ever wrote: Maverick: Extraordinary Women From South Africa's Past. Happily, the publisher, Michelle Matthews, was open to my suggestion of "hey, maybe my designer friend could do it", which are normally the words a publisher dreads most hearing from an author.
It helped that she had started up a cool new imprint where aesthetics really mattered and that he already had a killer portfolio of commercial illustration. It helped too that we all hung out together at the same places like Marvel and Joburg and The Jam and, okay, yeah, all right, that we were both a bit taken with how handsome and smart and funny he is. Hey, nothing wrong with a professional crush.
After a couple of more staidly formal cover pitches, Dale came up with something mad and wonderful that perfectly captured the irreverence of the pop history about an assortment of rogues, renegades and raconteurs from the last 300 years, and gave him an excuse to go prowling round Milnerton Market handpicking weird artifacts to match.
When Moxyland was picked up by Jacana, getting Dale to do the artwork was an easy sell. Publisher Maggie Davey has a reputation for talent-spotting new young writers like Thando Mgqolozana and Richard de Nooy, but she also has a keen eye for strikingly original covers.
Dale pitched her only one idea: a creepy cute cuddly toy that epitomized the shiny happy façade over the fundamentally fucked corporate apartheid state of the novel. Better yet, the badges hinted at the more sinister elements of the book. And that's one of the things I love about his work – he hides these layers of easter eggs in his design. It's beautiful to look at before you've read a word, but it’s even more fun after.
With Zoo City, he knew he wanted to do something typographic and black and white. After weeks of work, he called me to meet him upstairs at Neighbourhood in Long Street. (I recommend doing cover reveals in bars so you can buy your designer a celebratory drink.) He was really nervous. "Just remember it's the first draft, okay?" he said.
And then he pulled out the illustrations.
Let's get this straight. His idea of a first draft is most people's frame-and-hang-on-the-wall. In fact, he's had some requests from people wanting to do just that with posters of the Zoo City cover (and not just from me). What he showed me was pretty much the same artwork you've already seen, the work that's been winning over judges and inspired Angry Robot to commission a new Moxyland cover to match.
It was the kind of cover I would have spotted across the bookstore, picked it up and taken it straight to the till without bothering to read the back. (Assuming it wasn't my book, of course.) It's that beautiful and that intriguing and startling.
And he carried it through, as he always does, to the back cover and, critically, the spine, which is the way most books will spend their lives.
Dale’s process goes something like this. He reads the book (you’d be surprised at how many designers don’t do this). Then he scouts the bookstores to see what else is out there. Then he sits down with you and talks through his ideas, your ideas, reference pictures you’ve both come up with, other covers that resonated. Then he takes all that away and some wondrous alchemy in his insane, brilliant brain comes up with the cover you couldn’t have imagined, that’s better than you could have ever expected.
Covers are important. They set the tone for reader's expectations; in this case, dark and playful and twisted and Joburg and animals and horrible and beautiful things.
I really think Dale’s cover was part of the reason Zoo City went on to win the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Kitschies’ Red Tentacle and get short-listed for other neat prizes because it set the tone for the judges before they even cracked open the spine. It gave the words the opportunity to win them over.
Unfortunately, his work on my covers meant that other people started wanting him for theirs.
On the one hand, this makes me sick with jealousy and I have seriously considered cutting off his legs and keeping him in a box à la Boxing Helena so he's mine all mine. But I'm too much of a fan and I can’t write books fast enough to keep up.
And he’s been doing astonishing stuff.
Here’s what some of the other people who’ve worked with him have had to say:
“Dale Halvorsen is a gift for publishers. He takes the essence of the book, and creates, with wit grace and art, book covers that are irresistible”. - Maggie Davey, publisher, Jacana
"I want to know what Joey HiFi puts in his coffee. Probably some unholy mix of absinthe, kewpie dolls, unicorn tears, switchblades, old and sticky copies of Thrasher magazine, and the weak blood of the many lesser artists who fall far short of his epic talent. It's all I can do to persuade the Angry Robot authors who aren't blessed with one of his covers to go with someone else. The man is a marvel, and still he's getting better and better.” – Marc Gascoigne, publisher and art-director, Angry Robot
“I've been blessed by great artists while working with Angry Robot, but Joey Hi-Fi crawled into my mind and his work completely captures how I picture my Knights of Breton Court series. When an artist can do that, I can't ask for anything more. I'm so happy he's getting the credit he's due.” - Maurice Broaddus
"My book had no face until Joey Hi-Fi found it and gave it a more beautiful face than I could imagine" - Imraan Coovadia
"I'm thrilled that Joey is getting the international recognition he so richly deserves. I was astounded by his rendition of the narrative on the cover of The Big Stick, but he really exceeded all my expectations with the cover for Zendingsdrang. Here's hoping he remembers who his oldest friends are when his rates go through the roof." – Richard de Nooy
"The first thing anybody and everybody tells me about Blackbirds is how much they love the cover. They'll go on at length about it. They'll sing hymns to its glory. As well they should. I won the cover lottery. They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover but in my case I say please, please judge my book by its cover. That cover is a like a gateway drug to the prose within." – Chuck Wendig
Dale is currently working on secret projects for HarperCollins and Pandemonium and his comic in his spare time.
You can get him in his own words, interviewed by City Press, talking about his covers for Angry Robot and writing about his favourite kids' books at Pornokitsch.com's Friday Five and lurking in his secret villain lair.
Congratulations again, Dale. You deserve it.
Lauren Beukes writes books, comics, movie scripts and kids TV. She's the author of Moxyland and Zoo City,which won the 2011 Red Tentacle on its way to picking up the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award. She was recently announced as one of the writers of Fairest, the new Fables spin-off series from Vertigo and is currently working on the screenplay for Zoo City together with Sam Wilson. Her new novel, The Shining Girls, about a time-travelling serial killer, is due 2013.