Picture this

Inspired by illustrated books from the Victorian era, novelist Alasdair Gray challenges typesetting conventions by illustrating his own work. Hannah Booth talks to the writer whose first publisher forgot to pay him for his designs

Alasdair Gray – novelist, artist, illustrator – has a thing or two to say about book design. ‘I’ve always had strong ideas on how my novels should look,’ he says. ‘For example, some designers indent lines when a new person speaks – I hate that. You already indent a new paragraph, so why do it to open speech marks?’ It’s rare for a writer to be this engaged with the design process – but Gray, who trained at the Glasgow School of Art, has illustrated every book he has written.

Take his latest novel, Old Men in Love. It is a complex story, purporting to be Gray himself editing the posthumous personal papers of a retired Glasgow schoolmaster called John Tunnock. It has many narrative styles, and jumps from Renaissance Florence to Victorian Somerset to Britain under Tony Blair. Unusually, it is printed in two colours, blue and black – almost unheard of in fiction. Each chapter title has a vignette, each chapter closes with a drawing, and intricate double-page spread landscapes introduce sections on Greece, Florence and Glasgow. All are drawn by Gray, with a little help from illustrators Richard Todd and Nichol Wheatley on the spreads. The type is straightforward, but the pages feature margin notes, commenting on the text. ‘Many people can’t be bothered reading a book,’ says Gray. ‘So, having playful illustrations means you can reel them in a bit more.’ He is careful never to draw places and characters the reader might be imagining, he says, so as not to spoil their own impressions.

‘It is unusual for a writer to illustrate their books, but Alasdair is a trained artist,’ says Bill Swainson, editor at Bloomsbury. ‘With him, you don’t just get the words, you get a total concept – and his books are full of visual jokes.’

Gray has always worked like this. His second book – Unlikely Stories, Mostly – won a design award when it was published in 1983. It was copiously illustrated with pastiche drawings, its original hard cover embossed with gold thistles. Its pages featured columns of type growing smaller and larger by turn, and the book contained his famous fake erratum slip (‘This slip has been inserted by mistake’). After the award, Gray ‘suggested strongly’ to his then publisher, Edinburgh-based Canongate, that he should be paid for his design work. He soon was.

Unlikely Stories was followed by Janine, which Gray regards as his best book. It features streams of type in tapering columns. ‘I had to show the typesetters what I wanted,’ he says. Canongate was happy to let Gray design his own books, but when he joined Jonathan Cape in London, then Bloomsbury, he had to convince them to let him do it. They were happy to. ‘Apart from anything, it meant they didn’t have to pay anyone else to do it,’ he says. He is still published both by Canongate and Bloomsbury.

From his earliest days, Gray was inspired by illustrated books – Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories, Dr Doolittle, Lewis Carroll. ‘I like to think I’m following their tradition,’ he says. ‘There is no separation between my writing and illustrating. I don’t think my prose really needs illustration – I just want my books to be as attractive as possible.’

Old Men in Love is published this week by Bloomsbury

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