Author Adib Khorram and cover designer Samira Iravani met up on G-Chat to discuss the process that went into designing the cover for Khorram’s upcoming debut novel Darius the Great is Not Okay and their shared Iranian heritage. Read their Q&A, learn more about the book, and see the cover below!
Samira Iravani: Hello!
Adib Khorram: Hello!
SI: So excited to be talking to you!!
SI: So I have tons of questions prepared for you, ready to dive in?
AK: Yes! I also have questions. Before we begin I have to tell you in person that I legit gasped when I saw the cover. I was sitting at lunch with a friend eating an 8-layer citrus cake when the email pinged and because I have no impulse control I checked my email. I almost choked on my cake.
SI: HAHAHA OMG STOP
AK: My dad grew up in Yazd but I’ve never been, and it’s always been this kind of semi-mystical place of home and heritage to me, and seeing it so beautifully rendered took my breath away. And then I saw Sohrab and Darius on their rooftop and Darius was even in a hoodie and I was absolutely floored. So thank you thank you thank you!
SI: Ohhhh, that does my heart good. This one was really a process! So you’ve never been to Yazd? You have to go now!
AK: So I have never been to Iran…my Dad isn’t comfortable returning and I wouldn’t really want to go without him. Also there are some concerns about being from a Bahá’í family, and being American, and the geopolitical climate being what it is. There’s always the worry (perhaps unfounded) they could say I’m technically a citizen (since my dad is one) and that I haven’t served my compulsory military service.
SI: Oh wow. Not to compound how that must feel, but that’s kind of devastating. I think that kind of knowledge will be new to some of your readers (the non-Iranian ones!)… that you and so many other people don’t feel comfortable going “home” to your motherland. Do you have faith that you’ll be able to go together one day? (I certainly have my fingers crossed tight for you.)
AK: I very much hope I get to. But I think a lot will have to change, both internally in Iran, and externally in Iranian-American relations.
SI: Gosh, agreed. I’m impressed now that you were able to flesh Yazd out so fully in the story! The setting was such a big part of what went into the cover!
AK: Thankfully, I had a lot of references from family photos, plus family stories, plus Google Street View.
AK: And family that could check my work and make sure I got things right after the fact. I still have family in Yazd as well. (Most of them live either in the US or Canada now.)
SI: That’s awesome! So your family all got to read it? I was actually going to ask: how similar are Darius and his family members to you and your own family?
AK: So far only my parents and my sister have read it. As far as how similar Darius’s family is to my own…very similar in a lot of ways, and very different in others. I think there are certain cultural traits that are more or less universal in all the Iranian families I’ve ever met, and those definitely came through in Darius’s family as well. But there are maybe some quirks that I borrowed from my own family to give Darius’s family life.
Did you see your family in Darius’s family at all?
SI: Absolutely! Scarily so! I admit I actually requested to work on this one when I found out there was going to be a YA novel about an Iranian American (requested is kind of gentle, I STOLE it from my colleague haha!).
I couldn’t wait to see how you would describe certain things, and in the first few chapters alone I had to stop and frantically call my sister. “He’s just like me, he doesn’t speak Farsi that well but he adores his grandma and he makes his fluent little sister do all the talking and grandparent-appeasing!”
And that very first joke from his mom about the tea… I was full cackling. It was so refreshing (and VALIDATING) to see someone in a book ribbing about the stuff that always tickled me. I’m excited for Darius to do that for other people, especially teens!
AK: I’m so glad! Not gonna lie, I borrowed that joke from my ameh.
AK: So I really do want to know more about the process for the cover though. I noticed you didn’t use Comic Sans on the cover anywhere…are you worried people will think the book is not fun?
SI: BHAHAAHAHAHA OMG
AK: (Boy I hope non-designers get this joke because otherwise it makes me sound really rude)
SI: I will totally explain the process but before I do, I know you’re a graphic designer too so I did have one burning question (related to Comic Sans!): was there anything you were desperately hoping NOT to see on the cover?
AK: The only thing I was desperate for it NOT to be is for it not to exoticize Darius and Iran. (Although, spell check tells me that is not a word.) My editor, my agent, and I talked at length about how often Western media portrays the entire Middle East as this big parody of itself. So much so that even those of us from the Middle East start to give in to that stereotyping.
SI: Oh exoticize it’s DEFINITELY a word for designers in publishing! We’ve been talking about that a lot at Penguin. I count myself on the frontlines of the crusade against orientalist covers so this was my first stab.
AK: So I guess my hope was that Iran would be presented as a real place that people actually lived in, and not as a cartoon.
SI: YES. So for the process, this was actually on my mind the entire time… Early on, I knew I wanted this book to have an illustrated cover. Your narrative voice, Darius’s voice, was so gentle and speckled with humor… he definitely needed the soft touch of line art. We had originally hired a talented artist named Cynthia Merhej. Her work is very unconventional, abstract and expressive, and she herself is from Beirut so we were excited to marry a Middle Eastern artist to this Middle Eastern story! She did two covers for us and the second one I really fell in love with…
AK: Ahh! This is so cool!
SI: To me, it did everything I had wanted. It had the colors of the flag, especially the green that has so much meaning for Iranians. It had Darius, front and center, with his messy head of hair. And it showed him disjointed, floating, faceless, like he wasn’t really sure who he was or where he belonged. BUT! We shared this cover with our brilliant team at Penguin and the feedback we got was (surprisingly to me!) that they didn’t get the culture.
I had to take a moment. I didn’t get what they weren’t seeing. I called my sister, my boyfriend, my parents, and asked them what I was missing. The best answer came right away from your editor, Dana. She pointed out that Americans don’t have a visual vocabulary for Iran and Iranianness! Americans don’t know red/white/green is our flag, they don’t know the significance of that bright revolutionary green. They don’t know Darius is an ancient name, and that many Persians are lighter skinned with a wild mess of hair! To me, I could identify right away that this story was about an Iranian boy. To a room full of non-Iranians, they were totally stumped!
So we had to rework the whole thing from the ground up. I started fresh and designed a bunch of new ideas, but the one that stuck was a scene straight out of the book: the boys on the roof looking out at the city. It wasn’t an exoticized representation or a subtle nod to it in the color choices, etc. It was LITERALLY a portrait of Iran. Everyone loved it.
And the final step was to hire a new illustrator, which honestly ended up being the easiest part because I had worked with Adams Carvalho on Nina LaCour’s novel, We Are Okay.
AK: Yes! WE ARE OKAY has such a gorgeous cover.So I saw you also did the cover design for A.S. King’s STILL LIFE WITH TORNADO, which I thought was absolutely stunning. And it got me wondering how you go about deciding what to bring to a cover?
SI: Yes! That was one of my first covers for Penguin. ☺ The cover is half what I bring to the table as the designer, and what the editor and publisher bring as the ones who know the story intimately. Sometimes they’ll have a very clear idea of what they want on the cover and will indicate it (or they’ll communicate what the author really wants to see). Other times it’ll be more open to me. Both Darius and Still Life were the latter. It was up to me to dive into the story and be inspired. Everyone’s process is different, but I will jot down notes or doodle while I read. My cover for Still Life started exactly that way… it was the first thing I drew, right on the back of the printed manuscript! It helps to be an artist that loves books. That way you always have a muse! But I always feel that every book has a cover that was meant for it. It’s our job to reveal it!
AK: I like that! What is the weirdest design challenge you’ve ever faced? (That you’re willing to admit to publicly.)
SI: Honestly? No exaggeration: THIS cover! I get very attached to each of my projects. That’s probably not good for business, but that’s just how I roll. When Cynthia’s illustration was killed (as we like to call covers that don’t make it to print), I was shook. I felt so justified that I was right, that THAT was the cover Darius was meant to have. It was really hard for me to think outside of myself and to look at it with fresh eyes. I took some time off, went to my mom’s house to surround myself with Iranian things and drink a LOT of tea. I realized I felt so connected and so much like an authority on the story that I couldn’t take “no” as an answer.
But I learned! And I’m so happy with where we ended up.
AK: AS AM I. Thank you again so so much for doing this. AND FOR THE BEAUTIFUL COVER!
SI: YAY! You’re so so so so welcome, I cannot WAIT for this one to be out in the universe!!!!
AK: Until later!
About the book:
“Heartfelt, tender, and so utterly real. I’d live in this book forever if I could.”
—Becky Albertalli, award-winning author of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
Darius Kellner speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows more about Hobbit social cues than Persian ones. He’s a Fractional Persian—half, his mom’s side—and his first-ever trip to Iran is about to change his life.Darius has never really fit in at home, and he’s sure things are going to be the same in Iran. His clinical depression doesn’t exactly help matters, and trying to explain his medication to his grandparents only makes things harder. Then Darius meets Sohrab, the boy next door, and everything changes. Soon, they’re spending their days together, playing soccer, eating faludeh, and talking for hours on a secret rooftop overlooking the city’s skyline. Sohrab calls him Darioush—the original Persian version of his name—and Darius has never felt more like himself than he does now that he’s Darioush to Sohrab.
Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut is for anyone who’s ever felt not good enough—then met a friend who makes them feel so much better than okay.
Pre-order your copy of Darius the Great is Not Okay!