Kill Your Darlings, Ctd: Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs

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by Peter Terzian

Final version of the cover of Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs. Image by Kamil Vojnar.

About the Author—Peter Terzian is a Print contributing editor. His most recent book is Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums that Changed their Lives. His Print article "Kill Your Darlings" asked book designers to talk about their favorite cover designs that never made it to the bookshelf. He has also interviewed David Pearson and John Gall as part of his ongoing series on book cover design for

Barbara de Wilde, associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf, has designed the jackets of Lorrie Moore’s novels and story collections dating back to Like Life, in 1990. For the cover of A Gate at the Stairs, Moore’s first book in a decade, de Wilde initially contacted Daniel Hertzberg, whose illustrations she had seen in The New Yorker. “I loved the high-contrast quality of his drawings,” she says. “It reminded me of Robert McCloskey books. I wanted all those remarkable colors from Blueberries for Sal and Make Way for Ducklings—those mustards and odd greens and quirky blues.”

A gate at the stairs design

The original idea, de Wilde says, involved a rebus that substitutedimages of a baby gate and a staircase for the nouns in the title text.“I have a history of doing Lorrie Moore books where we don’t tell thewhole story,” she says. (For the hardcover edition of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?,for example, de Wilde set the title in black Bell Gothic on a starkwhite backdrop. “It’s a remarkable title—why embellish it?”)

Loorie Moore's A gate at the stairs

But Knopf editors found the rebus idea too cryptic; a revised version that included the full title, meanwhile, was too literal. (Hertzberg has posted the full panoply of illustrations he submitted on his blog.)

Crayon design

De Wilde tried another concept, with the title printed on a horizontal row of crayons. All of the crayons are white except for a single black one, a visual metaphor for the novel’s main storyline about an adopted child of color living in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood. The way the crayons were placed handily mimicked a staircase as well. And although the team at Knopf were enthusiastic about the cover, in the end, Moore independently selected a photo-collage by Kamil Vojnar, which became the final cover of the book.

Final cover