Irene Gallo interview – The Art Director

I was finally able to get in touch with Irene, as she has a very busy schedule. This interview was all prompted from meeting Irene at last year’s New York Comic Con where I think I interrupted her lunch. Being the courteous person that I am, I figured I would let her finish lunch and track her down a bit later. That bit later took some stalking on my part and some annoying emails. I think Irene ended up finishing this interview just so I would not bother her anymore. All joking aside though I am very happy to introduce Irene Gallo, the Art director for Tor, Forge, and Starscape Books. I also want to thank Nicole Cardiff, one of my favorite young fantasy artists, who helped me with the questions for this interview.

Irene Gallo

Damon: Let the readers know what you job consist of?  What sort of work does being an art direction consist of?

Irene Gallo: It’s my job to get all of Tor’s book jackets created. I juggle the concerns of the Editorial department and the Sales & Marketing department to try and come up with a jacket that everyone likes. It’s a lot of management work, but I’m always working with creative people and ideas. There is a lot of illustration used in science fiction and fantasy and by far the most enjoyable part of my job is working with the illustrators.

Damon: Where did you go to art school?

Irene Gallo: Cooper Union. I was very lucky.  Foolishly, it was the only school I applied to. I wanted to go there because it was considered and excellent art school, located in downtown Manhattan, and free. Once there I took a typography class on a whim and found that I really loved the problem solving of design.

Damon: Do you find yourself not being able to enjoy art because it is your job?

Irene : Not at all. In fact, if anything I enjoy it even more. I have a much more intimate reaction to art knowing some of issues these guys struggle with. I think things are even more magical when I have a little insight into how they are made and knowing how difficult it is to make something seem effortless.

What is unfortunate is that between Tor and volunteering at the Society of Illustrators I don’t have the time to read as much as I used to. I skim the first handful of manuscript pages and then something else is overdue and needs attention.

Damon: Do you have to go out and find new talent or does it find you.

Irene Gallo: Both. I spend a whole lot of time looking for artists — in bookstores, annuals (like Spectrum), online forums (like, conventions, magazines, wherever I can. When I see a book cover, I want to know who did it — whether I like it or not, I want to know who’s out there and what they are doing.

I also get lots and lots of mail. When I first started I would get portfolio drops a few times a week, nowadays printing has become so cheap that people send me tons of postcards and other mailers. Sometimes I get unsolicited email but that is fairly intrusive. It might lead me to their website, but only if I am really trying to avoid work.

I find a surprising amount of artists through recommendations by other artists. It’s a very supportive and giving community.

Damon: What does a normal mail day for Irene look like when you are in the office?

Irene Gallo: Normal? You know I work at Tor, right?

Actually, it is all terribly normal…just with more interesting people than your average office. Lots of meetings, lots of figuring out deadlines and then complaining when they are not met, tons of email with artists. Begging editors for information. Begging artists to meet deadlines. Slinking away from Sales when I don’t have  a cover ready.

Damon: Do you read the book?

Irene Gallo: We publish hundreds of books each year so, unfortunately, I cannot read them. I rely on a series of conversations with the editors to get a sense of the book. Author blogs are a big help to get a feeling for someone’s work. Once I feel like I have a handle on the tone of the book I’ll pick a few artists and then talk to the editor and see if I’m heading in the right direction. Some artists like to read the books, and that’s a big help. Sometimes an editor will talk about the most pivotal scenes that may not be the most visual.

Damon: How hard is it to match the author’s vision of a character to the book? What about the people that say that’s not what the character looked like?  What would you say is the best cover matching story artwork?

Irene Gallo: True Story: A book about giant alien sentient planet thingy. The author, editor, and artist all read the book. All three of them fought over what this thing looked like. You’d think the author has the final word but, if the two people that read the book have two very different ideas what this alien looks like, well then, the author isn’t describing what he thinks he is. I realize that something alien is different than getting more common details like hair color or clothing wrong, but the point is that every person reading the book will have their own individual experience and visualization of the text.

It’s not really my job to spell out the book for people so much as it is to create an evocative image that will appeal to the kind of reader that will enjoy a particular book. Some books call for more literal interpretations than others. In those cases we do try to get the details correct. Other books can be more of a mood piece.

Damon: Do you think some art goes unnoticed because of its genre tag, in particular fantasy and science fiction?

Irene Gallo: Oh sure. In fact, not just genre art but illustration in general. It’s disheartening to go through New York galleries and see so many people that just can’t paint and yet they look at illustration as pedestrian work. I don’t mean that they can’t paint realism — I truly enjoy many styles of art — but the pure application of paint seems so poor to me in most galleries. I think the standards in illustration are much higher and yet it’s looked down on because it is created in service to another product.

Damon: How much do you have to cater to the book stores buyer (the people that buy the books for the big chains)  vs the reader?

Irene Gallo: A lot. The problem is, the reader will never see the book if the buyer doesn’t like the cover. It puts a tremendous amount of power in a very few hands. Luckily we have pretty good relationships with many buyers. Typically my job would not put me in contact with those guys but through mutual friends I know the B&N buyer and he’s a great guy.

Damon: Lets talk dragons, we have some people saying if the cover has a dragon its bound to be trash — Thoughts?

Irene Gallo: Dragons sell. Books that sell means paychecks — paychecks for me, the authors, the artists, the guy that drives the truck to deliver the books. I have no problem with dragons. Besides, in the hands of good artist, they look cool. Whether or not the book is cool is the editors problem.

Damon: We always have the argument over at Fantasybookspot that the UK gets much better covers vs US covers?  Why do you think so?

Irene Gallo: It seems we have slightly different esthetics in many areas — food, comedy, music. No reason to think cover art should be any different. Whether or not it’s better, I think should be taken on a case by case basis. We recently bought UK cover rights for two books. One tanked because the cover was thought to be just bland. The other, COURT OF THE AIR, we are very excited about. The UK publisher did an amazing job on that book –- the cover, the endpapers, the typesetting. It’s a beautiful package.

Damon: How has your job changed over the years?  Are there big stylistic changes she sees coming in book cover art/fantasy art in general (other than the obvious arrival of digital art)?

Irene Gallo: I think covers in the 80s and the first half of the 90s were much more uniform than they are now — realist, highly rendered, and literal. We still enjoy that school of art, especially in the hands of great painters like Donato Giancola, Julie Bell, Dan Dos Santos – but it’s great to see a broader range of styles on the shelves these days. Jon Foster’s expressive style, Martiniere’s impressionism, James jean.

The places you can draw artists is much broader these days. I came into the field in the early 90s and it seemed that I caught the tail end of an era when all book cover artists came up through the convention scene. Spectrum and websites have opened up the doors for artists that are not so rooted in just one aspect of sf/f picture making.  So much great drawing and painting is being done in service of video games and movies these days. Its been fun watching some of those guys, and their loose expressive style, infiltrate the book market. I was luckily enough to be the first to hire Stephan Martiniere for a cover. Craig Mullins has done a few covers for us, Daniel Dociu. I recently saw that someone has Sparth on a cover, I’m jealous about that!

Damon: How is your work with the Society of Illustrators going?

Irene Gallo: The  work at the Society is extremely gratifying. It’s a great group of engaged and creative people. It’s a privilege to spend so much time steeped in the Illustration’s heritage. It’s the house that Gibson built and Mead Schaffer died in. You can’t beat that.

I do a number of things at the Society but the SF/F specific programs are:

Art Out Loud: This has been a series of artists demos done with two to six artists at once. We’ve had Donato Giancola, Todd Lockwood, Boris Vallejo, Jon Foster, Adam Rex, Julie Bell, Rick Berry, and many others. The event is held in the Hall of Fame gallery. It’s a blast to see someone like Justin Sweet painting in front of an NC Wyeth’s Black Arrow painting. They’ve proven to be very very popular, almost all of them have had sold out crowds and people have traveled from all over the States, even Europe, to come to these events.

MicroVisions:  Dan Dos Santos and I organize an annual auction to raise money for the Society’s student scholarship fund. We ask 12 artists to create a 5 x 7 painting. These are on display at the Society for a month and then auction on eBay. In just two years we raised 10,000.00.

Damon: I would like to thank Irene for taking the time to answer some of our questions.