Behind the Cover: the Tim O’Brien Vietnam novels

This month saw the re-publishing of Tim O’Brien’s classic Vietnam war novels: If I Die in a Combat Zone, Going After Cacciato, The Things they Carried, Northern Lights and In the Lake of the Woods. Tim O’Brien’s works have been hailed as some of the finest books to emerge from the Vietnam conflict, with New York Times Book Review saying: ‘A personal document of aching clarity … O’Brien brilliantly and quietly evokes the foot soldier’s daily life in the paddies and foxholes. …beautiful, painful…’ We sat down with cover designer Jo Walker to ask about the concept behind the series design.

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Tell us about the picture used across the covers for Northern Lights, If I Die in a Combat Zone, The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato

When I first got the brief for this jacket, the editor Essie Cousins suggested using a single image over 4 of the jackets. I thought this was a great idea and started to look for images where this would work. I did a lot of picture research and there was an absolute wealth of incredible images from the Vietnam war; this one really stood out for me though. It was taken in 1965 in a burning Vietnam village, photographed by Dominique Berretty.

 This picture is as moving as the books themselves. What is it about this image that made you want to use it across these iconic novels?

For me, it really captures the ordinary man having to fight in a war. I wanted something that wasn’t glorious or heroic, something that showed these were people like any of us, experiencing war and being a part of something they’d never be able to forget. The expression on the soldier in this photo really moved me, he looks so distraught and lost, it’s a photo that immediately captures the feelings Tim O’Brien writes about.

Did reading these books inspire the cover design?

I felt that these books aren’t about glorifying war but are about sharing the experience without making it a brutal horror story. They’re personal stories that really engage you and describe what it was like being there which made me want to put somebody on the jacket that the reader could relate to.

Did you consider any other designs, or was the image itself your focal thought?

I looked at a lot of photos but practically speaking, I needed an image that would make four good jackets and I felt there was so much going on in this photo that it really worked. There were so many incredible photographs to choose from, we had a few different options, some colour, some black and white but in the end, this was the stand out image.

If I Die in a Combat Zone, Going After Cacciato, The Things they Carried, Northern Lights and In the Lake of the Woods are all out now.

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