Author Interviews/Features


Jenny Barry

Jenny Barry Susan Tweit of Story Circle Book Reviews talked with Jenny Barry, award-winning book designer and packager, about the collaboration that produced her new book with artist Maryjo Koch, The Artist, the Cook and the Gardener. Her answers offer a fascinating look at what goes on be-hind the scenes in dreaming up and producing image-rich books.

Read Susan J. Tweit's review of The Artist, the Cook and the Gardener for

Interviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 02/12/2014

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Who came up with the idea for The Artist, the Cook and the Gardener, you or Maryjo?

Maryjo and her daughter Wendy [the photographer for the book] approached me with the idea of doing a cookbook. Many of Maryjo's students had encouraged her for years to do a cookbook that would feature recipes from the wonderful lunches she had served them in her painting classes. Neither Maryjo nor Wendy had ever done a cookbook before, and maybe because I had done so many [cookbooks designed and produced by Jenny have won major awards, including the James Beard Award], they thought we would make a good team and I could walk them through and direct the process.

How much did the book change from the proposal stage to the finished project?

When Maryjo and Wendy proposed the project, Wendy showed me photographs she had taken of one of Maryjo's workshops, some of her recipes, and her glorious garden during the previous summer. I fell in love with ideas from Wendy's photographs and knew that if we also included Maryjo's artwork, we had a book! The big question was whether I could sell a publisher on it, too. Every year there are more cookbooks published than anyone can count. Luckily we already had a publisher who loved our work, Kirsty Melville, of Andrews McMeel, who had published several of our little gift books. So we began planning the book, hoping Kirsty would be as enthusiastic about our cookbook idea, and as luck would have it, she was!

The design for the book is very enticing, and also very reflective of Maryjo's studio, a sort of Victorian curio cabinet full of treasures, and in the book, there are surprises on each page. How did you come up with the design? Do you envision the book, pages and all, at the proposal stage? Or does the design evolve as you pull the writing and images together?

The design evolved with the planning of the book. The first step was to figure out an editorial plan for the content. I asked Maryjo A LOT of questions. "What were the dishes and painting classes that your students loved the most?" We talked about how the recipes could be organized: by season? by course? And how could we convey the fact that the inspiration for many of the dishes came from her garden and the seasons?

The more we talked about it, the more we realized how intertwined her paintings, workshop themes, and recipes were. Each influenced the other. For instance, Maryjo teaches several flower painting classes in the summer when her flower gardens are a riot of color. For those workshops, she serves salads embellished with edible flowers. We took note that she served more vegetable soups in the late summer and fall when her vegetable harvest was at its peak, and fruit desserts that used her apples and pears. In spring, there were strawberries and late harvest lemons that found their way into workshops and more garden-inspired dishes.

I began to make a lot of lists—lists of recipes, lists of artwork and photographs to be made of the garden, and lists of possible recipe photos. Maryjo began to test and transcribe her recipes, and Wendy began documenting the garden in every season. This planning was important because if we were to get it published, we didn't want to lose the garden seasons that preceded the actual book production.

How does your collaboration with Maryjo work? By which I mean, who does what, and how do you decide? What was it like shooting the food and garden photos? You've mentioned a back-story I think would fascinate readers, if you can share it.

Once we decided to do the project, I talked to Maryjo and Wendy about all the tasks that lay ahead and we discussed who could do what. The first stage was producing a publishing proposal and design mockup to show our publisher. (This is something I do as both a book packager and designer, so I mapped out a few recipes I would need from Maryjo, collected photographs from Wendy, and art from Maryjo as well.) I designed several spreads of the book that would become our template if the publisher approved them. Once it was ready to submit, I sent the materials to Andrews McMeel with a description of the project and a sample list of recipes. In the design, I felt it was important to show the concept of the interconnection of all the elements, so in the sample layouts I showed spreads of Maryjo painting flowers, next to a photo of her flower garden, followed by a recipe and photo using edible flowers in a dish.

While we waited to hear if our publisher liked the project, Maryjo began to get her recipes down on paper and her daughter Sunny helped her turn them into designer-friendly word processed documents. Our recipe editor, Eve Lynch, came up with the brilliant idea to enlist Maryjo's students and fans to help test all the recipes at home, while Eve expertly edited them and trouble-shot preparation questions as they arose. Once we had a manuscript, we finished our shot lists and figured out what artwork was needed for Maryjo to complete. Maryjo's son Jonathan is also an artist and he generously jumped in to contribute many of his paintings to use with the recipes as well.

After the project was approved and we knew what our publishing budget was, the second phase of planning began. We would need a recipe manuscript (Maryjo), a photo shot list (Wendy and Jenny), a recipe photography styling plan for the props and food (Jenny and Maryjo). The styling for cookbooks is something that is usually done by prop and food stylists, but we didn't have a budget for this, so we made the decision to do it ourselves and planned our recipe photography to be done in the summer when the weather and light is perfect. Wendy specializes in photographing in natural light, so we shot all the food right outside of Maryjo's home kitchen. Maryjo and daughter Sunny prepared the food, and I helped style the finished plating. We all brought dishes and props from home to select from, and whenever we needed fresh garnishes or flowers, we picked them nearby in Maryjo's garden. Even the chipmunks and birds pitched in and became models in Wendy's photographs and gobbled up the recipe crumbs on set. And we all enjoyed Maryjo's food for lunch and dinner after each day.

What surprised you most about inventing and producing this particular book?

It shouldn't have been a surprise because I love working with Maryjo so much, but it was a surprise to experience how well and easily we all worked together. I think we all felt the end result—the whole—was greater than the sum of the parts. It was one of the most joyful projects I have ever worked on because Maryjo and her family are so supportive, appreciative, and love what they do as much as I do. I keep telling people this book was our love child, and I'm not exaggerating!

The Artist, the Cook and the Gardener isn't your first collaboration with Maryjo. How did you meet? What motivated you to work together? What's next for the two of you?

Maryjo and I met in 1992 (over 20 years ago!) when I was the publisher of Collins Publishers in San Francisco. She was working with a wonderful book packager named Swans Island Books and she and her packager approached me to publish Maryjo's work. I was an instant fan and over the next three years we published eight books and a line of notecards and stationery products together. In 2006, when I started my own book packaging and design office, Maryjo approached me again to collaborate. Maryjo is not only a creative dream-partner, she is a wonderful mother and a nature-loving kindred spirit. She has a terrific sense of humor and a large and generous heart. Who wouldn't be motivated to work with someone that gifted!

The book industry had changed quite a lot in the past ten years, so we continue to look for ways to adapt Maryjo's work to gift book formats that will be most appealing to publishers. So far we've produced six more gift books, the cookbook, two books on collage-making, and several boxed notecard collections. Next we are planning to return to our favorite topic—birds—and will attempt to embrace the world of e-book formats too!

For more information on the author and her books visit Jenny Barry's website.