Thursday, February 19, 2015

book cover: baby's on fire

Recently, I had the privilege of designing the front cover for Liz Prato's upcoming collection of short stories, Baby's on Fire, due out in May from Press 53.

What a great title. I knew they didn't want actual fire in the design, and I agreed that fire would be too on the nose, but I had an instant thought about what I'd do as soon as I started mulling things over.

Here's the original photo I used for the design, which I found at the very wonderful Morguefile. You'll see I rotated it and added some more to the background and then altered the wisp of smoke at the top. Oh, and got rid of the candle or stick of incense or whatever that is, along with its shadow.

Really, it was three things that gave me the inspiration for the cover design. One was the quality of Liz' writing, and I think you'll get what I'm saying when you see the design. The second was the fire in the title, for sure. Third had to do with one of the elements you find on the covers of most books of fiction out there. I don't know if there's a term for this thing. The tiny text placed somewhere on the design, which says, "a novel" or "stories."

Not long ago, I had some back and forth with publisher Laura Stanfill (for whom I design book covers for her press Forest Avenue Press) about this element in book covers and whether it's necessary, helpful, a waste of space, a distraction from the design or what. Personally, I like it. It's cute and does help a reader know the kind of book they're buying - but mostly I like it because often book designers use it in fun, clever ways.

With Baby's on Fire, I used the tiny word "stories" as, not an incidental, tertiary part of the design, but one of the most important elements of the cover, which I hope conveys the power of these stories. Because it's not just Baby who's on fire; it's these stories.

Here's a sample from the book, to show you what I mean. Spoiler alert: f-bomb coming:

...and while he fucks Shelby she looks up at the sky and notices it for the first time: you can see stars here. All of them. Every star that was ever made, whether it still exists or not, looks down at Shelby in the back of the brown pick-up truck, and they don’t twinkle or glow or any of those other things you expect stars to do. They just burn.

Baby's on Fire will be out in May from Press 53.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

a moment in the day: valentine

The lovely Valentine's Day breakfast Stephen made us is all eaten and both bowls licked by a happy dog, and we sit up in bed, glasses of mango juice and cava. He hands me the card he made me. I hand him the card I made him. We open them simultaneously, laugh and start making comments just about simultaneously. Read the sweet notes inside. Nicholas curled up in the hole made my Stephen's half-crossed legs. We talk about the cards. Share a quick clink of glasses.

"So," I say. "Is it time to go show off?"


As Stephen said when he posted my card image on facebook: "Oh, yes, it's that time again, because our love ain't real if it ain't shared on FB!"

And my blog, apparently. Here's a little more detailed post to show off even a little more.

Stephen's card to me started with this glamorous and iconic picture of Marlene Dietrich.

In a way, our cards to each other are like his paintings and my writing - a way to be what we wish we could be, and a lot of the time, it's all about glamour.

Speaking of glamour, below is the original image he used for his second element in the card. La Crawford.

[as a side-note, often when i type the name joan crawford, it comes out crawrod. i don't know why.]

He eliminated Crawford this time around and just nabbed that lovely, very old-Hollywood plaster column shaped like feathers. The finished product:

Of course, he's lying when he says I never neglect my glamour. It's lovely to have a husband with such skillz, to Photoshop me some glamour now and then.

The detail (Can you tell where I end and Dietrich begins? Nope.):

For my card this year, it was easy to be timely. Stephen's been spending the last couple weeks on stage at the Keller Auditorium supering for the opera Carmen. Tonight is closing night, in fact. I found this lovely old theatrical poster from 1896.

Had to do some work on her very interesting hairline and remake some of the letters to get his name in there. What was the most fun about doing this was that the original picture of Stephen was in black and white and I had to work to colorize it the way I wanted so that it would blend in with the poster. Then I remembered we originally took the picture in color. Oops.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

carmen at the portland opera

We had fantastic seats for The Portland Opera's dress rehearsal for Carmen at the Keller Auditorium. Front row, pretty much center in the first balcony. Perfect to get a wide view of the action and great for my date for the evening, a friend who's a musician, because we also had a great view into the orchestra pit. Waiting for the performance to start, we were talking his expertise: percussion, tympani, the exactness of rhythm. He told me of the importance of the tambourine. He gave me beautiful insights into, and way heightened my appreciation of the triangle. Seriously. When the show started my body plugged into the current of that rousing first overture and ran circuits directly to the gorgeous little ping of the triangle and the smash of the cymbals.

I'd never seen Carmen all the way through but after having supered in The Portland Opera's last production of Carmen, this show felt equal parts completely new to me and like an old friend. I knew the story inside and out and not at all. Not, at least, as a viewed-in-chronological-order thing. Seeing it this way, from the outside, all the way through, with those gorgeous sets and costumes and lighting, wow what a show.

Even though it was dress rehearsal, the singers were for the most part singing full out, and beautifully. I thought Sandra Piques Eddy's rich, hefty mezzo fit Carmen's role really well. All the singing was beautiful, particularly Chad Shelton's Don José - and the fabulous chorus whose voices filled the Keller up. It's a production all about bigness - all those voices, the lovely sets, the added touches like the flamenco dancers (who did a fabulous percussive turn during the changeover from act three to act four). There's also a whole lot of sexy in this production. Sandra Piques Eddy is very sexy as she taunts Don José, particularly in a moment when she's sprawled out on the steps of the factory, tied at the wrists, a prisoner who's nevertheless turning that rope into something extremely seductive.

Of course, my star of the show, or at least the performer I'd really come to see, was Stephen, who got to super in this production (his second Carmen) (jealous). When the solders came marching down the ramp from the top of the stage in their big hats and orange plumes, both my friend and I leaned forward in our seats, trying to spot which one was Stephen. He'd told me his was the only hat with a brass button on it, and yep, there he was: I could see that button flashing into the balcony.

But I would have had an absolute blast at Carmen had I not had a husband in the show. It's a huge, gorgeous, beautifully sung, beautifully played, beautifully staged production and of course one of the most accessible operas in the world to boot.

[Look! There's Stephen dead center in back, tallest of the picadors.]

There are two performances left: Thursday and Saturday. More info is here. If you go, look for a brass button and listen for the triangle.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

short story collection: forest avenue press

Submissions just opened for a short story collection I'll be editing for Forest Avenue Press. I'm so excited to dip in and see what stories come to us. Here's the description of the project from FAP's website:

Forest Avenue Press is open for its next short story project from February 1 to April 15, 2015. The collection, edited by Gigi Little and slated for a 2016 release, will celebrate Portland’s weird and wonderful spirit with tales of the fantastical.

The many-tentacled beast that lives under Burnside Bridge. The break in the space-time continuum hidden in the back corner of the Vacuum Cleaner Museum. Spacemen and sasquatches, mad scientists and devils. We’re looking for short stories that take the tropes and turn them on their ear. Smart stories that honor the fiendish whimsy of old pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories—but also surprise with their depth and complexity. All pieces must take place in Portland, Oregon, or be connected to the city in a meaningful way.

I grew up loving The Twilight Zone and lovely, campy old movies like The Village of the Damned. I loved the kooky melodrama of pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. Not to mention the covers. Just look at these!

Clutching hands of death!

As I'm reading submissions I'll be looking for a grand mix - stories can be campy, serious, funny, dark. They can surprise me and break my heart. But I want all the stories to be weird and to be Portland and to hearken back to these wonderful pulp tales of the fantastical.

You don't have to be from Portland or live in Portland to submit. But you'll want to be able to really evoke the city I love in your story, and that means more than just mentioning the White Stag sign or Powell's City of Books. And don't be afraid to pick one specific locale. I'll be hoping to represent lots of different parts of the city in this collection.

I love good storytelling, but I also love language. I am not of the school of thought that the writing should hide in the background and let the storytelling do all the work. I love to be dazzled by a wonderful and particular voice. I love a voice that doesn't sound too written. I love burnt language. Also, don't think that because the collection will be paying homage to magazines like Weird Tales, you have to emulate the language and times of those stories.

And, of course, every editor has pet peeves. I thought it would be helpful if I listed a few of mine.

I don't like writing that's full of adverbs.

I don't like it when every attribution comes with a different synonym for said. I particularly don't like retorted, exclaimed, proclaimed, asserted, declared. What I do like? Said.

I don't like this sentence structure: she said, getting up from the chair. He yelled, shaking his fist. It's an example of the type of style that feels too written to me, sounds cliche to my ear. I know this type of sentence structure is in most of the writing out there, but it's one of the things that bugs me.

I don't like the vulgar names for body parts.

What else bugs me? If I think of more, I'll add them here.

I'll be reading blind, so I can't chat or email with anyone about their piece, but if you are interested in submitting and have questions, feel free to check in with publisher Laura Stanfill at:

Send us something! The submittable page is here!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

a moment in the day: talisman

Near the ceiling of the radio room, a string of multicolored twinkle lights runs the perimeter, up and over the edges of baffles tacked to the walls. We're all sitting around the table with big, foamy microphones in front of our faces, and I've got headphones on because I'm reading first. To my right at the head of the table, the host, Leigh Anne Kranz, also headphoned, talks into her mic, her voice sweet and measured and soothing.

Between her thumb and finger, she holds and just so slightly rolls a small object. I'm trying to figure out what it is. It's oval-shaped and a light amber color, and as she gestures it through the air while speaking, its polished surface catches the light.

It's a crystal, I realize. Some sort of radio talisman, maybe, a special touchstone she holds as she performs on the air, and I love knowing this about her. I figure this talisman centers Leigh Anne in her work - and it centers me, too, makes me feel a little less nervous about reading this essay out over the airwaves.

She rolls the talisman between her thumb and finger and signals Domi, across the table, who reads my intro, and then I'm reading.


Now it's after the break in the radio show, and I'm listening to the other readers, full of glee because my reading is over and I did OK.

I notice Leigh Anne doesn't have the crystal anymore. I glance at her other hand. No crystal. Maybe she only uses it when she starts the show, like a little boost of luck for the program. I love thinking about people's rituals, the way they make magic out of ordinary objects, words, actions. We know no real magic lives inside our talismans, but we hold onto them anyway, and they comfort us anyway. There's something kind of beautiful about that.

Look down on the table below her microphone, and there are two tiny objects covered in paper that twists at the ends.

Oh, right. OK. I'm a moron.

Her talisman was a cough drop.

Friday, January 30, 2015

a moment in the day: kboo

Alone in the car, Mozart playing on the classical station but low, I recite from the piece I'll be reading on the radio tomorrow night. Recite until the fog bank of my memory runs into another blank patch and I have to wait until the next red light to look at the crumpled cheat sheet of my essay to see what comes next.

The program is "Bread and Roses," on Portland's KBOO, and I'll be reading work along with four writer friends, celebrating the Burnt Tongue reading series we've all been a part of here in town. I'm assuming none of them are in their cars practicing lines. They all, I'm sure, have perfectly fog-free memories. In the Mozart quiet, waiting for that next red light, I try to think how long it's been since I was on the radio. Used to do a lot of it when I was in the circus, feeling stupid sitting there with the head phones on, not only because why would I need to be in clown makeup to talk on the radio, but also because who would think I should be on the radio at all? I never knew what to say. Always sat quiet, letting my ex-husband do all the talking, until the radio guy asked me a question and I tripped all over my tongue and fog-bank brain trying to come up with something to say.

But the last time I was on the radio it was for the local station in my then town of Baraboo, Wisconsin, promoting a children's picture book I'd had published through a small press. Which would make it 2001. And, wow, think of it - Baraboo. That time, too, the station was called KBOO. Difference then was that I didn't feel like a writer. Somehow because it was a small press, a tiny press, I didn't really feel published. I was too young and naive to know the wonderful worth of small presses all across the country. Too much the me I was then to know it was OK to feel self worth, to feel like a writer. But here I am now, in the Mozart quiet, driving with my crumpled essay on the passenger seat, on top of stacks of pages from my novel in progress, which I'm taking to my writer's group where [I don't know it now, but] I will read to the group and they will laugh and they will applaud at the end and they will talk about how the piece was funny and also emotional and also a little scary and then they'll applaud again, for god's sake, and I'll feel so much like a writer I won't even notice that I feel like a writer because I've felt like a writer, been one so long I can't even remember not feeling like one.

Or at least the fog bank of my memory has pushed those feelings so far away they sit in the blank patches like the next line in my radio piece. Leave them there. Let the fog swallow them up. Red light ahead. I slow to a stop. Quick glance at my pages and I start reciting again.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Book Cover Reveal: Landfall

When I design a book cover, the biggest question in my mind is, how can I honor that book, but in tinkering around with ideas for Ellen Urbani's upcoming novel Landfall, which takes place in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I thought also, how can I honor that storm?

It's a strange thing to say, honoring something that was nothing but destruction and horror. Of course, things aren't just the things they are; they're also what comes out of the things they are, and a lot of rebirth came out of Katrina - but still, I suppose what I was trying to do was more like bearing witness - or, because I was not anywhere near the South when Katrina hit and the most visceral experience I've had with the horrendous hurricane has been through this book, maybe something like bearing witness once removed.

I looked at a lot of pictures of the damage as I was thinking on design possibilities. Remarkable, awful pictures. Only one made it into the final design, although I used a lot of actual Katrina imagery in lots of ways in the different cover layouts I tinkered with. In a picture showing a jeep making its way through the flooded out city, I was intrigued with some telephone poles that were leaning at odd angles, and it inspired me to add a a similar element in my design, wanting to bring in a sense of urban destruction (the telephone poles) along with destruction of nature (stripped branches which I placed opposite).

Here's a taste from the book:

They beat the floodwaters to Maya’s house, but only because she lived directly across the street. The levee water barreling toward the women paused for a moment a block away, when a roof swirling on its crest wedged itself between two cars. The wave quickly flung the obstacles aside, but the delay bought them enough time to smash through Maya’s door, sprint up the stairs, and hoist each other high enough to grab the rope and pull down the attic ladder. They pushed the old woman ahead of them as the water swallowed up the stairwell. In concert, Cilla shut the trapdoor, Rosy pulled a trunk over it, and the three women threw their bodies atop it as if the flood were a giant they could barricade into another room. They sat wordlessly, stunned. From a long way away, someone screamed, a scream that wouldn’t end, a child-ripped-from-the-arms kind of wail. Below them, something metallic bent with a groan. Thunder clapped around them, again and again, but on the third or fourth stroke they realized it wasn’t thunder. It was houses. Every wooden house caught in the upsurge plowed into Maya’s brick façade and dissolved around them. Her mortared walls shook, but held. 

When I put together the design, I was thinking of that one leaf that remains on the branch as a symbol of rebirth. Of the fact that even in the wake of all the destruction, something survives and something grows. I think that's a central theme in the book and I wanted to pay a little homage to that. The dragonfly does that work as well, and that's good, because author Ellen Urbani saw the leaf differently:

"It is so lonely." she said. "It speaks to the sentiment both these girls embody in the book — 'I have been lost to a storm, I am the only survivor, I am clinging desperately to my home and my roots and trying not to get lost to this tempest that has become my new reality.'"

I love that.

Landfall will be published by Forest Avenue Press on August 29th, the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall. You can get more information about it here.