Monday, May 20, 2019

Book Cover: This Particular Happiness

You know when you finish designing a book cover and the author loves it and the publisher loves it and people say lovely things and you're feeling so happy?

Well, this particular happiness doesn't always make it to production, and sometimes, even long after advance readers have been printed and images have gone up on websites and the book has started to gain an identity alongside the design, you find yourself back at ye olde drawing board.

Forest Avenue Press' upcoming book This Particular Happiness is a memoir about writer Jackie Shannon Hollis' experience navigating the decision not to have children. Our original cover was designed to reflect the beauty of Jackie's writing and the complexity of the decision she made—the love, the sacrifice, the loss. These are all things that make the book wonderfully compelling, but there are many ways to market a book, and for promotional purposes, our distributor, Publishers Group West, was interested in focusing on another aspect of her story: empowerment.

And for that, we knew we would need a cover with an entirely different tone.

It was late in the game when we decided to reimagine the design. Panic! How could I possibly totally reconceptualize and redesign at this late date—especially when coming up with the original took soooo long (It really did. I wrote about it here.)?

But then a bit of inspiration hit me, and in the course of two weekends, I had a completely finished idea.

The subtitle to Jackie's book is "a childless love story." In my brainstorming, I started thinking about how the book is a story of a partnership, not just one person's experience. I pictured a vista, lots of sky, sunrise or sunset colors, and in the foreground, two clasped hands (representing Jackie and her husband Bill) with the subtitle "a childless love story" written in a swoop right across their arms. Putting both childless and love story right there on their connected bodies, and letting that subtitle cradle the sky and the words of the title: This Particular Happiness. The lettering would be hand-done. The kind of lettering that is dynamic, alive.

I liked this. I started to make this.

Of course, nothing is as easy as you picture it in your head. And that's one of the things about me. As much as I'm obsessed with working with visual arts, I don't have a good visual mind. I don't see things. When I picture something, it's generally in the form of a concept, and I don't know what it will look like until I make it and can actually see it.

I couldn't make the thing with the arms work. It was the crux of my idea, and I couldn't make it work.

Arms were, it turned out, way thinner than they should be, at least for adequately writing on.

I wanted the arms/clasped hands to be a silhouette so that the words stood out, but then they just looked like a shape. A stretched out blob. I added a sleeve to make it more obvious. Some bracelets. Was Jackie a bracelet-wearing type of person? The words looked crowded.

I zoomed in a bit to give the lettering some room.

Now it looked even more like a blob.

I tried moving the lettering out from inside the clasped hands/arms and letting it lie in a swoop above. The hands were now an empty elongated blob.

I zoomed way out.

It was more obvious that these were two people holding hands, but by now I'd started to wonder whether the clasped hands were necessary at all.

For me, a lot of design work (mine, I mean) isn't so much creativity as discovery. I think about different types of artists: the painter, the sculptor, the print maker... There's also what's called a "found object" artist. Someone who finds objects and turns them into art. Discovering the art piece as they go. Sometimes I think of myself as a "found object" designer. Like in the sample above: taking the swoop of a childless love story and breaking it apart and on impulse layering the two halves sort of equally off balance—suddenly there was an element I hadn't had before. That off-kilter a childless love story felt like a discovery. And it felt so right that I realized the clasped hands below it were just in the way.

A couple of weekends of tinkering and discovering, pairing things down, and then a bit of follow-up time, consulting with publisher Laura Stanfill and writer Jackie Shannon Hollis on little things like the placement of the blurb, and we had our cover.

Interestingly, to me this new cover feels kind of effortless whereas the earlier cover felt... beautiful but full of effort, somehow. As if, looking at the design, you can see all the work it took to fashion that flower from words, how difficult it was to create matching petals out of words of such different sizes. Aunt. Counselor. Friend.

I learn something every time I design a book cover. (I probably learn some of the same things over and over, but that's my brain.) What I learned with This Particular Happiness is to remember you don't always have to be super literal. All those words, those bits of information I was squeezing into that flower. And the time I labored to get those clasped hands right. Sometimes, what you need is simply the right tone, the right mood. The right feel.

When I look at the early attempts at this current cover design, with the subtitle written across the arms (the only thing that came from my first bit of inspiration) I see a heaviness in the bottom half. The top half feels light, alive. Once I got out of my own way and let the piece feel right, I knew I'd done my job.

This Particular Happiness launches this fall. More info is here.

Here's a tiny taste:

She was in the kitchen and I burst out my news. Her eyes went big. She moved in toward me, already shaking her head. “Oh no,” she said. Her voice was fierce. “That’s not ladylike. Girls are supposed to let the boys win. Make them feel strong. Otherwise they won’t like you.” 

I’d always felt close to her when she taught us things about being a lady, how to sit with our ankles crossed and our hands folded in our laps, how to say please and thank you and always offer to help with the dishes when we were guests, how to squat, not bend, when wearing a dress. But this didn’t make any sense. To pretend would be a lie. Wasn’t being strong part of being a lady too?

The Breath of Life at Portland Center Stage

On Friday night, Stephen and I saw one of two previews for Portland Center Stage's production of The Breath of Life. The play, by David Hare, imagines two women who spend 24 hours together in a house on the Isle of Wight. The kicker is that they are the wife and mistress of one man, who has now left both for a younger woman.

The cast of two is Julia Brothers as Frances Beale, the wife, and Portland favorite Gretchen Corbett as Madeleine Palmer, the mistress—both really great actresses who deliver heart and humor in equal doses. There's an odd steadiness to Hare's play—plenty of tension throughout but it doesn't seem to rise and fall. But the dialogue snaps and the humor is wicked and witty. We laughed a lot.

Friday night was also a really interesting example of the old adage the show must go on. Just before the date of the play's original preview (only one week back), the actress originally set to play Frances had to drop out. I can't imagine what a crazy scramble it must have been to recast such an essential part at the very last minute.

It was so last minute that Brothers, the new Frances, had a script on stage with her during the show. Sometimes she just held it, sometimes she referred to it as she delivered her lines. You'd think this would be a distraction. Well, it was, but not an annoying distraction. On the contrary, it was fascinating. It felt like a privilege to get this behind-the-scenes-in-front-of-the-scenes glimpse of theater.

I wondered: how much did she really need that script? When she referred to it, was it mostly a bit of a safety net, or was she really in the process of still memorizing her lines? If she didn't have it, how much would she be able to recite? After the Friday night show (which was a preview night, for the press and maybe donors, etc.), would she be casting the script aside and performing the Saturday preview (her last before the regular run began) without a net?

It was hard to tell, because she was so darn good. She delivered her lines beautifully, moved across the stage, used plenty of body language, all of it seeming very, very real, while holding that script in her hand. At times she had to navigate props with it. Transfer the booklet to this hand while this other hand reached and poured the cup of tea. Little things like that kind of fascinated me. One object was inside the play, one object was not. It was like watching someone half in one dimension and half in another.

(Pictures sans script, of course.)

I kept thinking, how does an actor so fully inhabit a role, so beautifully become someone else in some made-up situation, how does she make that real while holding the script, the evidence of the fiction, in her hand? How does she keep from having that distract her from being completely immersed in the scene? And how does she come out on stage after a last minute change like this, not yet even having her lines completely committed to memory, and fit into the production so well?

My hat's off to Julia Brothers, and to Gretchen Corbett who had to switch gears to work with the timing, the delivery, the physical presence of a completely new costar. And to Portland Center Stage for deftly rolling with the punches and delivering yet another aspect of theater magic—the quick change—with finesse and expertise.

Loved the set. It was beautifully elaborate in the intimate Ellyn Bye Studio.

The Breath of Life runs now through June 16. More info is here.

Photos by Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Poster art by Mikey Mann.

Sunday, May 12, 2019


When I was a kid, I had a baby doll. Her name was Lucy Barker.

She was named after my mom's first and middle names (from before Mom married Dad and got a maiden name to replace the middle).

I also had a second baby doll. She was smaller and had a beanbag body and a plastic head.

Her name was Little Lucy Barker.

I wish I could claim to have named both. As a kid, I remember I was proud to have two dolls named after my mother, who was, as you must know, the Very Best Human in the World.

It was my dad who suggested those names. He was also the biggest pet namer in the family. When we got two kittens he named them too:

Two-Lu and Tre-Lu.

I swear he didn't always name everything after my mom, but like with the dolls, I loved that the kitties were named after her. The way Dad named things, it felt like the perfect expression of love: simple and funny and joyful.

I never did have any kids to name anything, but I'd like to think if I were mulling names, my dad would say, hey, I've got a suggestion.

We kids, as young adults, used to laugh about how we often called my parents' home "Mom's house." Sometimes mothers get all the accolades. In 2001 I stayed there for Christmas, and I learned that my two-year-old then-nephew Maxx (now Amy) called it, "Lulu's house."

I said, "Maxx, where does Pops live?"

Expecting the answer to be Lulu's house.

"In the office."

Thursday, May 9, 2019

a moment in the day: o'donnell, stephen o'donnell

We're in the car, running errands after a wonderful lit event at the college, and our heads are full of appreciation for art and literature, and we're talking about... James Bond.

"Have I ever seen a James Bond movie?" I ask, though I know he doesn't know the answer. "Have you?"

He tells me about one time when he was a kid and his dad took him to see... oh, which one? (he looks up at the roof of the car, thinking)... oh, it was You Only Die Twice. He tries to sing me the theme song.

"I think maybe I did see a James Bond movie!" I say. "It was the one... Who was in it? Wait, maybe it was a Batman movie. They're always getting new Batmen like they're always getting new James Bonds. Yeah. I think it was a Batman movie."

"James Bond isn't my kind of thing," Stephen says. "And the men were never sexy. Although they were supposed to be."

I wonder if the same is true for Batmen.

"And the women," he says. "They're supposed to be sexy; that's really all they're supposed to be in those movies. I never found that kind of woman sexy."

"What kind of woman?" I ask.

"The sexy kind."

Saturday, April 20, 2019

a moment in the day: egg

I'm just up from bed on a Saturday morning, oversized t-shirt and pillow hair. We're in the dining room talking about the grocery store, how he's going to go. As he takes a step toward me, I'm taking a step or two away and saying, "I'll think if I need anything."

"Hey, I was just coming to hug you," he says.

I turn back, "You were?" And he comes over and folds me in warm.

I can't think of anything I said that was particularly wonderful. I say, "To what do I owe this?"

"Nothing," he says. "I like you. You're a good egg."

Tiny everyday moments like these are everything.

I rub my hand down his back. "You're an egg too."

"Just an egg?"

"A good one."

Friday, April 19, 2019

Book Cover: This Never Happened

When I was contracted by University of Hell Press to design the book cover for Liz Scott's memoir This Never Happened, I was equal parts thrilled and freaked out. As a member of Liz' writing group, I knew every essay intimately, and let me just admit: I'd been having a love affair with this book for years.

It is so good. It is so good.

I remember one evening in group when Liz got to the end of reading a piece and we were about to launch into the critique, and I tried to say, "Wait, can you read [such and such a passage] again," but mostly just burst into tears.

This Never Happened is heartbreaking but also darkly hilarious, a memoir in gorgeous little fragments—which is such a perfect structure as so much of the story of her (totally bananas) family/background is shrouded in mystery. When I went to her house to talk about the book cover, she brought out a very small hoard of old photographs and papers to look through. Peeking through these remnants was like reading through the fragments of her life in the book.

So I started by tinkering with a scatter of these fragments, seeing where I might lay out, in the middle of the chaos, the elements of title, author, "a memoir." Finding placement for the Hell Press logo that the publisher generally places on its book covers.

There were photos but also old papers: job applications, notes, strange letters-to-the-editor that gave so much insight into her father's fascinating character. A lot of which are reproduced in the book.

She had this sweet, little mini photo album that intrigued me so I altered it with her name and book title for a sample or two. I was kind of proud of that.

But as I worked, I started to zero in on one particular picture. The photo is of a baby Liz with her (complicated, narcissistic) mother and her (complicated, mostly-absent) father. In the middle, Liz looks... a little shell-shocked to be there. Maybe a little... what's the word I'm looking for? What's that expression that's a combo of wisdom and wtf?

To me, she looks like she's saying to you: honey, you don't even know.

That picture seemed so apropos of the tone and content of the book. So I started to focus on how I could use the portrait front and center. First, I photoshopped it so that it would look like one of those old colorized photos.

And in the end, when I sent a bunch of my tinkerings to Liz and the folks at U Hell, they chose the below. Baby Liz peeking up from the lower right corner and most of the faces of both parents hidden, speaking to the many unknowns in Liz' history and, to me, the personal distance and the longing that Liz endured through her very particular story.

What else comes from all that Liz endured? Well, in her case: a woman full of wit, intelligence, wisdom, integrity, and personal strength. And one hell of a book. I hope I've done it justice.

Here's a taste:

My mother says, “Now’s the time to ask. If you have any questions, now’s the time.” She waits till her deathbed to say this and it’s hard to find the right adjective to describe this feeling, how it might be possible finally, after all this time, to get some answers to the mysteries of my family. Thrilling, shocking, flabbergasting, mind-bending, Jesus-fucking-christ. It’s been years—decades really—worrying this puzzle, this frustrating, vexing, bring-me-to-my-knees puzzle. What I know: I have a mother and a father. I have a sister. But that’s hardly enough to construct even the outside border, let alone begin to fill in the picture.

Once when I was young I asked my mother if she had any brothers or sisters. “I don't remember.” That was her answer and somehow, in our family, that passes for an acceptable, reasonable answer. What must be going on in a family where you just leave it at that? And then to boot, when my sister and I are already well into our adulthood—surprise! You’re a Jew!

Now’s the time to ask questions? Okay, Who am I? Where did I come from? How did you both—mother and father—get to be such fucking whack jobs, bless your hearts, but really.

I’ve come to believe that all of this—the facts about your ancestors, the truth about your family story, the reliable connections—are what create ballast in a life. With little to anchor me to earth, I’ve been in one long free float trying to forge some mooring in various, ill-conceived ways with only modest success. Because really, before you clearly know what you’re after, it’s all mostly flailing. I’m fast approaching my eighth decade now and I imagine this is what happens when time starts to run out. The need to make sense gets stronger and more urgent. If there are answers out there, I want them. If there is sense to be made, let me make it. And while we are at it, do let me forgive.


You can buy This Never Happened in many places, but my favorite is here.

Liz' book launch will be this coming Tuesday, April 23rd at Powell's City of Books in downtown Portland, Oregon. More info on that is here.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

a moment in the day: après l'école

Finished with his first French class of the quarter, Stephen quietly sings a song in French under his breath. He tells me about one of the other students, a guy who's married to a French woman.

"They're making plans to move to France."

"Ooh!" I say. But I don't say, la la.

"They're going to get there and just wander the countryside looking for the perfect place to settle down," he says.

"Must be nice," I say.

"I know," he tweaks his eyebrows at how unfair it all is. "Why couldn't you be French?" he asks.

"Technically I'm French," I say.

"Yeah," he says, "but not in a way that's useful."