Recently I had the honor of designing a book cover for Alex Behr's upcoming collection of short stories, Planet Grim. Alex's writing is beautifully particular, darkly funny, and deeply moving. I fell in love with her work when I first heard it at a fabulous Portland arts salon called JAM. Hers is the kind of writing that makes you fall in love with the mind that penned the words. Sharp, edgy, quirky, and profoundly real. I thought her publisher's description of the book described it beautifully:
In twenty-eight stories that will draw blood while making you laugh, Alex Behr’s debut collection Planet Grim is a vivid, unsettling portrait of the gritty fringes of San Francisco and Portland, where complicated characters long for connection just out of reach. Behr is an idiosyncratic, unpredictable prose stylist who will remind readers of Miranda July and Mary Gaitskill, and her edge and willingness to cut to the bone make her writing truly original.
"Planet Grim," Alex quipped the other day. "I named it before the election."
The title was actually the source of a lot of mulling for me as I was brainstorming ideas for a cover design. Both words, planet and grim, are quite loaded. Planet, in particular, had me wondering whether it would be good to actually play on imagery of the earth - after all, there's a sense that the phrase "planet grim" refers to both the particular world of Alex's characters and the wider world of all of our lives.
I did play around with some earth-related ideas, even going so far as to, on impulse one day, build myself one of those schoolchild models of the solar system out of dowel rods and Styrofoam balls, for a sample. Never let it be said that I don't like to get down and dirty with my book design.
But I also played with concepts that, rather than focusing wide and cosmic, pulled in close and personal. Which Alex's collection does so well, zeroing in on what makes us human. One very rough sample I offered during the concepting phase used Alex's own beautifully evocative picture of her son in a superhero cape.
In the end, Alex and her publisher Leland Cheuk of 7.13 Books (whose press name I have repeatedly embarrassingly screwed up as 7.15 and 3.17 and π [OK, not π] over and over in my back cover and spine samples) decided upon the sample that they felt got to the moodiness of the collection the best.
Recognize the person in the picture? Here's the original.
That's Alex herself (photo by Lewis Watts) which I did some color and texture work to, then slanted a bit and, obviously, blew up really huge.
For the original rough sample, I created the text in Adobe Illustrator, but Alex wanted something whose execution looked more actually hand-rendered. So that's what I did. I got out my paints and brushes and recreated the lettering on an acetate overlay. Here's a very bad picture of that acetate piece, which I only include here because look at the cool shadow it made on the wall when I took the picture!
In the end, I liked the texture and painterly-ness of the hand-rendered lettering but the smooth edges of the vector art, so I photoshopped the two versions together. It was a fun process which gave us, finally, a finished piece that we all liked. I hope it's a cover worthy of the beauty and uniqueness to be found on the inside of the book.
Here's a taste from the story "White Pants."
I held up the white pants in front of me, judging that they’d fit. They had rhinestones down the sides. I ducked into a bookstore to put them on. It was next to the café where the Mission’s Red Man sat all day, his face covered with a thin sheen of red face paint.
I put on the pants, forcing up the zipper, and followed a girl who also wore white pants. I followed people for sport, not loneliness. She had bleached white hair, like Debbie Harry, and wore high heels with a white blouse and white pants. All that white blinded me. I felt like I’d met my twin, only someone with more sex trapped in fabric and leather shoes. I crossed in front of blatting scooters and cars, not pausing, knowing the vehicles measured their speed based on mine, and I was matching hers.
I followed her as far as a tamales cart and I let her go. She was looking back at me, and I had nothing to say. Planet Grim will be out October 12, 2017.
Art Edwards was one of the early submissions I got when I was reading for City of Weird. I had him in my maybe pile for a long time because I truly didn't think it would be possible to publish his story. I really, really wanted to publish his story. It was different from what I'd been expecting from my submissions - it didn't contain a classic monster or ghost or spaceman, not even one whose trope had been used in an unexpected way. Instead, it had Alex Trebek mysteriously appearing, one day, standing stoically, nearly catatonically, outside a guy's apartment. That's pretty much all he does - stand there - or, rather, crouch there, waiting for something, and though people start tossing trash at him, having rowdy parties around him, decorating him, he just crouches and waits. When the narrator steps in to keep him company and clean up the messes people make on and around him, magical things begin to happen.
It was definitely one of the weirdest stories in the slew of tales that came across my submissions pile, and even if for that alone, I wanted it.
But you can't publish a story about Alex Trebek without getting permission from Alex Trebek. And, as should be obvious from the description above, Mr. Trebek isn't treated all that well in the course of the story.
Publisher Laura Stanfill wrote to the producers of Jeopardy!, and we let Art know that we loved the story but that its acceptance hinged upon getting permission, and I think all three of us pretty much wrote it off as never-going-to-happen.
On June 12th (two days before my birthday... coincidence?) we got an email back from the Jeopardy! representative. Alex Trebek had received the request. Alex Trebek had read the story (!). And, yes, he was giving his permission to us to use his... what would you call the non-visual version of a likeness?... in the book.
Laura forwarded the email to me along with one simple sentence, all in caps: OH MY GOODNESS!
The best part of the message was the fact that Alex had given us an edit. There was one sentence, likely a simple typo that I hadn't even yet noticed, that he wondered about.
"One note/question Alex had was in the fourth paragraph, the sentence “A breeze rustled craggily maples at the complex’s entrance.”, did not make sense to him, so he wanted to point that out."
Right you are! Craggily - - > Craggy. Done.
Of course, once the story had been accepted formally, it went through a regular course of edits from me and copy edits from our copy editors, but we were all kind of tickled that Alex had given us an edit, himself. I joked that I could see a cover with "Edited by Gigi Little" on it, and in tiny type underneath "(And Alex Trebek)."
When we told Art, he said, "Alex Trebek. What a hoot! I write these things thinking no one will read them, and then Alex Trebek reads one. Someone in my writing group said I should use 'edited by Alex Trebek' as a blurb."
When City of Weird came out more than a year later, Booklist called "Waiting for the Question" "a gritty urban fantasia." One of the things I particularly like about the story is its sly, understated humor, as in this segment. To set this up, the narrator's kind of a slacker...
I called my brother Rex in Beaverton, who’d worked the same job for fifteen years.
“I need $1,100.”
I felt the pause on his end, cutting me with every second.
“You need $1,100.”
“They’re going to evict me.”
“Where’s Grandma’s money?”
I couldn’t answer. He sighed.
“I can’t find a job.”
“There’s a guy in Hillsboro hiring people to do phone surveys.”
“That’s not my field.”
“Yes, I have a degree.”
“What I’m getting at,” Rex said, “is where was the urgency a few weeks ago when you could’ve done something about it besides call me?”
I had no answer for him, so I said, “You know, Alex Trebek is camped out at my apartment complex.”
"Waiting for the Question" was a long time coming. It began its life all the way back in 2011 with a different title and a different ending. In fact, it was a different tale altogether. Art tells the story of this story in a very interesting article he wrote for Necessary Fiction, called "Waiting for the Answer." You can check it out here.
Art will be reading from his story at Another Read Through, a fabulous indy bookstore, on March 11th. It's a Saturday, so this event begins at 1:30. Facebook event page is here.
Heading out into the lobby of the Keller Auditorium at first intermission of Swan Lake last night, Stephen said, "The corps de ballet is very... together, very..."
Looking for the right word and I anticipated it and jumped in with that tiny pride you have every time you one-up your partner in linguistic prowess.
"Tight?" I said.
"Yes, tight. That's the thing you often hear in reviews, that the principal dancers are good but the corps de ballet was sloppy. I was very impressed."
"So, corps de ballet...?"
"That means the members of the company who dance together in a group, as opposed to the soloists."
"Can I use that term in my blog post? I'm going to use that term in my blog post!"
So, there's my full disclosure: Linguistic excellence? Balletic knowledge? Not so much. But I love ballet, the skill, the beauty, the strange magic of learning a story almost completely through movement, and I particularly enjoyed Oregon Ballet Theatre's production of Swan Lake. The word I kept using to describe things last night as we were leaving the theater, a word that sprang easily to my tongue, was delightful.
It's an interesting production because it is not the classic Swan Lake based on the 1895 revival with choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, and it's not the classic Tchaikovsky ballet updated with completely new choreography. Artistic Director Kevin Irving's adaptation is an amalgam including input by Petipa and Ivanov and modern choreographers Nicolo Fonte, Kevin Irving, Anthony Jones, and Lisa Kipp. Not only that, but the storyline has been changed to add a completely new element and that takes the story in a completely different direction and toward a different ending.
I'll only say that about the changes, because I hate spoilers, but what I can say is that I felt all the aspects of OBT's Swan Lake, the old choreography and the new, the classic story elements and the new, were assembled beautifully so that the whole production felt seamless and integrated.
And the orchestra under the direction of Niel DePonte was - I'll use my initial not-very-ballet-chic word again - tight. Beautiful. And the dancing, led last night by Xuan Cheng and Peter Franc, was quite good, with particularly lovely use of the corps de ballet. The white swans swirled and churned like a murmuration across the stage. At times, to me, they seemed to symbolize more than enchanted swans, becoming, here, a hint of storm, there a spread of fog as a night moved toward morning.
One of the most surprising things to me was the humor. The scene of the ball in Act 2 is rife with it, fashioned beautifully through the use of both choreography and storyline. I didn't know I could laugh so much in a ballet. And there was one particular moment I never thought I'd see in a ballet - and of course, that spoiler thing, again: I can't say what that moment was. I wish I could. All I can say is that between that moment and the burst of laughter that followed was a half second of silence in which I think the only sound in the auditorium was the surprised "Oh!" that jumped out of my mouth.
Here are three final words in my parade of words about OBT's world premier production of Swan Lake: go see it. It's a gorgeous and delightful evening and you don't need to know any fancy ballet terms in order to come out of the theater feeling smart and full of a little more joy.
I was glad I knew nothing about Ethel Waters before going to see His Eye is on the Sparrow in the Ellen Bye Theater at Portland Center Stage Friday night. Oh, I knew she was a singer who had popularized wonderful old songs like "Stormy Weather" and "Am I Blue." I knew she played Berenice in The Member of the Wedding. But I knew nothing about her life.
It was wonderful to sit in that intimate theater and watch her story unfold through narration and song. His Eye is on the Sparrow, written by Larry Parr, is essentially a one-woman show (I say essentially because she's accompanied by a piano player), in which Ms.Waters, played by Maiesha McQueen, guides us through her troubled childhood, her sad young life as a grudging teen bride, her surprise rise to stardom accompanied by feelings of inadequacy in the face of the racism and sexism all around her, her seclusion as an older woman followed by her return as a gospel singer - and most of all, her songs.
Fabulous songs. "Heatwave." "Old Man Harlem." "Franky and Johnny." "Black and Blue." Songs beautifully performed by Maiesha McQueen in a voice that ranges from sweet to deep to playful to mournful, and a performance that, above all, rings authentic. One of the biggest pitfalls of a show like this one is inauthenticity, and McQueen's performance is not a modern take and not a pastiche. It's the real deal.
I loved the whole of McQueen's performance. She's funny and heartbreaking and brassy and dynamic and again, again, so authentic. Authentic to the time period(s) and authentic to the human experience.
I have to admit I don't tend to be interested in stars or the lives of stars. Packed houses on concert tours and actors' searches for that perfect movie role aren't stories that move me. But His Eye is on the Sparrow is not a play about stardom. It's a story about human relationships, the struggle to make connection. It's a story about race, and the ways people internalize the unfair inequality around them. It's a story about womanhood.
And OK, yes, I lied: it's a story about stardom. But what that particular thread in the production said to me had little to do with stardom, per se. Stories about stars are often about persistence. How they struggle to realize their full potential, how they persevere to reach that place in the spotlight. The Ethel Waters I saw last night at Portland Center Stage seemed to have the spotlight handed to her in a gift-wrapped box, and the persistence that marked her life centered around other things. Real things. Most of all, simply the struggle to feel equal in the world.
As I left the theater, a phrase kept playing in my head. She was a star, and she just wanted to be on par.
Silly rhyme notwithstanding, this was the takeaway that stuck with me the most. She had achieved so much - stints on Broadway and the concert stage, appearances in the movies and on TV, record contracts; she was the second African American woman nominated for an Academy Award (Pinky) and the first African American woman to have a lead role in a television series (Beulah) - and she still felt less than. Less than her fellow man. Less than her fellow White man.
When she persisted, she was called difficult. And perhaps she was. But these were difficult times for Black women. Still are. I can't help it: my mind goes to the recent Senate Judiciary hearings on Jeff Sessions and two women's voices (Elizabeth Warren's and Coretta Scott King's) silenced in their attempt to speak truth about racism. Nevertheless, she persisted. This is what Ethel Waters does throughout her story. She persists. Not toward the kind of achievement that wants to be measured in Academy Awards and television ratings and Twitter followers, but toward authenticity.
Somewhere in the second half, I was compelled to fish a pen out of my purse and scribble on the back of my program a line Waters says. She's describing White people and the line is both biting and sympathetic. "Their souls have been pushed down somehow."
This felt so true and so ironic. With all the efforts, conscious and unconscious, that White America has made to put themselves - ourselves - above, our souls have been pushed down.
But what happens during the play: you feel lifted up. By Ethel Waters' music, her truth, her hilarious barbs, her persistence. And it isn't just her. I said before, His Eye is on the Sparrow is essentially a one-woman show. Maiesha McQueen's partner on stage is Darius Smith. Beyond being musical director of the production, he plays the piano for her performance beautifully, but his presence is more than that. From the way he escorts her through the theater in the opening of each act, to his quiet attentiveness to her performance, Smith seems to be some sort of opposite Greek chorus. Rather than commenting on the action, telling the story for her, he listens. He sits back and actively lets her tell her truth. He attends with grace and respect, and with this, he seems to represent that something that Ethel Waters always deserved.
His Eye is on the Sparrow runs through March 19th. More info is here.
Thank you to Patrick Weishampel for the photos. Theater poster designed by Julia McNamara. The picture of Ethel Waters from Wikipedia Commons.
One of my ideas for a book cover for Michael Shou-Yung Shum's upcoming novel Queen of Spades, centered around a Seattle gambling casino, was to design the book to look like a package of playing cards. The prominent spade on the pack of Bicycle cards, like the one shown here, works beautifully with the book's title, and I had a lot of fun putting together a very precise homage to one of their classic boxes, before I realized we probably had a trademark issue on our hands and there wouldn't be time to contact the Bicycle folks and ask their permission.
Sure glad I took the time to get the whole thing completely designed before that occurred to me...
Luckily, it wasn't my only idea, so I refocused my efforts on what was, actually, my first concept which was to create a designed card back in the tradition of these.
Aren't they great? Think how fun it would be to be an artist whose sole job was to make these.
It was a lot of fun gathering samples and studying all those lovely designs. And I think one of my favorite things about graphic design is attempting to create something as an homage to something else. In a way, what I like most is not creating but recreating. That's why some of my favorite jobs have been ones like City of Weird (old weird fiction magazine covers), Jamie Yourdon'sFroelich's Ladder (old books), and Stevan Allred'sA Simplified Map of the Real World (maps). And one of my favorite projects ever, actually, a CD cover I did for a very indy collection of music played on a Wurlitzer theater organ, because I got to design it to look like a 1930s movie poster.
The big challenge with Queen of Spades was finding the best way to fit all the elements of a book cover into the layout: title, author name, blurb and the words "a novel." It's a lot to squeeze into a design that already takes up a lot of space on the page. I didn't want to obscure too much of the classic card elements, the background pattern, the ornate border, the [usually double, right-side-up-and-upside-down] centerpiece.
I was particularly happy with how I worked in the blurb.
The card went through a number of iterations. The poker chips in the corners of the border were sometimes chips, sometimes simple card suits (heart, club, diamond, spade), the filigree morphed as I needed it to for spacing. The lettering of the title kept getting more and more ornate, thanks to publisher Laura Stanfill's prompting.
One of the things I experimented with was doing Michael's name upside down. After all, card designs are usually done that way. While it was a fun approach, Laura and I felt it was up to the author to decide whether his name would be presented in a way that would also, of course, make it less immediately readable.
Michael chose right-side up. It makes his name more readable but it also fits the space better. And he's the one to thank for the deep blue background color. Originally I'd been playing with the gold shown just above, and I experimented with a number of other colors, but Michael's suggested blue makes the red and white card pop in a lovely way.
I love that collaborative part of the process, and I'll gamble that what the three of us came up with together has made this book cover a lovelier thing.
Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and Songs of Willow Frost had this to say about Queen of Spades.
“A magical debut—literally. This tale is both spare and sprawling, gritty and otherworldly, both an homage to the complex psychology of gambling and a cautionary tale for those watching from the rail. A ridiculously satisfying read.”
Here's a taste from the book:
Chan wandered to the employee lounge, where two fellow pit dealers pulled a chair for him to join them. Leanne and Bao were friendly and gregarious, and after fifteen minutes of chatting about their respective dealing pasts, Chan asked them about the old woman he had seen leaving the casino. They were only too happy to respond. He learned that no one knew her real name, and that she was referred to by all the regulars and the staff as the Countess.
Every evening, Leanne said, she could be found playing Faro in the High Limit Salon. She arrived at ten p.m. in a long, silver Rolls Royce limousine, and would gamble for three hours—no, it was four, said Bao. Until two a.m. precisely. All the while, her chauffeur, a young man who never spoke a word, stood stiffly by her side.
“She’s sort of the queen of the Royal,” Bao explained.
Queen of Spades comes out in October of this year. More info is here.