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.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike at Portland Center Stage

There was a moment Friday night in the middle of Portland Center Stage's performance of Vanya,
Sonia, Masha and Spike in which the woman in back of me screamed with laughter just behind my right ear. People say "screamed with laughter" like it's just a way of laughing, but this woman screamed-screamed. It almost scared me. I won't tell you what prompted that scream, but it was worth it.

As far as comedies go, Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike has it all. Well, maybe not a car chase, but it would be pretty hard to do a car chase on stage. But Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike has disillusionment, loss, regret... OK, that doesn't seem funny, now that I think of it. But, no really. Trust me. When Christopher Durang writes a play about disillusionment, loss and regret, and Portland Center Stage produces it, it's funny enough that you might have the woman behind you scream-laugh into your right ear. And anyway, Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike also has family dysfunction, existential angst, a grown man in a Seven Dwarves costume, a disconsolate talking molecule, a psychic housekeeper with a voo-doo doll, and a guy who takes his clothes off all the time.

If you're wondering about the crazy names, they're all from Chekhov. Well, except for Spike. Vanya, Sonia and Masha are siblings (all named after Chekhov characters by their theatrical parents) who share a Pennsylvania country house. Well, mostly Vanya and Sonia share it while Masha, the one who owns it, the movie star (every good family should have a movie star) only comes back here and there from Hollywood to throw their lives (comfortably seeped in ennui and self-pity) into chaos.

From left to right: Vanya (Andrew Sellon), Sonia (Sharonlee McLean), Masha (Carol Halstead).

There's also Spike (Nick Ballard), the attention-starved boy toy (who gave me what was my biggest laugh of the night), Nina (Eden Malyn), the bubbly, chipmunk-voiced young admirer of the movie star, and Cassandra (Olivia Negron), the telepathic housekeeper who speaks in a combination of poetic warnings, gibberish and malapropisms.

Durang's characters started out feeling very broad but seemed to gain dimension throughout the play, particularly Sonia who really kind of surprised me somewhere near the end when I stopped and realized she was so different from the woman I'd expected her to be at the start.

What didn't surprise me was how much I loved Sharonlee McLean's performance in Sonia's role. Do I talk about Sharonlee McLean all the time? I see her popping up all over the Portland theater scene, and whenever I see her name in a cast list, I know I'm going to be taken care of. I'm going to get an immensely satisfying performance whether it's comedy or drama or both. As Sonia, Sharonlee is hilariously deadpan, beautifully self-pitying, and as always, just the right amount of particular. She was wonderful imitating Maggie Smith in an oh la la red-sequined gown. And a beautifully subtle phone conversation she had during a quiet break in the action was probably my favorite part of the play.

The references to Chekhov were a lot of fun. Even if you don't know beans about Chekhov, and I don't know very many beans about Chekhov, you can catch his gist pretty quick after spending the evening with Vanya, Sonia and Masha. A favorite line: "If everyone took anti-depressants, Chekhov would have nothing to write about."

For me, a climactic sequence including a play-within-a-play and then a rant by one of the characters went on a little too long, but it was also a huge moment theatrically and an interesting turn for more than one of the folks on stage. Durang's farcical situations are designed to keep you laughing all night but he also uses them to plumb complex issues like people's responsibility to each other and the danger of wallowing in our own comfy personal hell.

Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike is playing through February 8th on the main stage at the Gerding Theater. If you go see it, tell me what you think! More info is here.

Photos are courtesy of Patrick Weishampel. The poster was designed by Julia McNamara and it has underwear on it.

Monday, October 13, 2014

the typographer's dream at portland center stage

Friday night at Portland Center Stage, after all the applause, as my hands were trying to stop stinging from clapping so hard, Stephen turned to me and said, "I don't know what the hell that was, but it was delightful."

Three people on stage, sitting behind a long table, talking to the audience about their respective jobs. What was the setup of this play? Was it a job fair? A convention? Career day at some school? In a way, I didn't care that I didn't know what the setup was in The Typographer's Dream. It was what it was. Three people sitting behind a long table, talking to the audience about their respective jobs - which doesn't sound like the recipe for an amazing evening of theater, but Stephen is right when he sums it all up with the word delightful.

It was also smart and surprising and hilarious and thought-provoking and fast-moving.

So fast-moving. Whip-crack dialogue and pingponging themes and concepts - and all I kept thinking is, this is my kind of play. Which is to say just so slightly over my head but in a way that leaves me breathlessly fascinated.

I want to pay for another ticket for another go-round (and if you know me, you know I'm painfully cheap). Not because it was so fast moving and just so slightly over my head, but because I just want to see it again.

As a theater junkie, I can enjoy a play that has so-so writing if the players are terrific, and I can enjoy a play that has so-so players if the writing is terrific. I can like it fine. Portland Center Stage's production of The Typographer's Dream, produced with intimacy in the Ellen Bye Theater, is terrific on both counts.

And with the material as it is, the actors easily could have gone over the top. Laura Faye Smith as Annalise the Geographer easily could have been too chirpy, easily could have been irritating, but no. Delightful. And when you think you know every note of her character, she gives you new sides - care, sadness, a fabulous rant - with that same just-at-the-edge-but-not-too-far energy. And she plays an excellent drunk.

And Kelsey Tyler as Dave the Stenographer. He easily could have gotten one-note with the sweet way he keeps pulling the conversation back to what is so great about stenography. And he easily could have been the annoyingly stereotypical gay man I see so often in plays. But no. Delightful. Funnily vulnerable and real.

And Sharonlee McLean. Well, she's always delightful. I've been following her career for years, and no matter how varied her characters are, there's always something Sharonlee about it. Quirky and particular. But not in a way that takes away from the individuality of the part she's playing. She has this fabulous way of being very real (her dialogue at times feeling almost adlibbed) while she's also so beautifully odd. Her Margaret the Typographer is, I think, one of my favorite performances of hers.

I'm going to try to stop saying the word delightful now. But seriously, you guys, this thing was delightful. I laughed way more than you'd expect about a play about three people sitting behind a long table, talking - raving - about their respective jobs. And of course the play is about far more. One of the devices that I think worked really well to illustrate that far more was the creative use of the fourth wall. Through the fourth wall, the players weren't just talking to us. They were vying for us. The audience's attention became a prize they were each fighting for. Which is intriguing to me as an audience member, but also says something about the themes of the play.

I think part of what playwright Adam Bock is saying in The Typographer's Dream is that we believe we have these connections with each other, these relationships, and we can even profess to love these relationships and be terribly moved by them (as Annalise is when she talks to Dave about his partner Bob, a truth Dave doesn't want to hear), but inside we're all just vying for the spotlight. We're all about our own story.

And what is our story? A lot of the time, it's our job. I've wondered over this fact myself, the urgency with which we identify ourselves with our jobs. In the Marketing Department at Powell's Books, just taking care of business, I catch myself sometimes feeling some silly, unfounded sense of importance. I talk about being graphic designer for a small press just to enjoy that sense of importance - there, I just did it. It's a way to manufacture an identity, but it's more. When we're coiling ourselves up in the cushy security of these personally manufactured identities what we're also doing is using that love to avoid the truth about ourselves.

It's a bleak outlook that emerges from Adam Bock's The Typographer's Dream. At least in my small-brained interpretation of it. A chilly perspective on the human condition, happily, ironically served up in the midst of a delightfully funny evening of smart, smart theater.

The Typographer's Dream runs through November 16th. More information is here. Photos were courtesy of Patrick Weishampel.

Monday, October 6, 2014

art, writing, and trying to grow a backbone

A while back, Stephen and I were contacted by a publisher about collaborating on a coffee table book of sorts pairing a number of Stephen's paintings with flash fiction inspired by those paintings.

The biggest thrill for me was being asked by the publisher to curate the group of writers, each of whom would take one of Stephen's paintings and use it as a prompt to write a tiny original story.

Right away, lists started in my head. Who would be good candidates for my writers (they would be my writers - for this project they would be my writers):

Writers I admire
Writers Stephen admires
Writers who admire Stephen's work

This project was perfect for me. I mean, I personally knew so many remarkable writers.

Writers who excel at short fiction
Writers who excel at working from prompts
Writers whose sensibilities seem to fit with Stephen's aesthetic

Lists and lists and lists, and of course I realized somewhere in there that I couldn't invite everyone.

Oh no.

Maybe this project wasn't for me. I mean, I personally knew so many remarkable writers. Too, too many remarkable writers.

Making a new computer file and combining all the names into a master list doesn't help. It just makes it easier to see that you have four times the number of writers than you can squeeze into one book.

Part of being a good editor, if I was going to be a good editor, was narrowing down the list. All I had to do was remove a few writers here and there, just whittle down my incredibly long and beloved list, just hack it to pieces, leaving writers I admire, leaving friends in my wake.

A Friday night, Stephen and me at the hairdresser's, me with the big glass spaceman-suit bowl breathing hot air over my head, and my master list in my lap.

Next to me, Stephen named names and made comments that I couldn't hear over the drone of my spaceman-suit head. We decided against one of the names, someone we both know well, and running my ink pen across that name was like running that ink pen across the face of that friend.

Backbone. That's what you're suppose to have if you fancy yourself an editor of a book. If you make your decisions based on personal consideration, you're not editing a book, you're just fooling around.

Backbone. That's one of the benefits I hope to get out of my role in this project. Don't ask me how I got to the point in my life where I'm taking things on for the right reasons, but the aspects that scare me the most about doing this - are why I need to be doing this.

Under the drone of my spaceman-suit head, I crossed another name off. The friction of the pen moving across the paper was a bee squirm at the base of my spine. Each and every name I had to cross off, people who I knew would be great for the project, people I'd long admired, each and every name... hurt.

Great writer but better for nonfiction
Great writer but maybe too modern
Great writer
Great writer

Sunday, September 28, 2014

dreamgirls at portland center stage

Friday night, Stephen and I saw Dreamgirls at Portland Center Stage. As excited as I was, I'll admit I worried about the pastiche aspect of the musical. Dreamgirls, which premiered in 1981, tells the story of a Motown-to-Disco-era singing group, and more often than not, when a musical imitates an earlier style, the music comes off sounding like a spun-sugar version of itself. Too sweet, too simple, not enough there. 

Also, I'm a jerk when it comes to musicals, at least musicals written after, say, 1965. I usually don't like them. Period. Especially musicals from the eighties, onward. That thing that I think of as That Modern Era Musical Sound - I kind of hate. 

Luckily for jerk me, the pastiche in Dreamgirls not only overrides That Modern Era Musical Sound, it works its pastiche well. The songs performed by our heroes the Dreams and their companion James "Thunder" Early (not to mention other fictional groups and soloists spanning the real world eras of Motown, R&B and Disco) feel authentic and particular. They're also full of beautiful, at times surprising, harmonies, which here and there made me involuntarily close my eyes out of pleasure. Part of that pleasure - and the pleasure of all the rousing numbers in this show - comes from the score, but part of it comes from the live band and the huge chops of every single singer on that stage.

If I had to pick a standout, for both music and acting chops, I'd choose David Jennings as James "Thunder" Early, who was impishly funny and energetic and sexy and vulnerable and kooky - with a voice for each of these moods. Also, Nattallyee Randall as Effie, able to go from bust-a-gut diva to quietly, tenderly human in one breath. I also loved Dreamgirl number three, Lorrell, played by Lexi Rhoades with her clear, versatile and beautifully en pointe voice. But as I said, every singer in the production is terrific. 

Portland Center Stage's Dreamgirls is nonstop music, nonstop dramatic tension, nonstop Motown-funk-disco-showbiz glamour. Check out these costumes!

The writing in Dreamgirls is on the simple side, with characters a little broad and lyrics that can run a bit cliché, so a good production has to make up for this with its staging and cast.  Portland Center Stage does this, with its choreography and lights and flashy costumes, with its well utilized set and turntable (used beautifully in the montage "On the Road - Cadillac Car" in the first half), with fun, droll allusions to Sixties and Seventies culture, with directorial touches that subtly add dimension to the characters, and of course with the powerhouse cast - all of which combine to create a hell of a music-filled hoot of an evening

Dreamgirls runs through November 2nd. More information is here. Thank you to Patrick Weishampel for the photographs.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

guest post: folding cranes

One of the most lovely experiences I've had working on book design was collaborating with Laura Stanfill on the cranes for Kate Gray's book (whose official pub date is September 1st) Carry the Sky. I photoshopped their backgrounds out and arranged them, but Laura made them. By hand. Lots of them. And photographed them for me in various positions. Whenever I'd need a new color or a slightly different angle, she'd make more.

This is a book publisher I'm talking about. Hand-crafting paper cranes for the cover and interior of her book.  Not only is that dedication, there's something so personal about it to me. The care with which she ministers to her stories.

I asked her to write about the sweet circumstance in which she became the hand-crafter for this book, and she wrote me a beautiful, little essay. Here's Laura, talking about folding cranes.


In fifth grade, I changed schools. From public to private, elementary to middle. An older girl, during the morning rush of bodies in halls, during the first unnerving week, said “Nice backpack.” She had the same one as me. L.L.Bean. I knew enough not to know whether that was a compliment or an insult.

Before that, I made things. At home. An only child, not lonely at all, with popsicle sticks and glitter and pompoms, staples binding my own handwritten books. I made vending machines. I made a paper toilet that one of the neighbor kids used for real. I made cities. It fit that, when offered an array of after-school activities that fifth-grade year, I chose origami over soccer, and began folding neat squares of thin paper into neater, smaller, intricate objects.

I learned how to wash hands so as not to soften the paper, how to run a fingernail over a crease to make it sharp, and how to read a pattern, when I wasn't doing homework or practicing my flute, I taught myself to work smaller, taking little blots of paper, cutting them into sharp-edged squares, and folding them. I filled a Tic-Tac mint box with tiny origami cranes. Ones that still fly, if I tilt the clear plastic container, open the white plastic spout, and pour a few into my palm.

Many years later, as a small press publisher, I found Kate Gray’s debut novel, Carry the Sky, in my submission inbox. In the boarding school within the pages of her book, teachers are required to wear J.Crew or L.L.Bean. I thought of my backpack and that girl in the hall at my new school, feeling buffeted by all the bodies, feeling unsure. Kate describes the rush between classes as rapids.

As a fifth grader, I didn't have community yet, didn't know the teachers and students who would shape me, fold me, into someone willing to take risks, to continue exploring creativity, to make mistakes, to study hard. Another school, or another set of friends within that school, might have landed me in a world more like the one Kate writes about in the unblinking look at bullying that is her debut novel. I might have continued second-guessing what people said. But I found the right people, teachers who value thinking and creativity. “Nice backpack” was intended as a compliment, and that girl became one of my best friends. Is still one of them.

There’s quite a bit of origami in Carry the Sky. Bugs, dinosaurs, a rowing shell, cranes. When Gigi started working on cover ideas, I mentioned my long-ago training, and she asked me to fold and photograph a few examples. My fingers remember how to fold cranes, can still crease paper the way I was taught in fifth grade, and I fold them for my daughters now, offering them a choice of puffed or flapping. They want the ones that move. Gigi wanted the puffed ones, for that extra sense of dimension.

The same week Gigi asked me to fold, my husband brought me a package. My inlaws hosted foreign exchange students over the years, when their children were high school students. One of them presented a pack of small squares of origami paper, and flat splintery chopsticks. A date in the packet says 1984. Kate Gray set Carry the Sky in the fall of 1983. My mother-in-law had no idea I was working on publishing this boarding school bullying novel, no idea that I needed to fold cranes. She was cleaning out, moving on.

Nobody had ever opened the cellophane. The origami paper was fanned out with perfect symmetry, paperclipped, and preserved for thirty years in one of their closets.

I broke the seal, picked one plain bright square, and began to fold.

Carry the Sky debuts September 1st. The launch event takes place at Powell's City of Books (downtown) on September 5th. You can check it out through Powell's here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

anniversary show off - a retrospective

On Friday, the day before the weekend before the week of our wedding anniversary, both of us busy with projects, Stephen said to me, "Can I ask a question?" He looked like he wasn't sure he should ask. "Have you started working on my anniversary card?"

I said, "Oh my god, no!"

"Me neither," he said. "Everything I thought about working on is lame."

I said, "Oh my god, everything I thought about working on is lame too!"

Raised eyebrows and a half smile can go from tentative to relieved, back to tentative so fast. "What would you say," he said, "if just for this year," he said, "maybe," he said.

I reached out and, without saying anything else, shook his hand.

Of course, as relieved as we both were that we could let the tradition lapse for a year (it's not really a year, of course. We make personalized cards for Christmas, for Valentine's Day, for each birthday...), we've been feeling the expected letdown that comes from not being able to get up in the morning and show off the apparent brilliance of our personalized anniversary cards (because isn't showing off what togetherness is all about?). So, I decided what needed to happen was a retrospective of all the silly anniversary cards we've labored over since we started this tradition.

Because I'm not as organized as Stephen, and can't find my file for the card I made him in 2007, we're going to start with him.

2007, his to me. The outside.

The inside.

Neither of us has whatever the heck card we did for each other in 2008. So, we move on to...

2009, his to me.

2009, mine to him.

OK, I don't have that one either But I assure you it must have been terribly clever.

2010, his to me.

2010, mine to him.

2011, his to me.

2011, mine to him.

2012, his to me. I still think this is my favorite of all time.

2012, mine to him.

2013, his to me. This is the first anniversary after his fall.

2013, mine to him. The outside image.

The inside image.