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.