Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Book Cover: Mythwakers: The Minotaur

One of the funnest projects I've had lately has been for Kate Ristau's new series Mythwakers. 

Anyone who knows Kate or reads Kate knows that any project having to do with Kate is going to be fun. Like her graphic novel Wylde Wings (with artist Brian W. Parker of Believe in Wonder Publishing). She hired me to basically be her last set of eyes on the interiors of the book, making sure it looked as good as it could look, and even being just that tiny part of that project, I felt blessed... blessed with fun

Going through that book, I was so drawn into the story and the voice, not to mention the fabulous artwork by the actually magical (no, I'm pretty sure he is) Brian W. Parker. It made me want, more than ever, to be able to get my own hands into a Kate book—and then abracadabra, it happened!

I love the concept behind Mythwakers. It's a series of books that teach kids (grades 3-5) all about mythology, through the point of view of its characters. The first in the series spotlights the minotaur. It's Asterion himself, telling his story from his own point of view. How fun is that? 

Designing for a series is a very particular experience. Book cover design is about puzzling—taking all the elements (title, subtitle, author name, blurb, relevant imagery, genre, tone) and fitting them together perfectly—but with a series, you're building something that will live beyond the initial book. That's a whole separate kind of puzzling.

Now, I should mention that Kate Ristau, along with being fun, is a person who knows a heck of a lot about not only writing but creating, concepting, designing—really, all the aspects of putting together a really good book. So she came to me with clear ideas of what she wanted. She had comp titles for me (books that are comparable to hers), ideas on color, thoughts on layout... she even made me some quick sketches to show what she was thinking.


I loved her ideas of the scrollwork connecting things together. And then I started thinking about the idea of Mythwakers. How best to portray the idea of myths waking. Coming up out of sleep. Bursting back to life. I pictured the magic of myth coming up out of an open book.

Really, once I'd spent some time thinking it through, the visual concept for Mythwakers burst out much like that mythly magic bursting out from the book: quickly, happily, and fairly fully formed. Kind of like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus, but that's a different myth. 

Usually I send more than one sample-in-progress, but I was so happy with what I'd come up with that I sent that single sample Kate's way. And she really liked it too. Then we made one big change. From a book to a scroll, which brings an element of antiquity into the design. I sent Kate three versions of this for her to choose from.


She chose her favorite, and we had our cover!

The Kickstarter Pre-Order for Mythwakers: The Minotaur launches today, November 1st, and goes until November 17th. There are lots of fantastic rewards too—including, I'm told, a Minotaur meeting! If you want to check it out and even help bring this book to life, you can find that here.

More info on Kate and all her books is here.

And here's an excerpt!

*

Hi! My name is Asterion! I am a minotaur. You may recognize me from such books as Clockbreakers by Kate Ristau, or from old-timey poems and epic stories written by guys like Ovid and Plutarch. Those authors got some things right, but they got more than a few things wrong, and I’m here to set the historical record straight.

 

My life is pretty a-maze-ing. Get it? 

 

That joke never gets old, even after all these years. I mean, you could almost get lost in it. 

 

Like a maze. 

 

Moving on, I am so glad you are here. I am a Mythwaker — a legendary character from an ancient myth that has come to define an entire generation. What? You don’t know what a myth is? You are totally going to love this. Pull up a chair, get comfortable, and we’ll explore myths, mazes, and most importantly: me.

Myths

A lot of people use myth to mean a fake story. That’s one meaning of the word myth, but the kind of myths I am talking about are mythology — the foundational narratives, or stories, of a particular culture. 

 

Sorry. I used a lot of big words there. All those centuries trapped in the labyrinth were SUPER BORING, so I read a lot of scrolls. 

 

Back to myths — just think of them as the important beginning stories of a group of people. 

 

The group of people — or culture — that we will be talking about today is the Greeks, and a little bit about those Minoan dudes too.

 

Here’s an important thing for you to know: people argue a lot about my story. Some people think it happened. Other people think it didn’t. Some people think Theseus was a hero, while smart people know that he is a ding-dong.

 

That’s the thing about myths — they are around for a long time, passed down from one person to the next, so not all the versions are the same. Think about if your best friend told you a story, which you turned around and told your grandma. Would you tell the same exact story your friend told you to your kind, gentle grandmother? Would you keep all the bloody parts or would you clean things up a bit? You would probably make a few changes, right? Most of us do, and that is why myths are never told the same way twice.

Best friend story, now featuring:

•   Blood and guts!

•   Nasty villains!

•   Mean kids! 

•   Burps and farts!

•   Tacos!

Grandma story, politely exploring:

•   Talking animals.

•   Snuggly kittens.

•   Flowers and smiles.

•   Five guys named Alfred.

•   Hard candy.

Stories change depending on who is telling them and who is listening to them. If you’re talking to your best friend, you might be shouting about fiery salsa and guacamole. If you are sweetly sitting beside your grandma, you could be whispering about butterscotch and rainbows. 

 

That’s the thing about myths: the audience matters. 

 

How we remember myths has a lot to do with who was telling the story and who was listening. The stories were constantly changing, but the ones that hung around were the ones that people remembered. They appealed to the culture. They mattered to the listeners. In this way, the audience and the storytellers can change myths for the good, for the bad, and for the tacos.

 

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Ten Years of Forest Avenue Press

It seems unimaginable to me that this October is Forest Avenue Press' tenth anniversary. Ten years ago this month we published our first book, Brave on the Page, very DIY style, printing it on the Espresso Book Machine that used to be housed in the Purple Room at Powell's City of Books. We hosted reading events, one of which took place one floor up from the Espresso Book Machine, in Powells' Pearl Room, a coveted spot for writers of all types to present their books.

I say "we" because I'm of a handful of folks who are involved with the press, including readers, copy-editors, proofers, and our editor-at-large Liz Prato—but really Forest Avenue Press is mainly all Laura Stanfill.

Star Laura Stanfill—a star the way stars are just before they become black holes: compact and more stellar than you can imagine. That's a weird metaphor and I don't mean to say Laura is compact, or about to turn into a lethal sucking vortex of some kind. I just watched a show about black holes before starting to work on this. Anyway, I'm trying to say there's no one who contains so much energy and so much shine.

And because it's our tenth anniversary, I just wanted to take a moment to honor her and the press she built and the community she helped grow and the books she brought into the world.


But here's the thing about Laura Stanfill. Above, I was talking about how this press is mainly all her. But for Laura, it's all about all of us. She never thinks about Forest Avenue Press as her press. Her aim is helping writers get their stories into the world, helping readers find each other, helping people find community. She's constantly using her very limited free time to give advice to new writers. She's always looking for opportunities to bring people together.

For my part, I don't think I can adequately express how much better my life is because of her and Forest Avenue Press. I wouldn't have loads of lovely friends I have, and so many amazing experiences, I wouldn't have the wonder that is City of Weird, I wouldn't be a book designer today, if not for the moment she and I stood on the sidewalk after our writing group ten years ago and I said, are you really thinking of publishing a book, and she said yes, and she said, were you serious in there when you said you'd make me a cover, and I said yes. What a ten years it's been. It's made my life infinitely more rich. I say that for myself, but I know it's true for so many other folks too. Happy anniversary*, Forest Avenue Press, and happy anniversary, Laura. Here's to the years to come.


*OK, I'm not sure which day in October to call the actual anniversary. But I think we should celebrate all month long.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

a moment in the day: news

Just up from taking Nicholas out and putting the coffee on, I sit down in front of the computer for some morning work. I wake up my old iPhone, which for some reason is the device I use to stream NPR, and I put it down next to me on the desk to catch the news.

It snaps on in the middle of some story. Or, at the end of it, I quickly figure out.

"—and there's much that still needs to be known, but the community will be dealing with the effects of this tragedy for a long time to come."

The reporter signs off and the filler music starts, and I think, oh god, what now.

Click over to Google. And the sad thing is—well, the other sad thing is—I know all I need to do to find out what happened, here in the good old U. S. of A.

I google shooting.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Book Interior: Glory Guitars

I feel like starting this post with the classic Sesame Street sign-off.

This book was brought to you by the letter G.

Because how can I not, when the memoir Glory Guitars, by Gogo Germaine, is being published by University of Hell Press' Greg Gerding, with cover art by Joel Amat Güell, author photos by Glenn Ross, and interior design graced by my own Gs*? The number of Gs in that list makes me so giddy that I want to go through the entire interior of the book and count all the Gs in it. But that would be weird.

8,295.

Sesame Street is a strange reference, of course, when you're talking about a book crammed full of sex, drugs, and punk rock. University of Hell describes the book as the "memoir of a ’90s teenage punk rock grrrl." It's a power-chord-fueled joyride full of personality and wit (gee, that sounds like a blurb)—and toward the beginning of this year, Greg reached out to me about designing its interior. Now, interior design doesn't sound anywhere near as fun a project as cover design, but this one was a blast. It was way more than laying paragraphs of text down on the page. Greg wanted the interior design to match the edge and energy of the book and provided me with super fun illustrations that I could use throughout and loads of freedom for experimenting with how to use them.

The cover design was done, as I mentioned before, by Joel Amat Güell, and it's drop-dead perfect.

A lot of Joel's elements from that cover were given to me in individual, black and white form.


And Joel created special illustrations to head each chapter. Like so:


So fun, right?

One of the cool things about Glory Guitars is that it's structured around a "soundtrack." Each chapter is divided up into short sections, and each section is headed and ended with a song in this soundtrack. "Never Say Never" by Romeo Void. "Submission" by Sex Pistols. "Fun Time" by Iggy Pop. "Demirep" by Bikini Kill. The songs give flavor and a nice layer of punk history to the book but they're also nicely curated, reflecting the stories and the tones of each section. My job was to give the soundtrack its visual sense, something that would fit with the overall look of cover and interiors and evoke, of course, music. Music and edginess and, since these were breaks between sections... breakiness.

Joel made us a couple small CD illustrations in the style of the rest of his art, and I arranged things like so, referencing the way the subtitle is styled on the cover.




It was fun to be loose and scrappy with these, make them different every time. The challenge was fitting everything elegantly on the page. If the text came too far down, for example, there wasn't enough space for a soundtrack break but too much empty space left at the bottom. The added element of footnotes on some pages made this challenge even harder. Then the big challenge came in the proofing process, where small changes were being made in the book, and each tiny change could set off a chain reaction to the spacing for the rest of the chapter.

Chapter openers had the special Joel illustration, with some added styling of my own, plus a soundtrack song to start them off.


As I worked through the pages, arranging text and artwork, I found and listened to lots of the songs in Gogo's soundtrack.  I don't know much punk, although I've always like the hypertensive, raw sound of it. It was fun to immerse myself in her chosen songs as I put together the interior of her book.

I won't share all the different touches, but I'll say that I extra enjoyed blinging up her author photos...


...and doing a little Glory Guitars treatment to Patti Smith's epigraph.


Glory Guitars
is available for preorder in all the main places, like Indiebound, and also on the University of Hell Press website where you have the added bonus that you can choose from five different variant color covers. It's officially out on October 11, which is also the International Day of the Girl. A cool promo video, is here. Here's an excerpt to let you know just what kind of punk grrrl you're dealing with:

By age fifteen, we had discovered an intricate infra-structure of debauchery across Fort Collins. Our entire network of punks and degenerates knew its secrets. We knew which liquor stores sold to minors: the cramped chunk of cement on Riverside Drive with a view of the train tracks; the more wholesome, suburban wine shop where parents might shop, yet they surprisingly didn’t ID. We knew which cafes would let underage people smoke inside: Max’s Subsonic—an old house turned café, with rooms to get lost in, that threw actual parties for underage kids—plus late nights at IHOP, and within the dingy, red-painted walls of Paris on the Poudre, the goth cafe. While I’m glad for the health of today’s youth, I almost feel bad they won’t ever experience the dirtbag tang of indoor smoking.

Teenage haunts are havens for illicit activity that are hidden in plain sight; they often have short names easily whispered in a pinch. The Ditch. The Dam. The Path. I knew the Path was a hard place the day one of the skaters shot a new girl at school with a duck gun as his friends erupted in laughter. I was horrified, but the fact that I didn’t do anything to help still haunts me.

There was the Starlite, the downtown punk club as shitty as its glittery aspirational name suggests. It hosted many of my friends’ bands, touring acts, and it even hosted an impromptu show in the parking lot featuring ALL, former members of the Descendents. Plus, the occasional party where girls wrestled in kiddie pools of Jell-O.

The memories of such parties and locations are often mysterious. I have a hazy memory of participating in Jell-O wrestling at the Starlite but can’t be sure. It happened during Corinne’s and my wrestling phase, a brief period when we couldn’t even be together without her getting an evil glint in her eye before thrashing me on whatever PBR-soaked carpet or viscid floor we were on. I have a glimpse of a memory of the Starlite, and looking down to see my white tee soaked in syrupy red. I have another piece of a memory of making out with a skater boy, Shane, in the back of a crashing car. Kitty was backing out and lodged the car into a pole.

~

*Not wanting to not give credit where it's due, the front cover photos were by the decidedly G-less Carri Lawrence.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Book cover: No God Like the Mother

Recently, Forest Avenue Press acquired reprint rights to Kesha Ajọsẹ-Fisher's story collection No God Like the Mother. It was originally published in 2019—and in 2020 won the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction!—but the press that published it, Portland's Inkwater Press, closed its doors and the book went out of print.  Later this year, Forest Avenue Press will be bringing it back and giving it national distribution through Publishers Group West. It's an honor to play a small part in the relaunch of this amazing book by creating a new cover for it. 

It's daunting, too. After all, you want to honor the original but still make it new.

I designed a new cover for a reissue once before, for Sara Lippmann's Doll Palace. In that instance, we wanted a completely new cover, but I incorporated a small reference to the original art into my new design. For No God Like the Mother, the original cover art was created by author Kesha Ajọsẹ-Fisher's own daughter, Omo’Dara Ajọsẹ-Fisher! It's a fabulous line drawing of a woman wearing a headscarf and hoop earrings, standing with her back to the viewer. 

Because of the obvious personal connection between Kesha and her original cover artist, we wanted to create the new design as an homage to that art. But I'll admit that I procrastinated a bit at the beginning of the project. I had a lot of who-am-I-to thoughts. Who am I to take this art and make it something new? An impostor? A usurper? A wannabe who might not be up to the task?

I thought about films that remake the original, how each stand on their own. 

I thought about a recent art series of my husband Stephen O'Donnell (Re:Pose), in which he created new paintings based on classic works, swapping the genders of subjects and using it to say new things.



With that, I started to find my way in, and I quickly got caught up in the task of recreation. Homage is a seductive exercise. Some of my favorite projects have been ones that allowed me to pay homage to something else—pulp magazines for City of Weird, illuminated manuscripts for The Alehouse at the End of the World. For No God Like the Mother, it was content rather than style that I was paying homage to. The single subject, back to the camera, the head scarf, the earrings. I used it all and worked to make it something new.


It turned out that I needed only one basic sample to send to Publisher Laura Stanfill, for her to in turn send to Kesha, and everyone was happy all around. From there it was small tweaks as we arranged the blurb and added the award badge. And then one last step made things really special.

Laura and Kesha discussed adding the Nigerian translation of the title, No God Like the Mother, to the cover. Kesha got us the translation and I thought on how best to incorporate it cleanly and unconfusingly, and we had our cover.

No God Like the Mother will be out sometime later this year, depending on the current supply chain issues. More info is here. And here's an excerpt!

“All my children came with the rain,” she said. “This one will, too.” Her voice was feather-light. She looked down at her protruding belly. “Even the ones fighting to stay inside have no choice when the sky opens.” She held up three fingers. “I walked to the tents by myself, three times, and never came home with my children.” Shifting on her bottom, she continued: “1960, independence for Nigeria, a sweet year, even here in Ile Omi. I heard of a new midwife across the river. When I tried to cross, the river threw me this way and that. I kept moving and singing to chase the pain away. I sang about birds hiding from rain, and inside, you kicked and kicked. When I mentioned the birds returning after the rain to steal fattened worms, you were quiet.”

Saturday, July 9, 2022

A dozen random things about my aunt Kathy

1. When I was a kid, her nickname for my little sister Edina was "My Pal."

2. She was a huge lover of animals and her house was always full of dogs, cats, and at one point, birds. The first animals I remember were the dog trio of Bingo, Domino, and Hopscotch.

3. Once when she was living in Brussels, Belgium, young and partying, she decided to stow away on a boat bound for America, and they had to dock in Cherbourg to offload her and send her off to call home from the hoosegow.

4. She was a great audience and if you were at a comedy show, a lit event, a performance of a family song, a drag show you put on for your fortieth birthday, you could always hear her laugh over the rest.

5. She always insisted on paying the bill when she went out to eat with you. The only way you could get her to let you pay is if you were stealthy and pretended to go to the bathroom in the middle of the meal and pulled the server aside and slipped them your credit card.

6. This from my kid diary, June 3, 1985 (spelling errors intact): "We awoke around seven to get ready to leave and we left around 8. We were listening to one of my Beatles tapes and it was great. But, this wierd guy in a truck did something to Kathy that provoked her to shoot him the finger. This truck started following us at 85 miles per hour, easy. Really close. We sped up. It still followed. We finaly slowed to let him pass and the guy actually tried to bump at us as he passed! Well, we took down the licence number and tried to report him, but we weren’t successful. But, we didn’t get killed, so it’s alright."

7. She's the reason most of my life is what it is today. She sent me the CD of Rufus Wainwright's Poses, which led me to the Rufus Wainwright message board, which led me to hearing about an art show by an artist named Stephen O'Donnell, which led me to see the art show on a visit to Portland, which led me to write the artist a fan email, which led to an online friendship, which led me to visit Portland again to meet him, which also led me to meet Kathy's friend Steve Arndt, which led me to meet Tom Spanbauer and to learn about Dangerous Writing, all of which led me to move to Portland, marry Stephen, study writing under Tom, work for Powell's, dot, dot, dot. At our wedding we told a hopefully more truncated version of this story, and Stephen summed it up with: "No Kathy, no party."

8. Another moment from a kid diary, September 1, 1985: "Last night, we went over to Kathy & Mike’s to see them for dinner. Fred cooked beans and rice. After dinner, Edina and I had a great talk with Kathy. All about life and morals and philosophies, and friends, juicy things like that. A really spicy conversation."

9. She had a great eye. In the last years, she got really into art, doing lots of lovely sketches and paintings. Earlier in her life, she made her own darkroom and took and developed really great pictures.

10. When she broke her hip and was in the hospital for surgery, and I offered to go get her some supplies like pillow, brush, iPod, she asked me to sneak her in some weed.

11. She was endlessly generous, supporting so many people in so many ways. Friends, family, houseless folks, many different organizations. She was for years the sponsor of the Burnt Tongue reading series and the Portland Writers Picnic.

12. She really rocked that pink hair.

Saturday, July 2, 2022

Book cover: Plums for Months

I'm very excited for Forest Avenue Press' next memoir, Zaji Cox's Plums for Months. Publisher Laura Stanfill describes it this way:

As a neurodivergent child in a hundred-year-old house, Zaji Cox collects grammar books, second-hand toys, and sightings of feral cats. She dances and cartwheels through self-discovery and doubt, guided by her big sister and their devoted single mother. Through short essays that evoke the abundant imagination of childhood, Plums for Months explores the challenges of growing up mixed race and low-income on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon.

The book was submitted for consideration under the working title The Gresham House, but when Laura and I first started discussing cover design, she and Zaji were separately in talks about different possible titles. Still, whether that house was in the title or not, it's a very important element in the book, and in brainstorming thoughts for the cover, Laura threw out the idea of a house, small within the frame, surrounded by the trees of its forested backyard. Specifically cedars. I wanted to make it look like the actual Gresham house of Zaji's childhood. I asked if she could get me pictures. But Zaji couldn't find photos that showed enough of it, and sadly, the house is no longer there.

I drew some cedars in Illustrator as I waited to find out if we could get a good picture of the house, and in the meantime, Laura and Zaji finally settled on the title, Plums for Months: A Memoir of Nature and Neurodivergence.

When Laura forwarded an email from Zaji that had info on the house (we thought maybe I could Google Earth the address back to the time the house was still there, although I couldn't figure out how that's done), the email thread came with some lovely back and forth as Laura and Zaji worked through title ideas, and this commentary on what Laura liked about the title Plums for Months really caught my eye:

"The abundance in it, the single mom raising two girls in a house with fruit right outside the door, the sweetness of your relationships, how this book is not full of trauma, but of wonder. How you receive and receive from the outdoors at the Gresham House, how it never gets old or boring to you—you keep finding joy in nature. Even the hard things in your book come with wonder and surprise, not fury or anger. I also love that evocation of senses—purples and sweetness..."

And a little further down:

"PLUMS FOR MONTHS has a sense of delight, that delight you felt as a kid and put on the page, and I think that's why it's at the top of my list. The gift of a tree. Of land with trees that fruit."

I was struck by two things in Laura's remarks. First that this memoir is not full of trauma but of wonder—something we could all use right now. And second, the importance, in the book, of abundance. Of sweetness and the gifts of nature. The word abundance kept following me around as I mulled the design. And I started to see plum branches (and, oh my gosh, plum branches are the definition of abundant) cradling the title, subtitle, and author name. So, I put the house aside for a while and started building plum branches.

No thought to color at the start, just creating shapes and tossing out reds and blues and yellows to distinguish between the elements.


Often I work on more than one concept at a time for a book cover, but the plum branches sort of consumed me. 

Maybe part of my obsession with it was what was going on in my life outside of this work. I spent a weekend full of worry because a very close loved-one was in the hospital, and all I could do, when not talking back and forth with family, was build plum branches. 


I made plums and leaves while worrying about learning bad news, I made plums and leaves while finally learning better news. By the beginning of the week, as she was heading home from the hospital, I was surprised to find a fully formed cover design that I really loved.  I played around with where the blurb should go and sent samples to Laura. 



Laura was happy with what she saw. She chose which one she liked best, and we decided to go ahead and see what Zaji thought. I did a little more refining and added some stars and then Laura sent it to Zaji.


Zaji was happy, too, but had one request. "I wonder if there's a way to incorporate cat imagery...without it seeming too obvious." Ah, yes, the feral cats! 

I liked the idea and started thinking on how best to incorporate them without taking away from the design. I liked her thought of not making them too obvious. They could maybe be a surprise you come upon. Laura was brainstorming right away: "I wonder if a cat could be sitting facing the reader with its head at the bottom of the plum wreath, almost like it’s wearing the plums. Or like a jigsaw puzzle with ears jutting into the wreath. It could be this same color scheme—a black and teal cat or whatever, not a realistic one. Or a turned-head silhouette on the top left, overlapping the trees? Or there could be a hidden cat (or cats) within the plums, so only people who are really paying attention see them. I’m thinking more silhouettes like the trees, more than photographs or anything. If you think you could add a touch of cat."

Heh. A touch of cat.

I was particularly interested in her idea to hide the shape of a cat or cats within the coloration of the plums. But I started a little more literal, creating a simple silhouette cat and moving it around, seeing what happened. I kind of loved the fact that it's easy for cat ears to camouflage as leaf tips, and there was something distinctly catlike about having them hide in the greenery. I sent back a couple versions of the cover with my touch of cat, and Laura and Zaji liked them and both chose their favorite—the same favorite—and we had our cover (stand-in blurb included to show balance).




Plums for Months will be out in May of 2023. More info is on the Forest Avenue Press site here.

Here's an excerpt!

*

As the rain of autumn becomes the rain of winter, the mother and older daughter keep the house warm with chopped firewood and the downstairs heater that sometimes works. Summer finally arrives to bring enough blackberries, blueberries, grapes, apples, and plums for months. Hands scrape past thorns and reach above tall branches to pick the very best fruits to cook with. The younger daughter helps cut back the invasion of blackberry bushes around the sides of the house whose vines tap the windows; her small hands curl around hedge clippers and reach as close to the roots as possible. With nimble fingers she helps mend the broken downstairs window with plastic and tape. 

Some nights, the three listen to the wind howl, the house creak, or the rain and wet tree branches thrum against the house, and continue to adjust to the new nature. They huddle closer in the living room, closer to their popcorn and movie and each other, and let the outside music play in the background.