Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Book Cover: Edie on the Green Screen

I was recently engaged by one of my favorite publishers, 7.13 Books, to design a book cover for their upcoming novel Edie On the Green Screen.

The book is the first novel of bestselling writer Beth Lisick (Everybody Into the Pool). Here's the publisher's book description:

Edie Wunderlich was a twenty-eight year-old It Girl in late ‘90s San Francisco, on the cover of the city’s alt-weekly, repping the freak party scene on the eve of the first dotcom boom. Fast-forward twenty years, and Edie hasn’t changed, but the city has. Still a bartender in the Mission, Edie now serves a seemingly never-ending stream of tech bros while the punk rock parties of the millennium’s end are long gone. When her mother dies, leaving Edie her Silicon Valley home, Edie finds herself mourning in the center of the Bay Area’s tech monoculture, and embarks on perhaps a last-ditch quest to hold on to her rebel heart.

How cool does that sound! Well, when publisher Leland Cheuk began to talk to me about book cover design, he said Beth had some ideas he liked: 

As far as covers, I'd like something bold and graphic. I think that chroma key green of the green screen would be a cool element, and it might be nice to see a female figure in shadow/all black in front of it, and then be able to see it's a backdrop and the green screen is in front of a wall or something.

I liked these ideas a lot. Leland said Beth would also like the cover to reflect the setting of San Francisco, and for that he suggested the Golden Gate Bridge as a landmark. Actually, he said "the GG Bridge," and me with my name, I made a joke about a Gigi Bridge and... Well, anyway I started there, spending a Saturday morning building the Golden Gate Bridge from vectors and pixels.

Beth suggested a woman walking toward the camera, so I built a woman, next, and started positioning her on the page in front of a green screen, tossing the beginnings of words down where it seemed they'd fit. Yeah, my early sketches are never impressive...

A green screen, in case you don't know, is a screen like the ones used in news shows where a meteorologist can stand in a studio and talk about the weather and it looks like they're standing in front of a huge map of the country with high pressure symbols bearing down on Minnesota. A green screen can take you anywhere. Sometimes those screens are blue, but most often nowadays they're green—a specific green called chroma key green, in fact. (I didn't know this until Beth mentioned the name.) I looked up that color and found out it's equal to 354C in the Pantone color matching system or 81, 0, 92, 0 on the CMYK color scale, and I used those values to get the color green for my green screen.

I liked the idea of showing, on the cover, the illusion a green screen can create, with the central figure of Edie creating the line between fantasy and reality, between the real green screen and the fantasy of San Francisco that I was creating with my Golden Gate Bridge. It made me think of the disconnect between Edie's present life and the life she used to have.

So I built my bridge, my woman, and my green screen, and I moved them around on the page. I created some flood lights to go along with my television studio setup, but the layout was getting crowded. Along with the green screen and the woman and the Golden Gate Bridge, I needed to fit the title, the author name, and a blurb.

I realized most of the title would fit really nicely on the woman, and a design began to emerge.

No, not that one. But it was a start.

The energy of the book seemed to lend itself to a hand-lettered approach, but I started to realize I wanted it to be all lowercase, a type treatment with a bit of cursive in it. And set at a slant to get some movement and energy into things. I love hand-lettering on book covers because the lettering itself seems to belong to the book and to the author.

As I was sending samples back and forth and discussing tweaks with Leland and Beth, Beth's husband pointed out that because she had an image of the Golden Gate Bridge on another of her books, it might be smart to find something new. They suggested Sutro Tower, which is this.

As it turned out, nixing the bridge in favor of the tower allowed for a bit of breath that we felt was needed in the design, and we finally had our cover.

Edie on the Green Screen, by Beth Lisick and published by 7.13 Books, will be out in spring of 2020.

More info is here.

Here's an excerpt to whet your appetite!

Tanya put some powder on me, to suck the shininess out, before I stepped out on the floor in front of the green screen and tried to be loose. If only I’d brought my flask.

“What did you win?” the photographer asked. “I should probably know this, but we’re doing so many today.”

I paused for a second to consider the possibilities of an intelligent answer, but there wasn’t one. “I,” I pressed my palms into my eyeballs, “am the It Pal.”

“It Pal?”

“I know. They told me they had voted me It Girl, but then that was probably sexist which, okay, and if they had an It Girl, they’d have to have an It Boy, and there was something about it being gendered and they couldn’t agree on who to vote for and it all sounds so dumb. Like high school, right? The weekly news- paper is anointing the citizens of our city with stupid titles and no one is taking to the streets about it. Where is the outrage?” I shook my fist in the air and added a dopey smile. I wanted her to like me.

An editor at the paper popped out from the sidelines to defend her publication, a once-independently owned enterprise that was now run by a national conglomerate, fighting against their failure to be what they wanted to be above all else: “edgy” and “local.” The editor extended her hand, making things feel way more formal than they needed to.

“Our idea for the It Issue was to come up with categories that we’ve never had before and make it fresh,” she said, running her hand through her shoulder-length waves. “That’s why we have things like the It Pornographer, the It Tagger, and the It Vegan.” The pleasure she took in saying these phrases made me squirm. She was trying so hard. Give her five years and she’d be living in Mill Valley, popping out kids, and feeling competitive about her workout.

“I think that’s the thing,” the photographer said, ignoring her, which pleased me immensely. “What you’re doing right now. Keep not smiling if you want.” She pointed the camera at me while I tried to look through her, or through the camera and then through her, through the brick wall of the studio and out onto the alley where there were people in wheelchairs with their heads taped up. An alley of hacking coughs and oozing gauze and cheap coffee and forties and a lot of freebase. South of Market was like triage at an outdoor hospital.

As the shutter clicked repeatedly, I realized I was having a “peak experience,” a phrase I once heard a Jewish shaman named Vicki use referring to what could only be the beginning of one’s decline. There I was, summoned to a photographer’s warehouse on a wintry day to get my picture taken with the rest of the winners. It’s clear to me now that I was going down.

In The Heights at Portland Center Stage

In the Heights, the award-winning musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, is three days in the life of a mostly Hispanic-American neighborhood in Washington Heights, New York. Usnavi de la Vega, whose first name comes from the first sight his parents spied when they arrived in America from the Dominican Republic (a ship with a sign reading US Navy), owns a bodega in the center of the barrio but dreams of getting out and returning to the land his people came from. Also living and working here are Kevin Rosario, the ambitious owner of a taxicab business; Benny, his dispatcher and the one non-Spanish-speaker around; and Abuela Claudia, the loving matriarch of the barrio. Kevin's daughter Nina, the one often praised for being the first to "make it out," has just returned from Stanford University, not quite ready to tell her parents and friends that she has dropped out.

There's also Vanessa, the salon worker who dreams of having her own apartment outside the barrio but can't afford the down-payment, and the Piragua Guy, who sells Puerto Rican shaved ice in fierce competition with Mister Softee. There are relationship problems and thwarted ambitions and a huge citywide blackout during an intense heat wave, not to mention the winning lottery ticket that has just been sold at Usnavi's store, but through it all, the central theme in In the Heights is home.

What does home mean? Is it something to endure, something to go out and find, something you're given, something you create?

The answer, of course, is yes, but it's much more interesting an answer when it comes with the music and drama and wit of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. We saw Saturday night's performance of the production put on by Portland Center Stage, one of my favorite Portland theaters. I've never seen Hamilton and didn't know what to expect with In the Heights. I'll admit that at first I was afraid it would be difficult to follow for the likes of me. As the music began, the rhymes and the wordplay were coming at me so fast, but by halfway through that first piece, my brain had caught up and I was along for the ride. Here's a little taste:

I am Usnavi, and you prob’ly never heard my name
Reports of my fame are greatly exaggerated
Exacerbated by the fact that my syntax
Is highly complicated 'cause I immigrated
From the single greatest little place in the Caribbean:
Dominican Republic!
I love it!
Jesus, I’m jealous of it
And beyond that
Ever since my folks passed on
I haven’t gone back
Goddamn, I gotta get on that...

I can be kind of a jerk when it comes to modern musicals. Well, at least inside my head. There's a sameness and a preciousness and... just a sound I don't always enjoy. But In the Heights is different. The music is a mix of salsa and rap, feeling like the best of America: the vibrancy of its diversity and the energy of its perseverance. And it's so darn fun. The orchestra for Portland Center Stage's production, led by Eugenio A. Vargas, is tight, and the singing is first rate. And there's plenty of dancing by the whole, large cast. Including breakdancing! So much energy, so nonstop. We had to wonder how pooped the cast was when they finished the show.

See in the above picture? That balcony above the bodega? Not only does some of the action of the performance take place up there, but the whole band—keyboards, reeds, guitar, trumpet, bass, drums—is mounted up there. Like the music is a part of the barrio, which feels perfect.

Some of my favorite parts in the show were delivered by secondary characters. Lillian Castillo was fantastic as Daniela, the feisty salon owner and neighborhood gossip, and I loved whenever she was suddenly, surprisingly belting it out on stage.

Center: Lillian Castillo as Daniela

Another high point for me was "Enough," the song sung by Camila, the mother of Nina and the wife of Kevin, as she gives them both a piece of her mind about all their fighting and pig-headedness that's been driving the family apart. Carmine Alers performs the song with equal parts fierceness, funniness, and grace. It's a wonderful surprising turn for the character, and it's delivered beautifully. After the show, I looked up and watched some clips of that song to enjoy it again, and I found actors who tried to push too much tragedy or too much rage into their performances. Alers' delivery felt exactly as the song should be.

Left: Carmine Alers as Nina

The night we saw the show, one of the actors must have been sick, because there was a cascading of understudies in a handful of characters, and one of the very biggest parts in the production, Nina, the romantic lead, was played by someone who doesn't normally play the part. She was great! Energetic and confident and nuanced and seemed like she must have been performing that character from the start. I don't know how much practice time understudies get, but Paola Hernández, who pinch-hit as Nina, and Emily Madigan, who pinch-hit as Carla, were both terrific. As was Debra Cardona, who's doing a short run as Abuela Claudia. 

It says something about the actors, of course, but it also says something about the production as a whole, and how well it works together. Portland Center Stage's In the Heights works together very well. It's one of those shows where, in the end, you think that maybe the most important "cast member" is the ensemble. It sure feels that way when the stage is alive with music and dance. Like the rollicking "Carnaval del Barrio," the song that celebrates finding joy in both good times and bad, In the Heights, through all the plot's ups and downs, is simply a really good time.

It's playing now through October 13. More information is here.

Photos by Owen Carey/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Poster art by Mikey Mann.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

a moment in the day: cherry

The grocery cashier picks up my bottle of tart cherry juice. "What do you do with this?" she asks.

"My husband mixes it with bubbly water, but I drink it straight," I say.

She looks close at the bottle. "You just drink it straight?"

"I really like things with a whole lot of flavor," I say. "It's really tart and just has a lot of flavor."

She runs the cherry juice over the scanner and the scanner beeps. "I don't do condiments," she says. "I like my flavor to be in my food. I don't buy plain tortilla chips and dip them in salsa. I get tortilla chips with the salsa already on them."

"Oh, that's smart," I say. I don't think it's necessarily smart, but I don't know what else to say.

She runs my kale and Stephen's smoked turkey through the scanner, puts them in the bag.

"If I buy mayonnaise, it's just complicated," she says. "Then I have to think, do I buy bread? Do I buy ham? Maybe I make tuna fish."

I could eat mayonnaise with a spoon. For a moment, I think about telling this to the grocery cashier, but I decide against it. The fact that you could eat mayonnaise with a spoon is probably not something you should be telling people.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

a moment in the day: valerie

Oh man, it hurts my heart to find out that Valerie Harper has died. Is it weird to be this sad when a celebrity dies? After all, I didn't know that person. And anyway, Valerie Harper didn't create Rhoda, she just was Rhoda, so why should I mourn Rhoda, because really, yeah, I guess I'm mourning Rhoda.

The thing about Rhoda is that when something bad happened, she was like, oh rats. She was like, damn it! I don't remember what she actually said, but that's the feeling I got. Sincere, regular old disappointment. Sometimes mixed with sardonic humor. Rhoda was like my... whatever the opposite of a doppelgänger is. When something bad happened in my life (or almost happened, or might possibly happen), my reaction was tragedy. Horror. At the very least, dread. In school when my one pushy bully of a friend was absent and I had to figure out how to navigate the lunch hour without her and probably hide in the library, I was bereft. When maybe I would have been better off had I said, rats! Damn it! And gone off to try to find someone else to hang out with.

I basically felt, and often told myself, throughout my childhood and much of my young adulthood, that my life was a sad one. Sad can breed sad, when you don't know how to Rhoda.

Maybe it wasn't just Rhoda. I'm sure plenty of other fictional characters out there know how to Rhoda. Mary Richards for sure. My mom certainly knows how to say rats! Damn it! And do what needs to be done to make things better.

I was more the Brenda Morgenstern of the family, carting my self esteem problems all over the country once I left home and joined the circus. I should have had more fun. I was a clown, for god's sake. I should have taken a tip from Rhoda:

Didn't make 'em laugh in the ring again? Rats.

None of the women will talk to you in the women's dressing room? Rats.

Got to get up at five in the morning and stand under a street lamp in the forty degree chill to put your makeup on because the circus generator's still off, so you can get carted off to stand around a used car lot and hand out promotional flyers for the circus for three hours? Rats.

Married for fifteen years to a man you don't really love?

I didn't like to tell myself, because I didn't like change and I didn't like confrontation, but what I really wanted was to leave.

One of the problems with the circus is that you're always together. Working together, living in a tiny, little van together. But once in a while he was booked to do a short engagement on his own. Some spot date that needed a single clown or a ringmaster. He'd pack himself off and I might have a week to myself at the apartment. It didn't happen too many times, but each time, I did the same thing. I walked downtown to the little bakery. I bought a cake.

Yellow cake with fluffy frosting. Hazelnut. Or lemon. Raspberry jam between the layers. The thick smell of sugar in my small apartment.

Every night, I cut myself a piece. I set myself up in front of the TV and maybe I ate it for dessert and maybe I ate it for dinner. I relaxed with my little Chihuahua on the couch. I watched Rhoda.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Book Cover: The Royal Abduls

I've been having fun working on the book cover for Ramiza Shamoun Koya's upcoming book The Royal Abduls, due out in spring, 2020, by Forest Avenue Press. Here's the description from the publisher:

Ramiza Shamoun Koya’s debut novel weaves together the lives of an evolutionary biologist and her eleven-year-old nephew, who is struggling with his cultural identity in post 9/11 Washington, D.C. Omar’s mother is white, and his first-generation American father never wants to talk about India. Or what it means to be Muslim, especially after what happened with the planes. When Amina leaves the West Coast for a D.C. lab job studying hybrid zones, Omar’s parents begin relying on her for childcare. Amina finds her nephew curious and lonely. Despite the demands of her male-dominated workplace and her preference for solitude, she befriends Omar and begins to form a clearer picture of her brother’s seemingly perfect life. Amina’s hesitant romance with a Sikh cricket coach and bookstore owner blossoms as Omar’s parents’ marriage fractures. THE ROYAL ABDULS, a family drama about the lives of secular Muslims post-9/11, engages with the struggles of women in the workplace, the difficulties of maintaining relationships in a fragmented America, and what it means to truly be yourself.

One of the main threads of the story is that eleven-year-old Omar creates a fantasy in which he's descended from Indian royalty. While trying to trace his family tree and learn all about the country of his father's people, Omar tries in every way he can to own some piece of his Indian heritage, royal or not, even affecting an Indian accent at school.

Thinking about Omar's beloved fantasy, I pictured two cityscapes, one right-side up and one upside down, one American, one Indian.

I started by building some elements. Townhouses, trees, the Washington Monument, the Capitol, all to represent the American half.

For India, I started with the Taj Mahal. The definitive Indian structure. In learning about the country, Omar would surely have discovered and wondered over the exotic beauty of its huge dome and flanking minarets

Then I found out where Omar's ancestors hailed from: a city called Hyderabad. The major landmark in Hyderabad is a monument and mosque called Charminar.

So I knew that needed to go in there too.

Most of the work I did in creating the cover for The Royal Abduls was in moving around my elements, adding and discarding them, choosing just which should be included and how their arrangement would look best on the page.

One thing I like to do in my process is overdo things and then have to go back and simplify. I loved the detail of illuminated windows in my buildings, but putting them all together in a design was just too busy. So for the India half, the detailed silhouettes became straight silhouettes. For the America half, having one window stand out evoked a sense of intimacy that I liked. I did a lot of tinkering.

Simple got even simpler. I shared samples and consulted with publisher Laura Stanfill and author Ramiza Shamoun Koya, and as we narrowed things down, the landmarks of Washington DC got left at the wayside in favor of a simple line of townhouses representing home.

Laura thought the element of the moon felt unnecessary, so it went away. I tried a bit of a border, but we discarded that too. I played with some fancier lettering, but in the end we went with simple again, afraid that fancy might blur into exotic, which can easily slide into cultural appropriation like the Asian-flavored lettering on a Chinese takeout box.

What I think all of us wanted was a simple design that would allow the eye to focus on the geographic information of America/India and for the mind to pick up on the hand-in-hand themes of longing and home.

The Royal Abduls will be out in May of 2020. More information is here.

Here's an excerpt.

A couple of weeks later, Amina arrived at Omar’s private school a few minutes early for her presentation. She stood at the door in the back of the classroom, pushing her hair off the hot back of her neck while the teacher finished her lesson on democratic principles. Amina had first put on jeans, then traded them for khakis, but they were too loose to look actually professional, and she had already sweated through her button-up.

The school was a fairly exclusive one, the opposite of the scruffy public schools she and Omar’s father had attended. Omar’s classroom was bright and neat and new, and the students sat in groups rather than rows.

“Who exactly gets to vote in a democracy?” the teacher asked. Omar raised his hand from a front table, his eyes bigger than ever, his chin raised in eagerness. To Amina’s astonishment, he answered using a heavily applied Indian accent.

“It is depending,” he began, “on which period in history we are speaking of.”

Amina peered at him. He was second generation, born in America with a white mother and a father who had never spoken with an ethnic inflection in his life. Omar was speaking like his grandparents, like Amina’s parents, like a real, bona fide, not raised in the States or maybe even just recently arrived, Indian. Actually, it seemed a little exaggerated, like Apu from The Simpsons.

a moment in the day: float

I don't know how long I've been floating in this sensory deprivation tank. The session is supposed to last ninety minutes and right now I'm thinking maybe I've been floating for two hours. And I'm thinking maybe I've been floating for thirty minutes. There was that indeterminate amount of time at the beginning where I was drifting here waiting for them to turn the lights out before I realized I was the one who was supposed to turn the lights out—how long was that?—and I have no idea how long it's been since.

I've probably been doing this wrong. Surprised by the texture of the silk-slick water, I've spent a bunch of time moving around, running my arms and legs through it, setting myself to swirling and bobbing in the black. Staging my own private Busby Berkeley By a Waterfall musical number to no music.

By the name, a sensory deprivation tank is supposed to be about getting you out of your body and into your mind, but I've been completely anchored in my body the whole time, hyper-aware of the strange buoy of myself in the water, the tiny droplets ticking across my skin, the sound of my heartbeat behind the muffle of the earplugs.

At the same time, I'm uncomfortable in my body when there's no clothing to separate me from myself. I've been trying to lay my body out across this weird cushion of water and allow myself to just be. I don't know how to do that.

My brain says to me: let yourself go.

My brain says to me: don't be afraid to be big in the world.

I'm not the size I was when I was forty. Thirty. Ye gods, twenty. When we're no longer young enough to be Busby Berkeley girls with tiny, youthful bodies, we spend far too much time wishing we could shrink and hide ourselves, and truth be told, it would be nice to know how to allow myself to be big in the world.

The drift of the water presses my shoulder softly against the edge of the tub. I reach out and push myself off, into a twirl.


Being big in the world could also mean letting yourself get away with doing what you want for once. Stopping all that worrying about whether you're doing it wrong like I've been worrying about whether I'm doing this wrong. I wonder what Stephen's doing in the next tank over. Maybe he's meditating peacefully, having epiphanies in the bobbing blackness. I should be having epiphanies.

I'll bet like forty percent of people pee in the tank.

OK, fourteen. Maybe fourteen.

I lay my body out across this weird cushion of water and try to allow myself to just be.

My brain says to me: to be big in the world, you have to reach beyond yourself.

You have to do something big and good, something that's not about yourself. Working and coming home and hanging out with friends and writing and designing book covers is a wonderful life, but it's not being big in the world.

The music begins, to signal the end of the session.

My brain says to me: what are you going to do?

Saturday, July 27, 2019

a moment in the day: conversation

"Why doesn't he do it himself?" Stephen asks.

"No, that's the process," I say. "I put the ideas on paper and he can see how it looks."

"Sounds tedious."

"Teedjuss," I say. "I think we should pronounce it teedjuss."

"I've got to go wash my head now."

"Because I—?"

"No," he says, "I always wash my head when the water's boiling."

I leave Stephen and go upstairs to my computer. That conversation would sound a little weird, I think to myself, if someone didn't know the context.