Saturday, March 6, 2021

a moment a year ago today: butterfly

I head out of the office after a day of work. Step along the pavement, one foot and then the other. Forward is a scary direction these days. Dad going in for tests. That virus. No cases in Oregon yet. It will be here any day.

How many deaths, now? This morning on NPR there was a quote from Trump saying that it might actually be good for the economy, because look at the Japanese economy, and I swear he used the word Jap. I can’t remember the quote. I just remember saying aloud, twice, as I listened: “Did he just say Jap?”

A butterfly flits around me as I walk. It's so tiny, a fleck of ash from a campfire. I feel uncomfortable to go to the theater tonight but I guess we’ll go ahead and go? I thought of suggesting we not, but am I just being paranoid? Overreacting? I’ll bet the theater will be pretty empty. I don’t know.

It will be here any day. How can we really know if it's not already here?

Take another step and that butterfly shoots right under my shoe.

I see this as my heel hits the pavement. And the moment slows down. Heel on pavement, the ball of my foot suspended, stopped, the muscles in the top of my foot clenched to hold it just above the sidewalk.

My body is carried forward into the next step. My foot pulls up. In a tiny white flash, the butterfly flies away.

Monday, February 22, 2021

a moment in the day: rain

Sitting at my computer, 2:30 in the afternoon, working, and my phone makes a blink of sound. One of those alerts. I look over at the thing sitting face up on the tabletop.

It says:

The U.S. has surpassed 500,000 COVID-19 deaths.

An unfathomable number. 

I take a moment of silence.. Weirdly, I feel like maybe other people, maybe picking up their phones, are doing this too.

A sparse rain is making a patter on the roof. Sparse enough that you can hear almost every drop, tick, tick.

I wonder how long it would take to hear half a million raindrops.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Book Cover: Doll Palace

In March, 7.13 Books is going to be doing a rerelease of Sara Lippmann's short story collection Doll Palace. It was originally released in 2014 by Dock Street Press. Here's the original cover.

It was interesting to work on a book that had already had a cover. It puts you instantly in a bit of a competition with that cover, like will my cover pale in comparison?

Publisher Leland Cheuk described the book and its title to me this way:

Doll Palace is a reference to a pastry shop named Doll Palace in the book. But thematically, the book is kind of about Jewish girls and moms behaving badly, in surprising and subversive ways, thus the antitheses of what a doll represents.

Ooh, surprising and subversive! I was definitely intrigued. And the author had some ideas about imagery to use:

one of those "take me" boxes found on city sidewalks. with maybe a toy missing an eye. (but maybe the creepy doll image is overplayed?)

or a cardboard doll house with a roof caved in

or yeah, we could somehow give a nod to those crumbled paper dolls

Of all Sara's thoughts, I liked the idea of combining concept number one with a hint of number three. I didn't think creepy doll was overplayed—maybe for scary books and movies, but if you're going for dark humor, I think it's great—and I loved the idea of a free box. It felt like a wonderful match-up with the title, the battered box standing in for the palace. But I also loved the idea of including an homage to the cool original book cover, so perhaps a string of those paper dolls could be hanging over the side of the box.

Leland sent me a copy of the manuscript and I started skimming through it, looking for ideas for objects to include in the free box. With no real time to read the book, I did keyword searches. Objects found in the home. Objects people give away. Let's see, moms behaving badly... whisky?... wine? I didn't find too many references. Bottle? I found baby bottles. I made a list. I googled tacky gift and looked at the results.

I liked the idea of a lamp with no shade. The harshness of a naked bulb. I liked the idea of a broken mirror. All the things you can read into that. I found some references to skateboarding in the book so I built a skateboard. And the baby doll, of course. Various different objects. I built a ceramic planter shaped like a possum because... I don't know, I just did.

A lot of these objects didn't have bottoms because they were going to be inside the box.

I built a box, too, of course, and then started putting objects in it, arranging, rearranging. Thinking on fonts and putting together samples. I figured maybe my objects would spur Leland and Sara on to thinking of other objects once I sent them their way.

I built a string of paper dolls with outwardly-flipped hairdos like on the original cover.

The baby bottle alongside the doll and bear made the whole cover skew too children's. The ceramic possum... didn't work. I tried putting the box on a sidewalk next to a curb. Meh. I tried making a drooping plant to put in the box. In its various forms of droopiness, it wasn't right for the space. I had this idea of encircling the box in a border of ornate scrollwork. It felt funny in my head. In execution it just looked frilly.

One thing was for sure. Headless doll was the way to go.

I loved the font in the samples with the scrollwork. It did what I wanted the scrollwork to do: added the irony of perceived innocence. 

Sara liked the font, too, and liked the mirror, but suggested we think on different objects to get closer to the darkness in the collection. Leland agreed that it needed more edge. Sara threw out some objects from her stories: a broken stroller, an unfurled cassette tape, a rumpled yoga mat, a lone ski pole, a sad clown. Leland sent these suggestions my way. While I was thinking on sad clowns and broken strollers, Leland wrote again with a new angle:

I’m thinking maybe the box should be filled with broken dolls of different types. Throughout there’s a theme of women dressed up for performance for the patriarchy—at any age and in any setting really. The theme extends to moms and wives performing what you’d expect of moms and wives but having subversive interior lives and desires.

There’s the story Target Girl, which is about a teen who dresses up to have knives thrown at her:

"Target girls get to dress up as if it were Halloween. I wear doilies and a duster, satin bunny ears; I have been Mae West, Pocahontas, a fringy flapper, a nurse, whatever my father finds on clearance. When you throw in the wigs they add up. Tonight’s was long and black with rich purple waves for Wonder Woman. Plated gold cuffs on the wrists. Leotards can creep up the sides but they help Blade Master see what to hit."

There’s an exotic dancer on the Jersey Shore in the story Babydollz:

"But I would never leave Rosie. At Babydollz we swap backstage looks like sisters playing dress-up. Last night I wore her Girl Scout uniform with authentic patches embroidered on the sleeve and lent her my Sail-the-Slutty-Seas nautical outfit. Her implants are bigger than mine so there was one less button to snap. It was a good night for her. No one else came close. Afterward, she drove home in my favorite sweatpants.”

There’s a mom with her family at Disneyland:

"Thing is, I’d dream of prostitution.

"From there it’s over to the Castle for cake. Violet bangs her heels into my husband’s chest, squeezes him with her thighs. My husband is all smiles and sweat. The reservation didn’t come cheap but he has promised to love my daughter as if she were his own. Below the flying buttresses banquets of girls squirm in wilted sateen. There is lipstick in their teeth, tiaras in their hair; some wear extensions of glittery curls. Violet ogles them. My husband cups her eyes as hired characters present the decorated sheet cake. Blow, princess, he says, opening his hands.”

These excerpts and what Leland said about women dressed up for performance for the patriarchy got me laser-focused. I started to build more dolls. A Barbie wearing the satin bunny ears from "Target Girls." One of those weird, big-eyed fashion dolls wearing the Sail-the-Slutty-Seas costume from "Babydolz."

I put the tiara from the Disneyland story on the baby doll whose hair has been cut and styled by an industrious child. I found I really liked turning the Barbie upside down and shoving her headfirst into the box so that all you see is her feetless perfect legs, so I pulled off her bunny ears and left them discarded next to the box.

We had lengthy discussions between the three of us as to the dolls' skin tones. Sara suggested less of a bubbly smile on the slutty sailor girl. She suggested replacing one of the broken dolls with another object from one of her stories, and I finally made her that broken stroller. 

Then Sara wondered if we needed the "Free" sign at all and advocated for removing it. Without the piece of paper taped up there, that facet of the box needed a little something, so I worked on more samples with various ideas for adding a little detail to the space. Rips, rumples, we tried moving the paper dolls there, moving the word "stories" there. In the end we decided the best element to add was more damage. 

And add the kick-ass blurb and finally we had what we wanted.

Doll Palace is due out March 1st. More info on 7.13 Books is here. More info on Sara Lippmann is here.

She's graciously allowed me to reprint "Target Girl" in its entirety for you. Enjoy.


My boyfriend is right. When my father packs in his knives where will that leave me? 

I am his Target Girl. 

We are an unlikely pair. My father is a storefront minister. His faith is non-denominational. Weddings, funerals, hospice visits, he’ll snap on a collar for anyone who needs a prayer. I’m barely passing trigonometry. 

At night he becomes my Blade Master. 

We’ve had a great run. Our family gig is a hit. We perform in community college auditoriums, at men’s clubs, rotary clubs, for VFWs, we latch onto whatever local sideshow has rolled into town. We’ll even do juvie halls and senior centers. Sometimes he straps me to a board like the kind used in pool safety at the Y. Other times I pose astride a large knobby log round. Freestanding, like my mom once did. See, I may have been born into the business but what sets me apart, Dad says, is my belief. 

Target girls get to dress up as if it were Halloween. I wear doilies and a duster, satin bunny ears; I have been Mae West, Pocahontas, a fringy flapper, a nurse, whatever my father finds on clearance. When you throw in the wigs they add up. Tonight’s was long and black with rich purple waves for Wonder Woman. Plated gold cuffs on the wrists. Leotards can creep up the sides but they help Blade Master see what to hit. 

His record is 80 throws per minute. 

Target girls do not startle or flinch. That you learn early. When the blades start flying I widen my eyes. My brows I’ve plucked razor thin; it’s a nervous tic but the braces have paid off. My smile is an inspiration. He’s my dad! He’s scraped before but never has broken through skin. 

My boyfriend has ideas. Think big, he’ll say with a mouthful of hoagie. He’s a slicer at the WaWa on Germantown Pike. He rounds up when he serves me. Slaps meat on a scale. Hey, what if I managed you? 


When I get home, my father walks outside. 

We have a satellite dish nailed to an easel in our backyard. Neighbors believe he’s an avid archer. His are no ordinary knives. They are not pared, serrated, meant for a holiday bird. Nothing you’d find in a butcher block. My father throws spikes, beil-axes, Norse hawks, 64-inch spears, Allentown steel points. During target practice we are the only two in the world. No one can come between us. I assist, round up Bowies that have bounced off and fallen on the grass, yank out the blades that have stuck. Each handle is a continuous sheet of metal from the tip down, cool in my hands, an even distribution of weight. I buff and I shine with the edge of my sweatshirt. He runs through spins and rotations. When he’s ready for me I stand in my place. In that moment I want nothing more. This is the rhythm: half, one, two, and three-turn throws but by dusk the chill’s come through, and afterward, there’s homework, dinner. 


We neither hide nor advertise although my mom says we flaunt it. People see what they want and sometimes that’s double, but actually, it is all part of the act. No one makes a living on God alone. Remember the West Philly rabbi who moonlighted as a private investigator? My boyfriend thinks we could land the nightly news, too. A minister in the impalement arts? It’s a modern day binding of Isaac! Putty in the bag, Mom says, thrusts my boyfriend a plate. 


My boyfriend booked the Turtledove. It’s our biggest venue yet. Maybe he should have asked for permission but still; you’d assume my dad would be happy. Tonight when he, I mean, when Blade Master parted the velvet curtain dressed like a prom date, red tie and cummerbund, black tails and spectator shoes, and took me by the hand, I knew he felt something else beneath the stage lights. 

The first part of the show was routine. I stretched my arms like a tree and clasped my palms chapel tight while Blade Master had at me. Ear, ear, foot, foot. I whistled Lynda Carter’s theme song. We swapped blindfolds like always. He clipped my neck. Pinned me in the armpits, right between the legs. That’s the beauty of shock and awe: A thousand eyes blinked. Then, the rush of applause. 


Lately, my father is crying. I’ll stand at the door and he’ll sniff, how about a throw, pumpkin? My A-Number-One? There’s a seed in his tooth. He’ll twirl his knife like a baton but I won’t feel like it. Or I will but Gossip Girl’s on or I’ve got a text or there’s a honk in the driveway. 

It’s his enlarged prostate, Mom says. She slides on her oven mitt, speaks to the roast she’s been basting. Looks like Blade Master’s sprung a leak. 


After intermission he rolls out the Blind Wheel of Death. The pulley drags along the floor like a bum leg. I admit I’m surprised. We have never practiced this stunt but I trust Blade Master completely. He performed it in the 80s with my mom who refuses to come to events. She can be no fun. Everyone’s watching. The wheel smells like must, like something locked away and forgotten. I climb in the pocket between two cut sheaths as I’d seen in their videotapes. Slip my hands and feet through the holds. Inside the Blind Wheel of Death Blade Master cannot see me. I spin and I spin, I am a child at Space Camp, I could squeeze water from Mars as his knives whiz by; while I spin, I think about flesh and blood. It’s easier than it looks. A wheel is symmetrical. If he can do darkness, what then is motion? Blade Master follows his formula. Between paper sheets I listen. The beats knock and I know he won’t miss. Sure enough, when he strips the cover and I step out intact, the air shoots out of the room. It’s a standing ovation. 

There must be 500 people, the sound a stampede. I throw up my arm for Blade Master. Like, how the auto mall girls do it? But when I look over I can tell he’s already left me. I stab a pinochle card; dangle it like a toasted marshmallow under his nose. How can he not see that I’m bursting? Sweat sits on his lip. When we curtsy and bow he barely moves. I swear something’s running down his leg. 


My father keeps carnival posters in the basement, adhesive crusted and dry along the wood paneling. Lithograph prints, red yellow black blotted ink. Every picture is starting to peel. Before I got into knives my father used to let me play down there with him. He’d tell stories of escape artists and fire breathers and bearded ladies. God’s children, he’d say, though my mother prefers the word freak. Supposedly, there was a time he’d throw around anything that was not nailed down until she gave him a proper external target. 


Backstage, my boyfriend says, keep the wig on. Who is he fooling? His tugs are not gentle but it’s not my real hair. Whaddya say. Let’s take this show on the road. 

Life is too short to play it safe. I wait in the wings for my father. He carries his knives around in a boxy black trunk as if they were for sale. Every prop must be inspected before it’s stored or replaced. Tonight he takes forever so we start things, and by we I mean my boyfriend. I guess it is all part of growing up. With Blade Master lost in the book of Genesis danger finds me regardless. Brooms crash into walls. I wipe my mouth on my cape. A person can go crazy just hanging around. Vegas, I tell my boyfriend. Foxwoods. Atlantic City. New York, New York. 

I’ve been honing my aim.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Book Cover: A Girl Called Rumi

In sharing the process of the designwork for Ari Honarvar's novel A Girl Called Rumi, I could talk about a number of different things. Like how I had an idea to fill the cover with different birds because the story is full of different birds, some real, some mythical, and I worked and worked to puzzle the birds together with the right balance of color and shape and in the end we scrapped the birds completely because to Ari's eyes they made the book look tropical rather than Persian.

It's an interesting aspect of cover design, how a concept can evoke one thing in your head and something completely different in execution. But another interesting aspect, and one that I haven't had a lot of chance yet to negotiate—and therefore write about—is working with elements from different cultures.

Ari grew up in Iran and now lives in San Diego, and A Girl Called Rumi is an #ownvoices story that speaks to her heritage. Here's the publisher description:

A Girl Called Rumi, Ari Honarvar’s debut novel, weaves a captivating tale of survival, redemption, and the power of storytelling. Kimia, a successful spiritual advisor whose Iranian childhood continues to haunt her, collides with a mysterious giant bird in her mother’s California garage. She begins reliving her experience as a nine-year-old girl in war-torn Iran, including her friendship with a mystical storyteller who led her through the mythic Seven Valleys of Love. Grappling with her unresolved past, Kimia agrees to accompany her ailing mother back to Iran, only to arrive in the midst of the Green Uprising in the streets. Against the backdrop of the election protests, Kimia begins to unravel the secrets of the night that broke her mother and produced a dangerous enemy. As past and present collide, she must choose between running away again or completing her unfinished journey through the Valley of Death to save her brother.

When Forest Avenue Press publisher Laura Stanfill first introduced me to the book, she gave me two calligrams Ari had drawn, for use in the design.

A Persian calligram is a form of art in which Persian letters, rendered in calligraphy, are used to create and adorn the imagery.

This one is of the Simorgh, a bird creature from Persian mythology and literature.

And this one is a hoopoe bird, which I thought at first was also mythical, but it's a real type of bird, one I'd never seen before and which totally looks like it should be mythical.


Both the hoopoe and the Simorgh are found in the pages of Ari's book. I loved the idea of using one of Ari's calligrams on the cover. What an elegant style of art, and what a wonderful way to evoke the cultural setting of much of the story.

Not too many years ago, I would have jumped at the chance to create such an image myself. But in more recent years the conversation surrounding cultural appropriation and movements such as #ownvoices have made me rethink which waters I should and should not dip my own toe into. The Persian heritage is Ari's, not mine. So it felt right that the art should be hers.

I chose the Simorgh because of how ornate the detail is and because the landscape format would give me more room to arrange the other elements around it. First I had to convert the drawing to vector art so that I could get rid of the paper background and change the color of the design at will.

Then I started experimenting with space, fitting in title and author name. Strategizing placement for a blurb. Playing around with design directions. I went a little crazy adding birds, as I mentioned before...

When Laura reported back that the birds were evoking the wrong setting, she suggested removing the single bird from one of the covers, and I pulled up a sample I'd made, but not sent, of just that, sent it to her, and they liked it.

Working with Ari's calligram, I felt a little like a curator in an art gallery, A caretaker of the piece. Deciding on which wall to hang it, where to place the placard that states title and artist. I was hyperaware of my whiteness throughout the process, wondering which of my impulses were honoring Ari's heritage and story and which might be crossing the line into appropriation territory—or just plain messing with her art too much. Was it OK to add a hint of gold into the eye? I got online and looked up Persian green, Persian red. I looked at the colors of the Iranian flag. Was it OK/good to use these colors in the design or was that stepping close to stereotypes? I let Ari's thoughts guide me, and her interest in having the visuals elicit thoughts of Iran made me feel more comfortable working in that direction.

After some back and forth about color...

...we settled on what was essentially the original color scheme I'd been playing with, which was Persian red with accents of white and gold. (Well a gold that was more a yellow, but what is gold, anyway? A slippery color, somewhere between a yellow and a brown, something that faded a little too much into the red if it wasn't punched up.)

I'd thickened the font a bit, adjusted the Rumi in space a bit. And one important change to notice in the above sample, for a couple reasons: the blurb.

"A magical journey to a world of mystical delights enchantment, and revelation. It's a page turner that goes deep into the nature of reality beyond perception.” —Deepak Chopra, MD

One reason to take note of the blurb is OMG Deepak Chopra.

But it's also important because at this point we sent the cover to our distributor, Publishers Group West, for their look. The feedback we got was that the font, along with the presence of Mr. Chopra, was making them think of a nonfiction, rather than fiction, title. So then I was experimenting with type treatments.

I like to think I learn something with each cover I work on. Sometimes it's a new way to create something, a new skill, sometimes I learn something about myself. The font I chose originally I liked because it was modern and clean. Something that had some curves, which felt right against the curves of the calligram, but something that wouldn't compete with it. PGW was suggesting something more lyrical, maybe a calligraphy font. Ari suggested something like a font she uses on her website, also a calligraphy font. I thought, no, that won't work. It will compete with the calligram. And calligraphy fonts are too fancy to use in all-caps, and lowercase letters wouldn't fit as well in the space.

I tried a calligraphy font.

It worked.

It didn't compete with the calligram after all. It was a fairly plain calligraphy font and I did a lot of altering to make it simpler and to get it to fit better, but even the introduction of lowercase letters worked better than I thought. And an adjustment here and there in the calligram to move one or two of the ornate scrolls filled the space the uppercase letters left behind.

Laura liked it. Ari liked it. PGW didn't like it. They suggested something softer. Maybe a script. I thought, no, that won't work. It will compete with the calligram, it will look too florid.

I tried a script.

It worked.

As I said at the start of this post, it's an interesting aspect of cover design, how a concept can evoke one thing in your head and something completely different in execution. 

All this talk of mine is simplifying things, of course. I didn't just try one calligraphy font, one script font, I did a bunch of experimenting with all sorts of different fonts, some I altered a lot to make them fit in the space. But each experiment taught me about me—how I can sometimes resist things and how sometimes I should just go for it and give it a try.

The type treatment that won out in the end was one that combined two fonts, a calligraphy font for the uppercase and a plain serif for the lowercase. I had to alter the calligraphy font to make it thinner to match the lines of the lowercase font. And the final touch was Ari's suggestion that the dots over each letter i be replaced with what she called a "Persian dot," which is a diamond shape. I'd considered doing this with various fonts I'd been playing around with because of the prevalence of that shape in the calligram, but I'd rejected it, thinking, was it edging toward stereotyping again?

That's the other thing working on this cover taught me. Be sensitive to these issues, yes, but don't allow that sensitivity to keep you from trying something that would honor the culture and setting of the story. Let that #ownvoices author guide you as to what's OK. She's the one who knows.

A Girl Called Rumi is due out in September of this year. More information is on the Forest Avenue Press site here. More on author Ari Honarvar is on her website here. And here's a bit of an excerpt to whet your appetite for this lovely book.


“And why are you interested in the Simorgh? She is ancient and mostly forgotten. You modern children have busy lives. You have TV and the Walkman,” Baba Morshed said, adding a log to the fire.

“Pretty much all good music is illegal, and the TV only has three channels—all boring news about the war,” said Reza. He circled his fingers on the dragon’s jade-green eye.

“Ah, so it is escape you seek,” said Baba Morshed, his eyes drifting up to Myna, who was perched on the tallest branch.

“Yes, when you tell your stories, Baba Morshed, I forget all about the war,” I said, following the morshed’s gaze to the top of the branch. “Plus, school is just full of rules, and so many horrible things happen every day...” My voice trailed off as my arms folded in a self-hug, my fingers touching the fresh purple bruises.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

a moment in the day: new

It's inauguration morning and we're glued to our screens. I've been live-streaming it upstairs in my workspace, Stephen downstairs in his, me watching a lot of it through blurry eyes. Stephen maybe too. I think I started crying from the moment the doors opened on the Capitol, Harris started to emerge, a commentator began to say, "And here is Vice President—" and my brain automatically pinned that phrase to the man escorting her and then quickly remembered. No. She is to be the Vice President. She.

Now I've cried through her entrance, through the fabulous fire captain's recitation, in spoken words and American sign language, of the Pledge of Allegiance, through Harris' swearing in. Suddenly they're announcing that it's time for Biden to take the oath of office. 

I jump up from my seat. 

Like New Year's Eve: me upstairs, Stephen down, the two of us Zooming into a party from separate rooms, but at the end of the night, we met in front of his computer to do the countdown to the new year together.

I hurry down the stairs. Hunker in beside him. Me standing, him seated, I reach my arm around his shoulders, he reaches an arm around my waist.

On the screen, Biden has his hand up to swear his oath. Trying not to cry again makes my body tremble under Stephen's hand.

The swearing in goes so quickly. Now Biden begins to speak. Now he's done. Now he's President.

It feels like New Year's did: something terrible has ended, something better is coming. I kind of wish we each had a glass of champagne. For a moment I wonder if we should kiss like you do when the ball drops.

Crouching together in front of the computer like this is starting to get awkward. Stephen drops his arm. I straighten up. Chirp out a quick, "OK, bye!" He laughs as I turn to leave. Halfway through the dining room, I call back over my shoulder: "Happy New Years."

Friday, January 15, 2021

a moment in the day: post

Just off the phone with my mom, lounging on the bed with Nicholas, giving him a pet, I pick up my cell lying there. Scroll a little.

Now there's a dog nose poking into my scrolling.

"Hey," I say.

I turn the phone toward him and touch where it says, create post. A virtual keyboard rises up.

"Here," I tell him. "Want to post something?"

Nicholas looks at the screen. His nose swipes across the surface.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Book Cover: The Paper Garden

I did a little something different for the book cover design of the short story collection The Paper Garden, coming out soon from 7.13 Books. Here's the introductory description I got from the publisher when I was first contacted about the project:

The short stories in The Paper Garden explore a variety of feminist issues from the darkly humorous perspectives of both children and adult women. Although this is literary fiction, many of the stories employ gothic and speculative elements, and some are re-workings of fairy tales or myths such as Snow White and the Virgin Mary. Others are more contemporary tales of queer romance, mother-daughter relationships, and mental illness.

I loved this description and then when I found out that the paper garden in the title referred to a collage of paper tulips on a wall, I had the idea of a cover full of collaged paper tulips hiding a couple faces rendered in the style of old storybooks. Something where bright colors and cheery objects hid deeper, perhaps magical, perhaps darker, things. And I thought, I'm going to get out my old paints and brushes.

I sketched out and then painted a series of tulips and a few different faces to play with. 

It was a pretty less-than-glamorous process as far as creating art goes. With the tulips I googled pictures of the flowers and then sat in front of my computer with a piece of cardstock (if you must know, it was one of those blank greeting cards you can run through your printer) and sketched them roughly, then painted in layers using acrylic paints. For the faces, I used photographs that I manipulated in Paint Shop Pro, for instance purposefully enlarging the eyes to give them a more fanciful look, and then printed out on paper. I used a light box (OK, I stuck the printouts against the window when the sun was good and bright) to quickly trace the shapes so that I had the proportions I wanted and then continued sketching the faces from there. 

Once I had my paintings ready, I scanned and then took them into Paint Shop Pro to manipulate, refine, and recolor them.

Each tulip had to be cut out of its white background so that it could overlap other tulips and be arranged within the design. Then it was a process of puzzling all the elements together to give the right amount of space to everything, the right balance of color, the right mix of different angles and perspectives of flowers. It's harder than you think. I moved things around and around until I had a couple basic layouts I liked.

While I liked how arresting the large and similarly haunted faces in the first sample were, I preferred the second, where they were smaller, more hidden. I realized, as I puzzled, that I liked having more white space showing between flowers, more breath in the piece. It helped make it look like a scatter of flowers under which text and faces peeked rather than an outline of flowers flanking the faces.

I sent my contact at the publisher, and she in turn sent the author, different variations on layout and color scheme and we narrowed things down. They wanted the woman to look a little older. They wanted her to have brown, rather than blue, eyes. They were interested in trying a background color that was less stark, a cream or a pale peach.

Then I needed to add detail to make this look more like an actual collage of paper flowers. I love a lot of different things about design, but one of the things I love most is challenging myself to make something look like something it isn't. Yes, I had started with actual painted images. But then they became digital images. And I needed them to go back to being painted images. On paper. Something cut out and pasted together. Overlapping. Having dimension. 

Each paper flower had to have a shadow. I could have added a drop-shadow effect in Illustrator, but I wanted something that would look more real. So I created a solid shape version of each flower... 

...then turned them all black—a particular black that I thought would work best for my color scheme. I softened their edges by using a simple feathering effect and then I adjusted their opacity so that they became, well, shadows of themselves.

Then I positioned them underneath and just peeking out from under their prospective flowers. There's more to it than that, but that's the general gist. And I added details like a curled paper edge here, a small tear there. White paper-cut edges.

In the end we had to reposition/remove a few flowers to make room for a longer blurb, and then we had a finished design.

The Paper Garden by Caitlin Vance is due out in June of this year. More info on The Paper Garden and other 2021 titles from 7.13 books is here. Here's an excerpt from one of the short stories. Note that though there's art on a wall in this piece, it's different from the paper collage that led to my design concept.


I crept around the whole floor, but could not find a bathroom. I knew Scarlett said not to go upstairs, but I couldn’t help it. I tiptoed up and moved to the right.

Soft, violet light shone out of one door. I pushed it open and snuck inside.

This was not a bathroom at all, but some kind of room I had never seen before. Someone had stuck thousands of silver push pins into the walls. It seemed the person had been very careful about how they stuck each one in, as if the wall had skin and could feel pain. The pins made a picture of a tulip and a little girl’s face. There was nothing else in the room, except for a tin box of pins in the middle of the floor.

I plucked a single pin out of the wall, a piece of the girl’s mouth, and dragged it lightly over my hand.

I thought of the tulip Scarlett bought for me after planting the bucket there and waiting for me to come find it. I noticed the girl on the wall had big eyes, but that she looked only at the tulip, as if hiding from anyone who might see the picture. She was scared. Again, a cavity in my chest filled with hot liquid. This was my face, and Scarlett had stuck all these pins in the wall. It must have taken hours and hours, and she barely even knew me, and my mother would never do something like this. Why would Scarlett make this? Was Noah’s Ark a real story or a fake story? Why didn’t my mom want to get a job so she could buy more cans of soup for us? Where did my dad go, and why didn’t he want to buy me soup? And if God was so nice, why would He let any of this happen? I was too tired to stand. I sat on the floor.

I heard the door creak open and quickly stuffed the pin into my pocket. Scarlett was standing there, hands on her hips. “Saige,” she said, her voice a little less sweet than usual, “I told you not to come upstairs.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but my voice got caught in my fear. I had to try a few times to get the sound to come out. “I’m sorry,” I said, quietly. “I couldn’t find the bathroom downstairs. I really couldn’t find it.” I was about to ask if I could ask a question, but was interrupted by a heavy sigh puffing out of Scarlett’s mouth.

“You want to know why all these pins are in the wall,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. Scarlett had a way of knowing what I was thinking. 

“I stuck them in,” she said. “I’ve been working on it for the past few days. I bought thousands and thousands of pins. I studied a single tulip and a photograph I took of a little girl. I stuck the pins in one by one, slowly and deeply, thinking all the time about the girl and how happy she’d be when she saw it. I think I did a pretty good job, don’t you?” 

As she looked at me for approval, I noticed how long her eyelashes were, like legs of a wolf spider. 

“You did a good job,” I said. I didn’t want to upset her, to find out what she turned into when provoked. 

“And do you know whose face this is?” she asked, coming closer to me.

Yes, I knew whose face it was. I knew whose picture she had studied. I knew because I was always sneaking around, hiding behind doors and listening to conversations, spying. Scarlett was just like me, only she was older, so she had thicker curtains and sneakier tricks. She’d been watching all along.