For the book cover of Melissa Duclos' debut novel Besotted, which comes out March of next year, published by 7.13 Books, I took on the task of creating a sacred object. Melissa had mentioned she liked book covers that focus on one object, and I loved the idea (challenge) of trying to create, mostly out of nothing, one of the most important objects in her book. From the opening:
I came very close to leaving it in the back of the dresser, imagining the new owners piecing together my relationship with Liz from its detritus—movie stubs and a strip of photos spit out by a booth in Xiujiahua, the cryptic sticky notes we used to leave on each other’s desks, the blank green envelopes I never got around to using, the letters, from Liz and from the school—but the English banker who bought the dresser didn’t seem to have an imagination worthy of it, so I changed my mind.
And so now I have a box best suited to carry ashes or medals from war. Its lid is carved with the image of two birds, facing and circling each other around a branch of plum blossoms. I used to love it.
I crack the lid and close my eyes, and the first thing I feel isn’t a sticky note or a glossy photo. It’s pearl—single strand. I don’t need to bring the necklace to my teeth to know it’s real. I’ve tasted it before.
Besotted is a love story between two ex-pats living in Shanghai. The prose is, as you can see, beautifully lyrical. In starting work on my own version of Melissa's keepsake box, I wanted the design of birds and plum blossoms to be lyrical, too.
I looked at a lot of Chinese art, a lot of carved and painted plum blossoms and birds. Then I created a flat design using Adobe Illustrator.
The second step was to marry that design with the material the carving would eventually be made out of. Stephen has two carved boxes of the kind I was trying to make, so I took a picture of the underside of one.
When I imported that picture into Illustrator and married the design with the wood (and I should say that I thickened the edges of design up a bit first), I got this:
Most of the detail work was done in Photoshop using three different layers of this same piece, one in the original shade, one that I darkened, and one that I lightened. Once I'd made these layers, I changed the perspective so that we're looking at the design at an angle. Then to create dimension and light and shadow, I laid pieces of darker or lighter "wood" over the main design and then, using the eraser tool, cut away what I didn't need.
I didn't really think about it this way until just now but I was essentially "carving" the details.
I got very obsessed with this. Not only is it fun, but it was really important to me that I end up with something that looked real - and I wasn't certain that I could pull it off.
Oh, I always think I can at first. I don't know; there's something in me that somehow assumes it can do anything at first. But the more I worked on it, the more I worried. And the more detail I added, the more this thing that I had thought was looking "real" was looking "unreal."
I used the phrase "sacred object" at the beginning of this post. I've done a lot of thinking lately about book covers that highlight a "sacred object." I remember standing in a signing line years ago at a book launch event at Powell's (no idea whose) with Cheryl Strayed. She was talking about the book cover for her upcoming book Wild, how they were going to use a picture of her own hiking boot. How amazing that was, that the face of her beloved book would be graced with this sacred object. That's how I felt about Melissa's keepsake box. That object is sacred. And I was going to carve and carve until I had actually, somehow, created it.
It took creating it in what looked like hi-def and then, with more layers, toning that down before it looked, finally, like a real object to me.
The rest of the box is my husband's actual box, the one I took a picture of the bottom of. To finish out the design, I added a string of pearls (one of the objects in the box) (this was actually my own necklace, that used to be my grandmother's) and a picture of Shanghai that I found on Morguefile here. Looks like the photographer's name is Dianne Hope.
And the finished product:
And the finished product:
Here's another taste of Besotted.
Was I scared of Love? Of course. In my experience she was overly forward and easily frightened, the cause of both self-doubt and delusions of grandeur. But maybe this time things would turn out differently. Isn't that what people always believe?
Official pub date is March 13th of 2019. Published by the fab Leland Cheuk of 7.13 Books. More info about this and other forthcoming 7.13 titles is here.