Monday, August 30, 2021

Book Cover: A Year in the Life of Death

I've been having a love affair with a book, the latest book I've been working on creating a cover design for. That's a pathetically clunky sentence, but I don't even care. I love this book that much. 

For one (small) thing, it's a bucket list book. I've never designed for a poetry collection before.

It's also a book written by a friend, which makes it extra special.

But beyond that, I have a history with this book. Back in March of 2016 I did a reading with writers Shawn Levy and Shannon Brazil at Salon Skid Row. Curated by writer Josh Lubin, Salon Skid Row was a great Portland reading series that I hope returns once we can get out and do live in-person readings again. 

Everyone who read at Salon Skid Row got their picture taken under the Off-Track Betting sign

That night, Shawn Levy read some poetry he'd written based on obituaries in the New York Times. It was unlike anything I'd see him do before. I was used to Shawn as the writer of books like DeNiro: a Life and Rat Pack Confidential: Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, Joey, and the Last Great Show Biz Party. These poems he read were like taking his interest in biography and, instead of going expansive with it, paring it down to the barest of details. 

The way he focused on the New York Times specifically touched my nerd soul. And I was completely enthralled with the idea of poetry based on obituary. It's about death but, more so, it's about tribute. It's about life.

What began with that reading at Salon Skid Row grew into a book: A Year in the Life of Death. And what a year that was. To borrow from Shawn's introduction, 2016 was, "the year that everybody died: David Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, Gordie Howe, Antonin Scalia, Nancy Reagan, Fidel Castro, John Glenn, Janet Reno, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, etc. … a roll call that was also a history of the 20th century."

I don't generally solicit design jobs; they generally find me—but when I heard this was going to be a book, I went after it. I sent a please-think-of-me email to the publisher, University of Hell Press. I sent one to Shawn. I may have made a pest of myself. I don't know. But I got lucky and got the job. And when publisher Greg Gerding sent me the manuscript I devoured it. I often don't have time to read a book I'm designing for, but I couldn't stop. Each poem was a tiny mystery story with the last line revealing the subject. I'd scroll and not allow myself to look ahead. I'd try to figure out who each poem was about before I got to the end. I was surprised by how many of them made me cry. Many also made me laugh. The book was more than I'd even expected it to be, indeed a history of the 20th century full of fascinating information and social commentary and nostalgia and, of course, human stories that ran the gamut from celebrities to folks I'd never heard of. 

I was over the moon. And not only was I hired to design the cover but he asked if I'd like to design the interior as well.

Yes, please, yes, please.

I got together with Greg on Zoom and we talked about the book, about book covers he likes, about thoughts both of us had. The main consideration he had for the cover was that, in my color scheme, I use a powder blue that could evoke the color of the blue bags the New York Times comes in.

Greg also had an idea of a tunnel of concentric shapes, much like this design for The Bell Jar, but the center or entrance of that tunnel would be the simplified shape of a gravestone rather than a circle.

I went to work on that idea and also did some concepting of my own. 

I thought about how to evoke the concept of a year. I mocked up an idea using the phases of the moon with a newspaper hanging from one of the phases. I thought about how to evoke the concept of death without being too on the nose. I mocked up an idea of a collaged lily, the flower of funerals, made of scraps of paper—scraps from obituaries, showing the names of some of the recognizable figures in the book. 


The original subtitle was NYT Obit Poems 2016, but as you can see, I screwed that up in my first couple samples, leaving off the word Obit. I liked the idea of torn bits of paper overlying my backgrounds and used that in my titles and author names. Of the two blues I tried, Greg preferred the lighter, so that was the color that continued forward into later samples.

Greg liked the sample using the grave-shaped tunnel and asked that I try it with cut paper rather than torn, with straight placement instead of skewed. All-caps for the title.


In the lower left, by the way, is the University of Hell logo, which gets placed on the front covers of all their books, often in fun, creative ways.

While making suggestions for the tunnel concept, Greg encouraged me to try other ideas, and I kept coming back to the names. What could be a better selling point for the book than the names of all the amazing subjects of Shawn's poetry? I tried the names running behind the title, obscured by blots of ink to evoke the newspaper printing process. I tried them hanging over the title on a torn piece of paper. I tried throwing them across the cover and piecing the title and author together from their individual letters. That one might have been a little strange.


Greg and Shawn chose the sample with the names on paper looming over the title. Now that we had a direction, we refined it, making the names smaller, more newspaper-like, added the ages in. We changed up the subtitle, tried different textures. In the end, when we had a cover we all liked, I sent it to my mom to show off. She said her first reaction was to be stunned by the names. By the sheer volume of the names. That reaction brought home for me, I think, what really works about that design. How you can't help but be surprised by all that came to a close in 2016. And the names on the cover are only a fraction. It truly is a history of the Twentieth Century, rendered in the elegance and thoughtfulness of Shawn's words.

A Year in the Life of Death is available for preorder through the University of Hell Press here. It officially pubs on October 12, right alongside another really great U-Hell book, 2020*: The Year of the Asterisk, an anthology of essays exploring that very fraught year. In fact, the publisher has added a $5-off "2021 U-Hell bundle" that includes both books, and that offer can be found here.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

A moment in the day: bee

When Stephen leaves for the dentist, he asks me to catch the grasshopper that's on the inside of the bathroom window curtain and take it outside. "Do you want to do your good bug deed for the day?" is how he asks it. I take a water glass into the bathroom and gently lift the curtain back, cup the glass over the grasshopper's body, then slowly lower the glass down, sliding it against the curtain, until I can slip a piece of paper across the rim and trap the grasshopper inside. 

I take a moment to view my captured friend. It sits on the curved inner surface of the sideways glass, tiny bright green body, angled limbs and antennae. As if it's not at all cornered in a small pocket of space, it sort of casually raises one of its hands to its mouth, grooming. Making itself pretty.

I take it outside. I don't want to put it in the grass because the grass is dead and hot in the beating-down sun and maybe the grasshopper will die of this heatwave, so I let it go next to that low-to-the-ground plant that creeps across the pavement in the corner where the shade is.

At the very edge of that creeping plant something is moving. I crouch down. It's a bee. It's lying sideways on the pavement, little limbs twitching, and at first I think it's fallen over and can't right itself. I consider taking the corner edge of my piece of paper and using it to gentle the bee upright. But then I think, no, the bee is dying. If you're dying, you don't want someone coming along and trying to shove you up on your feet.

The other day I saw one of those memes showing a closeup of a bee with text declaring that these are the most important animals in the world.

I sit down next to the bee. There are tiny spots of bright orange pollen on its legs. I don't want to leave it, somehow. Its tiny legs twitch in an almost frantic, convulsive way. 

Even in the shade, the pavement is hot. This burning planet.

The bee slows its twitching.

The bee dies.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

My dad

I lost my dad a year ago. Not long after, my aunt asked if I was going to write an obituary. What I wrote was mostly that, a little bit upside-down from the traditional structure, but something that pulled together who he was, at least to me. I thought today, on the anniversary, I would post that here.

*

Don Chandler Little was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on October 6th, 1945, and grew up in Maysville, Kentucky, the only child to Frank Chandler and Stella Aline Little. As a kid, he loved playing baseball with the neighborhood boys and listening to games on the radio. In the summers, the family would vacation in Florida where Don would play golf with his dad, check out the Daytona Speedway, and lounge on the beach, devouring paperbacks one after the other. In high school, he played French horn in the band and landed the lead part in his senior class play, Mr. Coed.

When he graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Accounting from the University of Kentucky, Don was awarded a Corning Glass fellowship, which gave him the chance to travel the world. He saw Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, India, Israel, then headed to Europe. In Brussels, he took a pause in his touring to work at the local Corning Glass offices to earn some extra traveling money. Stopping one day into the First National City Bank, he was waited on by Kathy Cooke, an American living overseas with her Naval family. He asked her out and the rest is history.

Because Kathy invited Don home to Holland to meet her family. "I know what's going to happen," she said. "You're going to meet my sister and fall in love with her."

And he did.

And he did.

Lucy Cooke and Don Little met in mid-January of 1968. Their first date was Chinese food in London's SoHo in February. In April, they were engaged. Statistics on marital success based on longevity of courtship be damned.

They returned from Europe and were married on August 24th, 1968. Don had landed a job at Arthur Andersen and Company but first headed off for a few days' honeymoon, followed by a trip to his boyhood home in Kentucky to visit the local draft board. Unsure how to classify the young men who'd been awarded Corning Glass fellowships, the draft board had given each a business deferral, but now that Don's fellowship had come to an end, that classification changed. To 1A: draft immediately.

"Your wife doesn't happen to be pregnant, does she?" a woman working in the draft board office asked him.

She explained that if his wife were expecting, he'd be eligible again for a business deferral. Eugenia Bain was born approximately nine months later.

Statistics on domestic success based on preparation and planning be damned.

In August of 1971, Don still working for Arthur Andersen, they moved to Melbourne, Australia, where their second child, Edina Kathleen, was born, in September of 1972. They lived there until May of 1974, when they moved back to Washington DC, and then, a little later, Southern California, welcoming son Frank Chandler in July of 1976.

By then, Don had left Arthur Andersen and was working for US Rentals. The family of five became a family of seven with the addition of Carmen Garcia and her two-month-old baby Liz. In the early Eighties, Don started G/L Systems, which provided payroll and other accounting services to local businesses. The family continued to grow, welcoming the next generation: Amy Bullard, Alex Bullard, Abigail Bailey Little, and Hana Tateno.

In Don's business G/L Systems, which he ran for almost forty years, he described himself as a "one-stop comptroller." But what else was he? Husband, father, grandfather (known to his grandchildren as Pops). Lover of sports, particularly ice hockey and baseball. Avid reader. Punster. Clever namer of pets. Ardent scholar of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Ardent enthusiast of tasty things including frozen yogurt, milkshakes, Junior Mints, Heath Bars, Klondike Bars (his last discovered treat), and Lucy Little's excellent cooking. Lover of music. A storyteller at heart. A true gentleman. A computer whiz who was known to review new programs for software creators. The dad who did his kids' taxes for years even though taxes were his least favorite activity in accounting. Bringer of surprise bouquets of flowers. Orchestrator of cunning and elaborate gift schemes. Sporter of the most dashing beard. A quiet force who knew his mind and spoke it well. A generous person. A respectful person. An authentic person. The perfect emblem, in this daughter's opinion, of what a man should be.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

a moment in the day: half

Writing group night. We're meeting on Zoom again. We met on Zoom starting all the way back in March of 2020 and through until the last of us was fully vaccinated this past June. Then it was a lovely two months of meeting in person, sitting together, talking, hugging, laughing. But now Delta is surging, young kids still cannot be vaccinated, and there's new understanding that even those fully vaxxed can spread it. So I and my friends are back to growing our proverbial victory gardens: masking, zooming. Doing what we can.

As our Zoom squares start to fill up my laptop screen, mine looks wrong. Stretched out like when you try to watch a movie with the wrong aspect radio on your TV. The stretching pulls everything thin like my face and the wall behind me are vertical lines with tiny lines of space in between.

"Do I look weird to you guys?"

They say I don't. But on my screen I'm stretched thin, and I find I have to shift all the way to the right side of my computer in order to see my whole head and shoulders centered in my square.

"Gigi," Doug says, "you're half out of the frame."

I'm stretched so thin that half of what they can see I can't see and half of what I can see... Oh, I don't even know, but I shift back over to where the tiny dot of camera at the top middle of my laptop can catch me full on. Now everyone can see all of me but I can only see half of me, one eye, one shoulder, half a head.

As my friends catch up on the week, I peck around Zoom trying to figure out how to fix it. If I'm stretched so wide am I also stretched some top to bottom? Like, if I see my head are they just seeing my neck or something? I hunker down a bit. I click over to Google and try to look up the problem.

"Gigi," Doug says, "now I can only see the top of your head."

I abandon Google, straighten up. What I look like on here isn't for me. It's for my friends to see me and for me to be engaged with them. So I relax into my half self and join the conversation. 

Are we being stretched thin by covid restrictions? Are we feeling like we live half lives? And in a way: why not? What are we willing to sacrifice? In order to come out of this whole thing someday not only with our health and the health of our loved ones, but knowing that we did our best, our actual best to be the ones who didn't spread this virus around?

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Journal On!

Last year, I designed a logo for a program I love: Journal On!, a collaborative project between the Portland Art Museum, Portland Public Schools, and OK You to assemble "one enduring art journal, made up of many, to capture our shared story of this unique moment in history." They offer up a new prompt every week all summer long for kids and adults to use to create their own entries in this living journal. In fact, I took one of last year's prompts (How Would You Capture this Moment in Color and Form?) and made an entry of my own using paper, pens, and paint. I made it during a particularly bad period in my last summer and something about putting my feelings down in art, in a way that didn't call things by name but spoke to my mindset, was a helpful exercise for me.

This year I was invited back to Journal On!, this time to create their web and social media graphics. At first, I was just thinking of the job as an opportunity to work for an organization I love, but it soon became a really fun project. One thing I love doing in design is taking a known quantity and making it different. With these Journal On! graphics, I got to take their existing style in shape and font and color palette and expand on it. 

Whereas last year their prompts contained video blocks at the right side...

...this year there would be simple illustrations instead. I wanted something that would help explain but not overpower the text, something super kid-friendly but also adult-friendly too. I started working with lines. Simple illustrations created out of linework, as well as letting my lines run all over the prompts, maybe circling or underlining important words, adding little touches of illustration here and there.

One element I liked from last year's design was the hatched lines in the background circles for the prompt numbers on the left side. This became a central element in my design and it was fun to see the different ways I could use it.

Journal On!'s first prompt goes up today. I highly recommend following along and even joining in with some art of your own. You can see all the prompts on their website here, or follow on Instagram @journal_on_everyone.

Or, here: I happen to have the very first prompt for you. From the website, and from Instagram. I hope you'll join in.




Sunday, July 4, 2021

a moment in the day: jazz

It's night on the third of July and Nicholas and I are camped out in the upstairs bathroom with the door closed and the overhead fan on: his safe place in fireworks weather.

As the fan and closed door aren't quite enough to keep the sound completely out, I'm singing to him. It's our fireworks ritual going back I-don't-know-how-many years. Well, probably as long as we've owned this house.

I generally sing him old jazz standards. Mean to Me. Lush Life. Don't Smoke in Bed. When the firecracker sounds kicked up into high gear a while ago, he got agitated. Started panting, looking distressed, so I grabbed my phone and dialed up YouTube to add backup to my singing.

Now, we've sung our way through the entirety of Peggy Lee's Blues Cross Country, Nicholas curled on his pillow, me on the floor next to him, my hand going down his back. I'm getting tired of jazz. I poke some letters into YouTube's search bar and bring up some Beatles tunes. Start one playing.

It won't be long, yeah

(yeah)

Yeah

(yeah)

Yeah

(yeah)

Nicholas's head comes up. He starts panting again. 

I don't think he likes rock 'n roll.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

a moment in the day: enough

Birthdays in the social media era. Stephen is downstairs whipping cream (I can hear that scraping buzz of beaters against bowl) and I'm sitting at the computer going through my newsfeed, thanking people for their sweet greetings. 

There's a lot you can say about the negatives of social media, but on your birthday, it's a lovely parade of people. You scroll and like, scroll and comment, and it's a little like getting birthday cards but moremoremore, and all I can think is, look at all of these people I've been privileged to know. It's kind of like when they say your life flashes in front of your eyes, but it's all your people flashing in front of your eyes. And you don't have to die. 

When I was a kid, when I was a young adult, all I felt like was a loser. I wonder how I would have felt about myself had I had the chance to sit and watch this parade of people each stop by to say hello.

Hello.

I keep thinking about that thing President Biden said in his inauguration speech. It's funny. The pomp and excitement of that day is a blur now, but I always remember three words he said. Enough of us

I can't even remember exactly what he was talking about, now, but I remember how that phrase made me stop. And think. And write it down.

Alright, I'm looking it up now. He said, "In each of these moments, enough of us came together to carry all of us forward."

He was talking about the Civil War, the Great Depression, World Wars, 9/11. He was talking about racism and nationalism and maybe the pandemic too. With all the negativity in the country, with all the negativity in all the people in the country, there's always been enough of us who strive to do the right thing. Just those three words made me feel better about the country I was living in. And now, sitting here scrolling through, watching this parade of lovely people, I think, yeah, you all are the enough of us.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

a moment in the day: group

Steve and I walk down the hall to Liz' loft just like old times, just like before the pandemic, heading to writing group together. 

Everything in this corridor looks crisp and new. The bright raspberry-painted wall at the end by her door: is that the same color as it used to be? Every step of this familiar walk, that Steve and I have taken once a month for years, seems both beautifully old-hat and utterly new somehow.

I push open Liz' door and we walk through. Voices inside. My breath swells against my ribcage. This is our first non-Zoom meeting and my first unmasked, undistanced gathering since the before times. I hurry my step down the short front hall and then here we are—Steve, Liz, Kathleen, me—all fully-vaxxed, all crowded together at the edge of the kitchen doing something we haven't done in so long. Hugging. 

Liz' black curls tickle my face. Kathleen holds too tight and too long and too wonderful. I don't want to let go. 

When I do, she tells us she and her son hugged so hard once that it started to cut off the circulation in her neck and, still mid-clasp, she told him, "I think I'm going to pass out." And did.

Stories bounce back and forth between us as we move into the living room where Robert is waiting remotely on Zoom from his home out of town. "Robert!" I say. His face so small on the little laptop screen.

I drop my bags and take the plastic container of appetizers back across the room for warming in the kitchen nook where Liz and Kathleen have returned, chatting as they try to work the top off a bottle of pink wine. I come around behind them at the counter. Their backs to me. 

"No, we used to do it all the time when I was a kid," Liz is saying. "For fun. Like all the time."

"And there's that thing," Kathleen says, "where people do it for a sexual high."

I pull the top off my tupperware container just enjoying listening to snippets of their conversation. I realize they're still on the ways in which cutting off the circulation can make someone pass out.

"There's a name for that."

"Autoerotic... asphyxiation."

I dip my head in between them. "So, here I am, my very first unmasked, undistanced get-together, and what are we talking about? Autoerotic asphyxiation."

And this might be—not sure but might be—even better than the hugs. Laughing together in person again.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

a moment in the day: crown

Stephen and I are just back from getting our second covid shots. We have a few moments before I need to be off upstairs to get on Zoom for my writing group. He's going to head out into the studio to get to work, but I make him wait and I run from the room, coming back with two Christmas crackers, one gold foil paper, one silver. I hand them both out to him and he laughs. I tell him to take his pick.

It will be two weeks before we're fully vaccinated, but I feel like we should celebrate, just a little. With as precious as these shots are, with as difficult as it has been for many to get appointments—and more so in other places in the world—I've tried to think of the vaccination wait as one, long, rolling Christmas or Hanukkah or whatever big holiday people would wait for, all year, when they were kids. Something to try to anticipate with excitement rather than impatience. I used to think about erecting a tree in the house with lights and putting names underneath it, a new name each time someone I loved got vaccinated.

But who puts up a Christmas tree in the spring? So these will have to do.

We each take the ends of our Christmas crackers in our hands. These ones are the kind that don't make a pop sound when you open them, but still, Nicholas runs from the room. We count one, two, three. Yank our crackers open. The loot falls on the floor. The paper crown, the slip of paper with a joke on it, and for each of us, a little prize like from a Crackerjack box. Wait. Is that why they call them Crackerjacks?

My prize is a weird, little keychain with a bottle opener shaped like a dead fish.

We put the paper crowns on our heads. Shiny gold foil. We ask each other Christmas jokes. 

What do you call Santa Claus when he goes down the chimney and the fire is lit?

Krisp Kringle.

"That's kind of violent," I say when Stephen reads me the answer.

When I turn to go off to writing group, my paper crown falls off my head and floats to the floor. I pick it up. Put it back on. Head upstairs.

Friday, April 23, 2021

a moment in the day: ready

I head to our front door, to go out into the world, to pick up something for work. Stephen follows to say goodbye.

"Got what you need?" he asks.

These weird days, when we go out so seldom. When every simple excursion feels like an event. Something you've got to plan for, dress up for, think about. It's been so long since going out into the world was a regular thing. 

I pat my pocket to make it jingle.

"Got my keys."

Raise the crumpled bit of cloth in my hand.

"Got my mask."

Look down. 

Look at my sock feet.

"Don't got my shoes."

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Book Cover: Quint

Recently, I finished the book cover design for a novel called Quint. It's based on the lives of the Dionne Quintuplets and is written by an author named Dionne, a fact that somehow I didn't even notice when I was first talking to 7.13 Books editor Hasanthika Sirisena about the project. 

I knew of the Dionne quintuplets from features I used to see of them very early in their lives when I was paging through newspaper clippings and microfilm, doing research for an abandoned book project years ago.


Dionne Irving's novel takes the lives of its quints, the Phalene Quintuplets, from their birth through... well, let me let Hasie's words, from an early email detailing the project, explain it:

Told from a variety of narrative perspectives, the novel, set starting in the 1940s details the quintuplets’ birth, their removal from their parents’ home and their rise to fame, which coincides with the construction of Quintland, a “theme park” where thousands of paying visitors observe the girls as they go about their daily routines—playing, bathing, eating, sleeping—performing their lives more than living them.

The idea of a theme park dedicated to you, celebrating you, imprisoning you was so powerful that I knew it had to be part of the imagery for the cover. 

As for visual style, Hasie and Dionne were interested in the cleanness of silhouettes and cut-out art, like that of artist Kara Walker.


You can check out more about Kara Walker here.

I loved her art and the idea of cut-out silhouettes and started gathering fodder for my own silhouette vignette representing the book and its stars. The five sisters would be front and center, of course, surrounded by the trappings (pun intended) of their amusement park. I pictured the fancy entranceway to the park with maybe the book's title emblazoned across the big welcome sign. One of those ornate, old signs like this one I found:


Without the severed-head-wielding cyclops, of course.

And below the entryway sign and surrounding the quints would be the ghoulish, delighted faces of the public. Oversized, carnivallike. Claustrophobic.

In looking online for examples for my Quintland entrance, I stumbled upon photos of the actual Quintland where the Dionne Quintuplets lived and performed their lives before the public.

Oh my god, it was a real place! 

I'd had no idea. I thought the amusement park was the author's own invention. I gathered some of the pictures and put them into a file folder, mostly to just have them, because wow. I named the file folder oh my god, it was a real place.

My first version of the cover had the girls represented as older. In talking back and forth with Hasie, I'd asked what age would be good and she suggested pre-teen. I found photos of a girl of that age in various different positions to use as I drew my silhouettes out in illustrator.


When I sent off the early samples and Hasie sent them on to Dionne for her look, Dionne preferred younger sisters. I went back and found a girl of five to use as my model. And I added in the big hair bows the Dionne sisters used to wear all the time—sort of a signature look in their younger years. 


Hasie, Dionne and I talked a lot about color, about placement of the giant faces of the public (how close in or far away from the girls to put them), and Dionne asked for a more straight-up font for her name. They liked the light behind the girls and I added a hint of light behind the sign/title as well to bring it out. And we finally had a cover we liked.

Quint will be out on August third. More info on this book and others in the 7.13 lineup can be found here. Here's an excerpt from the opening of the book.

Mother

When she started bleeding, she thought for certain she’d lost the child. The blood was bright red, the kind the midwife had warned her about. The kind that meant surely this child, like the others before it, had died inside her. Again, her body had failed her, had shown her that she wasn’t really a woman. In a month or so, he would climb on top of her and do it again. And she would get pregnant again. And they would do this bebe/non bebe ritual again. At least that’s how it’d been before. She looked to the picture of the Virgin on the wall and was reminded of how Notre Dame had failed her time and time again.

So, she was surprised an hour later when after she had hoisted her mass into the kitchen for water, she felt that flutter. The hint of an elbow or knee, she couldn’t be sure, pressing against her from the inside. That thing that told her that this was life. She looked again to the picture of the Virgin Mary hanging over the bed. She could see her from the sink, like the virgin was calling to her, like she was beckoning her and she floated, wet hands, back onto the bed where she spent most of her days.

The next thing she remembered he was shaking her, and, when she opened her eyes and saw him, her husband, standing there, it was like she had been waiting for him all her life. Or at least waiting for someone like him.

“Are you alright?” he kept saying and then finally, “Answer me!”

“Yes,” she said. “Of course, of course.”

But she couldn’t get up, couldn’t sit up in the bed. She remembered the blood and her hand flew between her legs. She drew that hand up to her face to inspect it for any hint of red, but there was none.

“What is it?” he asked. The hard edge in his voice gone. He sat at the end of the bed smoking a cigarette and watching her.

“There was blood today. Earlier. But I think I felt the baby move after that.”

He stared at her with large, unblinking eyes and she couldn’t tell what he was thinking, or what he understood.

“This happens with the cows too.” He dropped a bit of ash on the floor, and she tried to imagine when and how she would be able to clean it up. “Sometimes they bleed a little at first, a little blood, but then later on, a perfectly healthy calf.”

There were only two rooms in the little house, and it felt like his? cigarette smoke filled them both. She wanted badly to open a window, to breathe in clean, crisp January air that cut right through her lungs in a way that both stung and felt delicious.

He got up finally and went into the front room, lighting a second cigarette on the stove, a wedding present ordered from Sears & Roebuck. It was the newest thing in the house and took cords after cord of wood to heat. And while the house was wired for electricity, money came too infrequently to keep it on regularly.


Sunday, March 21, 2021

Book Cover Redux: Dispatches from Anarres

Last November, Forest Avenue Press did a cover release for our next anthology, Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, conceived and edited by Susan DeFreitas. Then in January, we got feedback from our distributor, Publishers Group West, that they were concerned the cover skewed too sci-fi. 

My original concept, when I first started sending out early samples, had been ALL-SCI-FI-ALL-THE-TIME: a huge silver interplanetary communicator shooting out into space. Susan had brought me back to earth a bit by reminding me that Le Guin's works are equally divided between science fiction and fantasy—and that our collection Dispatches from Anarres is as well. To add that fantasy element, she had the cool idea of filling the sky with the silhouettes of flying dragons.


When in January our representatives at PGW brought up their own too-much-sci-fi concern, we said, hey, but dragons, and they said, what dragons?, and we were like, what do you mean, what dragons?, but it was true: when viewed in any smaller-form that more subtle element did kind of disappear. 

So I set out to find a way to get those dragons to stand out more without making the cover too busy in the process. We were getting pretty late in the game to be tinkering with the cover, but it was important to get it right. I was playing with color and brightness and contrast when I started...

...to have second thoughts.

About the whole thing.

PGW's concerns, Susan's early concerns, what if I was getting this thing all wrong?

In an email to Forest Avenue Press publisher Laura Stanfill in which we were discussing little changes like font sizes, I snuck in:

There's also part of me that is wondering... is this cover right? Are we getting the Le Guin right? Should it be an alien landscape instead? 

Because Le Guin was always more focused on the natural world than technology, even in her sci-fi writings. One of the representatives at PGW had called her work nature writing. And a lot of her own book covers reflect that.

As soon as I wrote that what if to Laura—what if I'd been getting it wrong all along—I knew I was right.

You might think, um, what are you thinking, deciding to go completely back to the drawing board so late in the process, I mean, what are you going to do, conjure up an alien landscape like magic?

Well, yes. That's what I was going to do.

It just so happens I have a brother who creates alien landscapes. 

Ever since he was a kid, my brother Frank Little has been creating and refining a world. A specific world all his own, with maps he drew, stories he wrote, words in different languages, king lists for dynasties of rule. As he became an adult, that obsession drew him to learn computer modeling programs.

Look at this!

And this!


What would you do if this thing cropped up in your backyard?


You can't really see the detail on these because of the thin format of my blog, which I'd change but I'm afraid it'll throw off the layout of sooo many posts so I always leave it alone... but you can check out more of his work on DeviantArt here or on his website here.

The night after I wrote that what-if note to Laura, I started scrolling through his artwork, hoping I might find something that would work. When I came across this, I had one of those visceral moments: I knew it was perfect.

Anarres, the inhabited moon in Le Guin's book The Dispossessed, is a barren desert of a place, with very little animal and plantlife. We didn't expressly need the setting of the book cover to be Anarres, but it was important that it not not be Anarres, if that makes sense. Not only did the terrain in Frank's "Hanging Artichoke" feel right, I could already picture what I would do with it. I imagined a whole bunch more sky above the cliff (I could add that in) and a woman standing on the edge looking out over the desert vista as if awaiting word from those Dispatches that had been sent from her world to the next.

I wondered if Frank would be okay with me... getting my fingers into his artwork. Adding more sky. Tossing a woman onto his mountaintop. When I texted to ask about it, he said, referencing Le Guin, "Well since I recently reread all of her stuff I would love to have one of my pictures involved..."

It was strange to go back to square one and reposition the text after I'd gotten so used to looking at the layout of the original book cover. This new approach and new artwork wanted a completely new layout, new colors, new fonts. When I sent Laura my first [new] draft, I punned, "This is soooo different from what we had before. It's like night and day. Get it?"

I played around with slight variations on text and placement. For some I added a little more sun in the sky—and even a silhouette of one of Susan's dragons.

But dragons don't exist on Anarres (birds don't even exist on Anarres), so we chucked the dragon and packaged up the sample we thought was the best of the batch, Laura and me, and sent it Susan's way. 

(Please don't notice how many times I miscapitalized Le Guin above. I knew how to spell it. I knew. But somehow I goofed.)

It was so important to both of us that Susan like the cover of the book she'd conceived. And it was so important that PGW think it was a cover that would sell the book. So many considerations go into the creation of a book cover, and I realized, as I worked on this one, that we had more people we wanted to please than ever before. 

There was the editor and the distributor, there was the publisher and the cover designer (I like liking things). There was Frank whose artwork I was using. There were alllll the authors who'd written stories for the book. But even beyond this, there was the legacy of Ursula K. Le Guin. Her memory, her family, her legion of fans. 

Eek, that's a lot of people.

We started to get feedback. PGW loved it. For Susan, it wasn't sci-fi enough, didn't tell enough story. My brother joked, "Ok yeah that's the coolest thing I've ever seen." Laura then sent the sample to a couple Le Guin experts, one being our copy editor Bailey Potter, and her feedback: women on Anarres don't wear dresses.

Oops.

To Susan's concerns about the amount of sci-fi, I thought, OK, this new cover, that was like night and day to the old cover, I think it needs to go back to night.

Or maybe...

What if instead of the light blue of day or the deep blue of night we take a left turn into red?

And added, in that red sky, the planet to Anarres' moon: Urras.

A la:

I started by getting my fingers even deeper into Frank's artwork. With his blessing, I cut the sky out around his cliff and hanging artichoke. I made two overlapping files, one that was just cliff-artichoke and one that contained the desert vista. The biggest challenge working with the artwork was darkening that vista and getting those colors to fade nicely up into the sky color. 

Then I built a planet. That took a while. Planets are big. I also worked longer than you want to know to build a new outfit for my woman, with lots of feedback from Susan, Laura, and our two Ursula K. Le Guin experts, writer Sarah Cypher and our copy-editor Bailey Potter. The planet was built mostly in Illustrator, the woman in Paint Shop Pro. I added stars the the sky. I took them out again. I know I'm grossly oversimplifying this part of the process, but heck, this blog post is already the size of the indefinable fathoms between here and Anarres. In the end, Laura shared with me that Susan said:

"This image feels—almost like someone contemplating the cosmos, other civilizations—or like someone standing on another planet contemplating Earth. That feels like the story implied by this image, and it could not be more perfect."

Ah! That felt good.

(Stand-in blurb, notwithstanding. That, as always, will be updated down the line.)



Dispatches from Anarres will be published by Forest Avenue Press this coming November, with stories from (big breath) TJ Acena, Kesha Ajọsẹ-Fisher, Stevan Allred, Jason Arias, Stewart C. Baker, Jonah Barrett, Curtis Chen, Tina Connolly, Mo Daviau, Rene Denfeld, Molly Gloss, Rachael K. Jones, Michelle Ruiz Keil, Juhea Kim, Jessie Kwak, Jason LaPier. Fonda Lee, David D. Levine, um me, Sonia Orin Lyris, Tracy Manaster, James Mapes, C.A. McDonald, Tim O’Leary, Ben Parzybok, Nicole Rosevear, Arwen Spicer, Lidia Yuknavitch and Leni Zumas, and with a foreword by David Naimon. 

More information is here. More on editor (and writer) Susan DeFreitas is here. Big thanks to Frank Little for his art, and to Susan, Laura, the folks at PGW, and our LeGuin specialists Bailey Potter and Sarah Cypher for all their input.

Here's a sneak peek story snippet for you. From "Each Cool Silver Orb a Gift" by Nicole Rosevear

*

Helena had not yet been born when the long war, the last war, began, but she had been in the Southlake settlement from its beginning, providing her unfocused childhood labor to the construction of communal households, dining and medical facilities, gathering spaces, and gardens. Over decades, she had moved her way through the full set of work cycles, adding her name to the lottery of women eligible to sit on the Council late in her fourth decade, knowing the chances of being drawn were slim. She did not need that particular honor to hold a deep pride in her small part in the building of Southlake, this newly gentled world, made better for all by the ruling hands of women.

When Sasha, the last remaining member of the original Council, added her name to the list of those withdrawing from the work cycles, Helena attended the lottery, excited to witness the drawing of a new member, a rare and momentous event. The afternoon was cool and muggy, the hazy sun unable to break through the clouds. When the name was drawn and called, she did not recognize it as her own, looking around at the women, men, and thirds gathered in the main square for this other Helena. When she realized others were looking back at her rather than past her, that she was that Helena, she cried out in surprise. To step into the shoes of one of the original Council members was an honor she had not dreamed of.

Walking back to her household, the flurry of conversations and introductions already a blur, the metal of her new Council pin cool against her throat, Helena passed a group of three men and two thirds in an alcove near a dining hall. She heard the tail end of a hissed whisper, one of the thirds saying, “. . . their pawns to being yours.” When they saw her approaching, the man directly facing her tapped his collarbone twice, near the spot Council members wore their pins. The group turned quickly away from each other, one of the thirds offering her a casual open-handed greeting.

“Afternoon,” she said, returning the gesture. It seemed that they did not want her to have heard them, and it was easy enough to imagine she hadn’t.

Monday, March 15, 2021

a moment in the day: 365

It's been a whole year.

According to the tally I've been keeping of our particular days of social distancing, it is day three-hundred and sixty-five.

Night, actually, Saturday night. We're doing one of the most exciting things we do these days. We ordered a pizza.

Stephen put in the call, and now, masks on, we're walking down together to pick it up.

And music is playing. Weirdly. The streets are full of it. Jazz, something that sounds a little noir, keyboards and saxophone, I think. A drum kit.  It has that distinct timbre of music amplified by a microphone. 

How utterly strange to hear live music.

We reach the end of the block, and the little business district opens up around us, coffee shops, restaurants. The shut-up movie theater with its marquee declaring, "Intermission continues." As we cross the street we can see that the music is coming from the little wine bar a few doors down. Their outdoor seating area, built out into the street where a couple cars normally would be parked, is a structure of wooden slats and a roof, plastic sheeting making walls on three sides. 

The plastic is for holding off rain but it also holds in the air. Keeps it pocketed there. 

Through the oily sheen of the half-transparent plastic those shapes of color are people sitting at tables. Masks off, eating and drinking. The jazz combo playing at one end. Breath blasting through a horn.

Here across the street, the pizza place is windows framed with Christmas-colored twinkle lights, and two different doors, one for going in, one for coming out. Stephen goes through the in door to pay for the pizza, and I wait on the sidewalk. Listen to dangerous music.

It sounds pretty good.

Glance to my right and now, approaching under the marquee overhang of the shut-up theater is a group of four people. Chatting happy. Unmasked. 

I step backward into the recess of the out door. The dangerous music follows me in. It sounds slightly different in my pocket of air. A little less alive, or is that my imagination?

The group doesn't seem to notice me, laughing as they walk by.

Friday, March 12, 2021

a moment a year ago today: marquee

It's weird and tense in the office. I'm sitting at my desk, answering emails, trying to keep focused on the work. There's been talk here and there across the wide room: will they have us work from home, will things shut down, will we lose our jobs. Yesterday the World Health Organization officially declared this virus a pandemic. It's been just two days since Multnomah County announced our very first case.

Right now the office is quiet, just the brattle of typing around me.

Clean hands on the keys. We're all washing our hands constantly. They say that's the best thing you can do to keep safe.

As I was heading in to work a couple hours ago, I drove past our downtown store, and there was Ramiza's name up on the marquee.

Ramiza Shamoun Koya
SUN 3/15

Three days from now, her big book launch event, which was originally set for May but got moved up to March when it became obvious there was a good chance her cancer would take her before she could get up and stand behind that sacred pedestal. 

An author event in Powell's City of Books. A Portland writer's dream.

When I drove by and saw her up there all big on the marquee, I pulled over, elated, shot pictures with my phone. Then I got to work and there was an email from Laura, Ramiza's publisher, telling me Ramiza is having second thoughts.

It is so, so understandable. And in light of the circumstances Powells' Events Coordinator has sent a request to management that we shut down our events for the next four weeks at least, and we should, we should, but part of me selfishly grips Ramiza's dream with my fists and doesn't want to let it go.

I click another email. Save a sales report into a folder. 

It's only three days from now. There's only one case that I know of in all of Portland right now. Maybe she can make it just under the wire.

Now another note hits my inbox. Laura again. It's a forward of the one she just now sent out, cancelling Ramiza's event. 

My heart hangs heavy in my ribcage.

A dozen feet away from me, sitting at his computer, the Events Coordinator says aloud, "Another cancellation."

He's been announcing them as they come. One after another. It's been a long day. It's only 9:40.


Wednesday, March 10, 2021

a moment in the day: seven year itch

In the bathroom, I throw on an oversized t-shirt for bed. It hangs to almost my knees.

The evening chill in the room is cut by the warm air coming up from the heater vent in the floor next to the dirty clothes hamper. I go over and stand right over it, bare feet to either side. The warm air shoots straight up underneath me, poufing my night shirt.

Huh. I thought it would make me feel like Marilyn Monroe, but it just makes me want to pee.

Monday, March 8, 2021

a moment in the day: golden

Middle of the work day, me at my desk at home, typing away on my laptop. Checking my Outlook calendar for Zoom meetings. I click the "remote desktop" icon in my tray and my screen blinks to another cyber environment, remoting into my office computer so I can use a program there. This strange world of work-from-home.

Over the top of my laptop screen, across the little room, Nicholas snoozes in a pile of blankets on the futon bed. His eyes blink open and he's looking at me.

Those eyes are a tractor beam, pulling me up from my chair. I cross to him. A brief moment to slip my hand under his covers and scratch his warm fur.

One thing about this pandemic. It's a golden age for dogs.

"Do you even remember," I ask him out loud, "when I used to leave the house for nine hours almost every day?"

Nicholas makes a soft sleepy snorty sound and closes his eyes.

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.


See?


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.