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.
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.