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... 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.


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.