Saturday, July 9, 2022

A dozen random things about my aunt Kathy

1. When I was a kid, her nickname for my little sister Edina was "My Pal."

2. She was a huge lover of animals and her house was always full of dogs, cats, and at one point, birds. The first animals I remember were the dog trio of Bingo, Domino, and Hopscotch.

3. Once when she was living in Brussels, Belgium, young and partying, she decided to stow away on a boat bound for America, and they had to dock in Cherbourg to offload her and send her off to call home from the hoosegow.

4. She was a great audience and if you were at a comedy show, a lit event, a performance of a family song, a drag show you put on for your fortieth birthday, you could always hear her laugh over the rest.

5. She always insisted on paying the bill when she went out to eat with you. The only way you could get her to let you pay is if you were stealthy and pretended to go to the bathroom in the middle of the meal and pulled the server aside and slipped them your credit card.

6. This from my kid diary, June 3, 1985 (spelling errors intact): "We awoke around seven to get ready to leave and we left around 8. We were listening to one of my Beatles tapes and it was great. But, this wierd guy in a truck did something to Kathy that provoked her to shoot him the finger. This truck started following us at 85 miles per hour, easy. Really close. We sped up. It still followed. We finaly slowed to let him pass and the guy actually tried to bump at us as he passed! Well, we took down the licence number and tried to report him, but we weren’t successful. But, we didn’t get killed, so it’s alright."

7. She's the reason most of my life is what it is today. She sent me the CD of Rufus Wainwright's Poses, which led me to the Rufus Wainwright message board, which led me to hearing about an art show by an artist named Stephen O'Donnell, which led me to see the art show on a visit to Portland, which led me to write the artist a fan email, which led to an online friendship, which led me to visit Portland again to meet him, which also led me to meet Kathy's friend Steve Arndt, which led me to meet Tom Spanbauer and to learn about Dangerous Writing, all of which led me to move to Portland, marry Stephen, study writing under Tom, work for Powell's, dot, dot, dot. At our wedding we told a hopefully more truncated version of this story, and Stephen summed it up with: "No Kathy, no party."

8. Another moment from a kid diary, September 1, 1985: "Last night, we went over to Kathy & Mike’s to see them for dinner. Fred cooked beans and rice. After dinner, Edina and I had a great talk with Kathy. All about life and morals and philosophies, and friends, juicy things like that. A really spicy conversation."

9. She had a great eye. In the last years, she got really into art, doing lots of lovely sketches and paintings. Earlier in her life, she made her own darkroom and took and developed really great pictures.

10. When she broke her hip and was in the hospital for surgery, and I offered to go get her some supplies like pillow, brush, iPod, she asked me to sneak her in some weed.

11. She was endlessly generous, supporting so many people in so many ways. Friends, family, houseless folks, many different organizations. She was for years the sponsor of the Burnt Tongue reading series and the Portland Writers Picnic.

12. She really rocked that pink hair.

Saturday, July 2, 2022

Book cover: Plums for Months

I'm very excited for Forest Avenue Press' next memoir, Zaji Cox's Plums for Months. Publisher Laura Stanfill describes it this way:

As a neurodivergent child in a hundred-year-old house, Zaji Cox collects grammar books, second-hand toys, and sightings of feral cats. She dances and cartwheels through self-discovery and doubt, guided by her big sister and their devoted single mother. Through short essays that evoke the abundant imagination of childhood, Plums for Months explores the challenges of growing up mixed race and low-income on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon.

The book was submitted for consideration under the working title The Gresham House, but when Laura and I first started discussing cover design, she and Zaji were separately in talks about different possible titles. Still, whether that house was in the title or not, it's a very important element in the book, and in brainstorming thoughts for the cover, Laura threw out the idea of a house, small within the frame, surrounded by the trees of its forested backyard. Specifically cedars. I wanted to make it look like the actual Gresham house of Zaji's childhood. I asked if she could get me pictures. But Zaji couldn't find photos that showed enough of it, and sadly, the house is no longer there.

I drew some cedars in Illustrator as I waited to find out if we could get a good picture of the house, and in the meantime, Laura and Zaji finally settled on the title, Plums for Months: A Memoir of Nature and Neurodivergence.

When Laura forwarded an email from Zaji that had info on the house (we thought maybe I could Google Earth the address back to the time the house was still there, although I couldn't figure out how that's done), the email thread came with some lovely back and forth as Laura and Zaji worked through title ideas, and this commentary on what Laura liked about the title Plums for Months really caught my eye:

"The abundance in it, the single mom raising two girls in a house with fruit right outside the door, the sweetness of your relationships, how this book is not full of trauma, but of wonder. How you receive and receive from the outdoors at the Gresham House, how it never gets old or boring to you—you keep finding joy in nature. Even the hard things in your book come with wonder and surprise, not fury or anger. I also love that evocation of senses—purples and sweetness..."

And a little further down:

"PLUMS FOR MONTHS has a sense of delight, that delight you felt as a kid and put on the page, and I think that's why it's at the top of my list. The gift of a tree. Of land with trees that fruit."

I was struck by two things in Laura's remarks. First that this memoir is not full of trauma but of wonder—something we could all use right now. And second, the importance, in the book, of abundance. Of sweetness and the gifts of nature. The word abundance kept following me around as I mulled the design. And I started to see plum branches (and, oh my gosh, plum branches are the definition of abundant) cradling the title, subtitle, and author name. So, I put the house aside for a while and started building plum branches.

No thought to color at the start, just creating shapes and tossing out reds and blues and yellows to distinguish between the elements.

Often I work on more than one concept at a time for a book cover, but the plum branches sort of consumed me. 

Maybe part of my obsession with it was what was going on in my life outside of this work. I spent a weekend full of worry because a very close loved-one was in the hospital, and all I could do, when not talking back and forth with family, was build plum branches. 

I made plums and leaves while worrying about learning bad news, I made plums and leaves while finally learning better news. By the beginning of the week, as she was heading home from the hospital, I was surprised to find a fully formed cover design that I really loved.  I played around with where the blurb should go and sent samples to Laura. 

Laura was happy with what she saw. She chose which one she liked best, and we decided to go ahead and see what Zaji thought. I did a little more refining and added some stars and then Laura sent it to Zaji.

Zaji was happy, too, but had one request. "I wonder if there's a way to incorporate cat imagery...without it seeming too obvious." Ah, yes, the feral cats! 

I liked the idea and started thinking on how best to incorporate them without taking away from the design. I liked her thought of not making them too obvious. They could maybe be a surprise you come upon. Laura was brainstorming right away: "I wonder if a cat could be sitting facing the reader with its head at the bottom of the plum wreath, almost like it’s wearing the plums. Or like a jigsaw puzzle with ears jutting into the wreath. It could be this same color scheme—a black and teal cat or whatever, not a realistic one. Or a turned-head silhouette on the top left, overlapping the trees? Or there could be a hidden cat (or cats) within the plums, so only people who are really paying attention see them. I’m thinking more silhouettes like the trees, more than photographs or anything. If you think you could add a touch of cat."

Heh. A touch of cat.

I was particularly interested in her idea to hide the shape of a cat or cats within the coloration of the plums. But I started a little more literal, creating a simple silhouette cat and moving it around, seeing what happened. I kind of loved the fact that it's easy for cat ears to camouflage as leaf tips, and there was something distinctly catlike about having them hide in the greenery. I sent back a couple versions of the cover with my touch of cat, and Laura and Zaji liked them and both chose their favorite—the same favorite—and we had our cover (stand-in blurb included to show balance).

Plums for Months will be out in May of 2023. More info is on the Forest Avenue Press site here.

Here's an excerpt!


As the rain of autumn becomes the rain of winter, the mother and older daughter keep the house warm with chopped firewood and the downstairs heater that sometimes works. Summer finally arrives to bring enough blackberries, blueberries, grapes, apples, and plums for months. Hands scrape past thorns and reach above tall branches to pick the very best fruits to cook with. The younger daughter helps cut back the invasion of blackberry bushes around the sides of the house whose vines tap the windows; her small hands curl around hedge clippers and reach as close to the roots as possible. With nimble fingers she helps mend the broken downstairs window with plastic and tape. 

Some nights, the three listen to the wind howl, the house creak, or the rain and wet tree branches thrum against the house, and continue to adjust to the new nature. They huddle closer in the living room, closer to their popcorn and movie and each other, and let the outside music play in the background.