Saturday, August 19, 2023

Book Cover: The Queen of Steeplechase Park

This is one I've been obsessed with.

I guess I get obsessed with every project, but with The Queen of Steeplechase Park, I've been even more obsessed. I've known the book and loved the book for a long time. Author David Ciminello brought it in various iterations to two different writing groups I've been in. This book that is a love letter to New York, to early twentieth century nostalgia, to Italian cooking, to his beloved great aunt Amelia P. Aguiar (after whom the protagonist Bella is based) is lushly written and over-the-top in the most wonderful way. Here's the publisher description:

The Queen of Steeplechase Park is the absolutely, positively, practically, almost-true story of infamous burlesque queen and magic meatball maker Belladonna Marie Donato. Pregnant at fifteen after gleefully losing her virginity to pansexual neighborhood strongman Francis Anthony Mozzarelli, she is robbed of her baby by a pack of nefarious nuns and her embittered papa has her sterilized without her consent (legal in 1935). With the help of a besotted Francis and her top-secret meatball recipe, a devastated Bella embarks on a riotous quest through Depression-era Coney Island sideshows, the tawdry world of peek-a-boo striptease routines, a queer mob marriage, and a tasty collection of wisdom-filled recipes to find her lost child, herself, and maybe even true love. It all leads Bella back home, to the scene of her Original Sin, where she boldly faces matters of life and death, questions of forgiveness, and a holy mess only the healing properties of great Italian cooking can fix.

When David's submission showed up in the queue for Forest Avenue Press's January-February open submission call, I got very excited. Before the book was even chosen, I had a picture in my head of what I would do if I got to make the cover.

It would begin with Bella, of course, front and center and big as life. Smiling confidently and dressed as a beauty queen.

I pictured the trappings of Coney Island around her: the Ferris wheel, the parachute jump, maybe a roller coaster or the steeplechase ride itself. 

And just as importantly, there would have to be food. From the book:

When Bella wasn’t dancing and stripping, she was cooking. The stove in the Neptune Avenue kitchen was never without a simmering pot of her tomato gravy.

Her lasagna Bolognese made Lolly scream.

Her lobster and crab ravioli made Oui Oui kiss her feet.

Her fettuccini carbonara made Minnie leap.

Her homemade peanut brittle made Peanut trumpet into the trees.

Her cacio e pepe brought Chester to his naked knees.

Her spaghetti and meatballs made the entire house sing, “We love you, Belladonna Marie!”

I pictured the ingredients of Italian cooking all around her: huge, sumptuous tomatoes, cloves of garlic, basil leaves. Maybe she'd be rising up out of a pile of these grand ingredients, or maybe they'd make a frame around her... or no, maybe not a frame. Bella is too full of life, I thought, to be contained within a frame.

Oh, this cover for a book we hadn't even accepted yet: I could almost taste it!

Another reason I craved this project is that it's a period novel and I'd get to play with the time period. I wanted to give it the look of an old movie poster or one of those wonderful vintage food advertising prints. The texture of the paper, the rich shading.

David had ideas, too, and I was excited that his thoughts lined up so well with mine. He was sending Laura images of some of those same vintage ads and others, pictures of tomatoes. One thing he wanted was to use a picture of the actual Bella.

Look at her there, strutting her stuff on the beach! Unfortunately the resolution/quality of the photo wasn't good enough for print. But I resolved to create my Bella to reflect the vitality, the boldness, the sparkle and fire of the Bella David had created for his book.

I particularly liked this Italian food poster he had sent in. Her open and strong, joyful expression, her head thrown back, her sexy but not rail-thin figure. I decided to use her as one of the models for my Bella. 

To scope out a set of legs and a hand-on-the-hip pose, I looked through vintage pictures of beauty queens until I found this photo of Bettie Page. She was in a similar position to the actual Bella in David's picture, but it gave me more detail to work off of, including shoes.

In early summer, I lost a close friend, and then almost immediately all three of us, Laura, David, and I, lost another, Robert Hill, who was a Portland writer and one of Forest Avenue Press's authors. During that very sad time, I was immersing myself in work on David's cover, and on building my Bella, specifically. Laura was working on Soul Jar, our upcoming anthology. Somewhere in the middle of things, Laura and I had this text conversation:

Laura: I’m okay. Looking forward to the work I guess. Just to pour energy into something. This weekend I was happiest when working on the garden. (Or not even happy, but not feeling dull inside and quite as lost as the rest of the hours.)

Me: I understand that. And we have to be able to be happy, too, when the garden makes us happy. 

Then both of us at the same time:
Me: Building Bella is making me happy 
Laura: Totally. I love that you are working on David’s cover. 

Laura: JINX!

Here's the first version of Bella, which I built in Illustrator out of various overlapping shapes. She definitely wasn't a beauty queen yet. But wait. She got better. That early in the game, she was very simple layers filled with flat color which would approximate the areas of future shading. I based her pretty closely on my source material, knowing that closeness would change the longer along I got in my process.

Along with Bella, I built a bowl for spaghetti, and you can see that I used the scalloped design I was seeing in those Italian food ads.

I liked the idea that Bella would be impossibly holding up this heavy bowl of pasta with her fingertips like her joy for food gave her superhuman strength.

I started to put together a simplified version of the Steeplechase Park Ferris wheel.

And a classic roller coaster.

And Steeplechase Park's iconic parachute jump.

I found pictures and pictures of beautiful vegetables and built tomatoes, basil, garlic, red onions. Alright basil isn't a vegetable.

Maybe there could be a ribbon wrapping around Bella—like a beauty queen's sash but also maybe like a banner advertising the best show on the boardwalk. Ooh, and maybe that's where the title and author text could go.

I popped in some chunky text using a stand-in font, but including the star detail that I found in this great poster for the 1943 film Coney Island

Then once I had my elements, I started to arrange and refine. I played around with color. Added some silhouettes behind my spread of Italian ingredients. Bella had an empty bowl for a while but then I finally added spaghetti and meatballs.

At this late moment in the process, I decided to double-check the history of my landmarks, annnnd... the parachute jump did not arrive in Steeplechase Park until after the book's finish. Oops.

So bye-bye, parachute ride. I did some more refining, added a burst of rays shooting up behind Bella, tried a night view with fireworks. I'd already been working so long on this project, as well as some others, and we were starting to come close to deadline. When Laura checked in with a nudge, I sent her a few samples of where I was.

We knew we weren't going to make that deadline, but we both wanted to get a cover that would best sell the book and would make David happy. He was happy with the early samples and had some requests, mostly around Bella, who he wanted to see be "much more voluptuous—bodacious. Big breasts and ample hips (think Adele before the ridiculous slim down, Claudia Cardinale at her most voluptuous)."

He sent more pictures of the real Bella, and examples of hair and shoes he imagined she'd wear.  Open-toed shoes with toenail polish. He asked, could we have more spaghetti and meatballs in the bowl, could I get rid of the red onion nestled in with the vegetables at the bottom. As I refined further and sent more samples, he asked about an even bigger bust, even higher hair, even more spaghetti. "(can it touch the top of the book or even bleed off the cover?)" I like this close-up screenshot on my file in Illustrator, showing the names I'd given to the various layers I was adding in response to his feedback. More Bella. More spaghetti. More hair. 

It feels fitting, as The Queen of Steeplechase Park is all about more. All about, as David wrote to Laura, "abundance—even excess."

Another detail he asked about was maybe a halo of stars around her head "like a Saint or Mary" to reference the often-irreverent religious aspect of the book. Laura thought this would probably be too busy with all the detail already in the cover, but she wrote to me suddenly with an epiphany based on that request:

"The daylight cover, I love, for the colors and summery feeling and the softness, but what if the stripes around her continue behind her legs? Like her belly would be the center of the stripes, they'd encircle her? That might be enough of a religious aspect without the stars (or with them). You could leave the tomato colorful outlines but the stripes would go where the tents are."

I loved what moving the burst of rays to center on her belly did to the design. Whether or not it got to the religious aspect of the book, it just made the whole thing better, more dynamic. I added a shine of yellow-almost-white, like a glow, also, close in around her. More samples:

This old blog. Examples never drop in with their original sharpness, but hopefully you can get an idea of things from what you can see.

We honed in on the design with the purple sash and bowl, and I started the shading/texturing process.

There's probably some quick way, or semi-quick way, to create a texture like a vintage poster, but I don't know what it is. I didn't want to just add a grain effect or something. And yes, my process was probably more painstaking than other designers would bother taking on. But it's the way my brain works, and I wanted the texture to look really real. I found this print on Wikimedia Commons. I don't know how much of the texture you can see from this image, but it's there.

And from that, I created my own blank textured paper that I then made copies of in various of the colors from my design.

Then I married each shape from my design with that colored paper by making what's called a clipping mask of each shape. Here are some of the layers of one bunch of basil.

I took those pieces into Photoshop, layered them on top of each other, and created the shine and shading by erasing away what I didn't want from each layer.

Again, the reproduction in this blog is a little fuzzy, but you get the idea. It's sort of like painting but backwards. Or inside-out. It took a while, but it's what got me from this:

to this:

Now as for Bella, I had sort of Frankensteined her together, so I wanted to make completely certain that I had everything in the right place. Luckily, I live with a fine artist who specializes in, among other things, the human form. I printed Bella out and asked Stephen to have a look. He discussed it with me and even gave me some pencil guides, which I took back to my desk for more refining.

Some of the steps in Bella's metamorphosis.

After a little more tinkering here and there, some flag garlands to add a little something more to the background, and a great blurb excerpt from author Blair Fell, we finally had a cover that we all liked, and which I hope would make Bella proud.

The Queen of Steeplechase Park will be out in May of 2024. More info is on the Forest Avenue Press website here

I think this excerpt, which is the opening to the novel, will give you the perfect taste:

Had William Randolph Hearst known about her he would have inked her onto the front pages of his newspapers directly above the banner headlines barking about the war crawling across Europe. Walter Winchell would have broadcast about her on This Is Your World! They would have told you how beautiful she was. How men dropped in front of her and howled. How Einstein created a new theory and how Freud folded his cards after she lit one of his cigars. Hollywood could have made her a great big star. She would have taken Bette Davis and wrung that bug-eyed hambone dry. King Kong would have let go of Fay Wray, dropped that dizzy dame those one hundred and two Empire State stories, just so he could hold her in his gargantuan hand. Glenn Miller would’ve raised his baton and crooned, “Come on, baby! Front my band! You can swing! I know you can!” Pity was never a song she chose to sing. Her anthems were always “Shoo Shoo Boogie Boo” and “All of Me!” When she Coney Island cooch-danced, air-raid sirens rang, Lucky Strikes lit themselves, and palm trees sprouted out of Coney Island’s sand. After her Cooking Spirit swooped in, meatballs were never the same. Everyone wanted to taste her tomatoes and dip their bread in her Sunday gravy. Had he met her, David O. Selznick would have ceased his search for his silly Scarlett O’Hara and cast her in a Technicolor epic all her own. Fiddle dee dee! Frankly my dears, there was no one like her!

Friday, August 11, 2023

Book Cover: Moss-Covered Claws

Recently, I was excited to be asked to create a new cover for the short story collection Moss-Covered Claws by Jonah Barnett. The book, published by Blue Cactus Press, came out two years ago, and I loved it and blurbed it. When the second printing got low and Blue Cactus started prepping for a third, they decided that it would be fun to give it a whole new edition with new content inside and a cover refresh. Publisher Christina Vega contacted Laura Stanfill, publisher of Forest Avenue Press, to be a consultant on the project, and Laura has been acting as a go-between, tossing out ideas and helping me refine my work.

The main element of the original cover is a painting by Sam Breaux. Look at that cool minotaur! For the redo we wanted to keep that art and build around it. 

(If you look close, you may notice that the author's name is one letter off from the name on the cover of the book. Originally their name was Jonah Barrett. But after being recently married, Jonah and their partner decided to combine their two last names into something new—and the best combination turned out to be only one letter different. I love that this new edition of the book also serves as a bit of a celebration of that new name.)

I met on Zoom with Laura, Chris, and Jonah to discuss the book and throw out ideas. Then Laura emailed with a comprehensive rundown of her thoughts. Right away, she had super fun ideas about new approaches. 

"I wondered if you could create some kind of layer effect around the monster that would give it more dimension," she suggested. "Maybe even looking like the monster is being torn out of the background of the painting or separated from it somehow."

She also said: "You are so awesome at frames and borders. I’m not sure if a border would work with this illustration as-is, but I could also see shrinking the art and putting a border around it, or making it look like we’re viewing it through a telescope or cave or something—distorting the space on the outside."

Jonah forwarded a great collection of imagery to use for fodder as well, including some fonts they liked and an array of vintage book covers. Thinking on Laura's ideas and Jonah's fodder, I started picturing the cover of Moss-Covered Claws as a storybook gone rogue, where at first it looks like a sweet old-time fairytale book—but the monster in the forest is ripping its way out and into your world.

I started simple, with the paper of the illustration tearing to reveal the title text behind, the minotaur popping out of that confined frame. I knew I'd need to do some toning to the original artwork, but I figured I'd wait until we had a colorway decided for the cover before I did any tinkering. I would also eventually want to add some shadow behind my emerging minotaur. (And I would also-also eventually notice and fix the typo that sneaked into (or more specifically out of) the terrific blurb by the equally terrific Sequoia Nagamatsu, a writer I was fangirling all over the whole time I was working on this cover, I can't lie.)

But with Laura's suggestion of working with borders, and Jonah's examples of vintage book covers, I started to get a little more fancy as I went along. Jonah liked fonts with a swoop in them, so along with my chunky, modern-looking original font, I folded in a more classic font that I could get fancy with, for the text that lived within the bounds of what I was thinking of as my storybook portion.

(You might notice some dropouts at the very bottom of the painting in a couple of these samples. That's where the painting ends, and I knew I may have to photoshop a little more in to make the layout I wanted work—but I'd cross that bridge when I came to it.)

There was back and forth with Laura and I came back to her with more samples. This time I dispensed with the paper tear, playing, instead, with the idea that the minotaur is busting through the border, itself.

Getting more elaborate with the border and futzing with the title, even, in this last sample, cracking it up a little.

As sometimes happens when you get more and more elaborate with your tinkering, Jonah, when we shared samples with them, preferred the most simple. The no-border approach with the paper tear at the top and bottom. They had some suggestions for tweaking, including updating the title color because "I don't like yellow. Maybe it's because I hate sunshine, who knows." Haha! But they also had a new suggestion: "What if the cover took on more of a Jules Verne vibe? Think old dark green covers with nice gold type, and a bookplate-ish illustration (there's probably a better word for this) based on the minotaur painting."

Here's the example of Jules Verne they forwarded along.

And here's one of my own that I had saved because I love, and have a file of, those wonderful vintage book covers.

I got really excited about the prospect of going full-on Jules Verne with this book cover. Sometimes I muse on the question, what are the dream projects. The ones that give me the most joy. And again and again I think it's those projects where I get to go all in on a theme—and particularly where I get to have the book cover be something more than a book cover. Like how the cover to City of Weird got to also be an old pulp magazine cover. And the cover to Queen of Spades got to also be a playing card. In a way, it's like being a set designer for the movies. How immensely fun would it be to get to create a set that's New York City in 1955 or Amarna in 1346 BCE? To try to be absolutely meticulous in creating something genuine. I like book covers that allow me to do that: recreate and emulate. 

So yes, I got very excited at the prospect of emulating, of recreating one of those fabulous ornate Victorian-era book covers.

I've done something like that before, with Froelick's Ladder. That one was such fun. But it was a modern take, and for Moss-Covered Claws, I would let the design stay in and of its time.

So, I did have plans to work on Jonah's tweaks to the paper-tear cover, but first I couldn't help myself. I started playing with a Victorian-era design.

I started by building a decorative frame for the painting. Designing a piece...

Duplicating and rotating it.

Adding another detail to duplicate and rotate, duplicate and rotate.

When I had a frame, I started to build banners to place my text inside.

And then I spent an inordinate amount of time creating what I thought would be the best scrollwork to fit the space.

There were other steps, of course. Finding fonts I liked and working the text in. Fiddling with the color of the minotaur painting until I liked the tone and contrast and vibrancy. Adding all the tiny details. But most important was going back to Laura's original idea of the minotaur breaking out of the background. When I shared this direction, it was obvious that I wasn't going to go back to the paper-tear concept. We had our cover.

As an addendum, with a design like this one, and a nice, thick spine width, you can even get fancy with the spine.

I love those old ornate, gilt-stamped book spines, and because Jonah had enough pages in their book, it gave us room to create horizontal decorations to break up the space.

I used some of the elements of decoration from the cover to create the elements for the spine, and it was fun to fake-gilt-stamp the logo of Blue Cactus Press at the bottom.

The new edition of Moss-Covered Claws will be releasing soon. More info is here.

Here's an excerpt!

I walk to the edge and look down into the dark abyss. At this time of day—the very beginning—the sunlight hits the water just right, and you can see down to the peat floor in honey golden rays. I peer into the water. It’s filled with shapes—shapes that are familiar and yet so remote. There are people down there, so many people, just lying at the bottom as if in slumber.