The book itself won’t be out until August 2013 but this week my publisher released the image that will be the front cover of my debut novel, Love Letters of the Angels of Death. And I couldn’t be happier with it.
Before the cover was created, my publisher, Linda Leith was generous enough to ask for my thoughts. She asked me even though visual design is not a talent of mine. It’s the same with me and music. I know what’s good and what I like when I actually encounter it but creating something from my own imagination is a dodgy venture. Not surprisingly, my first few suggestions were way off the mark. But Linda still didn’t dismiss me from the process.
Finally, I said, “I wouldn’t mind a pair of birds as long as they weren’t too maudlin.”
It seemed risky to me — the possibilities for sentimentality putting two birds on the cover of a book about a marriage could inflame. It’s not that I actually feared I might end up with a book cover with a pair of pastel, cartoon lovebirds canoodling on it. But just to be sure we all understood what I meant, I did an image search and came up with a picture posted on a British wildlife photography website called Warren Photographic. As time went on, we agreed we didn’t just want something like this photograph. We wanted this photograph for the cover of the book.
The birds – with their long tails and iridescent blue-green plumage — are magpies. Even though this pair has probably never set foot on the North American continent, western Canada, where most of my book is set, is teeming with their far-flung cousins. They don’t migrate with the seasons. They stay here all winter long making noise, scavenging food, and cleaning up the remains of other animals naturally selected out of the harsh environment. They’re the most beautiful carrion birds I know — especially when they’re quiet.
The first time I noticed magpies – as an angry teenager newly arrived in southern Alberta from Nova Scotia – they were perched on some statuary outside a Lethbridge cemetery. I assumed the city must have planted them there – like the swans in the Halifax Public Gardens – to make the urban landscape more exotic and elegant. Every Albertan I’ve ever told this story laughs at me.
Like other corvids – ravens and crows and jays – magpies live in mated pairs. And what I love about the pair on my book cover is the way they’re facing different directions but looking at the same thing. The smaller one (which my prejudices tell me to call the female) is closer to what they see and the male is watching her as part of what he sees. It’s like the narrative structure of my novel where the male narrator addresses his vision of the world directly to the female – the “second person” to whom he is narrating, the one individual who’s included in everything he sees.
I love the rest of the cover too. I’m thrilled to have a blurb by Padma Viswanathan as the header. Even after seeing it in print, I didn’t have a fit of self-consciousness and start hating the title (something that would not have been uncharacteristic of me). And I’m grateful the surname I lifted from my husband when I married him is distinctive (unlike my first name and my McMaiden-name) while still being short and easy to say. Hooray for my fine, Swedish in-laws, doggedly justifying the existence of the little-used “Q” section at the dry-cleaner’s – and now, hopefully, at the bookseller’s.