A Book Cover for “Sistering”

The cover for my upcoming novel, "Sistering," Aug 2015 from Linda Leith Publishing

The cover for my upcoming novel, “Sistering,” Aug 2015 from Linda Leith Publishing

I’m not usually fussy about design. There is photographic proof of it. When my in-laws-to-be generously organized decorations for my wedding reception while I was consumed with final exams at a university hundreds of kilometers away, they went for the crepe paper aesthetic—streamers and accordion bells. My in-laws are lovely but the crepe paper could only be horrible. I managed not ruin the day or our relationship over it (don’t worry, the person who did the shopping is dead and won’t be reading this). On my wedding day, I stood in crepe paper carnage, held onto the beautiful husband these nice people had made for me, and smiled for the pictures.

Those easygoing design sensibilities of mine become brittle when it comes to my own book covers. Stakes are high with book covers—not as high as at a wedding ceremony but definitely higher than at the crepe-paper reception afterwards. Book covers can tip the scales for readers choosing from a market full of good books. Covers usually convey something about plot—especially in genre fiction—but more importantly, they communicate tone and theme. They hint at the state of mind and heart readers can expect to inhabit. They make vague but real promises. They’re meant to elicit emotional connections. We’re supposed to have feelings about book covers—especially when we’ve authored the stories between them. For a second outing in an author’s career, getting a new cover is a little like getting a new face. And I loved my old face.

Like my first novel, the tone of the second novel is (wait for it) unusual. The structure and storyline are quite different from my first book but I hope my signature oddness (whatever it is, I’m too close to sense much of it) has endured. However, strangeness makes the book hard to characterize with a single illustration. My new book is grave but funny enough that a spooky cover wouldn’t be appropriate. The main characters are women but it’s got nothing like a chick-lit vibe so a cover full of flowers or lipsticks or purses doesn’t make any sense. It’s got elements of a warm, family story but images of sunlit kitchen windowsills would be bad fits too.

I set up my first ever Pinterest board and asked my sisters (blood sister and sisters-in-law, after twenty years with my in-laws, unless I’m looking for a kidney donor, it’s all the same) for cover suggestions and for their opinions on my ideas. But I asked them to do it blindfolded, knowing little more about the book than its title. I’m unreasonable that way.

A few days before the latest Linda Leith Publishing catalogue was finalized, Linda was kind enough to send me two designs being considered for my book cover. Nothing in our official agreement obligates my publisher to ask me anything about design. As is typical in the industry, the publisher buys the rights to produce the book however they see fit. This cover preview was a courtesy and one not every publisher extends. I am grateful for it. And that gratitude made me feel like a terrible person when I admitted I didn’t feel right about either of the designs. The kinds of images we were using—stairways—were the right kind. The concept was good and it was one I hadn’t been able to come up with myself. But I was being fussy about colour schemes and other fiddly details.

IMG_8009

Quit trying to cute it up, Cat

With the deadline for the catalogue looming, we all kept working. In desperation, I even recruited my sister Sara, a photographer, to take photos of the stairwell in her house in case we couldn’t find anything that worked. Her kitten didn’t make it easy, frolicking into the shot over and over again. “Hey, it’s not that kind of book,” I kept telling it. On my way home, I stopped at my sister Amy’s house to take photos of her stairs, as a backup plan for the backup plan.

In further desperation, I reached further into my wealth of sisters. While Sara and I were trying to light her stairwell, my sister-in-law, Stephanie, was picking through the Internet for me. Steph is a writer too—urban fantasy and romance with commercial appeal. She does most of her publishing independently and her best book covers are the ones she designs herself. She has a few favourite resources and on one of those, she unearthed the image of stairs our designer transformed into the book cover.

I love it. The blue-green tones are moody and a bit haunted without being gloomy or melodramatic. The architecture is pretty and visually interesting but not too fanciful or domestic. The title’s font—one of the LLP standbys that give the company’s books their unified look—blends well with the image. And best of all for my poor sophomore nerves, this cover has a comforting sisterly resemblance to my first novel’s cover—the novel that was well-received and not just a fluke, right?

When I posted the finished cover on social media, someone cool and smart said, “I’m picturing the Brady Bunch sisters lined up on those stairs. Except they’re all goth.” I didn’t know until I read it that this was exactly what I wanted to hear.

Carbon Copying Vulcan – Shreds of Reality in Fiction

The Roman God Vulcan, smashing stuff

If my youngest brother-in-law was a Roman god, he’d be Vulcan.  Wait — let’s not let Star Trek confuse us.  I’m not trying to say he’s cold and hyper-rational and his sleeves are too short.  He’s like the original, Classical Vulcan — fiery and powerful and smart.  Like Vulcan, he makes his living building things out of metal with torches and hammers.  When he’s having fun, he still likes to yell and hit things.  I adore him.  And if I was a goddess, I’d be Juno, the shrill but scary wife of the boss-god Jupiter (Zeus, to all you Greek fans).  I also like to yell and hit things.  It’s a sign of enthusiasm and love.  Both Vulcan and I understand that very well.

In the years and years I’ve known him, Vulcan has not been a voracious reader of contemporary Canadian literary fiction.  It’d be out of character for him to rush out and buy my novel when it’s released this August.  But I hope he will.  In order to encourage him, I did what Juno would do: I got up in his face and bullied him about it.

“Hey, are you going to buy my book when it comes out?”

He paused.  “Uh — how much money will you get from each one?”

It wasn’t the response I expected.  “I don’t know,” I said.  “About two dollars maybe?”

He reached into his pocket.  He said, “How about I just give you two dollars right now?”

“What?”

The Roman goddess Juno

He was laughing at me.

“You have to read it!” I bawled at him.  “You have to.  Because…”

This is where my Juno started to lose her nerve.  Even with my loved ones, I am a shy, apologetic promoter of my work.  I tell my friends and family where to find it and then I leave them alone.  There’s no follow-up – no awkward audit of their patronage of my art.  My loud, bossy questioning of Vulcan was not about getting him to cough up a twoonie.  It was about something much more delicate.

He was standing in front of me, towering over me, one hand still in his pocket.  He was looking down with his big brown face, waiting for me to finish.

I began again.  This was important – something between a warning and a gift and a confession.  “There’s this character in the book – and – he might seem like he’s kind of like you.”

Vulcan’s eyes got a little bit bigger.

“But he’s not you,” I hurried.  I explained there’s a scene in my novel where a woman meets her in-laws for the first time.  That meeting is written a lot like the time I first met Vulcan, when I was twenty-one and he was not quite ten years old.

“They’re not us.” I said again.  “They just look like us for a minute.  The little boy grows up and does things you don’t do.  He’s not you.”

“But someone might think he’s me.”

“Yeah.”

“Would he be in the book if you didn’t know me?”

Strictly speaking, it’s an impossible question.  How can I say whether I could have imagined someone so much like my brother-in-law ex nihilo now that I already know him?

What I could say was this.  “If I hadn’t lived the life I’ve lived, I wouldn’t have written the book the way I have.”

This was honest and fair to both of us.  The fact is I could have this same conversation (hopefully without the offer to pre-emptively buy me off) with dozens of people.  There are sparks and shreds and sometimes even long swaths of all sorts of real people in my work.  It feels inevitable.  Even if I switched genres and started writing hardcore science fiction, the spaceships and alien planets would still be full of traces of my friends, family, neighbours – everyone.

I’m certainly not the only writer who’ll admit this.  In an excellent essay, novelist Corrina Chong reflects on “writing as thievery.”  She says, “here’s the truth behind the fiction: as a writer, I am a thief…My writing is a collage of the bits and pieces I’ve stolen.  Once your piece is glued on, it’s no longer yours.  Finders keepers, I say.”

She sounds flippant but writing real life into fiction isn’t something done lightly.  We agonize over it.  We weigh the benefits of doing it against the risk.  And we understand the people unwittingly serving as our literary models might not agree we’ve struck the balance right.  Frankly, it’s scary.

Chong goes on to acknowledge that this theft is actually more like an exchange – a swap.  She says, “the very act of writing a story and releasing it out into the world assumes that readers will be able to see something of themselves in the characters, thereby stealing their own little pieces as keepsakes…any idea that rings true in your universe becomes your own.”

Maybe that’s what makes it possible for my self-consciousness at my own thieving audacity to be outweighed by my sense that it’s important for my reluctant, metal smashing baby-brother-in-law to read my novel – the one with a scene rooted in our shared history.  It’s not about the two dollars.  It’s about us.  Maybe that’s why I want all of the poor souls I’ve pilfered to read it.  I want to complete the second half of the exchange.  I want them to take something from me now – something bigger than my thanks for the inspiration.  Take yourself back, I say, and with it, take a piece of me.