I had the very fortunate, although rare, opportunity to have complete artistic control over both cover designs of my novels. While on the one hand, this was a great opportunity, which was granted to me by my publisher based on my design and editorial experience with Louisiana Literature and Louisiana Literature Press, located at the university where I teach, it was also a somewhat daunting task as well. One would think that writing a novel would give one complete and total insight into the best visual representation of that novel: this is not necessarily the case. As I mentioned in an earlier posting, I’m probably the last person you would want to ask if you want to know what my novel is about. So when trying to decide on a single image to represent what essentially amounts to years of difficult mental and emotional and physical labor, it can be a hard task indeed.
For my first novel, I decided on an image that was painted by my late grandfather back before I was even born. The painting was always hanging in the living room where I grew up and I suppose it was always in my subconscious memory, as I had spent my formative years looking at it and experiencing life in front of it. My grandfather was an electrical engineer, but was a talented artist as well. (He wanted me to be an architect and sort of follow in his footsteps, and although I had some initial interest in the field, it waned after I became involved with music and art and books.)
The image was of a church located somewhere in Louisiana (unfortunately, no one knows exactly where, but my grandfather used to drive out to central Louisiana and take photographs of churches and old buildings, and then he would come home and paint them: that’s where this image came from, somewhere in central Louisiana).
I felt the image corresponded to my novel since one of the novel’s themes has to do with religion and since a church is a central structure in the small village of Sun, Louisiana, where the novel takes place. The more I looked at the image, the more appropriate its use on my book cover became: not only does it depict a church in a rural setting, but upon close examination, the cross at the peak of the roof appears to be somewhat distorted, as if my grandfather slid the brush across the canvas to make, in haste, what would be the patibulum. This seemed a fortuitous choice, for sure. For those who have read The Pugilist’s Wife, this will make sense.
Another aspect of the image that worked in my novel’s favor was the use of what appears to be smoke coming from behind the church. Again, if you read The Pugilist’s Wife, you’ll certainly see how this is appropriate as well.
I had the great honor of working with Pattie Steib in Southeastern Louisiana University’s Center for Faculty Excellence, who helped me to scan the image and provide an aesthetically-pleasing font and text layout for the book. Her assistance has been invaluable to me.
After the cover was complete, I started thinking about the close relationship I had with my grandfather and how I wanted this book to be a sort of tribute to his memory. I had heard him speak fondly of his college years at Texas A&M University and it seemed again fortuitous that the press who was publishing my book was part of the Texas A&M University Press Consortium, so I started researching the consortium and the catalogs it put out each year. I noticed that the cover of each catalog was comprised of an image from one of the books listed in the catalog. However, these were all Texas A&M Press books, not consortium titles. I took a chance anyway and contacted the catalog designers and asked if they’d be interested in featuring The Pugilist’s Wife cover on their catalog cover. It was a long shot, for sure, but I mentioned that my grandfather was an alumnus, and after a few email exchanges I was informed that the committee had decided to use my grandfather’s beautiful painting on their cover. They told me that it was the first time a consortium book had been used for this purpose. I was truly honored, but more for my beloved grandfather’s sake than my own.
When my second novel was accepted for publication, I again had the privilege (and daunting task) of designing that cover as well. I decided to use another watercolor that I had always seen in my grandparents’ house while growing up, this one done by a former teacher of my grandfather, Mr. Stanley Rames. Mr. Rames was a noted Arkansas artist who taught at Tulane University in New Orleans in the 1970s. My grandfather’s “church” image that was used for The Pugilist’s Wife was a result of one of these classes, so I thought it appropriate in both respects. I also wanted to use this image because the main character’s house looks a good bit like the one depicted in Mr. Rames’s image, and the character Harlow himself actually paints a watercolor of a duck hunting scene in the novel (which, as readers will discover, is a very important object used toward the development of the plot) which looks somewhat like the ducks flying in Mr. Rames’s watercolor.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know much about Mr. Rames, or how to get permission to use his work.
However, after doing some extensive research, I was able to get in touch with some former colleagues of Mr. Rames in Hot Springs, Arkansas, who then put me in touch with Rames’s daughter. She gracefully granted me permission to use her father’s image, and while I was on the phone with her, she told me a wonderful story: She told me that her dad had suffered a stroke when he was in his seventies and was paralyzed in his right arm (his painting hand) so he first re-learned how to paint left-handed, producing a number of works that way. Then he had an experimental surgery, in which a special device was passed from a blood vessel in his leg all the way into the blood vessel in his brain where the blood clot from the stroke was trapped. The retriever at the end of the device then captured the clot and pulled it out of his body, thus returning blood flow to the affected area: his right arm. This man’s passion for his craft should serve as an inspiration to us all.
Now after having completed my second novel’s cover (again with the help of Pattie Steib), the book is now getting ready to go out into the world, serving as a worthy tribute, I hope, to both my grandfather and Mr. Rames. I hope what’s inside of those covers can live up to–if only somewhat–the work of these two extraordinary men.