Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cover Me

I've a collection of essays coming out next year from Norton called Sweet Heaven When I Die. Subtitle to be determined. It's a collection of previously published pieces and some new work, but it's not a grab bag. Rather, it's organized around some themes that guide some of my favorite work outside the subject of fundamentalism. There's the last Yiddish writer, a forlorn banjo player, an anarchist martyr, a blues philosopher, a bewitched preacher, and the long unpublished piece that I'd originally planned to title the book after, "Sweet Fuck All, Colorado." I'm keeping the "sweet" but saving the "fuck" for inside the covers. The book, sadly, is not as naughty as that sentence. Fortunately, it's not as corny, either.

Other titles I considered and rejected: "Old Enough to Die," "Still Waiting to be Born," "The Point of Despair," and, most bluntly, "This Is Not a Redemption Story." But nor is it as grim as that list would suggest. The pieces I've included are almost all in one sense or another blues stories, which means they're attempts to squeeze from brutality something that's near-tragic, near-comic, to paraphrase Ralph Ellison. I don't know if I've succeeded, but I've "done all I can do" -- which is another title I considered, a line from an old Dock Boggs song. As is Sweet Heaven When I Die.

The question then becomes: What should the cover be? It's a serious question. I'm asking for your help. A suggestion of an image or a concept. If Norton uses it, I'll send you a free copy.*

Here are my past book covers and some other covers I covet:

This is the cover for Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible, which Peter Manseau and Published in 2004. It's my favorite of my book covers, and a favorite in general. It shows up in books about design, too. But, for obvious reasons, it didn't work so great in bookstores. Free Press put the title on the paperback, which really crowded it.

I wasn't crazy about this cover, but other people liked it. I thought it was a bit of a cliche, since other books have used the fake Bible approach. (Though none have the pun. "The Family Bible." Get it? Nobody else did, either.)

This is the cover for a sort of sequel to The Family forthcoming this fall from Little, Brown. Evidently, the designer wanted to evoke the heavy brown of The Family. I like the title treatment. With this one I need to wait to see it in the flesh, so to speak. But for Sweet Heaven When I Die, I definitely want something lighter. And without Christian elements.

I love this cover for my friend Peter Manseau's travelogue, Rag and Bone:

But if that cover is beautiful, the paperback, sadly, is a case study in how to go wrong:

Awful! What's with the turquoise? Is that meant to be sky? This looks like a couch in a Russian dentist's office. (It's a great book, though, in cloth or paper.)

I think this one's so great this is the third time I've posted it:

This one's beautiful, all the more so when one considers that the painting is probably an archival image, but the car detail at the bottom really cheapens it, as if the publisher got worried that people wouldn't connect "Fordlandia" with Henry Ford. I'm a fan of covers that are beautiful but don't try to explain too much.

I've been reading The Gloves: A Boxing Chronicle and I think the cover is as well matched to the book as the title. It's a photograph of the author, cropped just below the eyes so he becomes a sad sack every man, wrapping his hands. The gloves desired by Anasi, a past boxing prime writer with a chip on his shoulder, are the golden ones you win in amateur boxing's biggest match, so the font is gold, too. I'd have made it a little shinier. But they handled placement just write. This is a book about a man with questions about manliness (he routinely gets thumped by his female sparring partner, a better and stronger boxer), so there are The Gloves, down between his thighs.

* At least two of this blog's three readers know that I'm not very fast about mailing things, which is putting a crimp in my new mail order free bookstore. But with this, I promise you'll get your copy in timely fashion, since I'll just put the winner on the comp list for the publisher.


jeffbbz said...

Well off the top of my head, the book being "bluesy" and also have a dock boggs based title and all, I would think that something along a kind of pre-war blues era theme would be nice. I'm not all that up on the latest book cover trends so stop me if this is overdone/cliche...

This could go several ways,

1. One could be like the center of an old 78 record with its ornate fancyness but slightly worn deal. Since your book is probably not round you could have just the black record lines or you could have a old timey cover sleeve.

random examples found with google searches (i.e. there are better ones but you get the point).

and also this link which seems to be awesome and I'm glad i just found.

I think this would be nice but it might already have been done and it might make people think you've written a music book.

2. The other way would be along the same lines but be more like patterned after a blues ad or something.kinda like this.

except cooler. and probably not advertising a musician. but you get the point again. Basically old timey stuff. probably could be cliche, but also could be awesome.

3. or I guess a third thing in the same vein could be just make it look like an old book since it is a book. Although old book plus bluesy phrase about heaven would bring to mind some book of old sermons or something, so if you are trying to get away from religious stuff...

4. Finally I was thinking that maybe a block print/woodcut theme. It would be better if there was a lot of black and the print was less detailed (ie. not like a medieval print) and more rough and I don't know "primitive" (I'm not and generally don't use this as a pejorative term).

along these lines perhaps.

It wouldn't have to be people, I'm just talking about the style. or it could be some of the people in the book also.

Just Throwing some stuff out there...

Becky said...

I was about to suggest something with music - here's the poster for Honeydripper that really captures the image of the film.

Anonymous said...

Oh, great, another book from Mr. Jeff. Thanks, Jeff. I'll just wait for the movie version with Tom Hanks.

Jeff Sharlet said...

Thanks. I don't think a record is the way to go, because then it would seem like a book about music, a la Greil Marcus' "The Rose and the Briar," also from Norton:

But Jeffbbz, that link is indeed incredibly awesome, and, since your competition more or less concurs on the idea, I vote you the winner of this contest, if you want a free copy. Send your mail address to jeff dot sharlet at gmail dot com.

As for the Tom Hanks fan below... huh? I mean, me and my bank account are waiting for the Tom Hanks movie, too, but in the meantime I thought it might be alright to do my job, which is writing books.

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