The Girl on the Cover of Girl

Next week is the annual AWP conference, to be held in Boston this year, and I’ll be attending the weekend’s festivities for yet another round of literary gluttony and general mayhem along with my faithful companions and fellow editors of The Los Angeles Review: Kelly Davio, Ann Beman, and Joe Ponepinto. In addition to the densely scheduled and attended panels, workshops, and readings, as well as the whirlwind of nearly ten thousand like-minded artists crammed into one overburdened convention center, there is also the delightfully overstimulating chaos of the AWP bookfair.

I spend about 90% of my bookfair time manning the LAR booth where we sell issues and subscriptions, say hello to all the contributors we’ve come to positively adore over the years, and–of course– participate in some of the best people-watching around. But that other 10% of my bookfair time belongs to the decadent hour or two or five I get to spend blissfully wandering the crowded rows upon rows of the world’s best literary magazine, arts programs, small presses, and writers. For those of us in the writing biz, this is heaven. I savor that experience of say hello to old friends every single year, and every year I buy too many books and magazine and merchandise because I find myself wanting EVERYTHING. Best of all, though, I look forward to drinking up the sights of so many gorgeous, hard-won books on display, all those richly crafted nuggets of knowledge and emotion and art wrapped up so finely in the kind of design feats that can knock your socks right off. Heaven, I tell you, heaven.

One of the things many non-writers are surprised to learn about the publishing process is how little control an author will usually have in the selection of his or her cover art. Luckily for me and Girl, the incredible team at Skyhorse Publishing included me on the decision and welcomed my feedback in what proved to be a thrilling and highly educational search for that perfect image to represent my book. Because I’d been dreaming of publishing this memoir for so many years, I came to the table with images already in hand. I’d held onto a photograph taken by progeny photographer Holly Henry, and was delighted when the designers at Skyhorse responded well to it. Galley copies were printed with that original image, which was a haunting and somewhat polarizing image, and I was elated. While all the little loose ends of font choice and alignment were still being settled, word came down from on high that we’d have to choose a new image, and do it quickly.

Digging through family photos and hundreds—probably thousands—of images online when I got home from work that day, my head was spinning. Cover art is so powerful, so important to a book’s first impressions on a potential reader, and I was terrified of getting it wrong. With my dear friend, Kristian, helping me sift through the piles and files of pictures, I suddenly remembered something tucked away into my storage closet.

I took quite a few photography classes in college, and for ten years schlepped my oversized portfolio through every move, every breakup, and every life change. I rarely opened that portfolio, or even thought of it, often wondering why I bothered to keep it around. But there was something in that thick black case that seemed to call to me in that frantic moment of searching for the perfect image. I crawled low into the mess of ski boots and Tupperware bins cluttering my closet to find the portfolio, and unzipped the top, holding my breath. I pulled out a large print and held it up for Kristian to see, asking “Think this would work?” The look on his face told me that yes, the picture I held in my hands might just work.

My senior year of college, I took an alternative processes photography class. A year had passed since my father’s death, and I was a mess. But that class was one of the few I never missed, and I treasured the long, dark hours locked away in the darkroom. I was given an assignment to create a series of images that showed an emotion, and the emotion I wanted to share was the only one I seemed to be able to experience in those days: sadness. And since I knew no one other than myself who was able to cry on cue, I turned the assignment into a self-portrait session. Setting the timer on my camera, I forced myself to think about my dad, to miss him, and to cry for him. It didn’t take much to get my tears flowing, and the shutter clicked away. Later, I wrote a poem for my father, and burned the shadows of the text over the blurred images. The pictures turned out better than I’d hoped for, and I was proud of the raw, bold pain unmistakably revealed in the simple black and white compositions. Proud enough, anyway, to carry them with me for over ten years. Sitting on my living room floor with the pulling those old art class prints from that dusty portfolio, everything started to fall together. My brilliant friend and graphic designer extraordinaire, Ana Lake, worked her magic on the scanned image as if possessed by the graphic design Gods and onward went the little photo that could, stopping at Skyhorse just long enough to get the final approval of my editor and the design team there. And because we had such little time to make the switch, it certainly didn’t hurt that I was both model and photographer of the image, requiring no additional permissions paperwork!

Today, that evocative self-portrait rests on my book’s cover more beautifully and perfectly than anything I could have ever hoped for. I have to admit that it’s still a little strange to see my face on the cover of something so public, but it’s hard to imagine anything else in its place. That girl I see in the picture is different from the one I see in the mirror these days, but I remember her. I remember her pain, and I remember her hopes for coming through it all. And dammit, come through it I did. I suppose that for this reason above all the others, I simply can’t imagine any other book cover than the one I ended up with. The image does what it ought to, and I’m proud of it–proud of being in it, proud to have created and crafted it, and proud to see it join the AWP bookfair this year, where I bet it’ll knock at least a few pair of socks off.

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