My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Jamie Duclos-Yourdon, author of the novel Froelich’s Ladder, which will be released by Forest Avenue Press next month. Steve Hockensmith, author of Holmes on the Range, had this to say about the book: “Half (extremely) tall tale, half picaresque quest, and all entertaining, Froelich’s Ladder paints a picture of the American frontier that’s more original—yet perhaps more true—than any I’ve encountered in a long, long time. Readers who appreciate the cockeyed historical vision of writers like Charles Portis, Thomas Berger, Richard Brautigan, and Patrick deWitt need to add Jamie Duclos-Yourdon to their to-read lists today.” Jamie received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. His short fiction has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Underneath the Juniper Tree, and Chicago Literati, and he has contributed essays and interviews to Booktrib. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
My First Cover
For a first-time author, cover art is a large part of what makes a book real, along with the satisfying thump you get when you drop it. The publication of my debut novel, Froelich’s Ladder, has been my first experience with cover design. My fiction has appeared in print before—in journals or on websites—but never has a graphic designer coupled his or her imagery to my words.
I had the good fortune to sign with Forest Avenue Press, which is independently owned and run by Laura Stanfill. This means I was deeply involved in the publication process, beyond the drafting and revising of the manuscript. I contacted other authors to request blurbs; I walked into bookstores to approach event coordinators; and I was asked to give my opinion on cover art. Had Froelich’s Ladder been acquired by a big-five publishing house, a functionary might’ve informed me, “Good news! Here’s your cover. It’s done.” Instead, I was introduced to Gigi Little.
Gigi has designed the covers for Forest Avenue Press’s entire catalogue, not that you’d be able to tell. Her aesthetic is fluid, matching her sensibilities to the particular novel she’s representing. Before I saw early layouts, I cornered Gigi at a barbeque and asked her, “How much of the book do you read? Like, a lot or a little? It’s going to have a ladder on it, right? I mean, it has to. I always envisioned the perspective of someone standing below and looking up. Not that you’ve got to do that. I don’t know, what do you think?” Gigi smiled, bought herself a little time by chewing, and essentially said, “I read as much as I need to.”
She would eventually design three separate covers—or, rather, she was in the process of designing a third cover when she delivered the first two. Cover #1 was closest to what I’d originally envisioned. It was the literal (which is to say, three-dimensional) view from underneath a ladder. The stiles were exquisitely detailed and vanished into the clouds, with strands of ivy weaved between the rungs. It was breath-taking; unfortunately, it was also reminiscent of Jack and the Beanstalk. I worried the reader would think I’d done a poor job of a modern retelling. “Where’s the giant? Where’s the golden egg? You suck, Duclos-Yourdon!”
Cover #2 was akin to a cartoon; it was two-dimensional with bright colors. I enjoyed its playfulness, but now I worried we were getting away from the genre of historical fiction. I decided that Cover #1 could work if we removed the ivy and played around with the font (which Gigi had also designed). Maybe I could go back and reference Jack and the Beanstalk—if not the premise, then a wink to improbable heights. Luckily, I had Laura to act as my intermediary. However well-intentioned these sentiments may have been, I easily could’ve offended Gigi by sharing my notes.
At this point, Gigi was still toying with a third cover design. I’d got a peek at her early sketches, after which I referred to Cover #3 as the Chaucer cover, because of its intricate scrollwork. Drawing inspiration from books released in 1871, the year that Froelich’s Ladder is set, Gigi wrote on her website:
I just love the ornate lettering and the fancy borders and, well, everything about these old book covers. What works of art. I loved the idea of doing a modern spin on them, something that retained the lavishness but also added a hint of the whimsy that is a part of the book. The two books I drew the most inspiration from were…The Count of Monte Cristo, published by George Rutledge and Sons, Limited. I wish there were an easy way to find out who created these covers. The listing where I found this book said that the book is illustrated with 20 etchings by M. Valentin, but the cover artist was probably someone completely different. The second is a book called Burns Illustrated. I know nothing about this book except that it was published in 1871 by Belford, Clarke and Company. I loved the typography and the title banner in this one. And the nearly non-stop ornamentation. I let myself soak in these fabulous book covers like some fancy, gilded bath, and I picked and chose what to glean from them, musing on how best to incorporate all the elements we needed, including a kick-ass blurb by Brian Doyle. Then I used a color scheme that was reminiscent of the classic red and gold but updated into something modern. Funny to be tootling around on Adobe Illustrator, making minute movements with a mouse, creating something electronically that nonetheless hearkens back to book covers that fabulous artisans created, more than a century ago, using such a very different process.
When Gigi shared the final Chaucer cover with me it was love at first sight. In a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, the vibrant colors will draw a reader’s eye—quite possibly from across the room. Beyond that, Gigi has captured the era, central metaphor, and overall whimsy of the novel in a static image. Me, I have trouble describing the plot in under three minutes; Gigi’s cover is the elevator pitch I never mastered. And, ultimately, it will contribute as much to the novel’s success as anything I wrote.