Monday, January 16, 2012

My First Time: John Minichillo

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 John Minichillo whose first novel, The Snow Whale (Atticus Books, 2011), is a contemporary retelling of Moby-Dick.  Hey Small Press! included The Snow Whale on their best of 2011 list and called it "the funniest book we reviewed all year."  Publishers Weekly called The Snow Whale a "wonderfully inventive debut novel" and the Los Angeles Times said it was filled with "wry, dry, pure hilarity." Minichillo is the recipient of a 2012 Tennessee Individual Artists Grant and he lives in Nashville with his wife and son.  He can be found at or on twitter @thesnowhale.

My First Book Cover

Long before a book gets a cover the writer carries around an abstract yet vivid sense of the scenes therein.  It's a favorite daydream: my book.  I so desperately wanted my novel to have a physical birth that I would make room on the shelves of bookstores and libraries compulsively at every visit.  I'd shove over books to leave a gap the size of an imagined spine between Milhauser and Mitchum.

My novel was a retelling of Moby-Dick, and since there was a long history of Moby-Dick inspired art, I was sure the visual possibilities would be recognized by an editor at a big publishing house, and I'd be on my way.  But I never got an agent.  If I was given a choice a couple of years ago of getting my book published or of rapturing up all the agents to the moon, I'd have had to really think about it.

Querying small presses was just as discouraging.  I loved my novel too much to send it to just anyone.  I don't know if it was the printer, the artist, or the JPEGs on the publisher websites, but some of the books advertised in small publisher catalogues sometimes looked like they were drawn with not enough crayons in the box.  I understood the economics of publishing, but I felt bad for these books.

When I first queried my publisher, Atticus Books, I had reservations about a fledgling press, but the covers looked great, and my book seemed like a good fit with the books they were putting out.  When I was offered a contract I could hardly believe it.  There was someone on this planet who believed in my book enough to invest his own money in it.  On the phone we talked about type fonts and I'd already been aware of the cover designer he'd used, Jaimie Keenan, because I'd been watching as each new book came out, with the book before mine really stunning.

In the daydreamy early days I imagined a Knopf or HBJ white hardback with no image at all, just the title of the book, also in white.  But now that I had a paperback coming out and I'd seen what Jaimie Keenan was capable of, I was sure I'd get a whale and I was really excited to see my whale.

From the day I was sent the cover, with the full spread sent within a day or two after that, I was in love.  I knew writers who were unhappy with their own covers, or mystified by the choice.  Mostly these were serious females whose books were made to look like soft porn or chick lit.  I got a whale.

I was asked for input, but I kept my mouth shut.  I really loved the shape of the whale, the way it was suggestive of so much girth, and I'm really grateful to Mr. Keenan for being able to represent that.  I had expected the whale to be white, but who cares what I think?  I wasn't about to suggest any changes because it's a really great cover and I felt lucky to have it.

There in the middle of the whale, very small, but recognizable, is my main character in his office chair.  He embarked on something bigger than himself and in that he's like me.  As a writer, you will come to depend on a lot of creative people--one of the unexpected but most rewarding aspects of the whole experience.


  1. It is a very appealingly-shaped whale, and visually very appealing cover. Great post.

  2. Love the whale, and but what, exactly, is the apparatus inside it?

  3. Donna,
    I believe it goes something like this:
    whale-->outline of an Eskimo-->videocamera-->a bundle of dynamite-->man sitting in an office chair
    It's clever, but for my tastes, I think there are two elements too many inside the whale.