Monday, March 4, 2013

My First Time: Charles Finn

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 Charles Finn, editor of High Desert Journal and author of Wild Delicate Seconds: 29 Wildlife Encounters which Gretel Ehrlich, author of The Solace of Open Spaces, called “an exquisite read, full of small surprises with big heartbeats.  Finn’s stories are warbler-sized.  They cut through the air of the mind like flames.”  Finn’s essays and poetry have appeared in The Sun, Northern Lights, Wild Earth, Silk Road, Open Spaces, High Country News, Writers on the Range, Big Sky Journal, Montana Quarterly, Montana Magazine and many other places.  Before joining High Desert Journal, he taught English as a foreign language for three years in Hiroshima, Japan; hid out in the woods of British Columbia for ten; and spent five years in Montana, much of it in an 8 x 12 cabin of his own making with no running water or electricity.  A self-taught woodworker and proponent of “living little” he began A Room of One's Own building “microhomes,” one-room wood cabins constructed entirely out of reclaimed lumber and materials he salvaged from old barns and buildings.  Click here to visit his website. 

My First Book Cover

Long before I had a manuscript to submit, I dreamed about my first book, and, most deliciously, what its cover might be.  Lingering over titles in stores, I’d make mental notes on the covers I liked.  Not surprisingly, I was always drawn to the quieter, less brash ones: details of famous paintings, or mood-evoking photographs.  From the 1970s through the 2000s, I thought I could see an evolution in cover art, a maturing you might say, and with a marketer’s eye, I plotted my course.  From very early on, I understood the importance a cover could make, how it could draw a potential reader in or turn them away, and how a good cover evoked what lay inside.  I’d also read wonderful accounts of authors from big publishing companies seeing their books for the first time and the joy they felt holding the honest-to-goodness thing in their hands.  I’d also read about writers who were crushed at that same moment, disappointed to the point of tears.

How utterly depressing that must be, I thought, to have an ugly cover, to have slaved so hard, created a thing of such wondrous beauty, only to have it wrapped in an ugly skin.

In 2002 I moved to Missoula, Montana.  One of the first people I met was artist Claire Emery, and from the moment I saw Claire’s work, I knew it was a perfect fit for the collection of wildlife essays I was working on.  Claire was teaching nature journaling at the time, and just beginning to branch out into woodblock carvings.  Her work had a quietness I liked, a gentleness that corresponded well to what I was trying to do with the written word.  Very early on, I showed Claire drafts of my essays and we began talking about a possible collaboration.  Years later, when the happy news came that my manuscript Wild Delicate Seconds: 29 Wildlife Encounters was accepted by Oregon State University Press, I immediately floated Claire’s name as a possible cover artist, going so far as to suggest she do 29 interior illustrations as well, one for the title page of each chapter.

Although Claire was contracted to do the cover, 29 interior images would prove too expensive for OSU to fund, and I certainly didn’t have the resources to pay Claire even after a generous and discounted offer.  For a time I searched for images in the public domain, but couldn’t come up with enough that were in a similar vein, and gave up.  It was a depressing time, as bit by bit, I was seeing my dream slip away (I’d wanted uncut pages too, but no dice) and then OSU press surprised me with black-and-white silhouettes on each title page when they sent the page proofs.

Hmmm… How to respond?  The silhouettes were good, but not great: the bumblebee looked like a fly had been squashed between the pages, and to any birder, the osprey was obviously not an osprey.  The images were also static, all of them placed in the exact center of the page.  In a near state of panic, and with a knot in my stomach, I contacted the Press and their designer.  Oh what a relief!  What a surprise!  I was expecting pushback, but the designer was more than willing to work with me and was open to my suggestions.  Bouncing emails back and forth, we soon moved the animals to different positions on the page.  Suddenly, a butterfly fluttered in the top right corner, flying squirrels zig-zagged across the page, the fixed osprey perched on the O in its name, and deer, elk, and bison browsed along the page bottom.  Things were looking up.

At the same time as the book was being walked through its steps at OSU Press, Claire was sending me drafts of her ideas.  She had settled on an image of an American Water Ouzel, more commonly known as a “dipper.”  She experimented with different shadings and colorings, and I watched water being added and then a stone, mid-stream, to be perched on.  I trusted her implicitly, and had nothing to say except I loved it.  I only hoped the Press did too.

For years I’d wondered what I’d do if my book—my baby—was born with an ugly cover.  I remember fantasizing how I would storm out of my publisher’s office, the torn pages of my contract fluttering to the carpet behind me.  Back then, such juvenile daydreams, which ironically (or maybe naturally) drifted into even more ludicrous dreams of rehearsing Pulitzer Prize-winning acceptance speeches, were a staple of my procrastination-filled days.

Luckily, for everyone involved, there were no tantrums: the cover was a hit—both at the Press and when it hit the book stores.  In fact, everywhere I went to read, and in my email inbox on a regular basis, were comments and compliments on how attractive it was.  I have even had bookstore owners tell me they’ve observed people being pulled to it, how it stands out from so many other covers that it makes people curious as to what the book is about.  And isn’t that exactly the job of any cover?!  To get the reader to pick the book up.  Because of the cover, I’m told (and I believe it to be true) copies of Wild Delicate Seconds were sold.

It is hard to express my gratitude to OSU Press for allowing me the amount of input and decision-making power they did.  It is an example of the benefits of working with a small, independent publisher.  They sent any number of mock-ups and asked for my opinion.  Thinking back, I don’t know if I had veto power when it came to the cover, I never asked, but they bent over backwards to accommodate me and my tastes.  I listened to them, and they listened to me, and just like it is supposed to be, everybody came away feeling happy, good, and proud of what they’d done.

Finally, of course, this is also a thank you to Claire, for her gorgeous work.  It is an honor to have my words wrapped by her art.  And despite the fact that the cliche “you can't judge a book by its cover”  is true, I would like to think, at least in the case of Wild Delicate Seconds, that you can.


  1. Great book and, indeed, a great cover. I went to Charles's reading at Fact & Fiction, and Claire was there, as well as the original carved image used in the cover. Gorgeous.

  2. I've loved Claire's work for years. It's the perfect gift wrap for your book:)

    I'm so glad it was such a happy 3-way collaboration!

    Sara Walsh

    (I'm publishing this as Anonymous only because I haven't figured out how to sign up through any of those other services.... But then, I haven't tried too hard either.)