Monday, June 2, 2014

My First Time: Marian Szczepanski

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 Marian Szczepanski.  The granddaughter of immigrant coal miners, Marian Szczepanski grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania and lived as a young child in the Jamison Coal Company house where her mother and aunts were raised.  She holds an MFA in fiction from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and has won awards for short fiction and magazine feature writing.  Huffington Post praised her book Playing St. Barbara as “a stunning debut novel that shimmers with unforgettable characters while casting necessary light on a dark chapter in American history.”  Recently named to the 2014 Houston Press roster of 100 Houston Creatives, she lives—where else?—in Houston, Texas.

My First Cover

This is a story about two sisters, a fake Renaissance painting, and thinking outside the box—so far outside it included serious consideration of a trip to Florence, Italy, as a cost-saving tactic.

The story began when a small press accepted my debut novel Playing St. Barbara.  Euphoric, I headed to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Chicago.  No longer just a writer, I was a novelist-to-be on a mission, determined to attend every seminar and panel discussion even tangentially related to What To Do After Signing A Book Contract.

The most helpful session turned out to be the last.  A panel of small and independent publishers (including Graywolf and Two Dollar Radio) discussed the personal relationships they cultivated with their authors.  Their comments spoke directly to my novel’s imminent path to publication and my potential role in that journey.  The talking point that stood out was one echoed by each panelist: a small-press author has a chance to weigh in on and sometimes even help with the creation of the cover design.

The following day, I drove to my octogenarian parents’ home in Indiana to take over the care and feeding of my post-op mother and weary father.  I was tag-teaming with my sister Mo, the family artist, who had operated The Peach Tree Studio, a successful graphic design business, out of her suburban Chicago home for 30 years.

By “successful,” I mean a recent design program that won the Innovation of the Year Award for Walmart Canada, and product packaging for companies like Kraft, General Mills, and Kellogg’s.  Mo had created publicity posters for John Malkovich’s Steppenwolf Theatre just before he became The John Malkovich.  That kind of successful.

Before donning her coat, Mo surprised me by asking, “Who’s doing your book cover?  Can I do it?”

There was one possible answer to this question, but before offering it, I had one of my own: “Aren’t you too busy?”

I was certain the answer to this question was one and the same to the question she’d just asked me, but I was wrong.  Ridiculously and most fortunately wrong.  She flapped a dismissive hand.  “I can always fit it in.  I’ll need to read the book first, though.”

A show of hands, please.  How many of you hope (or hoped) to hear your books’ cover designers say this?

I doubt Mo had made it onto the freeway entrance ramp before I’d sent off an email with a PDF of the manuscript attached.

Mo loved the book.  I loved that she loved it because I knew she read books by authors whose work I deeply admire.  My publisher loved the idea of a seasoned professional volunteering to do work neither she nor I could ever afford.  It was a veritable love fest all around.  The warm, fuzzy elation at the prospect of having a killer cover buoyed me through the tedium of proofing the first galley.

After finishing the book, Mo asked if I had any ideas, however vague, about how I envisioned that cover.  Frankly, I had a pretty good idea about what I wanted and eagerly shared it.

Another show of hands, please?

Playing St. Barbara is about the secrets and struggles of a Depression-era coal miner’s wife and three daughters.  The town’s annual festival features a pageant reenacting the life of St. Barbara, the legendary protector of miners.  Each of my main characters is cast in the leading role, but with radically different results.  I wanted the novel’s cover to reflect both the gritty reality of the women’s lives and the mythical, even archetypal, presence of the saint.  To accomplish this, I imagined an archival photo of a Pennsylvania mining town at the bottom and, at the top, a soft-focus image of St. B, as I’d come to call her, surrounded by clouds.  (Technically, B hasn’t been a saint since 1969, when her feast day was struck from the official Catholic calendar.  However, Mo and I had decided such theological hair-splitting could be overlooked in a story set well before B’s de-canonization.)

Mo liked my idea, and we proceeded to comb the Internet for images.  Then she went to work.  I’ll never forget the moment when I got her email—Cover concept for PSB—and opened the attachment.  My cover, exactly as I had imagined, appeared on my computer screen.  Actually, it was more than I’d imagined.  I’d briefly inhabited Mo’s world, focused on images, not words.  But now I couldn’t miss them: the title and my name.  My name!  I burst into tears.

This was foreshadowing, but I didn’t know it then.

The images Mo had cobbled together for this initial concept sketch came from Art Resource, a fine art stock photo archive, and the Historic Pittsburgh photo collection digitized by the University of Pittsburgh library system.  I was able to secure usage rights for the mining town photo for a modest fee from Pittsburgh’s Heinz History Center, which owns the photo.

In contrast, obtaining permission to use St. B’s portrait, painted by Renaissance artist Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio and displayed in the Academia, involved significant hoop-jumping.  I filled out a detailed form about the position of the image on the book cover, the percentage of space the image would occupy, the book’s print run, and how long it would remain in print.  There were other specs I needed to supply, too, most of them guesses.  I included a question in my return email.  Would there be an additional fee to print the image on promotional materials like postcards and bookmarks?

It blew my mind that an image created by a guy who’d been dead for nearly 500 years necessitated such nit-picking.  Mo, savvy in all matters visual, enlightened me.  While the 16th century painting was in the public domain, the photographer who’d created the digital image was very much alive and entitled to compensation.  Since I’m a stickler when it comes to copyright issues, I wasn’t about to argue.

But I couldn’t deny I was getting nervous.  The glass-just-shy-of-half-full part of me sensed my killer cover was in jeopardy.  The rest of me was resolute.  I wanted this cover.  I needed this cover.  It was the perfect cover.  The only cover that would do justice to my story and Mo’s expertise.

Since I write fiction, it was no stretch to imagine Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio himself taking my side.  Appearing before the photographer, the artist’s ghost smiled winningly and requested a fee waiver or, at least, a hefty discount.  “Have a heart, dude.  It’s her first book.”

By this time I was slogging through the second galley.  With my cover on the line, it felt as if I was weeding a baseball outfield with eyebrow tweezers.

When Art Resource responded, it was apparent that, even if Ghirlandaio’s ghost had paid a visit to the photographer, he’d neglected to drop by the photo archive.  I quickly did the math.  St. B’s price tag was edging toward five figures.

Distraught, I called Mo.  “It would cost a lot less for me to fly to Florence, buy a ticket to the Academia, and take the photo myself.”  Even as the words left my mouth, I knew how absurd I sounded.  As if to add even a shred of credibility, I added, “I have a nice Nikon.  Everyone says my travel photos are really great.”

Mo patiently described the process and equipment used to photograph fine art.  “Let me think about it.  There’s got to be a cheaper way to get that picture,” she said.

In addition to illustration and design, Mo’s digital business card lists “thinking.”  The solution she came up with amply illustrates why.  Two days later, she called me.  “I found this online outfit  They sell copies of famous paintings in the public domain in whatever size you want.  Their staff of professional painters copies them.  Our St. B is on their list.  When I called, the guy assured me if you buy one, you own it, free and clear, and you can do whatever you want with it.”

Mo’s proposal: “For $200, you can buy the smallest St. B and have them ship it to me.  I’ll take a picture and Photoshop it into our layout, and you’ll end up with a nifty souvenir for your office.  That’s way cheaper than a plane ticket to Italy.”

It seemed too easy.  But it worked.  I’ve gotten no end of compliments about my novel’s cover.  And my St. B, albeit brighter than her Renaissance twin, looks really classy on my office wall.

Thanks, Ridolfo.  Rest in peace, dude.

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