My mother tells better stories than anyone. As a child, my favorite was about the time she babysat for a family in her rural Maine town. The parents told her the children were asleep, and that she could do homework in the kitchen and help herself to a snack. The only rule was that she was not to go down the hall and open the door to the last room on the left.
Naturally, being twelve years old and the beautiful, adored sister of two adventurous older brothers, Mom was a rule breaker. The minute she heard the car back out of the driveway, she was tiptoeing down the dimly lit hallway to press her ear to that mysterious door. To her shock, noises were coming from the other side.
After a moment’s hesitation, Mom slowly turned the knob and inched the door open a crack. A child came dashing out, nearly feral in his animal sounds and movements, blindly grasping at her clothing and body.
This scene may or may not have really happened exactly like this. Researchers have shown how our memories alter each time we take them off some shelf in our brains, examine them, and put them back. As my mother told us this story, she could have embellished the tale, too, adding details to keep my own brothers and me quiet on long car rides.
When people ask how I get ideas for my novels, I tell them that a writer’s mind is like that junk drawer in your kitchen. You throw all kinds of things into that drawer: paper clips, rubber bands, business cards, receipts, Legos, odd coins, bits of string. Likewise, writers go around collecting snippets of dialogue overheard at the grocery store, cool looking cars, people you meet at dinner parties, and family stories. The stories that haunt you—like this one—are the ones that typically form the genesis for a novel.
In my new book, BEACH PLUM ISLAND, the central story revolves around sisters whose father, as he is dying, says, “Find your brother and tell him the truth.” The only problem is that they don’t have a brother, so how can they tell him the truth?
Of course, it gradually emerges that they did have a brother, and the narrative is launched as they begin to search for him. The oldest sister has a dim memory of once opening the door to a bedroom and finding a blind, panicked boy behind it. In the novel, the search for the missing brother reads like a mystery, with the three sisters trying to uncover clues to discover what happened between their parents before they were born.
Novelists weave fiction entertain, to make people think and feel things about their lives, and to promote fresh perspectives on timeless human conflicts. Fiction pokes at the deeper questions we all wrestle with: How can I forgive someone in my family who has betrayed me? How can I learn to love again if I’ve been hurt before? What does it really mean to be a family? What is the point of parenthood, if your children only grow up to leave you?
I may never know the truth behind my mother’s childhood story. Who was that boy? Why was he locked in that back bedroom and kept a secret? As I was writing this novel and asking her questions, my mother told me, somewhat vaguely, that she thinks this child was probably born to the couple’s teenage daughter out of wedlock.
“Maybe they kept him in that bedroom out of shame, because they believed this blind child was God’s punishment for her sins,” I suggested.
“Maybe,” she said with a shrug.
For my mother, this story was a memory. She has moved on. For me, the story became a quest: I wrote BEACH PLUM ISLAND because I needed to create a world where something tragic like this could happen, find out why, and put things right again for a frightened little boy.
I imagine it isn’t easy to be an art director at a big publishing house like Penguin Random House. You get descriptions of books by the dozen and have to sort through images and fonts, colors and, well, “feel,” for lack of a better word, to try and provide a cover that tells a story–and, ideally, a story that evokes the words beyond the cover.
As a contemporary fiction writer with New American Library/Penguin, I provide a synopsis of the book to their art department, just as indie authors must do for independent book cover designers. Then I hold my breath to see what the art department conjures up. Will the cover be “me?” More importantly, will it honestly represent the emotions and story I’ve put on the page and attract readers? This is important, because people really DO judge books by their covers, and will only pick up books with covers that intrigue them if they’re in a bookstore. Likewise, they’ll only click on those postage stamp links on Amazon if they find something about a cover that speaks to them as readers.
In the case of my first book, THE GERBIL FARMER’S DAUGHTER, the first cover for the hardback (I was with a division of Random House for that one), the art department came up with a cute idea: gerbils sitting inside a pair of green farmers’ boots. For the paperback version, however, they changed the cover dramatically. That book has a little girl running through an orchard under a bright blue sky–nothing to do with the book. Absolutely nothing, especially since the book is a memoir and the little girl is definitely not me. Their rationale? They wanted a book WITHOUT rodents on the cover, since some women apparently don’t care for small animals that look like rats, and they wanted a bright image so Target stores would carry it. I wasn’t in love with the idea, but it worked. Hats off to the marketing department for coming up with a cover that captured the “feel” of the memoir (happy, light) and would draw an audience.
For my first novel with NAL/Penguin, THE WISHING HILL, I loved the cover immediately. It has a picture of a little girl blowing dandelion seeds and is a literal depiction of a pivotal scene in the book. I had asked for this image and sent them suggestions, and they delivered–with the added perks of gorgeous paper and colors.
My second novel, BEACH PLUM ISLAND, is a family mystery based on a true story, and a very emotional story at that, about three sisters searching for a brother they never knew they had. The first cover showed three sisters walking together on a beach peppered with roses beneath a bright blue sky. It was all wrong, both in fact and feel. There are no beach roses growing along this particular island, the three sisters would never have walked together in the book because their relationship was too turbulent, and the sky was too bright and happy for the story. I asked them to go back to the drawing board, so to speak, and the next cover was much better. Still pretty–a woman with her back to the camera, a gorgeous sunrise over the ocean in plum and pink and blue–but with a hint of darkness. I love it.
Now, with HAVEN LAKE, the novel scheduled to be published in April 2015, the art department hit a home run and came up with a cover that really is “me” as a writer of tense, emotional family mysteries. The cover is beautiful, but evocative of loss, love, and hope–just like the story I’m telling. Now I’m more excited than ever to finish the book as I start writing the last chapters this month, in preparation for delivering the manuscript to my editor in July.
Many thanks to New American Library/Penguin; to my savvy editor, Tracy Bernstein; and especially to cover designer Mary Ellen O’Boyle for capturing the essence of HAVEN LAKE in a single haunting image.
What about you? Do you have a favorite book cover? Share it with me!