We got home from our San Francisco trip yesterday evening to a notification from Lightning Source that the proof of my book had been shipped overnight UPS.
You all know what that means, don’t you? Yes, you do.
I will not be eating, breathing, or blinking today until the UPS truck pulls up.
We’ve been talking a lot about why we write here lately, what we’re doing in this field, what our dreams are, and one of the things that keeps coming up is the dream of a book. A book in your hands. A book of your own.
I was fifteen years old and living in an attic bedroom under the eaves of a towering Victorian pile with an antique hundred-pound Royal typewriter and a lot of onionskin paper when I wrote my first novel. It was—not surprisingly—the story of a family living a peripatetic life in Europe, which my family had recently done. The children were philosophers. They spent a lot of time talking about whether or not reality exists.
It troubled me deeply that I had no idea what I’d put on the cover.
I was in my early twenties and living in a ramshackled, falling-down wreck of a little house some blocks from the towering Victorian pile when I wrote my second novel. I had just read one of the original Tarzan books and become so incensed at the misogyny that I didn’t care what I wrote so long as my heroine was a swashbuckler and my hero a fainting ninny. That turned into a fantasy novel based on the shape of the letter S.
I pictured either the palace from whence my heroine sallied forth to battle the forces of evil, for the cover, or a map of my imaginary country, surrounded as it was by a magical shield of dancers.
I was about thirty and a student of Computer Science working at a small, notorious coffee shop in San Luis Obispo when I began my third novel. I’d realized our coffee shop wasn’t just run badly, it wasn’t actually being run at all, only kind of shepherded along haphazardly by management that bordered on complete anarchy. And I thought it would be hilarious to write the story of how it was discovered this coffee shop wasn’t even owned by humans, but by a magical creature with a much more earthshaking agenda than simply serving coffee. I also needed a senior project when I transferred from Computer Science to English after I abruptly lost patience with earning a degree (only seven years into it) and decided to get out fast.
I was in Bolinas—a tiny village north of San Francisco—that summer where I found a black & white photograph of a Thai mermaid for sale on a greeting card. It was my protagonist, exactly my protagonist. I knew that photo had to go on my cover.
And I kept that photograph on my desk for the next fourteen years, as I worked my real, paying job in technical writing, published my first book, the non-fiction Children and the Internet with Prentice Hall, then immediately got married, had a baby, and raised him. Somewhere in there I wrote my fourth novel, again deeply troubled because I knew only that I couldn’t photograph the characters, who were far too clear in my mind, for the cover, and I had never developed my skills as an artist far enough to do a proper job of drawing or painting them.
I have always thought of my books as complete works of my own, and there were years in that attic near the wet, green Canadian border when I typed and re-typed the first page of my first chapter of my first novel, experimenting with the graphic design.
I can’t tell you how inanely amateur is the cover that Prentice Hall gave my one book in which I had no say. I don’t even like chartreuse.
Virginia Woolf once sat down in her big armchair at the Hogarth Press and wrote a book on women writing that is still considered ground-breaking: A Room of One’s Own. Of course, Woolf had no children to shut out of this room of her own, much less employers, just a husband with whom she shared the printing press in their basement that published not only her own books but also those of her friends and peers (eventually amassing an author roster of many of the contemporary luminaries of London)—the mathematician Maynard Keynes, art critic Roger Fry, poet T.S. Eliot, New Zealand short story innovator Katherine Mansfield, novelist E.M. Forster, all-round dabbler Vita Sackville-West. . .
What Woolf did not write—and certainly could have—was A Book of One’s Own, an exploration of what it means to an author to hold in their hands not just their own words, but the physical, concrete, imagistic manifestation of their vision. Their book.
What does it mean to you to translate your inner world to the page? Is it truly the words to you—simply the struggle to find the right words? Or is it the entire three-dimensional thing?