Monday, February 21, 2011

Chapter 46: In Which I Talk Some More about Collaborators

The small press is all about patience. I have learned to accept this. A year ago, I was very anxious about cramming everything into a small period of time. I scheduled tours back to back, composed press materials, and, yes, put out a book that was not fully edited. I acted as if I would suddenly no longer be an author if I didn't get everything done at once, as if the opportunity would go flying out the window. Nowadays I have a better idea of the resources at hand. For instance, my publisher ordered five copies of the book last week, which are going to a competition. This week he's getting another five, which are going to the people who bought books on tour last year. Over the subsequent weeks, books will be sent to these folks who've been waiting for so long. Then, and only then, are we submitting review copies, most likely at the end of March. This is the pace that the money allows. Until then, I do readings and tour, and point out that the book is available on Amazon. And I keep writing.

I'm excited to get on with other projects. Right now I'm working pretty hard to get the audiobook done in time for tour. The Jack Daniels Sessions EP audiobook will be my "extended edition" of the book, with some not-entirely-necessary but still fun extra bits thrown in. A sentence here, a paragraph there. I just gave "When the Law Come" and "Dead Teenagers" a spin, and they sound great. Not bad, given that I'm an untrained actor. In the next few weeks, I'll record "Brother Roy" and "Assistant," then I'll give my vocal chords a rest for a month or two. I'm going to put the audiobook on online stores, but I'll mainly sell it the DIY way. Make a fixed price, put up a Paypal account and do the shipping myself. All of which will take time. And patience. The rewards are worth the wait.

Rachel Dorrett

Carnegie Mellon University is an interesting place. On the one hand, they take massive government grants to build weapons for the army. Lame. With all the amazing software they develop, they prioritize trivial nonsense like programming a computer to kick Ken Jennings' ass on "Jeopardy." Also, they do everything to alienate their student body from the world in general and the city of Pittsburgh in particular, so that, at the end of four years, the university has a cadre of highly trained technicians who are eager to leave Pittsburgh for New York and Philly. Two points in the university's favor: A) they're not Pitt, and B) all that Pentagon cash goes towards one of the best arts programs I have ever seen.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted illustrations for my book. One per chapter; something to compliment the stories, but not so many as to be distracting. I also wanted the illustrator to be a first-timer, like myself. As I was given an opportunity, I felt it important to pass it along. Dan McCloskey had already started on preliminary sketches for the stories, which were amazing, but I wanted to see what somebody else could do with the material. So I set aside a Saturday to look for local artists. First, I attended Steel City con in Monroeville, Pittsburgh's frequent comic book/pop culture flea market. I believe the guest that day was Ernie Hudson. Instead of getting my Oz: Season 6 boxed set autographed, I scanned the different comic artists doing commissions. Definitely some good stuff, but I wasn't done looking, because that was also the night of the annual CMU art department open house.

Yes, once a year the vaunted university opens the doors to its sacred Fine Arts building, to allow the lowly into the hallowed chambers of its artist cubicles. There I saw sculptures, and that tent city thing that was in the middle of the campus lawn during the G20, and student films with seizure-inducing lights set to noise music, and the standard-issue art school nude photographs, and had somebody pour hot wax on my hand and tell me it was art, and ate many chocolate chip cookies, and enjoyed the company of increasingly drunk CMU undergrads. I like being around creative people, so it was a fun time. All the while, I looked for somebody who might be a good fit for my book. That was when I stumbled across Rachel's cubicle.

My first thought: "This lady played a lot of Nintendo games growing up."

And for such a young artist, she had a very impressive resume, having done work with Nickelodeon and the Carnegie Museum. Looking through her portfolio, I noticed there was not a single "this is my friend Todd lying on the couch" sketch in the bunch. It was all high fantasy. I liked how Rachel's work was reminiscent of old Dungeons and Dragons/TSR artwork, with the amazing level of detail. All of her knights and warriors and mages are loaded with in gear; ornate armor, rune-covered headdresses, girdles that bristle with knives, staffs topped with shining crystals. Like those 1980s fantasy artists, she is interested in the material aspects of the quest. This same level of detail went to her monsters, who have mouths full of fangs and barbed tails and a million other cool things to look at. Her landscape pictures were crammed with imagery like citadels and flying ships. She also has a distinctive look, with her gangly, angular yet somewhat bendy characters, and a kind of shading that reminded me of woodcuts. Her clothing designs had an eastern flavor to them, and its always refreshing to see a fantasy artist who looks beyond the Eurocentric approach. In fact, its absolutely necessary for any artist who works with me. My favorite piece: her giant canvas painting based on kabuki theater. I had found an artist who not only understood fantasy art, but had a ball drawing it. As the night went on, several inebriated art students recommended Rachel as a fantasy illustrator. So I emailed her.

I had pretty solid ideas about what I wanted for most of the illustrations, and Rachel was willing to offer her own ideas for the other ones. The hardest decision was for "Safe Space." There was no particular scene that stood out to me for a picture. It is the first story in the book, so the illustration for it sets a particular impression. At that point, I did not know if I wanted a picture that was very fantastical. Rachel shot me a few pictures: a montage of different moments from the story, a romance picture of the two main characters together, and a scene straight out the story of one of the protagonists looking through a window at a very strange occurrence. I had Rachel draw a picture of the punk show flier from the start of the story. Finally, I decided that, if I'm going to be a fantasy writer, I should just let the flag fly, and told her to do the one based on the scene. Rachel does her work digitally, but there is still a painterly quality to all of her pieces. The final illustration she sent me looked gorgeous, like the cover for an old Heavy Metal magazine. Nathan Kukulski was hired by Six Gallery Press specifically to work on my project. I still remember the day he was formatting the book, and Rachel emailed him the five pictures.

Me (talking to him on the phone): Did you get the Jpeg?
Nathan: It's downloading. Let's seee...Yeah, I see of picture of a chick looking through some bars at some demonic beings having a jam session on top of a pile of treasure.
Me: Yeah, that's it.

And I like how that's the first impression a reader gets: looking thropugh a window from one world to another. I think that sums up the book pretty well. The other four pictures did not take so much back and forth. The only one I changed my mind on was "How Brother Roy lost His Dog, Twice", which I originally wanted to have a Looney Tunes look to it, reflecting the humor of the story. Then I decided to take what was, in my opinion, one of the more striking images from the story and make a picture based on it. That might be my favorite illustration from the book. Please don't make me choose, though; I love them all.

Rachel is a joy to work with, a crackerjack with meeting deadlines, she can draw pretty much anything on Earth and she's a consummate professional. I invited her several times to parties I held. To her credit, she did not attend a single one. Check out her website. She also has an art blog here: I believe she is open for commissions, so if you feel like adding some otherwordliness to your project, shoot her a line.

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