Friday, June 5, 2009

Cover Story: The Morgue and Me

First off, hello fellow Nesters and visitors from cyberspace.  It's a pleasure, and an honor, and just a wee bit scary, to be writing my first post here.

Now . . . what to say?  My first novel, The Morgue and Me, comes out in a few short weeks, so it would seem an appropriate topic of conversation.  And yes, I could go on all day about the magnificent writing (ahem), but what I'd really like to tell you about is the experience of seeing the cover art for the first time.  And why I love it so.  Take thee a gander:

(hopefully you see the above -- newbie blogger having technical problems . . .)

While writing this manuscript, which is a mystery, I participated in the long tradition of people sitting at computers with messy drafts and no publication contracts, daydreaming about what their "book" might look like on the shelves.  (Provided they got past page 75 someday and fixed those ten plot issues.)

In my story there is a morgue, a gun or two, a dead body, a dingy motel, some pretty lakeside cliffs, and one hot babe. Inevitably, my visions ran towards some combination of these elements. And of course, the cover didn't use any of them.  Instead, as in a good mystery itself, the final vision was nothing at all what I expected yet fit the story perfectly.  

It came attached to an email from my editor, the wonderful Catherine Frank at Viking.  With a little cover note along the lines of "What do you think?"  I prepared myself for the worst--and didn't open the attachment for a half hour or so--but the thing shocked me in the best possible way.

Why do I love it so?  Let me count the ways:

1) It's enticing:  There's lots of cash.  And a bloody hand.  It's dirty money -- and somebody got hurt!  But how? Why?  The path to intrigue lies in leaving enough unsaid.  (You may know this principle from burlesque shows, but let's not get into that.) All that negative space in the background, I think, does that.

2) The enticement goes to the heart of the story:  Without spoiling anything, I can say the plot of The Morgue and Me takes off with the discovery of a large amount of money.  It's the thing that drives the story, which makes its appearance on the cover a very satisfying choice.  No one is going to feel conned while reading.

3) It's appealing to the readers: Based on memories of my 15-year-old self and informal polling of teens, I'm feeling optimistic that mystery-loving YA readers would stop and look at this cover.  It looks a little dangerous, even edgy--in line with an image of yourself you might want to convey.  I mean, Hollywood celebs get hybrid cars for image reasons.  I won't complain if someone picks up my book with the same thing in mind--not to mention it's like $35,000 cheaper and you don't need a driver's license.

4) Most importantly, the pulp novel allusion:  I wrote a mystery because I love reading mysteries, and the mysteries I first fell for come from the bygone day of Hammett, Chandler, et al.  It's no surprise that mine came out as a kind of modern take on those books.  And this cover does just the same thing so well--it fells very "dime store novel," and yet very fresh.  I think it might be the black and the cool font, mixed with the more pulpy image of the dough.  I'm sure the designer him/herself could explain this much better than I could.  (The book design is credited to Sam Kim--shout out to Sam!--but I don't know how the process works or how many others are involved.  I just know they made one author quite happy.)

5)  This brings us to the final--and best--part.  The back!  Check it:


Excuse the poor quality -- I just took that shot on my camera.  But okay, here it is.  Up top, a muscular, just-melodramatic-enough tagline:  "When the mystery starts in the morgue, things are bound to get interesting."  Awesome, no?  Anyway, below that, a snippet from a dramatic scene in the book.

Now, can I tell you why I love this?  This will help explain:

This is from the 1957 Ross Macdonald novel The Barbarous Coast.  See the muscular, just-melodramatic-enough tagline?  "I make my living wearing a gun."  I'm sold.


Ross Macdonald's The Galton Case, 1959.  Just a block of text from the novel.  "Culotti's shoulder caught me like a truck-bumper in the small of the back."  I'm in.  

These are the books I've cherished, hunted down at used book stores over the years, and kept.  My Ross Macdonald collection:

The cover of my book has a home here.  It could fit, of one piece with my ramshackle library.  The one that fed my imagination in high school, that took me to dangerous places, that made me think in exciting ways, that made me want to write.

The cover of my book could be the start of someone else's pile. Somebody else's imaginings--somebody else's unwieldy library to be schlepped from dorm to apartment to house, because the weight of the boxes is far less substantial than the thrill they once had reading a good line, seeing themselves in the pages, looking at that cover and thinking of what the world held for them.

That would be the finest honor of all.  Thanks, Viking, for a great jacket. 


  1. Hi John,
    Love the cover! I happen to have an ARC of this book, read it months ago, and it Is a fun read with lots of plot twists. Just wait until you see copies in the store-take your camera, its kind of a one in a lifetime feeling, that first book on the shelf. Enjoy.
    Susan Schmid

  2. Hey, thanks Susan! I'm definitely looking forward to the first store sighting. Seeing it on Amazon, etc., was pretty cool, but the bookstore shelf is the real deal.

  3. I designed this front cover and am so glad you liked it! I had a blast doing it. - Lucy

  4. its kind of a one in a lifetime feeling, that first book on the shelf. viagra uk

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