The Evolution of an Image: On Co-Creation with One’s Spouse

Note: due to the nature of some of the early versions of the cover image contained in this post, reader discretion is advised.

Slash of Crimson’s publication date nears. The cover is finished. But getting to this point was a more involved process than I expected.

When Rymfire first accepted the manuscript, I wondered what their method was for acquiring cover art. Being a small press, they often worked with both new writers and new artists. It became quickly clear to me that it could be a fair amount of work to find the right fit for any given project. I asked editor Armand Rosamilia if he would be open to my getting involved in the selection process. He said he was so long as the work was high quality and matched Rymfire’s brand.

And so the search began—I turned first to a New York artist who had given me a business card on the subway. It showed a painting of a subway car, mostly blacks and grays, with tentacles slithering out of its windows. They were poised to seize an unsuspecting elementary school student and drag the body into the one spot of color, the creature’s red mouth. The sinister threat combined with a macabre sense of humor attracted me and I contacted him. He was interested, however, he had already moved from one tier of the art world to the next, going from home studio to Brooklyn gallery shows. His price had therefore increased to something that, if it couldn’t buy you an Andy Warhol print, it would at least qualify as a decent down payment on one.

Next I tried an old friend from Portland, the city where the novella takes place. He was willing to do it and sent me an amazing painting. However, though a beautiful work in its own right, it was very abstract and wasn’t quite the hard rock style that matched Rymfire’s brand, publishers of books like Heavy Metal Horror and Extreme Undead.

And so I was beginning to feel like Goldilocks (albeit a black bearded manson-jesusish sort of Goldilocks). Nothing was quite right. I began to brood and stew around the house, until I finally went to an artist who happened to be quite close by—my wife Sarah—and asked if she would be interested in working up an image herself.

Now someone might wonder why I didn’t go to Sarah in the first place. Wouldn’t that be convenient, an artist in the family who would always be willing to co-create? Except that Sarah and I had never worked together on anything. Indeed, though not expressly stated, we tended keep our art very separate during our lives together. While we had definitely shared our work with each other from the time we met, and generally liked each other’s work, giving each other room to do our own work was a boundary we didn’t want to blur.

Sarah’s artistic background consisted of art school in Virgina and then Queens College in New York City. She had already lived in New York as an artist for over ten years when we first met. While her themes did at times include the macabre, her work usually employed video as its media and focused on gallery-oriented post-modernism. I guess the analogy in writing would be what’s popularly considered the distinction between ‘genre fiction’ and ‘literary fiction’.

On the other hand, I knew she knew how to draw, and so figured why not just hit her up and see if she’d make an exception to our usual practice:

“Honey, I was wondering if you could draw a creepy naked woman who just crawled out of the ocean for my book cover?”

“I suppose I could take a shot.”

“That’d be great, remember it’s a horror/dark sci-fi novel, so think along the lines of The Exorcist meets Aliens.”

“Um, what?”

“Right, maybe think along the lines of something like Japanese cartoons.”

“You mean the porno ones?”


“All right, I’ll take a shot.”

Now aside from the thematic considerations we have our all encompassing and most profoundly important consideration, that is, the schedule of our family life. Many writers have talked about this, from Virginia Woolf to Stephen King. I don’t want to do that entire essay here, but suffice it to say that what we normally do is take turns doing activities with the kids so that the other person can have some personal time. This of course has to be done outside of a full time work schedule, and with the added consideration that one of our daughters is not yet in school and still requires constant care.

Therefore the fair division of time and tasks is critical to harmonious domestic life. Again without going to far into these issues, most of the time I try very hard to make a full contribution and not do my personal work at the expense of my family. How successful I am is not for me to say, though I haven’t been thrown out yet. What changed, however, when the cover art came into play, was that I would simply have to give up some of my writing time to give Sarah time to work on the cover. I would also have to take the kids more often to give her extra time on top of that to work on it. And I did this as well as I could, and out of all the factors of ‘what it is like to work with a spouse on an art project’, I would say that in our case, this is the most important. Working with my spouse on an art project consists mostly of pushing swings, doing dishes, driving kids around and helping them when they don’t quite make it to the bathroom in time…

But even with those obstacles accounted for, there were still important aesthetic considerations. What kind of image would she use? We started by reading some passages from the book. She agreed the inciting incident, the opening scene where the kayaker is rescued by the woman who emerges from the waves, was what she wanted to draw.

She went with a good mix of eeriness and allure and thus her first rendering looked like this:

Of course I liked it, but also knew, as confirmed by editor Armand, that bare nipples could be objectionable on a lot of the websites where the book would be for sale. Neither I nor Armand had anything against nipples personally, but we knew it just wasn’t conventional in genre fiction to put them on a book cover.

Me: “I’m sorry, I think we’re going to have to cover the nipples.”

Sarah: “What’s wrong with nipples?”

Me: “They’re naked. I mean it has nudity, so mainstream booksellers won’t show the image on their websites.”

Sarah: “But I thought you guys were bad-ass heavy metal dudes.”

Me: “Um, maybe, but the booksellers are pretty important.”

Sarah: “You know, in art school there were naked people all over the place, it was no big deal.”

Me: “I know, but genre fiction usually goes with the scantily clad and well-armed.”

Sarah: “Like guns?”

Me: “Yeah, like guns, like guns okay, nipples not okay. I actually like guns and nipples, but that’s just how it goes…”

Sarah: “Okay, I’ll cover the nipples.”

Thus the next version:

“What do you think?”

“I love it but there’s still half a nipple.”

“You can barely see it.”

“Right, we have to just not have the nipples, like even though the novella itself is rated R, the cover just has to be PG-13.”

“You know, in Europe they had bare breasts all over the magazines, everybody seemed okay with that. And when I was taking figure drawing I discovered porno mags had some of the best photos of the human body. I often used to sketch from those, like the big butt ones were the best for that.”

“Yeah, I guess this gal’s not even fully human, more on the skeletony side…”

“Yeah, I think Grandma’s Hollywood actress mags have better models for that. But I’ll have to go with a composite, photos and a live model.”

“As long as you like the image in the end. My suggestions are just suggestions. I want this to be a work of art you would stand behind.”

“Of course. I wouldn’t do it otherwise.”

There ensued more discussion, mostly about color and light, but as much as I tried to lay my back-seat-driving sort of opinions on her work, we deferred to her sense in the end, since she is experienced and I trusted it would come out best that way.

And thus, the final version:

Now, in what manner Rymfire will design the final cover is yet to be determined. As stated by the editor, there are considerations to publishing standards for the layout of the text and the title, etc. There will be some cropping and sizing involved and possible touch up in Photoshop.

In the end however, I am truly indebted to Sarah for coming up with such a gorgeous cover that captures the spirit of the novella. Perhaps it may even inspire someone to buy a paperback version of the book and acquire something that is interesting to look at, as well as interesting to read.

Has anybody else ever worked with his or her spouse on a project? I’d be curious to hear how it went!


6 responses to “The Evolution of an Image: On Co-Creation with One’s Spouse

  1. Love the painting – And I love you(s) guys as wel!! We have been working on some original music – it is not as easy as it would seem! Despite my talent at lyrics and his talent for composition, rarely do the two meet in a “harmonious” manner (pun intended!). Kudos to finding a way to work with each other!
    Good luck with the book, and I hope that the artwork for the cover doesn’t get butchered too badly… All our best!
    -Stella & Mitch

    • So great to see you on here! I’m sure that editor Armand will make good use of Sarah’s image. You two of all people seem like you would work harmoniously together, though if you’re anything like us, harmoniously doesn’t always mean quietly and orderly 🙂

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