We judge books by their cover. If we didn’t, The Unexpected Son would have never been written. We like pretty things. Pretty isn’t easily defined. It evolves. Sometimes we wait for someone else to define it so that we don’t have to.
For me, pretty is many elusive things.
Maybe that's why there are different covers for the hardcover, paperback and digital editions of The Unexpected Son.
I wanted a cover that was striking and somewhat enigmatic. I didn’t know what that would be. I did know that Cindy Bean was going to be the one to design it.
I knew that I didn’t want to be the centerpiece of the cover. Yes, it is my memoir. The story, however, isn’t exclusively mine.
A photo of the three of us? That's complicated.
I have five photos that include me, Mom and Dad together. Three of those photos feature my father’s reflection in the mirror. I don’t even know if I should count the one where it is only my parents’ midsections. I do.
The fourth photo is a colorful blur. Mom looking down at me while my father stares intensely at the camera. I love the way it screams mid-seventies. It’s not a book cover. The interior photo in a gatefold record sleeve, maybe.
The last photo was taken by one of my father’s friends. Mom doesn’t remember exactly who. It shows the three of us from behind as we walk hand in hand. Little me, a bridge between my parents.
When I think of us, this is what I see. The places we’ve been. The places we’re going. This is the closest we came to being pretty.
A few years back I was introduced to The Folio Society, a publisher that specializes in beautiful, illustrated hardcover editions of classic and contemporary books. I always wanted to publish a hardcover, even if it was only for my own vanity. It feels substantial, like something that will gather dust on someone’s shelf long after the author is gone.
I imagined what a Folio Society edition of my book might look like. I was very fond of the design of Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day, the simplicity of a slightly-blurry photo of men storming the beach on D-Day. However, it was the foil work on many of their editions that I was most drawn to. I had the idea of using our silhouettes as the book’s cover before I had even agreed to write it. It was why I approached Cindy in the first place. I suspect that it was the Jane Austen covers that convinced me.
So, a decade or so later than intended, I went to Cindy and asked her to create something based on our silhouettes in the photo. As requested, she returned with the “solid design” as well as the “lined version” that appears on the digital version.
Anita Boeira,who did the layout for all three versions, took Cindy's designs and made the most beautiful interiors for the hardcover.
I didn’t intend to sell the hardcover in stores. That allowed me the freedom to do things like leaving my name and the title off of the front cover. I knew that the paperback would need to be something different. So, I asked Cindy to read the book and create something that was completely her own.
What she came back with was as brilliant as it was unexpected.
Towards the end of my father’s life his doctors were trying everything to try and keep him alive. At one point that included putting him in an iron lung. Worried that seeing my father inside of a machine would be traumatic, I was told that my father was in his spaceship. I would have known this was complete nonsense and still chose to believe them anyway.
I never saw my father when he was in the iron lung. So, a real image never replaced the one that I made up in my head.
And it looked exactly as Cindy designed it.
Her daughter provided the glorious penmanship for the title and I went through my old drawings from when I was seven years old to add an authentic byline.
It perfectly captures the whimsical imagination I had as a child. The imagination that writing the book helped me to rediscover in myself.
Initially Mom was hesitant. I insisted it was the perfect cover for the paperback and there was nothing that she could say to change my mind. Again, Anita used Cindy's designs perfectly. Mom loves it now.
The mass produced copies aren't quite as beautiful as the Paragon Press version that is available from my shop. I suspect I'm the only one who really notices the difference in the colors and the weight of the pages.
After handing over the text (which was beautifully nurtured by Carolyn Janecek) and artwork to Anita, I found myself feeling hopelessly useless. I wanted to continue to work on the book. I hated sitting still. So, I found myself designing a massive amount of merchandise. I was inspired by my days working for the band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and the variety of book nerd products offered by the wonderful people of Out of Print.
I was so in love with what Cindy had made and reasoned that if I was incredibly lucky there might be people out there who weren't quite comfortable enough to wear a rainbow pin would wear one that featured a man, a woman and their son or a rocket ship.
There was a time when I wasn't brave enough to talk about my father. Thankfully, I've put those days behind me.