Under the Covers.
This week I got the latest incarnation of the potential book cover for the Australian edition of my new novel Sphinx (publication May 09). It’s a powerful image of a naked woman underwater (no rude bits showing) with hieroglyphs running over the top. The message it sends – sexy, haunting dangerous story possibly set in Egypt with a thrillish overtone is perfect. I’m extremely lucky my publishers consult with me at all on the cover as most writers have all sorts of extraordinary (and often
visually irrevelent covers as usually you’re lucky if the design department reads the first ten pages of the book at all) And they respect the contribution my arts background (I have a degree in sculpture) gives to the concepts. but I was heavily involved in the covers of (the Australian) Quiver, the Witch of Cologne and Tremble. The actual figures in both Quiver and the Witch Of Cologne came from drawing of mine, with Quiver I wanted to have the image of a Amazonian woman with bow and arrow extending the metaphor of ‘quiver of arrows, a quiver full of stories. It’s really the triumphant sexual woman standing over her conquered male lover. But you have to look closely to see where the male figure is.
Look toward the bottom of the image – and you’ll see the poor bastard’s face gazing upwards between the women’s legs. This wasn’t exactly where I imagined he’d be, the photographer’s perspective in the photo makes it look like this. This cover was shot in 1994 (first published ’95) and I strongly doubt whether we’d get that passed the current stipulations required – no nipple or any other body part that cannot be on display on the shelves of K Mart or whatever chain is also selling your book. Twelve years ago the world was a more liberal place and this also applied to publishing. For me one of the sources of inspiration behind this image was the iconography of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, surely one of most successful and memorable covers of all time. It is virtually impossible to think of the book without that female torso hanging over the coat hanger coming to mind.
I drew the idea out for The Witch Of Cologne. The publisher had a limited budget and I was determined that I wouldn’t end up with them doing the usual Vermeer painting stock ‘historical fiction’ cover that looked like a million other historical fiction covers in the store. As the book is deliberately written in the present tense (to place the reader in the actual moment – actually travelling through those rooms, those streets of 17th century Cologne) I wanted the cover to be photographic but historical. I did reference Vermeer (think of the painting Woman reading a letter) but most of Vermeer’s subjects are looking away from the viewer. I wanted direct gaze, for the character Ruth to be directly gazing into the eyes of the reader thus emphasizing her fearlessness, I also wanted her to be holding a birthing hook ( gynaecological apparatus in one hand – although ironically the oldest piece of gynaecological apparatus I could borrow in Australia was 18th century) and something mystical in the other. I joined forced with the fantastic photographer who has now shoot three of my covers Moshe Rosenveig. And capitalising on my theatre contacts the set (resembling a 17th century Dutch interior) was built in his studio. And together we cast the model – a professional – who was also lovely to work with and very efficient with her time (hiring her for two hours almost broke our budget) and stylist Belinda Balding (who also styled Tremble). It was Moshe’s idea to use Ruth’s back I knew I wanted to use a tattoo but wasn’t sure where) on the back cover thus literally framing the book with her front and back. The translation of the Hebrew tattooed on her back is Lillith (Queen of the demons) Ruth’s nemesis in the actual narrative. In this way the book functions as a coda, just as the mystical Kabbalistic puzzle she holds in her hand means something to whose interested in the Kabbala. Ironically a reader’s review of the book was recently posted on Amazon which liked the book but hated the cover (thanks for posting anyhow, really appreciate that). It opened with the line ‘ Don’t judge it by the cover…’ There is an argument out there that I undershot with such a populist cover and committed a disservice to the quality of the content between the covers. At the time I was keen to reach as broader audience as possible with challenging and politically subversive material and it needed to be visually attractive as well as compelling. Perhaps I was naive – it was my first historical novel.
Naturally covers change with markets and countries. The Germans used a far more traditional cover – image of 17th Cologne with a young woman in the foreground who looks far more ethnically right than my model (Ruth, being part Sephardic, would likely be olive skinned).
And the Dutch edition actually changed the name of the book to The Witch, put Amsterdam on the cover and the subtitle of Life of a spiritualist in 17th century Amsterdam – I guess to emphasise the Dutch content and underplay the German!