The Cover

I’d like to share with you a little about the story behind the cover design for my book. It may look, at first glance, like a miniature version of the game Twister, but it actually has a deeply symbolic meaning.

For those who haven’t seen the cover, check it out here: http://cup.columbia.edu/book/a-nones-story/9780231173940

When I handed over my finished manuscript to the folks at the press, they sent me what they call an “author questionnaire.” This is the writer’s big opportunity to express all the stuff she wants everyone involved in the book’s production to know. I imagine it is carried from office to office as the book is handed from one person to the next—like medical files for a patient. It’s a sensible way to allow the writer to have a voice about the various aspects of her book’s production while protecting the press’ staff from her progressive stages of blossoming neurosis.

One portion of the questionnaire is about the cover. It asks what colors you like and what sorts of designs you think would be appropriate given the content of your manuscript. It requests that you pick out a handful of covers from the press’ past releases that you find particularly becoming.

I had never thought so hard about book covers. I’m a fairly voracious reader. I’ve worked at bookstores and libraries of and on for years. I have seen thousands of book covers, been fond of hundreds, absolutely adored quite a few. I wanted the cover of my book to be cool and sophisticated, but what made a cover cool and sophisticated?

In thinking about this subject, I realized I preferred designs that were sparse. I liked an image that was simpler as opposed to one that had lots of little details. I scoured the press’ backlog of publications and picked out the ones with covers that spoke to me. I was drawn to contrast and bold colors. I enjoyed something that hinted at what was inside, though not in an obvious way. I liked when a book’s cover was a bit quirky, making me curious about what was inside.

On the form, I wrote down all these thoughts and more.

I worried that incorporating the well-known symbols we associate with each religion—like a cross for Christianity, Star of David for Judaism, etc. –would be too hackneyed, too easy. I wrote that down.

I supplied a bunch of suggestions that I thought might convey the main idea of the book, which was that of an outsider exploring these powerful belief systems. I tried to put myself in the mind frame of a visual artist. Was there a picture of a doorway or some sort of opening? Could there be, like, light emanating from the other side? I wrote a bunch of stuff that probably made the real designer laugh out loud.

But one thing I was fairly insistent about was the image of a circle. Throughout the journey depicted in the book, I had encountered circles as significant symbols. In religion, they imply unity and receptivity. At the same time, “None” in mathematical terms is depicted as a zero—also a kind of circle—meaning the absence of information. So, in this funny way, being a None is to lack something but it’s also to be wide open and receptive—to experiences, to ideas, to what comes next.

I sent back the completed questionnaire with a little prayer that I could accept with gratitude whatever the professionals involved in the process produced. This was one of those instances where I would have to let go—which, fortunately, had been one of the huge lessons I had learned in the actual book. Things happen that don’t match my expectations. At first blush the failure of reality to align with expectations can seem like a huge disappointment. If you give it time and the freedom to do so, the lack of alignment can offer something better than you were capable of imagining.

What came back several months later is the design you see, work by a man named Martin Hinze. Each religion I explore in the book is represented by a color: red for Christianity, blue for Judaism, yellow for Buddhism, and green for Islam. These just happen to be colors associated with each faith, though I had never focused on that fact too much. If you look closely (it’s more apparent with a bigger image), you can see that each circle—even within the same color grouping—is different. The outside is not perfectly drawn and the shading is inconsistent. Though he and I have never communicated directly about it, I interpret this as a graphic representation of the different way each individual expresses their faith. No two people understand or practice in the exact same manner.

Are the circles depicted supposed to be believers, each with their unique take? Or are they actual Nones being filled with the wisdom of faith? I don’t know for sure, but I love that it hints at these ideas—and does so with an element of surprise and graphic boldness. And even if someone looking at it sees nothing more than a miniature Twister board, well, that’s kind of awesome, too. The journey depicted under that front cover had me, at times, about as tangled up and uncomfortable with new ideas and people as a game of Twister.

Thank you, Mr. Hinze!

Only one tiny thing occurred to me a few weeks after seeing the design for the first time. I was thinking about what my own belief system would look like if it were one of the circles on the front. I realized it wouldn’t be just one color, that it would have all those colors, maybe more, in smears and blobs and dots. It would look like one of those circles as rendered by Jackson Pollock. So I emailed the publisher and asked if somewhere—perhaps on the back cover, which hadn’t been designed yet—there could be at least one circle that was a mixture of colors. I was promised a definite ‘maybe.’

I still don’t if my request will be honored, or if the designer has something else in mind. The back cover is being created right now, so we should all know soon.

I’m curious: what are your thoughts about the cover design? What did you see when you saw it for the first time?

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The story behind the story

For any book, there is the story depicted between the covers—the “official” story that people will read. Hopefully, this version is somewhat tidy. It has been edited and polished and made as presentable as possible.

But then there is the story of how that story came to be. This one is a big sloppy mess, filled with tears and self-doubt.

Because this same duality applies to any creative endeavor, I wanted to share a little here about the story behind my book, A None’s Story. My hope is that it encourages you to continue on the path of something important that you may be trying to accomplish at this very moment.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve considered myself a writer. This makes no sense because I didn’t necessarily enjoy the act of writing for its own sake and I almost never wrote anything that wasn’t an assignment. I longed to be the kind of person who crafted short stories for fun or religiously kept a journal, but I wasn’t that sort of person. Sometimes I’d start one or the other thinking I could make myself that person, but the effort would peter out after a few lines. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say—much less how I might say it.

I’d read interviews with writers I admire and they almost always said their brains were bursting with words they had to put on paper ever since they could hold a pencil. I thought if I wasn’t like that then I must not be a real writer. A real writer has a story or an idea or a message that needs to get out of them bad enough that they will do the hard work of committing it to paper.

I wrote for a grade and, later, a paycheck. I would arrange words around other people’s ideas and actions. It was writing, sure, but it was writing as more of a technical act, from which I could keep a safe distance.

Yet, a faint voice kept telling me I was a writer—and it meant the kind whose writing originates from her own heart and mind regardless of whether she has anyone to whom she must hand it upon its completion. At first the gap between what it was telling me and my reality was small enough that I could easily ignore it. But the more years that went by, the vaster that chasm felt. The misalignment went from a nagging discomfort to a much deeper ache, which I tried to soothe with food, television, inebriating substances—anything, everything, but my own writing.

At last I grew so miserable that I decided to talk back to the voice. I said: If I’m supposed to write, tell me what I should write about.

I didn’t think it would have an answer, and then I would have won. But it did. It replied: Religion.

That’s when I understood this voice was a fool.

Religion? Of all the topics in the world, religion was the least I was likely to pursue. I knew nothing about it. I had grown up with no religion. The depth of my ignorance on that particular subject was bottomless. Wasn’t the advice about writing to “write what you know”? Religion was the stupidest answer it could have given me.

You don’t write what you don’t know, dummy.

At first I felt better because I had a new excuse to ignore the voice. Then I felt sad because the voice hadn’t given me a better answer. Then I got depressed because I still had nothing to write about.

Finally, it got bad enough that I once again engaged the voice.

I told it: But I don’t know anything about religion.

I was in bed, wallowing in despair, when a reply came. It said: Then learn, and write about that.

I sat up.

Now this was a new twist. I had been extremely curious about religion for as long as I could remember. Was it possible that somehow my lack of expertise on the subject could work in my favor? Maybe my ignorance didn’t make my voice matter less; perhaps, in a strange way, it made it matter more.

Still, the logistics of such an undertaking were overwhelming and I put it off until the pain of not doing it was greater than the pain of taking one tiny little baby step at a time toward the goal. Even then, the two sides—the one saying I could do this and the other telling me I was an idiot for even trying—duked it out daily.

I was lucky in that the voice saying I could do it, though much quieter, was more persistent. It didn’t win every single day. In fact, it lost more times than I care to recall. Then, for a time, I would feel defeated and ridiculous, eyes swollen from crying, ready to give up.

For five years, the battle raged.

That’s how this book got written.