Choosing a book title and cover is a lot like naming a baby. Quite a few people tend to weigh in, so the process can be a serious source of anxiety. Yet somehow, once you settle, the choice seems obvious.
In the case of my new short story collection, Mankind and Other Stories of Women, the title was spontaneous. The title story, “Mankind,” first saw the light of day last Christmas as a monologue directed by Harry Standjofski, performed by the wonderful Leni Parker at Centaur Theatre’s annual Urban Tales event. For Leni’s character, a lonely woman enduring Christmas Eve with her box of wine and chocolate, the word mankind is a euphemism for the scent of a man. It’s very much a woman’s story. So are the other nine, hence the title. I made a conscious effort to focus on women this time after my last collection, Holy Fools + 2 Stories (Guernica 2014), was full of male characters—puzzling, since I thought I’d won the struggle over the animus-domination of my imagination ages ago.
The cover was not obvious. On a brief trip to Calgary in April, I discovered an amazing sculptor at the Trépanier Baer Gallery. Walking through the door, I was hit by the super elongated shape of a very thin, nearly naked corpse behind glass: Evan Penny’s Homage to Holbein, an eerie rendering in silicone and real hair of a Christ-like figure, almost fourteen feet long and chillingly life-like. My first thought was, this work belongs at the entrance to a church. It’s a religious experience.
Days later, the images were still strong. Perusing the gallery website, I settled on Marsyas (Model), a twenty-four-inch high sculpture of a male torso, inspired by a Greek statue, which was part of the exhibition. Covers are traditionally the publisher’s domain, with input from the author. But I’ve known my publisher Mike Mirolla for a long time. I know he’s a dark soul. He loved the image immediately. Thus began the dance by which a raw visual idea and text become one.
I could not explain why that image worked with my stories, which tend to be airy, urban, sometimes playful, and, some people say, funny. Maybe the figure’s vulnerability, resistance or air of fatalism speak to the tragic thread found in all comedy. As I revised the manuscript for publication, I found myself working him into the first story, “Mina,” which is about a friendship of rivalry and complicity between two women, their creative struggle, and one crazy night.
“As I revised the manuscript for publication, I found myself working him into the first story…”
After the normal back and forth, designer David Moratto’s concept was finalized. I slapped the cover up on Facebook, eagerly announcing my forthcoming fall book. It was mid-winter. The response was pretty well total negativity. Some of my dearest friends, smart people, said it was awful, scary, repellent. Nobody would touch this book!
I was not prepared. I threw myself on the bed, lamenting once again my weakness for getting over-involved in practically everything. Now I’d have to face Mike and David with bad news, not to mention the gallerist, Yves Trépanier, and the artist, whose work I love.
Mike did not share my panic attack, but held back. Yves did not. “Don’t listen to them! It’s a strong cover,” he barked via email. “You were right the first time. Don’t blink.”
“The response was pretty well total negativity. Some of my dearest friends, smart people, said it was awful, scary, repellent. Nobody would touch this book!”
Next to my control freakishness, impulsiveness is probably my greatest flaw. Here was somebody I respected telling me to trust my impulse. I looked at the cover again. At the other options I was trying to like. I asked Yves what his wife thought. He assured me she loved it. So I decided to take his advice, remain faithful to my first impulse. Well, except for a last-minute tussle over (ahem) how much “cleavage” should appear below my name. I did not want readers to be distracted by a dangling sack of flesh.
Now that a stack of books is sitting on the dining room table, I can’t imagine a better cover than Evan Penny’s classy, classical all-too-human torso. I have no idea what readers will think, how it will affect their desire to pick up this book. But the baby isn’t mine any more. It is thoroughly herself.
Mankind and Other Stories of Women will be launched along with three other local titles from Guernica Editions at Montreal’s Atwater Library (1200 Atwater Ave.) on Thursday, September 29, 6 p.m. The event is co-sponsored by the QWF. Click here for more information on the launch.
Marianne Ackerman writes plays and novels. marianneackerman.com
Photo credits: Photo of Evan Penny’s Marsyas Model (2016) courtesy of Evan Penny, and Kevin Baer – TrépanierBaer Gallery; Lesley McCubbin (headshot)