Over the years, I’ve been involved in the design of several of my book covers. I’ve also stepped back and let knowledgeable publishers do their work. Each time I’ve been pleased with the process and the results, but the reason I jumped in a few times is a simple one: it was fun. As the excitement, stress and concern over shaping a book slowly turns into the joy of completion, I’m often left with a mental image of how the physical book should appear, or at the very least what color scheme speaks to the contents within.
When I edited The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered, I’d known all along that I wanted the cover to feature the artwork of Mel Odom. As a fledging reader, Mel was one of the first artists who illustrated book covers that I knew by name. I even had an unwieldy Richard Adams novel that I never got around to reading, but hung onto for years, because I found Mel’s image so arresting. Possibly his most famous cover art was for Anne Rice’s (writing as Anne Rampling) Belinda, but for me, as I came out of the closet I recognized a kindred spirit, one who’s work adorned the covers of Edmund White’s books: Nocturne for the King of Naples and Forgetting Elena. Speaking of Edmund White: I asked him to write something for Lost Library but the books that interested him the most were already taken. Then, after landing a publisher, I dropped him an email asking if he was still in touch with Mel Odom. He wasn’t, but had a mutual friend who lived in the same building as Mel; I could ring her and she would leave a note under his door for me. How exhilarating! I rang, the note was left. I waited. And not for long. Mel called me and we launched into a fun, rapid fire conversation ending with him agreeing that I could use his work for The Lost Library.
Afterwards I was fortunate enough to find a home for more of my writing, working with my partner, Leo, on some cover art, working with the publisher on other titles. And then suddenly I had enough stories for a second collection. Mel’s work immediately came to mind again. Since The Lost Library we’d become friends and I’d spent more time getting to know the contours of his art. My new collection, Night Sweats: Tales of Homosexual Wonder and Woe, had stories firmly grounded in New York City. The title references the AIDS epidemic, a horror that, though none of the stories grapple with this holocaust, its terror is a permanent part of the queer landscape, informing my writing at every turn. As a New York City artist, this was a holocaust Mel witnessed firsthand. I dropped him an email and he was game for us to have another go. And I knew which of his illustrations would be a perfect fit: Means of Evil.
The title alone certainly spoke to me (I’d even considered it as a possible title for Night Sweats). The skeletal beauty –shades of Alexander the Great, marble, urban, it just was the cover. In the first story, Owl Aerie, a boy plays baseball and winds up catching a skull in his mitt. Another tale contains letters from a Roman emperor. The image reflects the contents in every way.
One of my closest friends, Kate, designed The Lost Library cover, bringing Mel’s work to the forefront and creating a truly striking book. Mel loved her (she’s one of those women gay men immediately fall for). Knowing we needed to make Night Sweats different, singular, we chatted about book covers and I sent her some images of gay pulp covers from the 50s. We discussed how an essence of that twilight world tinged the stories in Night Sweats and how the design elements of those early paper backs could accentuate Mel’s work. Kate also played around with some alternate ideas, in keeping with postmodern book design. I liked everything she did, but kept coming back to one of the pieces inspired by the pulp covers. Such nostalgia conversely gave the book an air of permanence, something any gay collection of short stories could benefit from. We had our cover.
This past winter, Mel Odom’s first ever solo show was a smashing success. His new work was stunning; the small, meandering rooms of the Upper East Side gallery added a hint of storytelling and discovery to the art. The crowd was fashionable, glittery, in-the-know, and boisterous. I stepped into Central Park for some night air on my way home, marveling at the unseasonably warm weather –everyone was out, giddy at this spring-like reprieve. Later when I arrived back at my apartment, still a bit tipsy, there was a box waiting for me: my author copies of Night Sweats: Tales of Homosexual Wonder and Woe had arrived. I poured them out onto the floor, electrified by a fantastic sense of synchronicity –one of those sparkling moments where all the woe is outweighed by the wonder of it all.
Please check out more of Mel’s work here: http://www.mel-odom.com/