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Uncovering a Cover

According to Thomas Edison, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” And in my experience writing is about 10% drafting and 90% revising. What I didn’t fully appreciate was how much redoing and undoing goes into art—or at least what is required to get a book cover “just right.”

My nonfiction books involved sending off a few images for a cover, which the publisher’s graphic artist pretty much ignored. And then I’d get a virtually final cover image sent to me for my input. With Poisoned Justice, I wanted to make something from scratch, using my own ideas. There was just one problem...

I’m not an artist. My drawing is not much beyond stick figures and my painting is limited to applying off-white latex on house walls. The solution was to work closely with an artist who could transform my ideas into images. Conor Mullen had taken an environmental ethics class with me years ago, and we’d stayed in touch as he earned his degree in art and then worked for the UW Art Museum. I liked him, his view of the world, and his approach to people—and I found his artwork to be elegant and evocative (

I imagined riffing on the classic noir cover (sensual, intense, and dramatic) with a 1970s vibe and the genre’s visual elements: setting (San Francisco), clues (drugs and toxins), and a key character (the femme fatale)—all presented with uncluttered and enticing forms. Simple, eh?

After Conor read my manuscript and studied crime noir covers, he generated a set of initial sketches. One struck us as being the right aesthetic, so we took the image through several more iterations. After showing the draft to a few people (it’s quite remarkable what a set of fresh eyes sees!) some important refinements were made.

Next, we colored and re-colored the cover, settling on red tones as capturing a sense of a sunset darkening into night—and anger. The title font generated a dozen possibilities, which we sent to the Pen-L’s graphic artist who nailed the 70s style. After a test printing, we refined the colors once more.

I hope the cover does its job of enticing prospective readers to pick up the book and turn to the back cover, where the teaser text draws people to the first page, which compels a turn to the second page…and then I’ve got ‘em!

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