EVERY NIGHT after I read for a bit and we turn off the lights, I lie on my back and think in the dark with my eyes closed. I don’t think about heavy things or worry. Those five or six minutes I reserve for creating. When the body is still and there is no drive to do anything except imagine, the mind’s juices flow most freely.
Sometimes it’s the same idea I chew on night after night after night. Two years ago I auditioned images for the side of my friend’s barn for a couple of months, off and on, mentally painting wind motifs, dragons, wildflower silhouettes, etc. on the wall until I arrived at the idea for houndstooth. An idea doesn’t arrive, typically, all at once. Rather, it reveals itself in layers. For example, once I realized I should treat the surface of the barn wall more like a textile than a canvas, I knew I’d need a PATTERN as opposed to an IMAGE. That was a big breakthrough, because I could stop auditioning dragons and such and focus on finding the right pattern: houndstooth. Five minutes at a time, night after night, I roll the boulder up the hill. Then I sleep and dream.
My nightly boulder rolling recently has been to imagine a cover for the Catahoula photo book. I finished the interior layout last week, conceptually at least, distilling the 3000+ photos I collected into the 300 that I'll use to tell the best story of Catahoula. Organizing, tagging, categorizing, then, in essence, shuffling the deck of cards, was very much like piecing a jigsaw puzzle together, but without having the box lid to tell you how it’s supposed to look when it’s done. (In a weird way, all those hours I spent as a child arranging and re-arranging crayons, working cryptic crossword puzzles and toying with a Rubik’s cube, I now realize, prepared me for this project.) With the interior of the book-to-be now crystallized, I turned my attention to its exterior, its cover.
This quote from a New York Times profile of book cover designer Peter Mendelsund struck me in a profound way when I read it a couple weeks ago: “Most designers look for a central image to sum up a book, but Peter isn’t looking for an image. He’s looking for an idea.” I took this insight into consideration when I drifted off to sleep imagining book covers later that night. The secret ingredient I’d been looking for wasn’t a beautiful IMAGE. It was a beautiful IDEA. So I started auditioning ideas.
A good cover will make you want to open a book. And once you open it, a good book will make you want to keep turning pages. And when you turn a page, if there’s a surprise, all the better. I’d snapped some photographs of a dozen or so textures around Catahoula in early August — cypress boards, moss, crawfish cages, wildflowers, tractor tire treads, floor boards, old wallpaper, lake water — in hopes they’d spur an interesting image for the cover, and I’ve been drawing on those textures as I fall asleep. All through August I kept returning to the IMAGE of the cypress boards. I’d photographed the old outhouse at the camp — which must be nearly as old as my father, or older — mostly for the beautifully weathered and lichen-coated cypress boards, but it was the rusty hinge, half-nailed, half-screwed into the outhouse door, that gave me the IDEA I was looking for. Having the hinge on the spine of the book — it makes you want to open it.
Then one Friday in late August I explored a little patch of woods next to the camp, mesmerized by how green the vines wrapping around the tree trunks glowed when they caught the setting sunlight. And when my mom and I stopped by Uncle Allen’s on Saturday to pick up an album of photographs I needed to re-scan, I was drawn to a row of vintage children’s books on the book shelf in the pink bedroom. I pulled out Mickey & the Beanstalk and opened it to find more vines, swirling magic beanstalk vines, gracing the inside cover. As I lay in bed in the dark that night, all the elements fell into place — the vines, the outhouse, the hinge, the cypress boards.
This is my idea: you open the hinged cypress cover and are surprised by the magic beanstalk inside, except, instead of a magic beanstalk, it’s a magic muscadine vine. Then the title appears — Picture Catahoula — caressed by the same magic vine, and the parade of images begins. Babies. Barefoot. The Lake. Hunting. The muscadine vine reappears throughout the book, threading through the images to pull the reader forward, wrapping around the handwritten capital letters at the beginning of each chapter. Mardi Gras, Crawfish, Easter, St. Rita. And when you turn to the last page, there’s a final flourish of the magic vine before you close the back cover.