When I teach writing workshops, I always emphasize that the first sentence is the most important part of one’s story. It’s a first impression, the man or woman who steps up to your restaurant table during a blind date. Say the wrong thing, or don’t dress the part, and you lose a lot of points right from the get-go. Sure, some may give you the benefit of the doubt, but many will have made up their minds about the second date (nada) before you’ve even placed your napkin on your lap. When you do have a captivating first line, and your novel is published, however, suddenly the cover becomes the most important part. It’s the first thing potential readers see in the bookstore or library; it should be able to sum up, along with your title, the mood and type of story. Easier with romance novels, or even science fiction, where scantily clad lovers on the beach or a rocket firing through the cosmos get the message across pretty quickly. But what about literary fiction?
I knew, as soon as Queens Ferry Press acquired my second novel, The Summer She Was Under Water, that I wanted a say in the cover art. I know to what kinds of covers I am drawn and (I hoped) my potential readers. There are covers that blew me away when I first saw them, like Laura van den Berg’s debut collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, from Dzanc, where a wooden footpath leads into a washed-out landscape of mist, or Julia Orringer’s How to Breathe Underwater (Vintage), wherein a trio of teenage girls swim in a lush but murky lake of water, completely hemmed in by a tree canopy. It helps, of course, that both books had “water” in the title, like mine, and they both perfectly portrayed the mood of the collections in them. What the World Will Look Like’s hazy, dreamy fog and disappearing footpath invite the reader into a world of grayscale, where dichotomy is muddled and what seems up is down and down is up. How to Breathe Underwater’s deep waters (the waterline is high, halving the cover into top and bottom) plays on similar themes on what is seen, or what appears to be, and what isn’t. Orringer’s cover even more so hints of the foreboding that clings to the three teenaged girls on what appears to be any other day, except this is the day that’s different.
The Summer She Was Under Water takes place during a fourth of July weekend at a cabin on the Conowingo River in Northern Maryland where things also aren’t as they seem. I studied many images of swimmers in bodies of water, being careful not to replicate Orringer’s perfect cover. Because I employ some magical realism in the book, I considered that my lake or river scene should hint at dreaminess, but also depth. I also wanted colors that would draw viewers from across a crowded store.
I was on Etsy one day (my guilty pleasure) when I decided to look for swimming-related paintings and artwork when I came upon the work of Scout Cuomo. Her work concentrates very heavily on the refracted qualities of light on water mixing realism and surrealism. I was enchanted. And then I happened on, “Going Swimming,” the image that would become the cover for The Summer She Was Under Water. In it, we, the viewers, look up from the bottom of the pool (or are we even in a pool? Cuomo doesn’t exactly ground us with any reference points) as a woman in an orange bikini swims by us at the top. The dizzying blue water is lit from the surface and shows its depth. At first glance, the image is unthreatening, and yet, with our deep submersion and unclear point of reference, we cannot really position the woman; what is she swimming to, or away from? Is she merely keeping afloat? Will she eventually join us below, at the bottom, out of exhaustion, or desire? And what are we doing here?
“Going Swimming” perfectly sums up the protagonist, Samantha Pinski, in The Summer She Was Under Water: on a trajectory to success (she has just published her first novel), in motion towards a goal (getting through a holiday weekend with her estranged parents and brother), but in danger of being pulled down by something (or someone) any minute. And even if a potential reader doesn’t draw the same psychological cues from Cuomo’s work as I have, the piece itself is just visually stunning. (I can vouch for Queens Ferry Press, at least, who thought it “gorgeous” when I “floated” the idea to them.) The cool aqua, prism-like water and the warm bright orange bathing suit combine to produce a visual pop and easily stand out in a row of other books or on a table. “Going Swimming” is really the best of two worlds in one. It’s like a gorgeous dinner companion who had you at hello but then, when you get to know them, really bares his or her soul.