Interviews

Preorder Now: The Ghosts of Eden Park

The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott

In the 2016 movie Genius, the writer Thomas Wolfe (played by Jude Law) is asked to describe his new book. He responds all-too-seriously, “It’s about America—all of it.” My wife and I quote that line to death. Not only because it’s hilarious but also because some of the best books we read these days shed light on some hidden truth about America. Which is a feeling I get whenever I read one of Karen Abbott’s sumptuously written nonfiction books. At first glance, her latest book, The Ghosts of Eden Park, is the true story of the bootlegger who was the real-life inspiration for Jay Gatsby. But it’s also a window into the soul of this great, oh-so-strange nation of ours. The Ghosts of Eden Park is out August 6, and you should preorder it here now.

The first book I ever read of Abbott’s was Sin in the Second City, which was ostensibly about a Chicago brothel in the early 20th century but actually about a particular species of moral hysteria that felt scarily familiar to this modern reader (and still does). All of Abbott’s books—like the one about burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee or the one about Confederate women spies during the American Civil War—are true stories yet read like novels you can’t put down. Back in j-school we dreamed of writing books like this. They were the highest form of our craft; writers like Abbott raise it to an art form.

The Ghosts of Eden Park pubs just ahead of the 100th anniversary of Prohibition. It’s the true story of George Remus: a teetotaling bootlegger, erudite madman, and the strangest, most intriguing character Abbott says she’s ever encountered in history. Remus never wore underwear (quite the scandal in 1920s America), gave away brand-new Pontiacs as party favors, and spoke of himself in the third person: “Remus was in the whiskey business, and Remus was the biggest man in the business.”

Remus rides high until his wife falls in love with the very federal agent who incarcerated him, sparking a love triangle that reaches the highest levels of government—and which can only end in murder. The book is nonfiction with all the twists and turns of a thriller. It’s a tale so much stranger than fiction it has to be true.

One of the cool things about the story is learning about Remus’s nemesis Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the Assistant US Attorney who was the highest ranking woman in the US government at the time. In her private life, Willebrandt wrote about the obstacles and challenges she faced in that position. As I read her words, I was struck again by that same, scarily familiar feeling that things in this nation have perhaps not changed as much as we’d like to believe it has.

I asked Abbott three quick questions about booze and her characters.

Do you have a favorite whiskey?

I am still a whiskey novice, but I’d say The Macallan. A British friend advised me that it’s the only drink that doesn’t cause a hangover, and so far he’s proved right.

Have you tried that new Remus bourbon?

No, I can’t buy it anywhere in NYC! But I look forward to trying it when I’m on tour. George Remus Bourbon is actually sponsoring my events in Cincinnati and Louisville.

How long do you think we will need to wait for a Mabel Willebrandt whiskey?

That’s a brilliant idea, and someone should get on that ASAP. Ironically, Remus was a teetotaler who never drank a drop of alcohol, while Willebrandt, the “czarina of Prohibition” (in Remus’s words) enjoyed her drink. But she preferred California clarets, not whiskey.

***

Anyhoo—please check out The Ghosts of Eden Park if you’re looking for a summer read. See Abbott’s website for more cool info on the characters or to read an excerpt of the book. If nothing else, you gotta watch the trailer.

I’ll leave you with one of Remus’s strangest sayings, and the greatest excuse anyone has ever put forth to explain away his bad behavior: “Remus’s brain exploded.” To decide for yourself if a brain explosion actually occurred, you’ll have to read the book.

All I can say is, D’Agnese loved it.


Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your collection of free ebooks, go here. Thanks!

Who Does Stuart Connelly Think He Is?

Any writer who is not bullshitting himself knows that his best work comes at the intersection of talent and dread. 

I’m scaring myself. I’m making myself uncomfortable. I’m going to screw this up. 

If you’re constantly telling yourself such things as you write, congratulations. You’re a writer. And if you’re lucky, you forge on in spite of those fears, and some of the unease seeps into your writing, where it can actually be useful.

Author Director Stuart Connelly

No one makes me uneasy like Stuart Connelly.

He’s a journalist, a screenwriter, filmmaker, columnist, and a coauthor of historical nonfiction. He is also a handsome, nervous man who’s really good at scaring the shit out of people.

I first got a taste of his writing more than 25 years ago, when I heard him read one of his short stories aloud in a writing class. You’re supposed to be quiet during those things but our instructor, the elegantly mustachioed Tobias Wolff, couldn’t contain himself and guffawed with delight at a critical point. That was the cue for the rest of us. We were, all of us, having a blast—until Connelly got to that damned flesh cauterization scene.

That’s Connelly. He writes so well, so precisely, so humorously, and yet so creepily that he makes PEN/Faulkner Awardees laugh, cry, and wish they’d stayed home under the covers that day.

About eight years ago, Connelly and I chatted about one of his recently released novels. You can get a sense of his love for language in the way he answers my questions. The interview was just too good to let languish on my old blog, so I’m rescuing it and giving it new life here.

Since then, Connelly has directed two films—The Suspect and American Gothic—and produced another (Natural Selection). He’s also authored several novels and co-authored nonfiction books. 

The interview first appeared shortly after the release of one of his horror novels. Enjoy our talk, then get the book.

The new novel is called HAVEN HOUSE. What, in 10 words or less, is all this nonsense about?*

Haven House by Stuart Connelly

I can do it in three: boy meets ghoul. No, actually, it’s about Amy Armstrong, a pregnant New York City architect who inherits the ultimate restoration project, a 300-year-old farmhouse. She views the project and the rural town as a chance to start anew after a terrible assault. But there is some information about this inheritance, this property, and even the baby she’s carrying that the townspeople don’t want her to know. Something evil, and on a very grand scale. I may be over ten there. Can I borrow against 10-word descriptions of my future books?

In your promo copy, you tell people that if they like “The Lottery,” Rosemary’s BabyThe Shining, they’ll like your book. Who the hell are you to lump yourself in with literary giants such as Shirley Jackson, Ira Levin, and Uncle Stevie?

I didn’t do it; that was my publicist. I can’t compare my literary skills with those folks or anyone, that’s up to readers to see whatever connective tissue is apparent to them. Comparing types of story is something different, however, so I will say this about those comparisons, without giving too much away: Haven House puts a new twist on the moldy haunted house genre (à la The Shining), features a woman whose pregnancy sets horrible events in motion (à la Rosemary’s Baby), and has at its center the dark secret pact that binds together the people in an isolated town as well as the dreadful randomness of who that darkness impacts (à la “The Lottery”). So all I’m really saying is: if you dig chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla ice cream, I have a half-gallon of Neapolitan for you.

Hey—is it not a fact that you are like one degree of separation away from Ira Levin, and didn’t you go to his house for some holiday?

Yeah. The first professional novelist I ever met, so of course it’s not going to be some midlist-er I can wrap my mind around. It’s Ira freakin’ Levin. I had Thanksgiving with him, and after dinner he broke out those little explosive champagne bottle party favors. We shot them at the dining room chandelier. The thing was covered with streamers from years of previous holiday dinners and we added to it. Indoor fireworks! He made being a writer look fun, which I later realized was attributable to the fact that I saw him when he wasn’t writing. We used to drive to New York City to see Deathtrap on Broadway and then go backstage, walk around on the set. In fact, now that I think about it, the film I wrote and am producing this fall, The Suspect, owes some artistic debt to Deathtrap. Thanks, Ira.

In your novel, one poor wretch is quartered—his body literally torn apart into four pieces—and another is bisected. What have you got against whole people, or are you trying to teach some kind of sick lesson in fractions?

A haunted house novel where the house is in scattered ruins for the first half of the book could conceivably have the scares too delayed. I wanted to start by showing how high the stakes are in the town of Covenant Parish, and some of the horror is of the non-supernatural kind. Man’s cruelty. 

You and your family live on a farm much like the demonic estate described in your novel. Does the countryside spook you for real? Are you, as Woody Allen says, “two with nature”?

When I first met my future wife, I had this little original Mac and I had taped a cancelled U.S. stamp right above the screen. It showed the state of Wyoming, a vast prairie. She asked me why and I told her it was my dream to be a full-time writer in a small town with a big rambling property. Be careful what you wish for.

In other horror novels, when someone buys or inherits a house, the house is already possessed. But in yours, the unwitting couple actually assembles the evil. Why’d you do it that way? What have you got against freestanding, wholly existing evil?

There’s always the-house-was-built-on-a-burial ground trope which has been, forgive me, done to death. And what I found so interesting about our place—Modoc Spring—is that they dug up the stones from the field, where they are worse than useless, and built a house out of them. Nothing goes to waste. The house and the ground beneath it are inseparable, and if the grounds are haunted, stacking these stones into some kind of order felt to me like a focusing effect. So my novel grew out of the observation that in every haunted house story, the house is already de facto in existence—and evil—long before the story starts. I thought, what if we came at it as a dismantled evil force that needed human hands to restore its power. You put in an architect with the dream of restoring a completely destroyed structure, and you’ve put the lightning rod in your protagonist’s hand.

You are a hybrid author in the sense that you are traditionally published and self-published. What do you think about self-publishing?

The short answer is that there were always two barriers to publishing: literary talent and printing. Traditional publishers said, “You get over the first hurdle and we’ll take care of the second.” The reason self-publishing traditionally had a bad reputation is that they said, “We’ll get you over the second hurdle for a price, and we don’t care about the first.” Mistake, because readers care about the first. Today the second hurdle doesn’t exist. There’s no barrier to entry. Anyone can and does publish. But that first hurdle is very real. Most self-publishing is terribly written. If a wannabe writer and a bookbinder don’t add up to a good book, neither does a wannabe writer and an internet connection. The publishers were right. Only by practicing and studying the craft can you become good enough to succeed in the market beyond friends and family. In my own case, at least having made it through the gauntlet of the New York publishing world in one piece tells me my writing is publishable. Now, how I get it to market is a matter of my own calculus. Is the publicity a publishing house can bring to a project worth more than, say, putting up free versions of some of my projects to attract those readers? I did just that with two stories from my shorts collection, "The Allnighter" and "Red Coyote Weekend," tons of them were downloaded, and from that number, a small but noticeable percentage took the leap of faith to buy the whole book, Confessions of a Velour-Shirted Man. The biggest problem I see in this market is that there is no New York Review of Books for self-pubbed book. Yet. That’ll put that first hurdle back where it belongs.

You were trained as a journalist and one of your more serious, nonfiction efforts was co-authoring a memoir of the “I Have a Dream” speech with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s attorney, Clarence B. Jones. How did you, a white guy, get inside the mind of a black, civil rights attorney?

I didn’t set out to be a historian, but it certainly is easier to move from that to fiction than to go in the other direction. Soledad O’Brien and Michael Bloomberg don’t tend to take the horror writer’s phone calls. To tell you the truth, the key to Clarence’s story wasn’t getting in the mindset of his racial background, it was understanding the underlying thematic of what he’s been through. He lived his life day-to-day and views it in that context. I saw the overarching picture and wrote to that. I picture him as the mythical ferryman, Charon. Or consider the weariness vampires have, outliving everyone around them (to bring it back to horror). That’s Clarence, and it’s not a race thing. We’re working together on another project called Uprising about his time as a negotiator at Attica during the prison takeover. Even though Dr. King has nothing to do with the story, many of the emotional elements to Behind The Dream are present in Uprising because Clarence is the same person in each circumstance.

I asked my father—who knows you well—if he had a question he’d like me to ask. His question inspired the title and indeed the tone of this post: “What the hell are you doing, scaring people?” How do you respond? 

High-brow answer or low-brow? First of all, your father is fearless, as is anyone who can handle forty years of ridicule over his protective-plastic-covered living room furniture without breaking down. Forget confronting our fears as an essential part of coming to grips with our own mortality. Mankind is cursed with that, but it isn’t why I write horror. Rehearse your death on your own time. For me, the key is, they’re just words on a page. Nothing about it is real. But if you can make a grown-up disturbed enough, just by rearranging these same letters over and over again, then you are some kind of alchemist. If you can draw the chemicals of fear right into their bloodstream with words, make them leave the hall light on with your words, then you’ve gotten at the power of story. It is intoxicating.


* This article first appeared in slightly different form on my old blog, dated August 13, 2011. The phrase “what, in ten words or less, is all this nonsense about?” was a line frequently used by a journalism professor, John C. Keats, who taught Connelly and me in college. The phrase was later used as the title of a book of Keats's previously unpublished work.

Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your free ebook, go here. Thanks!

Giveaway: From Spark to Flame

Author Brad Swift

I don’t know how many times people ask to pick my brains about such things like how to get a book published or how they can start writing for glossy magazines or how they can be a rich and famous author. I try to be helpful, but like a lot of writers, I regard whatever success I’ve had to be the result of mixture of luck and hard work. 

So when people ask me how they can do what I do, I offer two pieces of advice: 

  1. Figure out how to be lucky.

  2. Spend 20 years trying to a writer, and sometime in the 21st year, things will really start to happen.

Now I have an answer for people who want to know how to break into magazines: Get Brad Swift’s book.

My friend W. Bradford Swift (aka “Brad”) is a writer, a coach, a doctor, and a careful thinker. He’s written about 350 articles for magazines and managed to be a paid author and writer for about 25 years.

He’s done what I don’t have the patience to do: He’s thought carefully about what it takes to generate, pitch and sell articles to newspapers and magazines, and he’s put all these life lessons in a book entitled, From Spark to Flame: Fanning Your Passion & Ideas into Moneymaking Magazine Articles That Make a Difference

Yes, I know everyone says print is dead, but people still buy and read magazines because picking up a specialty magazine is one of the quickest way to plug into a hobby, genre, or world that you happen to care about.

From Spark to Flame by W. Bradford Swift

And if you know enough about that world to be a fan, chances are you could be making money writing about what you know.

That’s the message of Swift’s book: You can be making money off your expertise.

It’s easier than you think—if you have the right tools.

To promote the book, Swift’s making an offer you can’t refuse: He’s offering to give you a free copy of the book. He’s betting that if you like it, you’ll tell others about it.

Some people can’t give their books away. (I know because I’ve tried.) But Brad, who has been a business and life coach for the last twenty-odd years, had 115 people clamoring for copies within the first 12 hours of his giveaway being announced. He’s pledged to give away 1,000 copies. That’s a huge number. With those odds, it’s worth getting your name in the hat.

I thought I’d talk to him about it.

Who needs your book, From Spark to Flame?

It’s written for the person who may have read a magazine article at some point and thought, “Hey, I could have written that,” but then didn’t know how to go about writing an article, getting it published and getting paid for it.  So, any aspiring writer who’d love to see their name in print both at the end of a magazine article and on a pay check for their writing could benefit from the book. It outlines a proven, systematic process I’ve used through the years to write, publish and be paid for more than 350 magazine articles.
 
Approaching magazines is not rocket science. Yet why do so many freelance writers and new freelancers have trouble with this essential step?

I think many writers get stopped by several different blocks. One of the biggest is that the size of the magazine marketplace is so large it can be hard to know where to begin to market your material.  So, many writers end up like a deer caught in the high beams of a car — they’re frozen into inactivity.

The other big block can be simply not knowing the process — the steps it takes to turn an idea into a magazine article that some editor is willing to buy.

I once heard you say that the process of article generation is a little like a Taffy Machine. Can you explain that analogy? How does the analogy help us?

It comes from one of my fondest memories growing up spending summers at the beach. My childhood memory of a taffy machine was this magical metallic box. The store owner would pour in the syrupy goop at one end, and at the other end would pop out multi-colored, wrapped pieces of taffy.  Wonderful.

For years I wrote for magazines while watching many other writers who I considered much better at the craft than I struggle to get anything  published.  I finally realized I had developed my own version of a Writer’s Taffy Machine.  At the front I pour in the sweet ingredients of passion-filled ideas. At the other end pop out checks with my name on them.  Everything in between is what the book, From Spark to Flame, outlines in rich detail.

If you can hammer home one thing every freelance writer must do to be a success in this world, what would it be?

Purposeful patience blended with persistence.  It’s really so important with just about anything we do in life.  Having now been on planet earth for a little over six decades and coached and written for over two of those decades, one of the ways I see people failing most often is by quitting too soon.  

I believe anything that’s really worthwhile and that truly makes a difference in the long term takes a while to come into fruition.  So, the blending of those 3 ‘p’s are vital.  Purpose: knowing who you are and why you’re alive. Couple that with the patience to not quit when you hit the inevitable obstacles that will arise, and staying persistence in bringing your dreams into reality.  That might sound trite, but I’ve seen it over and over again how well it works.

Once upon a time, you were a veterinarian. How did you go from spending your days with pets to spending your days coaching and writing?

Well, in between the two I burned out...big time. I hit a “dark night of the soul” period where I lost my own sense of purpose and meaning in my life that led me to abuse alcohol and then drugs. The downward spiral continued to the point where I seriously considered suicide.

Fortunately a dear friend found me in this state of emotional and spiritual breakdown and offered to help me get some help. During the recovery phase I discovered the power of working with coaches, reframed my purpose in life, and realized that coaching and writing were two great ways to express that purpose.

Isn’t the whole idea of writing a book to sell it? Why are you giving away so many copies of From Spark to Flame?

I’m still asking myself that question. Here’s the answer that has come to me thus far: I feel I’m making another transition in my own life on purpose that includes a deep desire to help other writers use their talents to express their own purpose while collectively helping to create a world on purpose — my term for a world that works for everyone with no one left out.

I believe in the “priming your pump” approach. Giving away something that I know in my heart can be of real value to other writers is my way of priming the pump on this new Purpose Project. Like the rest of my life, this is just another experiment that I feel guided to try out.

It’s also my way of bringing attention to the Visionary Writers Manifesto Bloginar that kicks off on November 1. During the bloginar I’ll be sharing My Manifesto for Visionary Writers — Creating a World On Purpose with the Written Word in short blog posts and asking for feedback, comments and questions from the readers.

Already, we’ve had people claim their free copy of the book from as far away as India, Australia, the United Kingdom, Spain, Canada and of course, the USA.  That feels really good.

Okay, we’re sold. How do we get our free copy?

Well, first you mail me a check for...no that’s not right. Go to this page on my blog, W. Bradford Swift – Visionary Author, and you’ll find all the details there. 

The giveaway ends on Monday, November 24. I’ve also added a few incentives to encourage people to take me up on the offer and to share it with their friends. It would also be great if people would share in the comment section how they heard about the book giveaway, and anything else they’d like to share about writing. My writer’s Facebook page is here.

Thanks, Brad!


Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your collection of free ebooks, go here. Thanks!

Cover Story: Night Market

Night Market by Hunter F. Goss

The images behind any book appear first in the author’s mind. What do my main characters look like? How do I envision their homes, their world, their nightmares? 

A writer can go weeks, months, or years carrying these visual images in his or her mind. 

Then the cover artist appears on the scene, and pits his vision against the author’s, striving to create a look that will be highly compelling and marketable. In this occasional series, we’ll look at both sides of the development of an ebook cover. Who was thinking what — and when? Which came first, the author’s concept, or the designer’s?

Today we’re joined by Hunter F. Goss, author of Night Market, and cover designer, Jeroen ten Berge.

Night Market intrigues me because I’m a sucker for novels and thrillers that incorporate historical figures. I loved books such as E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, both of which feature appearances by the financier J.P. Morgan. As far as I can recall, Morgan does not appear in T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The Road to Wellville, but that book’s fixation on food reminded me of some of the over-the-top dining scenes in Night Market. The nonfiction book Appetite City, by William Grimes, about the culinary world of old New York, also conjures up for me the feeling of sumptuous dining in Goss’s fin de siècle world, minus the vampires, of course. Let’s get to the interview.

What is your book about?

Goss: Night Market tells how and why the Undead helped the American financier John Pierpont Morgan rescue some of America’s largest banks during the Panic of 1907.

How did you pick your cover artist?

Goss: I looked at a lot of cover artists who were doing work for indie authors, but Jeroen ten Berge’s work stood out far and above the crowd. When I saw Jeroen’s cover for Steve Richer’s The Gilded Treachery, I knew he could connect with the sort of “what if” historical novel I’d written.  

What instructions did you give him?

Goss: We exchanged a few emails, and Jeroen told me how he works. When I sent him a synopsis and manuscript to work with, I told him about two images I kept getting in my head. One was a kind of Wall Street Journal look, but we knew Mr. Murdoch wouldn’t be amused by this. The second image was that of a female vampire against some sort of Wall Street backdrop. I originally saw her as having her fangs bared and ticker tape for a tongue, but Jeroen didn’t think it fit with the book’s premise. He was right. After that, I just let him alone to do his work and the result is what we see here.

What did you like about the cover he created?

I really liked the central elements Jeroen chose to focus on: Veronica Fontera, one of my two protagonists, and a recognizable Wall Street landmark. That landmark is Federal Hall, which at the time Night Market takes place was being used as a gold depository called the Sub-Treasury. At the very beginning of the story, the Sub-Treasury’s reserves were being depleted by Europeans cashing in government bonds for gold. It was called the Gold Crisis, and the solution to it is what brings my other protagonist, Andrew Kirkland, and Veronica together. 

Jeroen reinforced the idea of money and finance by using a font reminiscent of what we see on United States currency. He uses a serene image of Veronica with a splash of blood at her mouth that’s dripping down over the Sub-Treasury building, suggesting violence and the paradox she represents. The image is completed by the use of varying shades of red, playing up the gothic suspense elements of Night Market. All told, I’d say Jeroen hit the bull’s eye.  

What reaction, if any, have you gotten about the cover?

Goss: Really positive. I actually showed it to two stockbrokers, who immediately “got” what the story is about just by looking at the cover. And that’s what any writer needs in order to sell a book. When my editor saw it, she was blown away. Then she told me we were going over the manuscript one more time. “One more time,” though, ended up being eight weeks before she said, “OK — publish it now.”

Can you tell us anything about yourself, particularly how amassed the knowledge of 19th and early 20th century economics to be able to pull off this book?

Goss: I grew up around the hide and leather business, and except for a couple of years in academia after graduation doing economic research, that’s where I spent most of my working life. I call it the most obscure and unglamorous corner of the fashion industry, but it gave me an opportunity to travel to a lot of places that end up appearing in my stories. Paris was one of those places, and some important scenes in Night Market are set there.

I left the business a few years ago when just too many of our customers decided it was a great idea to manufacture in low-wage countries. It didn’t pay to keep the operation going, and it wasn’t really fun anymore, so I got serious about the only other thing I’ve ever wanted to do: writing. 

Besides papers for academic journals, some wine articles, and promotional material for leathers used at trade fairs, I’ve done some comic and graphic novel work for the European market under another name.

I live and hang out in the Rust Belt along the Pennsylvania-Ohio border. Pittsburgh is in one direction and Youngstown, Ohio is in the other. 

Okay, so let’s switch over to Jeroen. What challenges did you face creating this cover?

ten Berge: I was immediately intrigued by the story, the fact that it mixes historical fact and characters with fictional ones, setting a stage for something that might actually be true. (Well, we now all accept Wall Street is rife with vampires, so it must be true!) Alternate history fiction, or “What if” fiction as Hunter calls it, has always fascinated me. Robert Harris’ Fatherland, which offers a scenario of Germany winning WWII with Hitler still ruling when the Beatles consider touring Berlin, is a prime example of the genre. One of my favorite books in the genre is Resurrection Day, by Brendan DuBois, set in the 1970s, after the Cuban Missile Crisis escalates to a full scale war, devastating Russia and leaving the United States reliant on aid from Great Britain. Both are fantastic reads and come highly recommended. But I digress.

The challenge for me was finding imagery that conveyed the story. I had the elements for the design in my head quite early on. Initially I looked for historical images of New York City and Wall Street, but aside from a few dainty old photographs there was nothing I could use. Then I stumbled on a current photo of Federal Hall I could potentially use. I photoshopped out modern-day trash, street lights, and a railing, to give it a sense of it being 1907. Veronica’s image was easier, as I used my wife for a model, bar the teeth. When I had those two key elements, the rest was pretty straightforward. I added fangs, blood, and text and then played around finding the best composition, most suitable typeface and a striking color scheme. 

* * *

That’s it, folks. Night Market is available via Amazon and Smashwords. Thanks to Hunter and Jeroen for participating in this inaugural post on ebook covers.

Note: Both of my ebooks, designed by Jeroen, are on sale through the holidays for $0.99.


Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your collection of free ebooks, go here. Thanks!

Paging Mr. Rash

My interview with Jeroen ten Berge, a Dutch-born designer who lives and works in New Zealand, brought to light a startling coincidence yesterday. It seems that Jeroen greatly admires author Ron Rash, a noted author who writes books based in Appalachia, where Rash’s family has lived for generations.

This surprised and delighted me, because I happen to live smack dab in the middle of Appalachia, in Asheville, NC, where Mr. Rash is regarded not only as a literary giant but is also likely to be hailed on the street with an effusive, “Hey, Ron, how’s it going?” (He’s also a professor at nearby Western Carolina University.)

Portrait of Jeroen ten Berge

It gets more interesting, and beautiful, depending on your perspective. Here’s what Jeroen had to say about one of his favorite authors: 

“One of my favourite authors is Ron Rash, who writes amazing stories set in the Appalachians. I love his style, the dire realism of his work, the love he has for nature and how he describes his characters, their relationships, the choices they make and how it affects them. I’ve read all his work except for Serena, of which I read the first two chapters only. I’m saving the rest for the perfect moment, whenever that may be. For my own pleasure I designed nine covers last year, for some of his short stories. After awhile I found the courage to send them to him, hoping I could sway him to publish his work as eBooks, featuring my covers. He said he found the illustrations wonderful, and referred me to his agent. Sadly it ended there. Rash did give me permission to show the covers on my website — haven’t done so yet.”

Jeroen shared the covers with me, and I’m posting them here, as sort of a testament to one artist’s love for a fellow artist’s work.

Since I’m anticipating some readers of this blog will be interested in buying Rash’s books, I suggest they visit the website of Asheville’s local bookstore, Malaprop’s, where buyers have the highest probability of finding autographed copies of Mr. Rash’s books. 

If you do call, tell ‘em you heard this charming story, and who knows? Maybe someday Jeroen will be designing those covers for real.


Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your collection of free ebooks, go here. Thanks!

Q&A: Jeroen ten Berge

“The cover of your book looks amazing!” people tell me. And I absolutely agree. The compliments I’ve been hearing lately refer to the two books I recently published. The striking covers were designed by the talented Jeroen ten Berge, a Dutch-born designer who lives and works in New Zealand.

Portrait of Jeroen ten Berge

Lately, every time I read about a hot new indie title—whether self-published by a name author or an up-and-coming newbie—the man behind the cover art is Jeroen.

I’ve been obsessed with illustration since I was a kid. In my career, I’ve been lucky to work with children’s book illustrators and magazine illustrators, but this is the first time I’ve personally hired and teamed up with a cover artist to bring my work to life. I thought I’d take some time to ask Jeroen all the little questions I’ve been shy about asking during the few months we’ve been working together.

He graciously consented. Here’s our interview, along with links to some recent cover art by the man himself.

How do you describe the work you do? Are you a designer, an illustrator, or what? (It might help if you tell us what your training/background is.)

I consider myself a designer first. However, illustration is a skill I almost always use to assist me in creating the design I have in mind. In some cases an illustration becomes the key element of a design. Your book The Scientist & The Sociopath is an example, but the Serial-series covers I created for Blake Crouch and Joe Konrath are also illustrations, as is Suzanne Tyrpak’s Vestal Virgin cover. I also use stock photography, sometimes my own. Several of the covers I designed for Marcus Sakey feature my photos, as do several of Blake’s covers. 

I guess I was fortunate to have studied graphic and typographic design at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague in the early- to mid-1980s. There was a strong focus on teaching the principles of design and typography, taught by people such as Gerrit Noordzij, one of the greatest type designers of his generation. There was, however, equal attention paid to illustration and photography. The philosophy was very much, "Why ask someone else to make an illustration or photograph for your design if you can do it yourself?"  In retrospect I can see that graduating the year before Apple MacIntosh was introduced to the Netherlands helped as well. Knowing how lead type works, and why there are certain rules of design helps me on a daily basis. That said, I have worked on an Apple for more than 20 years now, and would consider a career change if I had to go back designing old school.

Everywhere I look these days, I see your name and your work. I unhesitatingly tell people that you are probably the best designer of indie book covers on the planet. Do you have any problem with that designation?

If that is your truth — so be it, I’m flattered. However, I’m sure there will be many people who beg to differ, who prefer someone else’s work. I would never use the designation myself, or even consider the thought. Like most people working in the arts, everything I do is accompanied with doubt. Is it good or is it crap? Will the client like the cover, or think it is shit?

What other types of design work do you do and how important is the indie book business to your overall workload?

Before entering the book design world about three or four years ago, I designed logos, corporate identities, websites, wayfinding, and packaging. I still do, but designing covers has become something I’m very passionate about. It is hard to say what the balance is today. A year ago I would have said 80/20 in favour of the other stuff. Today it is probably 40/60 in favour of book covers. Who knows what it’ll be next year?

About how many covers do you create a year? Is that part of your business growing?

I don’t know — I haven’t counted. I can tell you that about a year ago I worked with about 7 or 8 authors, today it is over 40. So yes, that part of my business is growing.

Soup to nuts, how does a cover come to be? How long does the process take, and do the steps you take vary from cover to cover?

It depends. I usually receive a manuscript, sometimes accompanied by a synopsis. I read it, take in account additional information offered by the author and I think. And think, and doodle. And sometimes research. I think until I have an idea, or several, then edit, and usually only then start to actually design. Almost always I create one cover and present that to the author. I don’t do comps and send a bunch of ideas to the author. It creates confusion. It does, however, mean that I occasionally present a design that doesn’t work for the author. Which means that I then go back and present a new and different idea, taking in account the author’s feedback. Important to me is that the author receives a cover he or she feels completely happy with, and is proud to share with his or her audience.

What kind of software or other tools do you use to make a cover come to life?

Illustrator, Photoshop, and Indesign are my software, plus the thousands of typefaces I have bought over the past decades. My hardware are a MacBook Pro, two iMacs, and my beloved MontBlanc Meisterstück (which I bought twenty years ago as retail therapy after a particularly frustrating meeting with a client) for writing notes. I also use Steadtler Ergosoft and Omnichrom 108-3 Aquarell pencils for doodling and sketching in Moleskine drawing notebooks. I’m a sucker for nice stuff.

You told me once how ideas for covers pop into your head as a quick flash of insight or inspiration. Can you tell us what that process is like?

Annoying — because it never stops. I sometimes even design in my dreams. I’m not kidding. It is bloody annoying, especially for family and friends. We can have a lively conversation, and I see or hear or smell something that triggers a synapse in my brain and off it goes. I have to leave the party to write the idea down, or make a quick sketch, otherwise I might forget it. It drove my wife bonkers, but she’s used to it now.

Do you read all the books for which you design, or is it enough to simply get a feel for the concept from the author?

I read almost all the books I design covers for, or at least enough to get a feel for the story, its tone and style. Occasionally the author supplies a summary or synopsis of the book, which allows me to skip reading the book itself. I’ve probably read over 80 novels so far this year. I’m not a fast reader, so reading is expensive. Thankfully sometimes an idea can be triggered by a paragraph in the author’s email, talking about the manuscript. Then I only read enough to confirm my idea truly fits. 

It seems like you do mostly mystery, thriller, horror book covers. Are these your favorite genres?

Not necessarily. It is the quality of the writing, combined with great storytelling that makes me tick. One of my favourite authors is Ron Rash, who writes amazing stories set in the Appalachians. I love his style, the dire realism of his work, the love he has for nature and how he describes his characters, their relationships, the choices they make and how it affects them. I’ve read all his work except for Serena, of which I read the first two chapters only. I’m saving the rest for the perfect moment, whenever that may be. For my own pleasure I designed nine covers last year, for some of his short stories. After awhile I found the courage to send them to him, hoping I could sway him to publish his work as ebooks, featuring my covers. He said he found the illustrations wonderful, and referred me to his agent. Sadly it ended there. Rash did give me permission to show the covers on my website — I haven’t done so yet.

So are we unlikely to see a cover by you for a sci-fi or fantasy ebook featuring some kind of Hobbit-like creature in the near future?

I usually say I won’t design covers for books that are about scarcely clad guys toting oversized shining swords conversing with dragons — not my cup of tea. That said, someone I already work with sent me the first snippet of a novel that is very much fantasy, and immediately the ideas started bouncing. So watch this space…

We first met when I asked you to do a cover for my nonfiction science book. You said you were intrigued because you actually have an interest in all kinds of nonfiction books as well. Can you tell us about some of your recent favorite NF reads? 

I’ve always been interested in human behaviour. What is it that makes us do what we do, and why? Do we have any control over our destiny, is there such a thing as fate? Why do people fall under the spell of others — and would I? Right now I’m trying to read The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which is about unpredictable and improbable events, and once they have happened how we then try to explain it, rationalize it, attempting to make it appear less random, more predictable. Which Taleb explains is pointless, I think. Another one is Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchins’ autobiography. But I’m afraid both are too demanding right now. I guess I should book myself some long flights for those two books.

What also interests me greatly is how talented people utilise their artistic creativity to con people. Especially where it concerns the fine art scene. One of my favourite non-fiction books is Clifford Irving’s FAKE! The story of Elmyr De Hory, The Greatest Art-Forger of Our Time, published in 1969. Anyone remotely interested in fine art, the art of collecting fine art, and the gullibility and greed of people should read it. Also fantastic, and more recent, is Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. 

Can you name some up-and-coming self-pubbed authors whom you think have great promise?

I think Blake Crouch will become one of the greatest thriller writers of his generation, if he isn’t already. J.E. Medrick has the potential to become a household name — her Icarus Helix series totally rocks. Roy Finch’s The Emperor of Glitter Gulch is an amazing and brutal debut. Steven Konkoly’s The Jakarta Pandemic, if you like a terrific novel about society unraveling after an event; Suzanne Tyrpak’s Vestal Virgin, if you are into the genre currently dominated by Robert Harris. Ania Ahlborn’s debut Seed is a terrific horror yarn, as is Robert Swartwood’s The Dishonored Dead, but for totally different reason — best zombie book I have ever read. And Saffina DesforgesSugar & Spice will more than satisfy anyone who loves a psycho-sexual thriller. There are more – should I continue?

Are you pleased with your increasing work in book covers? Is there ever such a thing as too much work for a freelancer?

Yes, I am — very much so. With designing ebook and print-on-demand covers I have found something that combines my love for reading, collecting books, and design. I have never been very ambitious, but having found this niche — and enjoying it immensely, I now want to build a large and diverse body of work. This is only the beginning.

What the heck are you doing living in New Zealand, and can you get us all a good deal on some sauvignon blanc?

That is a very long story I may tell you in person someday, while enjoying a bottle of that great sauvignon blanc or pinot noir growing in my back yard.

Thank you, very much, Jeroen, and here's hoping we'll meet in person someday.


Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your collection of free ebooks, go here. Thanks!