My next book, Be Different, goes on sale in just five months. During that time, I’ll be sharing stories about the book and its creation, beginning with this story about the cover.
I’ve always liked trains. I caught the bug from my father, who had an American Flyer set as a kid. I was four years old when he first told me about them. However, as any kid knows, hearing is not as good as seeing. My father’s description was intriguing but I wanted more. I wanted the actual trains and I was ready to go on the hunt.
“Where are they?” That was the obvious question. After all, the only conceivable reason to tell me about the trains was that he wanted to give them to me. At that point in my life, other people only existed to serve my whims and wishes. “Can we get them so I can play with them?” My father seemed surprised at that. “I don’t know where they are, son. They must be back home in Lawrenceville.”
That was not the correct answer! It didn’t even make any sense, but I was as reasonable as any toddler could be. “Okay, let’s go there and get them!” So that was what we did. As soon as my dad’s University closed for the holidays we loaded our VW Bug and headed south. It was a long drive from Philadelphia to Georgia. We spent the first night in a motel, where I stayed up late dreaming of Santa and presents. We spent the next night at my Aunt Marjorie’s in the Carolina mountains. On the third night I fell asleep in the car, but I woke up when my dad turned off the highway onto the long gravel driveway to my grandparent’s home.
The cool night air filled the car with the familiar scent of the Georgia woods and small stones popped and crunched under the tires. We had arrived! A few days later, when I awoke, there was a brand new Lionel train set waiting for me under the tree. It was the greatest Christmas ever. The engine was my favorite part and I carried him everywhere. I even tucked him in with me at night. I loved that engine so much that my mother made me a painting of him, which I’ve kept in my home ever since.
I wore that first Lionel train to bits. Metal dented, pieces fell off, and track got bent. Eventually my train disintegrated, and the pieces were consigned to a box, to be devoured by Snort, my voracious little brother. I grew up, left home, and did adult things, but I never forgot about trains. Even now, when I hear a whistle, I’ll step on the gas and race to the crossing, just to watch the cars roll by. I think back to my childhood with that Lionel set, and my teen years riding the slow freights up to Vermont, and it makes me smile.
When I got my own kid, one of the first things I introduced him to was railroading. I even wrote a story about trains, the kid, and me for my book Look Me in the Eye.
When it came time to publish my second book, we needed a cover, and where did our thoughts go? You guessed it . . . trains. Most times, book covers are created by graphic artists with green eyeshades. They work unseen, in incense-filled rooms at publishing houses. This one started a little bit differently.
Depending on who you believe, Be Different’s cover design originated with Rachel Klayman, my editor, or Whitney Cookman, Crown’s head of graphic arts. Either way, I immediately recognized a winner. I quickly moved to make the design my own.
If we’re going to have trains on the cover, they’ve got to be my trains! Crown made a mockup cover using stock photos of two engines and a caboose. However, they had made the same mistake my mother made, painting my trains so long ago. They were not coupled together right. I knew the cover would be immeasurably better with my engines and a caboose, properly configured. I’m not so sure they shared my certainty, but they went along somewhat willingly. I promised them test pictures.
This will be simple, I thought. I’ll set two of my engines and a caboose on the table and photograph them. That was the plan, but then things got complicated. The first problem was the trains themselves. I’ve got over one hundred Lionel engines and cars of various shapes and colors. However, I could not find a single matching pair of steam locomotives.
I called my friend Enzo DiGiacomo and explained my predicament. “Come on down and take a look at my trains,” he said. He had a dozen locomotives, all the same color - black. Enzo is so proud of his trains. They are beautiful, and probably more valuable than the whole building where I lived as a kid.
I was embarrassed to admit they were just too nice. I had never seen trains like his before. I looked around the basement, at buildings, little people, cars, and accessories. All had been painstakingly assembled by hand. Model airplanes hung from the ceiling, swooping and diving over our heads.
And there on the bottom shelf, in a beat up cardboard box, I saw the answer. “That’s the stuff the grandkids play with,” he said. I pulled the box out and looked inside. Half a dozen broken old cars, some abandoned toys, and two beat up black locomotives. Just like the trains I’d had, forty-some years before. These are perfect.
I brought the engines home and set them on my kitchen counter on either side of an old red caboose. I took a picture and sent it to Whitney. Those are great, he wrote. Can you shoot them against a white background with better lighting?
It was clear that Whitney was seeking professional grade images. We were going to need studio lighting, something I don’t really know how to do. But all was not lost. Without a moment’s pause, I turned to another friend, Alex Plank. Alex is a fellow Aspergian, and founder of the Wrong Planet website. Through a great stroke of fortune, I actually had him secured in my basement at that very moment. He had come to visit, and failed to leave. I had been feeding him for a few weeks when opportunity came knocking.
“I know all about lighting,” he said, in his hundred-twenty-word-a-minute voice. You know he’s excited when he talks like that. “I took lighting courses in college. This will be easy.” In just a few minutes my living room was transformed to a photo set. Strobe lights and cables were everywhere. The trains sat on a straight piece of track atop two dining chairs draped in white sheet.
Everything was ready. We took our first shot. With ten thousand dollars of gear and an Aspergian Expert, how could anything go wrong? But it had. The engine on the left was white with glare, while the one on the right was lost in shadow. Alex wasn’t fazed. He pulled out a reflector and stood over the trains. “Try it now,” he said. The colors were balanced, but the edges of the roof were not sharp. A few shuffles of the lights, and we had it right.
Once again, I sent the photos off to New York. This time, Whitney said, Can you shoot that again without the track? Luckily, we were prepared for that request. The setup was still in place, filling most of the living room. All we needed was a white base for the trains. Alex emerged from the basement once again to come to my rescue with white foam board from the hardware store.
We shot the trains again, and this time, we knew we had it right. Whitney agreed. The cover art was set.
I hope you like my trains, but more than that, I hope you like the stories inside.
More on them later . . .