As you will read in the synopsis attached below, The Straw That Broke is a novel about corrupt Las Vegas businessmen and officials resorting to fraud, abduction and murder to illegally acquire more water from Lake Mead and the extreme measures ecoterrorists use to stop them. We would like to see: earth/desert tones, images that pop, bold font (or fonts), clean eye-catching design.
Elements should include: A rock art spiral with a dagger blade-like (no hilt) crack from the top edge to the center; a vintage (Flying Cloud) Airstream trailer; Hoover dam; a wrap around image (from left to right: back cover, spine, front cover), with most of the “action” on the right half and the image be somewhere in the ratio of 13:9 (wide:tall).
People really do judge books by their covers.
That may be part of the reason Jackson Hole author Gregory Zeigler’s mystery novels are selling so well — printmaker and fiber artist Jane Lavino, who also bears the title of Sugden Chief Curator of Education at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, created designs for Zeigler’s latest three book covers. Friendship, a shared passion for the environment and education, Zeigler’s admiration for Lavino’s sense of design and the latter’s talent for transforming the feel of Zeigler’s stories into art is making for a successful and ongoing publishing partnership.
And they both kind of dig Airstreams. Zeigler’s recognizable brand is a lot about Airstreams. His first book, based on John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley,” recounts Zeigler’s recreation of Steinbeck’s route across America. Zeigler traveled over 15,000 miles over nine weeks, towing a Bambi (he’s since bumped up two Airstream trailer sizes). He and his wife, Dimmie, make camping with their trailers a big part of life, and it made sense to incorporate this beloved American travel icon into his books. Zeigler’s protagonists, Susan Brand and Jake Goddard, are traveling investigators living, adventuring and solving high crimes out of their vintage Airstream, “The Majestic.”
“Initially, when Dimmie and I began marketing, we decided to have a call for artists to design the book covers. I was still in the process of writing my first book. We had several submissions, and Jane’s were so good we knew immediately, “this is it.” This third book design, for Rare as Earth, she nailed it so fast. I needed the cover to be an image of Bears Ears National Monument, something similar to national park designs for the area, and after just a little bit of give and take, she had it. I’ve had positive feedback for all her book covers, but praise for this one has been over the top,” says Zeigler.
For her part, Lavino had never done a book design, and she wasn’t sure her block cut printmaking technique would work. But, it was an excellent way to push her mastery of the medium. Linoleum cuts are crisp, avail greater detail, and because linoleum comes in large sheets it was amenable to a project like Zeigler’s.
“When I went online to research book cover design it seemed so many of them are stock graphic designs, and I’m not a graphic artist,” Lavino relates. “Each book had to be a wrap-around design, which I liked because it meant creating a work of art in its own right. But I had to think about what would be happening on the cover, on the spine and on the back. Which was challenging. Greg needed a landscape and an Airstream worked into each cover. My first attempt, the Airstream looked more like a horse trailer!”
Much of her successful design work is due to happy accident; she hadn’t read Zeigler’s book when she took on the assignment of creating his book covers. Never having been to Bears Ears, Lavino assumed the landscape should look hot and threatening. It was only after reading the book that she realized the story was set in winter. But, as southern Utah never gets too cold for long, the cover design worked.
“It was really fun to push the block printing that I’ve been doing, adding in mixed media and pencil to pick up detail. I love the idea of the wrap-around design, and I learned so much about where to place negative space, space without texture—writing is difficult to read against texture,” says Lavino. “We also came up with a spiral sun design that’s repeated on each of the book covers. All the elements in the covers—the trailer and its color, the light in the window, the sun spiral, and even (in the case of the Bears Ears design), the rays of light streaming from the top of the mesas—are clues that help to figure out each mystery.”
Lavino is inspired by many print artists, but it may be another cosmic coincidence that one of her favorites is Everett Ruess, a young vagabond print artist driven to explore the West on foot, with donkeys and few provisions. Ruess disappeared in the Utah wilderness and its canyons in 1934. His body has never been found, and his fate is the subject of much speculation. Ruess published his own books about his travels, illustrating them with his woodblock prints.
In his first book, “Travels With Max,” Zeigler also touched upon the Ruess mystery. According to a Navajo legend, Zeigler wrote, the body of a young man said to be murdered by Utes in 1934 was found buried in a sandstone crevice. An initial investigation, backed by forensic testimony, concluded the body was Ruess.
But, Zeigler continued, “The desert preserves all and eventually reveals all.” In 2010 a new investigation reversed those findings, and the case of the missing Ruess remains unsolved. Cosmic or not, the connection is extremely powerful for Lavino and Zeigler.
Strong mystery-thriller components are the backbone of Zeigler’s mysteries, a series of Western stories set against the background of an environmental crisis. Drought, an overtaxed Colorado River, and an elemental compound (Rare Earth) that, when not handled properly, causes devastating environmental damage all figure into his books.
Rare Earth mining is an industry ripe for corruption, Zeigler points out. All of Zeigler’s novels are classified within the literary sub-genre of Cli-fi (Climate Fiction) ; , a term climate activist Dan Bloom coined in 2007 in an attempt to attract younger readers on the edge of environmental activism. The genre, according to the Atlantic Monthly, is gaining ground with high school and college students.
And THAT is another coincidence: Lavino and Zeigler share a background in teaching at east coast boarding schools; Zeigler was a headmaster. Rare As Earth is set against the backdrop of an imaginary boarding school in the West, and its characters’ dialogues are uncannily familiar to anyone who has spent time in that culture.
“Abduction, assault and the things that keep mystery readers excited are all there,” explains Zeigler. “But the challenge is to balance the education with the entertainment, to not let the science become preachy lest it slow down the read. So I like to refer to each book as an allegory, an extended parable. They are stories with a moral, and I hope that readers of all ages feel like they’ve learned something and been entertained.”
Lavino laughs when asked if her bookcovers for Zeigler have brought any other author requests for book cover designs.
“Funny you should ask! Two people approached me just last week, and I’m very flattered, but I have so many projects on my plate already,” she says with a smile.
By the time this piece runs Lavino will have completed two Jackson Hole Fall Arts Festival events: “Western Visions” at the National Museum of Wildlife Art and “Takin’ It To the Streets” annual art fair.
Without having read any of the books before designing their covers, Lavino says she feels more than ever that everything turned out the way it was supposed to. Zeigler, she says, gave her a bit of direction, supplying her with plenty of images of Bears Ears. With each cover design she learned a little bit more; Zeigler gave her a lot of leeway in terms of how to put colors and landscapes together.
“For Rare As Earth, he said it would be nice to get some kind of glint coming off the mountains representing the metal. And I had no idea what a rare earth metal was, what does that look like? But you know how sometimes when you’re reading a book, and you go back and look at the cover and you think, ‘Oh, that’s what they were talking about, that’s what that meant!‘ Even though I was the artist, that was happening to me!”
Back to that daunting Call to Artists. In trying to remember the prize offered to the winning artist able to pull together all the elements of a successful design in their proposal, Lavino reminds him, with a smile: “The prize was getting to do the book!”
All three of Zeigler’s books are available at Valley Bookstore in Jackson, Wyoming.