Sometimes my first ideas are stronger than those that go into print. This might be a case in point: my New York Times Book Review cover highlighting John Vernon’s review of Paulette Jiles’ Enemy Women: A Novel.
The book is set during the Civil War and centers on an 18-year-old woman from the Missouri Ozarks, who is arrested on suspicion of being a Confederate spy and is thrown into a St. Louis prison. There, the prison commandant (a Union major) interrogates - but soon falls in love with - his captive, and ultimately helps her escape.
But how to illustrate that, or, rather, how to illustrate a review that has no physical descriptions of the characters, etc.? (Book Review illustrators are - or were - only provided the text of the review, not the book itself.)
Above is an early, more “realized” sketch: no facial features, but, I hoped, their hands and clothing and setting would hint enough at what the book was about. And here is a page of pencil notes for it - as well as another concept: a crazy-quilt map of Missouri that, I realized, would be better to stitch together with real bits of cloth, rather than to paint (something I wasn’t equipped to risk trying).
My “hand holding” design was turned down, though. So I ran out and got the novel and searched for descriptions of the two main characters. I wound up settling on an “ambrotype” idea, with a “magic realism” slant, with the major desperately - maybe too desperately - reaching out toward his love. For the major’s pose - and in the interest of time - I adapted one of my favorite Sidney Paget pictures of Sherlock Holmes, illustrating one of my favorite lines in one of my favorite stories, “The Adventure of the Reigate Squire“ (or “Squires” or “Puzzle”): “You’ve done it now, Watson,” said he, coolly. “A pretty mess you've made of the carpet.”
And so this color sketch was born - as was this poor Photoshop tweak where I raised the major’s arm and closed the ambrotype case a little:
Tthe major “breaking through the frame” idea was nixed, however. I had to keep him under glass, and the end result, below, is much more staid and, I think, less intriguing. That orange surface is supposed to be wood, but it looks like the ambrotype case is precariously balanced on it or suspended from it: looking at it now, I should have placed the case on top of a table or the like. But sometimes the better ideas come too late - or too early.
And here is the image as published....