This is the front cover to The Teeth of the Souls, sequel to Morkan’s Quarry and forthcoming from Moon City Press in March 2015.
The front cover art comes from a photographer I have long watched and admired, Springfield, Missouri’s Jeffrey Sweet. The cover is a detail from a really spectacular photograph Jeff took one morning out at Lake Springfield when early light was searing off bare trees in that wintry transition between water and ice. With recent weather in the Ozarks, my parents and friends back home may know this winter light all too well this past year.
I spotted the photograph when Jeff had turned to blogging. Jeff runs Jeffrey Sweet Photography. In the lull during the recession, Jeff wisely started a photography blog, sharing tips, techniques, and insights about taking photographs. These blog posts were irresistible to amateur/moron shutterbugs like me. In one post Jeff featured this photograph as an example of practicing texture.
I knew the photograph meant way more than a mere practice shot taken to learn texture as a technique. And Jeff immediately knew which photograph I was talking about when I visited him in December of 2013 at what was briefly his home studio in Nixa.
Wode, wood, and woods. These words for a wilderness are all related in ways that we have only recently shunted aside. On the whole, even the profoundly suburban among us tend to look on all wilderness with a post-Teddy Roosevelt glow. The wilderness is a semi-sacred place to be conserved, revered, and protected. A place to return to, to be rejuvenated by. We now carve out nature centers to tap what we believe is an ancient connection to the wild.
But within living memory, many of us can recall relatives who thought very differently about the wild. My grandfather, Roma Yates, a tenant farmer from Dallas County, Missouri, actively loathed cedar and hackberry trees. To Roma, a dense stand of hardwoods had a value once cut, milled, the lumber sold, and the ground beneath them tilled, planted, and a crop harvested. That was the rational answer to the madness and chaos of a wood. There were also practical considerations about the woods. The wilderness contained bobcats in my father’s lifetime and cougar in grandfather’s memory. Even my father can recall the disturbance to the home after hearing the scream of what had to be one of the last cougars in the Ozarks, and all three brothers kept ready the story of the axe at the door—The Yates’s did not own guns. The woods were far more wild to my grandfather than they ever will be to me.
Roma’s conception of wilderness was more near the meanings of wode and wood that come up in The Teeth of the Souls. In the sequel to Morkan’s Quarry, Leighton Morkan and his companion Judith negotiate the vigilantism that reigned in the Ozarks after the Civil War. Many times characters reflect upon the wode, the madness of the anti-horse thief committees, which often quickly devolved into vendetta and greed and had more to do with power than law and order. Shane Peale, Leighton’s old buddy from the Home Guards days of fighting and shirking bushwhackers, chides his tainted pal: “We about let it all get away from us again here, Leighton. Almost let it all slide back into that ole wode. Riding, avenge, revenge. No God but Death.”
That’s what I saw in Jeff’s photograph, that old wode, golden and shining like the gilded age that arises in The Teeth of the Souls, but also mad and treacherous.
Getting permission to use Jeffrey’s art as the cover to my own attempt at art represents a tremendous circle back, one that I find really inspiring. In the summer of 1987, Jeffrey (bass) and Erin Mayfield (drums and vocals) and I (guitar and vocals) started a basement band we called The Resonators. Ah, we were doomed by the usual clashes of young men trying to make original rock music—I thought the most important thing we could possibly do was finish a six or seven song demo tape on Erin’s four-track Fostex, thus making and selling art; Erin thought that was madness and that the most important goal was to practice until we had a marketable set and then play live and score girls. Looking back, I have a strong feeling Erin may have been right, or at least that he was surely the sanest of us.
But Jeff, playing the bass, stuck with me, and together we learned a lot about recording and making music. We finished the demo tape, and even manufactured some with cover art. And Jeff stuck with me while we flailed around trying to find a new front man. Neither of us could really sing, months of trying people who would never work out. By that time, poor Erin was rightfully infuriated. I had borrowed his Fostex long enough to consider the loan to be an outright theft, and then I think I even lost the instruction manual to it. Ugh, I am so sorry, Erin. Obsessed, determined, I was also criminal.
Yet, guilt aside, Jeff and Erin and I (along with some drumming and advice from Jeff McNabb and Tony Nimmo) had created something that was not previously in the world. We had something to hand people, though admittedly not many people latched on to it, to hand people and say, Here, this is us. This is what we make. And even though neither of us can find the demo anywhere—we called it “Chasing a Big Coyote,” after some crazy Native American book I was absorbing—there was still that notion of success: we tried to make art together, and we did in the end make something. The one showed at left was uncovered by Facebook friend Lisa Wagner Haefner. Thanks, Lisa!
I tried really hard to tie Jeff down for the cover art for Morkan’s Quarry, and then again for the cover art to Some Kinds of Love: Stories. But busy photographers are REALLY hard to tie down. So I was thrilled that he said yes, and then later approved the designer’s use of a detail from his larger photograph.
There it is finally. Circle back and we are about to make something together again. While it won’t be any blockbuster (it’s a literary novel about some really hard times in Springfield; get a grip!), it will reach more people for sure than did “Chasing a Big Coyote.” How do I know that? Trust me on the sales projection here.
I’m pretty sure Jeff and I were meant to attempt art together, and now clearly more than once. We just didn’t know then what we know now. And we weren’t yet who we were meant to be. Thanks, Jeffrey Sweet. This cover song is ours now.