Thursday, July 15, 2004

Camellia

Two years ago, with Ariel, Karen and I went to Seattle to consult with a specialist about the fibrosis that had crept like a thief into Ariel's lungs. Because of his condition, Ariel was not allowed to fly. We traveled by train. It was not easy. We had to schlep oxygen cylinders in addition to our regular baggage. By rail, the trip is over twenty-four hours long. There were far too many marginal people on this trip. Ariel, always with his nose in one book or another, was able to tune out the general weirdness. But I do not have this gift. There was a large and loud woman who, with frightening regularity, announced her trips to the washroom. There was a broken down cowboy who told his tale of bad women and good liquor to anyone foolish enough to listen. There was the speed freak who said to me: "Oh man I really really really think that beanie you're wearing is just awesome and like I think my dad was Jewish but I can't be sure cause he split when I was like seven years old and I once had this Jewish girlfriend man she was screwed up but hothothot and like you folks don't believe in Jesus do you which means dude like wow you are gonna burn in hell forever!" Imagine listening to this for more than five minutes. Now imagine twenty-four hours of it.
See what I mean?
After the consultation, we went back to our hotel room so Ariel could nap. Karen and I took a walk. In a tiny park I broke down and wept. "Our son is dying," I said. Karen held me and soothed me and spoke optimistically of all that could and would happen to save Ariel's life. I have always counted on Karen's good sense, her ability to analyze the battlefield of life with startling clarity. I told myself to believe Karen. I told myself that to surrender to despair would be a greivous sin. And worse, Ariel would pick it up. Ariel's antenna for my moods was so finely tuned that he knew what I felt even before I did. And so, I dried my tears and went back to the room. That evening, we went out to dinner and we had a wonderful time. Ariel tried a new dish in a funky kosher Seattle restaurant, Panini. We took pictures. We smiled. We laughed. We even joked about the train trip that still faced us, back to Los Angeles. But that night, before going to bed, I sat by the window, looked out at the swollen moon, white as a Camellia, and I have to confess that I knew that Ariel would die. I knew it in my gut.
Now, Karen and I are back in Seattle. We are here because the graphics team who are working for Seraphic Press all live in Seattle and we are here to finalize details of our first book, The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden.
The cover of the book is paramount. Contrary to what you have been told, most people do judge a book by its cover. There are several designs and we have to decide which one best reflects the content of the book and which one will sell best. I hope one design will fulfiull both requirements. What font should we use for the text? Goudy, Baskerville, Minion, Janson? Which paper is most appropriate for this novel? Should we use italics to indicate prayers that are said in Hebrew?
There are dozens upon dozens of details that must be addressed. Putting together a book is much like making a movie. God, as they say, is in the details. And my design team are an extraordinary group of people.
Obadinah Heavner, our chief illustrator, radiates calm and goodness. The beauty of her illustrations absolutely overwhelmed me the first time I saw them several months ago. And now, as Karen and I step into her stuidio, I have to catch my breath for the first thing I see is Ariel. In lovely shades of blue and teal is a sketch of The Hebrew Kid, the main character in my novel. Several weeks ago, Obadinah and I discussed what this young boy should look like. I completely forgot that I sent her pictures of Ariel. Seeing him now, on the mock cover of the book, well, I am simply not prepared. I stand in the light drenched studio and gaze at the drawing of Ariel. Obadinah has captured his intelligence, his profound curiosity about the world and the cosmos, but what's most surprising and wonderful is how she's managed to capture his sly sense of humor. I tell myself that it is not appropriate for a publisher to weep the first time he meets his design team. I must be a professional. And so I make believe that I am wiping perspiration from my forehead as I take out my handkerchief and dab at my face. But I am fooling no one. These people are artists; they are acutely attuned to the emotional temperature of their surroundings. That is the curse of the artist. The normal filters are not in place. An artist feels things on a different level; it is a deeper more textured experience; it can be a blessing, it can be a curse. The trick is learning to live without these filters and not be overwhelmed.
Robert Lanphear is the book designer. An eleventh generation American, Robert's ancestors were French Heugonots who fled the shores of the most vile country on earth, France, for the wild freedoms of the New World, America. From the beginning, Robert has thrown himself into the work of Seraphic Press with startling generosity and the kind of obsessive perfectionism that book design, great book design, demands. His greatest fear, he told me in our very first conversation, was that "the parts would not fit together as a unified whole." Robert's job is to make sure that The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden comes together as an organic unit. The text should reflect the content; the binding should feel the way a book that takes place in 1870 should feel. The spaces between the words should help the reader experience the story as the writer intends. It is a daunting task, and most of us take for granted the books that we read. We are not aware of all the work it takes to produce a fine book. In a sense, that is the best design; the design that is invisible.
Iskra is a calligrapher. Words and individual letters are her canvas. The title, The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden, is long. It takes up a good deal of real estate on the cover. Therefore, I am acutely aware that the letters must have a life of their own. As a Jewish sofer, scribe, works on the holy letters of the Torah, Iskra devotes herself to the artistry of making words come alive with the precise gestures of a pen through her wrist. She has worked for movie studios and Fortune 500 companies, and of course, the big New York publishers.
My design team are all accomplished artists, well known in their individual fields, much sought after. How is it that they have agreed to work for this impoverished, start-up publishing company. I have spoken with all of them privately and the answer is always the same: they love the book, they admire the idea of a press devoted to fine fiction for observant Jews, but most of all, they have learned about Ariel and they are doing it to honor his memory. These talented people have been touched by Ariel's too short life, and in their own ways, they are helping us perpetuate his memory. Being with these fine and generous people is a humbling experience. Their work is so sophisticated, so on-target, that Karen and I are only making choices among great and beautiful ideas. Not one single notion is wrong. Though they are not Jewish, they are all deeply religious in their own ways, and they have the ability to comprehend the lives of the observant characters in the novel and translate this understanding into fully realized art. A friend, not too long ago, suggested that I should probably only hire observant Jews to design the book. Only an observant Jew would, as he put it, "get it." I beg to differ with my friend. Great art and great artists have the ability to transcend ordinary cultural and religious boundaries. I am grateful that Obadinah, Robert and Iskra, creative and beneficient people, have agreed to work with Seraphic Press.
Karen and I return to our hotel room. It is the same hotel we stayed in two years ago with Ariel. It has been a long and wonderful day. Obadinah took us for a walk after we finished work. In a clearing in the forest we told her about Ariel. Not for one moment did we feel as if we were talking to a stranger. Her empathy reached across space and caressed our wounded hearts.
At last, Karen and I are able to cry. We are alone in our room. We have accomplished one more step in our mission to keep Ariel's memory alive.
Ask any parent. All they want for the lives of their children is a perfect story. Three acts that end in happiness. But that is not possible. Somewhere in act one something goes wrong. Act two brings tragedy. And for some children, there is no third act.
Perhaps all this is nothing but sound and fury, a pathetic diversion, a way of denying the solidity of Ariel's death.
I am so deep in denial that I am even denying denial.
But it is all I have. And for now, it will just have to do.
Karen goes to sleep.
I sit by the window and look out at the night and there it is, once again, the moon is white as a Camellia.


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