Judging a Book by its Cover: an interview with artist Natasha Overttun

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Lately I’ve been thinking about judging books by their covers. We all do it a little bit. A good cover catches the eye and makes us curious about the book. I thought it might be time to feature some great book artists, starting with the excellent Natasha Overttun. You can find her work on the covers of the Terra Nova books by D. Ellis Overttun. If you’d like to contact either of them for interviews, you can find them on Twitter @neoverttun. In a fun twist, author D. Ellis Overttun interviews Natasha Overttun (a husband-wife duo: how cool is that!). The author’s questions are in bold.

@WS_BOOKCLUB, a while back, you floated the idea of doing a Q&A with Natasha. What a great concept! We thought an interesting twist might be if I did the Q. This Q&A will focus on the evolution of Natasha’s work and skills. It was a lot of fun. Thank you for giving us this opportunity.

First of all, could you please give us some opening comments?

(singing) I’m so exited! And I just can’t hide it! I’m about to lose control…

Something that’s not a shower song…

I’m so exited. And I just can’t hide it. I’m about to lose control…

Something that’s not a Pointer Sisters’ song…

Apart from being thrilled, I’m so proud that a blogger like Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub would want to hear what I have to say. At first, I was a little surprised and scared…`

As I recall, I had to talk you into it.

Yes, I’m not used to being out there. But, as time passed, I got more comfortable with it. You know its just like Bob Wiley says: “Baby steps, baby steps.”

I think it was Dr. Leo Marvin.

No, I’m sure it was Bob.

We’ll Wiki after the Q&A. Anyway, how did you first get involved with visual arts?

When I was a little girl, I loved coloring books…

Let’s skip a head a bit…

Oh…well, more than a little while ago, I took an introductory art course at the local community college. One of the projects we did involved collages. Each of us brought in a magazine and were told to cut out pictures or shapes we found interesting. We put them all together on some of the desks in the front row. The exercise was to assemble a cut and paste collage.

I had absolutely no idea what to do. So, I hung back and watched the feeding frenzy. Everyone else seemed to know exactly what they were going to do. My first attempt was a fireplace surrounded by flames, lights and candles suspended in the air. I was so proud of myself! The teacher came by. She gave it a look that was more than just a glance. So, I thought, “Yesss! She likes it!” But it was really one of those howcanIputit looks. “It’s hanging,” she said. “That’s right,” I replied. Then, I realized she meant that something was missing. A few people had gathered around for her critique. “Where is a rock to crawl under when you need one?” I thought.

 

That was the best idea I had, and I now looked through the cutouts on the front desks that had been picked clean. This is what I came up with…

Lips

I was a little more than embarrassed when it came to present at the front of the class. What I put together didn’t look like anything. Oh, where’s that rock?

To my surprise, it drew rave reviews. Who knew?

That course gave me an appreciation for things like balance, composition and perspective. More than that though, my fellow classmates encouraged my small successes. That gave me confidence.

How did you become involved with the Terra Nova series?

You finished the first version of Universe: Awakening in May 2017. I remember you were on the kdp site rushing to publish. Then, it asked you for a cover. I’ll never forget the look on your face. It was: I need a cover? AHHH! Neither of us had any idea what to do. An anxious read of the help notes said we could use a jpeg. Great! But a jpeg of what?

Then, you came up with the idea that we would take a picture of something. So, I got my iPhone, and we frantically scoured our suite for something suitable. You finally decided on one of the patterns from a pot. A few clicks and a couple of emails later, and it was uploaded. It was too small. At the time, we had no idea how to resize an image. My niece is a graphic artist. So, she did it. Uploaded! Publish? No, we had to deal with text: Which font? What size? What color? I gained a real appreciation for your wordsmithing that day. Your string of invectives was colorful and creative. But not “Like wiping your ass with silk” to quote the Merovingian. That said, you finally slapped something together.

Lorna from On the Shelf Reviews (@ljwrites85) gave you some very constructive feedback. It went something like (and I paraphrase) “…perhaps, you could do something with the cover”. You have many faults but not being able to take a hint is not one of them.

Yes, I remember. So, I casually hinted…

Implored…

Asked if you had any suggestions.

Yes, and the result was the second cover.

Before (You) After (Me)

20170829 Universe eBook Cover (120 x 192) 20190330 Universe (2nd ed) - Cover (120 x 192 72 DPI)

How have you gone from collages to covers?

It’s been an evolution. To promote the book, you started a blogsite called “Author’s Cut” where you would write posts about Universe. I read somewhere that it’s good to break up text with visuals, to prevent reader fatigue. When I made the suggestion, I got the job.

I had no idea how to go about actually creating visuals. I was lucky to bump into a site called “Pixabay”. It’s a very popular site that has millions of images available without running into copywrite issues. I started out with find, cut, paste. It was primitive, but it was something. Then, I found some freeware called “Photoscape”, and I was able to do things like add text, crop, superimpose, stuff like that. When it came time for the Universe cover makeover, I was ready.

What’s happened since then?

You found that maintaining a social media presence, writing and publishing were too timeconsuming. So, you vacated SM, and I took over. I started on Twitter last year.

How has that gone?

Very well. I think it has increased SM awareness for your writing in a way you never could. If I say, “Hey! My hubby’s great. Read his stuff”, people say, “What a supportive wife.” If you echo the same sentiment, you’re a braggart.

True, very true. How did you start doing visuals on Twitter?

It started with the header, and it took me to another level. I found that, while Photoscape is great, you can’t edit after you’ve saved and exited the program. I found that Word gave that to me. People trained in graphic arts would probably snub their noses at it, but it was a quick fix that was easy to learn. My first headers were the covers of your first two books plus some Pixabay jpegs.

20190309 TWTR Header (750 x 250)

That looks like the first version of the Genesis cover.

That’s right. When I did it, I thought that it was ok, but something was missing. It kept bugging me, so, finally, I did a makeover. Tada!

20200108 Genesis - Cover (120 x 192)

Yes, it has a certain pop to it.

After that, I noticed that a lot of people have a pinned tweet. I suggested to approach bloggers to do guest posts that I could then pin. I had found that there is a heavy emphasis on visuals on Twitter, so I suggested that I do something to accompany the post that I could attach to the tweet to catch people’s attention. As each post came online, I swapped the pic for the one from Pixabay in my header. Here’s what it eventually looked like.

20191114 TWTR Header (700 x 250)

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Yes, but it’s mostly due to the blogging community who has been very receptive and supportive of our creative efforts.

Have there been any recent developments in your bag of tricks?

Yes, I recently came across a program called GIMP. It’s a real graphic arts program. I’ve only been using it selectively for certain effects because it’s quite involved. For example, in the visual below…

Exodus Final

The breaking apart of the sphere and the beam of light were done in GIMP.

I also started using the gif feature in Photoscape. Most notably, in the recent Prophecy cover reveal. Thank you from the both of us, once again, to Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub for giving it a spot on your blog.

Well, I think we have gone on long enough, any final comments?

More of a question really. I know that one of the characters in the series is named after me. However, she is a blonde with a bob cut. I am not a blonde and have never worn my hair that way. Where did she come from?

Uh…this is your interview, not mine. We should discuss this later.

Yes, we will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mental Health in Literature: A Conversation with Author Fiona West

Finishing up my weekly series on mental health and literature is author Fiona West. Thank you so much for contributing!

First, can you tell me a bit about your book?

The Semi-Royal is about a woman who’s under immense pressure, being both a princess third in line to the throne and a widely-renowned doctor. She’s in denial about a lot of things, her attraction to her brother’s best friend being one, and it’s the story of her slowly coming to accept and make peace with herself and her body.

One of things I wanted to explore in this book is the relationship between a woman’s mind and her body. One of the things that frustrates Rhodie is that her body isn’t really under her control…as a doctor, she knows a lot about the body in general, but an event in her past has caused her to lose faith in her body. And I think that’s a connection we don’t talk about enough: a lot of mental suffering is caused by worrying about our bodies and what they look like. I know as someone with a chronic illness, it’s really impacted my relationship with my body. I hated it. I hated that it didn’t do what I wanted it to, I hated that it didn’t do what other people’s bodies did. And over time, I had to learn to see it differently: that a flare wasn’t my body failing me, it was just part of a complicated situation. My body is still keeping me alive, my heart’s still pumping, my lungs are still taking in air. And when I shifted my focus from what my body couldn’t do to what it could, my mental health improved tremendously. I had to learn to re-interpret symptom flares as communication from my body instead of a betrayal. In a word, I had to learn compassion for my own body. I still fail at it plenty, but it’s something I’m working toward, and it’s something I wanted to write about. Mental health is a journey. And even though it’s fiction, Rhodie’s story reflects that. It was a really difficult balance to give her enough progress that we felt her story was resolved and still portray that it was an ongoing struggle for her.

Do your characters go to counseling?

For Rhodie, counseling was necessary. Several members of her family and her boyfriend all try to talk to her about her disordered eating, but she’s so deep in denial that she really can’t believe it until she talks to a professional. She valued his authority. And more than that, I think what she really needed was an outside voice. Someone who wasn’t going to remind her of her royal responsibilities and how this might look to the press. Just someone to come at an issue from another angle, one we can’t get to on our own. In the book, Rhodie likens the experience to one of those paintings that looks like an old woman to some people and a young woman at a mirror to others. That’s what counseling has been to me: just a different perspective on my own life. And it did help her. It gave her a way to move forward in repairing her relationship with her body. It was slow, of course, but so many good things in life are.

Have you had any experience with counseling? How has it affected you?
I still remember when I was about fourteen, I was going through my mother’s planner looking for a phone number (remember when people had paper planners? Good times.). On her calendar, she’d written ‘counseling’ on the month’s agenda. Being helplessly curious, I paged back: she’d been going for months. When I asked her about it, she gently told me that the counselor was helping her and my dad work through some things in their marriage and that it was nothing to worry about. That it was, in fact, proof that they were going to make it. (Spoiler alert: they’re celebrating 45 years in May.)
That’s the shift we need to make as a culture: throwing away the idea that counseling is a busted bucket for a sinking ship and instead see it as the personal flotation device that we keep with us, just in case. When I went on a cruise, we all stood around in the bar, doing the drill about what to do if there’s an emergency. But we didn’t throw our life vests overboard after that. Those devices are good for all kinds of things: kids who can’t swim, snorkeling trips, a cushion for your butt on a hard bench. We kept them in their designated spot in our cabins, close at hand. That’s how I want us to think about counseling: a tool for the right situation. I’ve met with a counselor once: sometimes, once was enough. It got me through that storm, helped me get my boat rightside up again. I’ve met with other counselors for several months: those issues were deeper. Sometimes, a hug from a friend or a listening ear was enough. Sometimes, just a good jungle yell and a cry was enough. But it’s silly that we still talk about counseling in hushed tones instead of getting on the roof and letting everyone know how much it helped. Let me start: it helped me, and while I can’t speak for others, I think it’s something worth trying, even before it’s an “emergency.” Do a drill: try it on and see how it feels.

As a writer, how do you feel about mental health portrayal in literature?

What’s saddest to me in literature is when poor mental health is depicted as some kind of moral failing by a degenerate soul. There are so many factors that go into our mental health, but one of the most poignant ones is the story of leaded gas. In his article, “How Lead Caused America’s Violent Crime Epidemic,” Alex Knapp writes that “every country studied has shown [a] strong correlation between leaded gasoline and violent crime rates. Within the United States, you can see the data at the state level. Where lead concentrations declined quickly, crime declined quickly. Where it declined slowly, crime declined slowly. The data even holds true at the neighborhood level – high lead concentrations correlate so well that you can overlay maps of crime rates over maps of lead concentrations and get an almost perfect fit….decades of research has shown that lead poisoning causes significant and probably irreversible damage to the brain. Not only does lead degrade cognitive abilities and lower intelligence, it also degrades a person’s ability to make decisions by damaging areas of the brain responsible for ‘emotional regulation, impulse control, attention, verbal reasoning, and mental flexibility.’” If we’re demonizing people for needing help or writing them off as “crazy,” we may never help them identify the other underlying causes, such as environmental toxins, that might be affecting their health. This is just one example, but it indisputably shows why we need to think more deeply about it as a culture, which is why I’m grateful to Jodie for starting the conversation here. (You rock, Jodie.)

Fiona West is the author of The Semi-Royal, among other books. Look for her work on Amazon.

Image result for semi-royal by fiona west