This is the last stop for Kelly Dean Jolley’s Big Swamp Blog Tour, and we decided to have something different. I have been fascinated with the art for the front cover from the moment I first saw it. Kelly and I thought it would be interesting and fun to have the artist, Syd Edwards, do a guest post. We invited Syd to tell us about his work, the drawing, and how Noble Hall came into being.
Syd, I’ll turn the post over to you.
From the Artist, Syd Edwards
About a year ago, Kelly Dean Jolley sent me an early draft of his novel, Big Swamp. While I don’t read a lot of fiction, I was both honored and humbled he offered me the chance to see his latest creation in its raw form. I then spent two sleepless nights awash in oppressive Alabama humidity and small-town intrigue. I met characters I would now recognize if I passed them on the street. The locales were so vividly painted I felt as though I had been there in person. The book did not disappoint.
With Big Swamp, Kelly has somehow managed to breathe new life into detective noir, a genre some consider formulaic and predictable, and he has set a very high bar for any authors who inhabit that realm. When he asked my opinion, I told him he should shop the book around to several potential publishers and let them fight over it.
I admit that, when Kelly offered me the chance to do the book’s cover, I accepted with some trepidation. It has been more than a decade since I walked away from the drawing board, and a book’s cover makes the first impression on potential readers. Quite frankly, I was concerned his masterful work might be judged in a harsh light because my long-dormant skills weren’t up to the task. But he had faith in me and I was willing to try.
Luckily, Kelly’s mastery of the English language provided me with a veritable treasure trove of visual images from which to choose. One that vividly stood out was his depiction of Noble Hall and, as fate would have it, that was also his idea for the cover. But he wanted a bit of a twist… he wanted the mansion in the middle of a swamp and he requested I do it in a style reminiscent of a comic book. I remembered, in his youth, Kelly had been a huge fan of the DC superhero Swamp Thing, so I had some idea what he was envisioning, and my old hybrid technique of pen and ink with graphite embellishments would work well given these parameters.
When I abandoned my path as a professional artist, I embarked on a new career in another of my driving passions, history. This has led me to some amazing projects as a research historian and a (as yet unfinished) book of my own. These two passions would collide as I found myself wandering down internet rabbit holes researching antebellum mansions. Kelly and I had decided a stylized representation of Noble Hall would be best as, while the book is set in a real town, it is also a work of fiction. In the end, I combined features from several different mansion houses into something similar, but closer to what I had imagined when reading the book. With the research phase complete, I pulled the plastic off my newly-purchased drawing board and set off on the task at hand.
The first few attempts at getting an image on to illustration board were shaky. It was as though my old drawing muscles had atrophied and all muscle memory had long since faded away. The disconnect between my brain and hand led to an odd sensation, it was almost as though I was watching another person clumsily attempt to draw. Thankfully, I had stocked up on erasers, and, within a week, things began to feel natural.
I also sent Kelly photos as it progressed. Normally, I prefer to see my client’s reactions when they first view the finished piece, but I deeply respect his opinion and wanted his feedback. He was quite pleased with what he saw, so I soldiered on. What appears on the book’s cover is the fourth draft, so regaining my “drawing mojo” turned out not to be the monumental task I had feared.
The work is entitled Southern Discomfort. While this reflects the obvious, a place of grandeur and beauty amidst the rot, decay, and danger of a swamp, I felt it also works on many other levels – some of which are completely unrelated to the book. I am pleased with the finished product, though, in retrospect, there are things I would have done differently. (I suppose that is an artist’s curse: to look at their works, no matter how well received, and see nothing but their flaws.) What pleases me most, though, is the fact it doesn’t look out of place next to works I created decades before.
All good stories should conclude with happy endings, so allow me to add this epilogue: The quest Kelly set me upon has rekindled my passion for drawing. Since finishing the cover, I have not gone more than two days without losing all sense of time as I blissfully scratch marks onto paper. At this point, I can’t say whether or not I will ever come fully out of retirement, but I am overjoyed to be communing with my rediscovered muse. There is one slight difference though, I am attempting to master the idiosyncrasies of drawing with graphite alone. Yes, it’s a challenge, but it is one I am looking forward to.
Readers, what do you think? Did you enjoy reading about Syd’s journey from start to finish? I’m glad he has rediscovered his muse.
The drawing pulls me into the picture. It compels me to look deeper and wonder. What are the mysteries of this house? What might have happened here? Who were the people who lived and loved in Noble Hall? Was it a home or just a house? It is a talented artist who can touch a person with his work. I feel a mixture of emotions when I look at this drawing. Do you?
Syd, thank you for agreeing to talk with us and share a bit of the limelight with Kelly. Your art does his book justice. All those questions that your drawing evokes, the author skillfully puts to rest with his impressive and often humorous prose.
Shall we have a “taste” of Kelly’s prose with another excerpt? It’s a great way to end the blog tour.
In this excerpt, our detective, Ford Merrick, is having coffee, or trying to, in Ed’s Diner. He talks to Ruth, his longtime, almost girlfriend, and interacts with a rival detective, Doug Certaine. Ford’s friend, Father Halsey, joins the scene later.
“Ruth,” I hear Doug Certaine shout above the plate-and-fork, chit-chat hubbub, “sway this way and warm my coffee.” A crowd of wannabe Certaines huddles around him at the central, circular table, and all guffaw at their idol’s gift with women.
Others in the restaurant look up, hearing his shout.
Ruth slides a plate of steaming scrambled eggs in front of Thelma Cruett, who eats the same breakfast in Ed’s six days a week—like God, Thelma sleeps late on Sunday—and lances Certaine with a jousting stare, almost unseating him.
“You’ve never made a woman sway in your life, Doug Certaine. I doubt you’ve ever witnessed it; I know you never caused it.”
In unison, the circular table stops guffawing.
The other customers suppress smiles and return to their food or coffee. I look down, trying not to grin, but I notice Certaine catch my reaction and frown a pissy frown.
Have I said we don’t like each other?
It’s not just that we are rivals as detectives. We were rivals in high school too, although odd rivals.
Certaine was, predictably, the star athlete: a guard on the basketball team, a running back on the football team. Despite being tall enough for basketball, I was not on either team. I was class valedictorian, president of a bunch of clubs, and lead guitar player in a popular high school band.
Certaine was the absolute monarch of the jocks; I was the constitutional monarch of the non-jocks. We both ran for class president each year, and I won each time. He never forgave me when I beat him in the election for president of the student council our senior year.
I went on to Oberlin—like Rachel Gunner said, in Ohio. Certaine went to Troy—in Troy, Alabama. Scholarships, both—mine academic, his athletic. His freshman year, he blew out a knee in the first practice in pads and never recovered enough to play. They let him keep the scholarship, and he managed to graduate, but barely.
The knee injury left him with a gimpy leg and a chippy shoulder.
A year ago, maybe a little more, he started asking Helen out. She was not interested; she turned him down each time: kindly at first, with attitude later. He blamed me for Helen’s refusal and her attitude. While I hoped she would refuse and didn’t blame her for her attitude, I never interfered or talked to Helen about it.
Helen knows her own mind. I stay out of her way except when she forgets to eat.
Ruth circles to me with the coffee pot, ignoring Certaine’s now-lifted cup, lifted above his head like a distress signal.
“More coffee, Ford?” She speaks louder than usual.
I know this was for Certaine’s benefit, and I cringe inwardly. She cocks her hips as she warms my coffee and treats me to her best smile: slow, lazy, and wide. “Have you heard about the big party out at Noble Hall?”
I nod. “Yes, surprisingly, I have.” I immediately regret saying anything but especially regret the “surprisingly.” It invites questions, and I am supposed to keep Rachel Gunner’s visit to my office confidential.
Luckily, Ruth’s more interested in tweaking Certaine, who still has his empty cup in the air, than in carefully considering my words.
“Are you planning to go?”
I see the head-on collision coming but have nowhere to swerve. I drive on, dreading sudden impact. “Yes, I’m going.”
“I got invited too,” Ruth notes chirpily, “why don’t we go together?”
I look at the tabletop—drop my voice almost to a whisper. “I can’t.”
“You can’t?” Ruth asks, her surprise causing her to ask louder than she means to. I see Certaine’s cup sink to the circular table and hear the guffaws rise.
“No,” I continue in a whisper. “I’ve already made plans. Sorry.”
She uncocks her hip and swirls coffee in the pot, almost as if she’s tempted to dump it on me.
“I was hoping you would go with me—my plus one,” she says more quietly, her unhappiness checkering her expression.
Ruth’s father, Big Jim Sutton, runs the Briggs and Stratton plant on the edge of Auburn. The Suttons are one of the oldest families in town. It figures he and his wife and Ruth would be invited and that those invitations had gone out earlier. I never saw an invitation for Helen or for me.
“Merrick would be plus zero,” Certaine quips, just loud enough to be heard.
The circular table finds this high comedy. I ignore it, more concerned about Ruth’s reaction to my refusal.
“I didn’t know you were hoping that,” I say weakly, and I know it was the wrong response because the checkering gets worse.
“How could you not, Ford Merrick? For a detective, you haven’t got a damn clue.” She marches away from me and straight to Certaine. She sways as she does, glancing back at me before facing Certaine.
“What do you say, Doug Certaine? The party at Noble Hall Friday? Will you go with me?”
Certaine gives her a crowing look. “You think I want Merrick’s throw-backs?”
He makes Ruth stand in the silence following his remark for just long enough to humiliate her a little more, but her annoyance with me carries her through it.
“Sure,” he says finally, smiling his Certaine smile, a dental trick of self-congratulation, “I’ll take you. Wear something that shows those legs. Merrick needs to know what he’s missing.”
I am about to slide out of my booth, to try to save Ruth any further comments from Certaine since I’m his target too when a wide gray suit blocks my escape. I peer up into the doleful face of Father John Halsey.
If he weren’t a priest, he could make a living posing for gargoyles.
Father Halsey is a big man, thickly muscled. Were it not for the suit and the collar, no one would imagine him a priest. He doesn’t have the expected priestly backstory.
One night we were sitting together—a fifth between the two of us in his office—and he became, for him, chatty. He told me he’d been a Marine for a time. He didn’t tell me more, but that brought him into better focus. You know that hymn the Salvation Army likes, “Onward Christian Soldiers”? That’s the processional music I hear whenever I see Father Halsey walking around town. Like that passage, Second Timothy 2:3—“Thou, therefore, endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” Father Halsey is an endure-hardness priest, a soldier of Christ.
“Hey, Father,” I say quietly, greeting him and gesturing to the other side of the booth. He glances narrowly over at the circular table, at Ruth talking to Certaine, and slides heavily into the seat. “I see Certaine’s spreading peace and goodwill as always. I heard some of that when I came in.”
I shrug. “I didn’t anticipate Ruth hoping I’d go with her to the party. I only knew about it yesterday.”
He gives me a long, long look. “Merrick, you are a holy innocent. Ever since that girl came back to town a couple of years ago, she’s been waiting on you to take her to one event or another—for anything! Get your head out of your ass and decide. Leaving her to pine away isn’t right.”
“Telling me to get my head out of my ass isn’t exactly priestly communication, Father.”
“Oh hell, Merrick, we’re not talking about me. Don’t start your double-talk. We’re talking about you and that heartsick girl. I believe the only reason she came back here was for you.”
I don’t want to meet Halsey’s eyes, so I tinker with a creamer from the small bowl on the table.
“I know,” I finally sigh, “but I just don’t feel like she’s the one, you know. She’s great, and I like her so much, and I admire her, but I’m not sure I’ll ever feel anything else, and I don’t want to lead her on.”
Halsey grunts, and the table shakes. “But you don’t want to let her go either, do you? To tell her it’s hopeless?”
I become completely engrossed in the creamer, praying he’ll leave before I must answer that. But I guess his prayers trump mine—priest and all. I glance up. Halsey waits for my answer with a face that would sink a thousand ships.
“Honestly?” I ask.
“Let’s try that. I have a vocational preference for it.” Halsey’s mouth moves, but somehow his face never changes.
“No, all right? No. I don’t know that she’s the one, and I don’t know that she’s not the one, so I—”
“Just keep dicking her around.”
Aww, sounds like Ford is in a bit of mess. What is he to do? The imagery in this scene makes me feel like I’m sitting in Ed’s Diner watching everything as it unfolds. I don’t like Certaine, but I want to meet Father Halsey! I’m not sure about Ruth and Merrick, but I want to know more. What about you?
If you haven’t visited all the blogs, there is still time to stop by, read some excerpts, and enter the giveaway. We hope you will. There are several new to us blogs. The bloggers are very nice and their posts are lovely.
Blog Tour Schedule
August 14 That’s What I’m Talking About
August 16 My Vices and Weaknesses
August 18 From Pemberley to Milton
August 22 Elza Reads
August 23 So Little time…
August 24 The Reading Frenzy
August 26 Meryton Press Blog
Universal Buy Link
Meryton Press is giving away six eBook copies of Big Swamp by Kelly Dean Jolley. The giveaway is international. The giveaway ends August 29th at 12:00 AM Central Time.
Since this is the last stop of the tour, you can enter the giveaway for this post by leaving a comment below or by using the Rafflecopter. Good luck to all.