Today I am so pleased to welcome Damon Suede to Joyfully Jay. Damon has come to talk to us about his latest release, Lickety Split, which I reviewed here and loved! He has also brought along a great giveaway. Please join me in giving Damon a big welcome!
MUSTERING Tucker: behind-the-scenes creating the Lickety Split cover
The cover for Lickety Split came (as such things often do) from a series of mad gambles and happy accidents.
So, many folks know that I’m BANANAS about my bookcovers and Dreamspinner is uncommonly patient and accommodating because so far my hunches have paid off. LOL I come from the world of film and theatre in which a poster can be the make or break on a project’s prospects with audiences. Folks may not always judge a book by its cover, but in the best cases a great cover starts telling the story before you open the book to read. A glance across a crowded room that starts a romance. 🙂
With Lickety I had a complex challenge. The book is a homoerotic contemporary cowboy romance with a May/December, enemies-to-lovers, homecoming romance and a healthy dollop of kink. My cover art needed to carry all kinds of weight for this one. It’s a seriously dirty erotic romance but not eroticA. May/December stories can weird people out in the abstract, so I didn’t want a letchy daddy/boy vibe. The book features pretty kinky sex with light bondage and edging, but most folks wouldn’t think of it as a “BDSM romance” at its core. Plus, cowboy romance covers also tend to stick to one of two strict lanes: shirtless oiled bodybuilder in boots or buttoned-up Sears-catalog tightass in plaid. Just add horse silhouette or saddle, if appropriate. Neither of those was gonna work for me. How in hell could we cook up a cover that communicated the story clearly? I was worried.
Now in genre fiction, most covers have little to do with the author: you answer a spec sheet, the art department does their thing, you sign off… boom it’s done. You hope the character coloring is close, the tropes match up, and the cover isn’t goofy or misleading. That’s never been and never will be how I work. I come from an aggressive showbiz background and I always want to push the envelope with artwork on my titles. Safe and beige and neutral is never enough for me, and certainly not for the books. Unlike many (and I mean many) pubs, Dreamspinner takes author input seriously, for which I am deeply grateful.
I’m always obsessive about research and mockups and when Dreamspinner’s associate art director Paul Richmond reached out to start planning the artwork, he was concerned. We work really well together and he’s done all my covers for them save my first, Hot Head, because it predated his arrival. He groks my anxiety and my intense focus on details and we really vibe on each other. I was already nervous about all the stuff the cover needed to do, and I had been relying on my working relationship with Paul to help us cut to the chase. He had a bombshell: “How would you feel about working with a different artist?”
Gulp. My heart dropped to my socks.
“We’re just really backed up and I’m worried about any delay on this one. There’s someone I think you’d groove with, if you’re willing. Do you know Reese Dante?”
I laughed. A lot. “Yeah. Of course. We’re good friends. Very.” That’s more than truth! Reese and I have been very good friends since we worked together running GRL back in the day for several years. She’s wonderful and as nitpicky as I am about planning and executing a project. Reese has MAD skills as a designer. We’d never done a cover together, but I KNEW we would work well and we definitely spoke the same language. Things instantly seemed distinctly unbleak and downright upbeat.
I called her as soon as I hung up. We laughed and gossiped and then I got serious. “You know how crazy I’m gonna be right?” She laughed and said she’d gotten a full debrief, but she was stoked. In her words, “What I want is you to get exactly the cover you can imagine. Not just satisfied, I want you to be thrilled. Deal?”
Oh, hell yeah.
We mapped out a plan of attack, starting with the overall layout. I had put together several hundred reference photos: faces, bodies, props, backgrounds, light filters, comp covers from other cowboy titles, design trend swatching, even old Marlboro Man adverts, and a penis folder. We both agreed that the best focus was putting Tucker on the cover. The whole book takes place in Patch Hastle’s POV and his lust, anger, and growing affection for the local bad boy drives the whole book. We figured the reader would SEE Tucker through Patch’s eyes before they’d read a word and that would pay off as the story unfolded.
Rather than just start slopping cowboys onto stock shots of stables. Reese proposed we tackle the challenges one at a time: his face, then his body, then his clothes, then the props, then title and fonting, and finally the background. I had already said I wanted it to look like those Victor Gadino oil-painted covers from the 80s: all hyperbolic hooker-heel color and exaggerated detail…the Marlboro Man overpainted in OTT oils. She loved it; in her words, “Oh yeah. Let’s paint this thing like we’ve booked a dedicated photo shoot for rendering in oil.” And naturally, she was every bit as detail-obsessed as I could have wished.
First the face: separately and together we combed through stock sites, photographer portfolios, model bureaus. Thousands and thousands of faces looking for Tucker’s exact eyes and expression, the quirk of the smile, the look of charming invitation. I collated hundreds of images on my own while she did the same. Most of them were a solid B+ to A-, as we zeroed in on what we needed. Against all odds, at around eleven o’clock one night I was going through her picks and —BOOM— there were Tucker’s eyes, his smile. Exactly the right age, expression, that little hint of saucy invitation.
Deep relief. From that point I knew it would work. Just as anticipated, she lovingly crafted his profile, his sideburns, his neck while I asked about the grain and shade of his stubble, the skin creases, because yes I’m really that nutty. We did another search for his body. Hundreds and hundreds of poses, builds, photoshoots from everything from actual ranch photographers to stock shots of Argentinian bodybuilders. But we didn’t want bare abs or grease and Tucker was 43 years old, not 20. And then I found exactly what we wanted, the beefy arms, the pecs, but in a dress shirt that both hid and hinted at the muscle beneath…even the hint of throat, just enough skin to let you know he was a troublemaker who knew how to dude up to get in any door.
Reese added the rope and found a meaty hand to hold it, hinting at the kink without overstating it. I created a label for his jeans as an Easter egg for fans that Reese dropped in when she sculpted the perfect rodeo ass. We didn’t even know if we’d see his full torso on the cover, but this way, we had him for banners and wall clings and bookmarks. Then she found the perfect hat, with a brim curve that looked exactly like a dark tongue. She called me laughing. “Lickety Split, huh?” Pixel by pixel Tucker came together until he really did look like an oil painted Marlboro Man. He was flat-out perfection.
For fonts, I’d pulled about fifty or sixty options. The book’s title is pretty snarky and the book has a comedic fizz percolating under certain sections, so we wanted a stylized typeface that said “Country” without looking like Bonanza or a Netflix dramedy. Not a John Wayne western, not Deadwood. It had to read as: erotic contemporary cowboy romance. We both loved the idea of the title licking across the cover, but script felt too flowery. Finally I realized the best explanation I had was that the fonting needed to look like a label of a homemade BBQ sauce: spicy, sweet, and rough at the edges. In all my sourcing I’d found this gorgeous, distressed typeface based on 19th century whiskey labels: rugged, stout, and a little raunchy. Funny thing, Reese knew it was the right one right away, and so did I, once I saw the way the big S licked, mirroring the brim of the hat.
Finally we wrestled with the background. That took the longest, actually. We tried version after version. While Reese did her own digging, I sourced interiors, exteriors, neutral lit spaces, flat color and textured backdrops. At first I’d said, “What about a hot sunset, like my brand colors, that deep vermilion and scarlet?” But we couldn’t find a sky shot that filled the horizon behind him properly. We thought maybe a dark background would be better so Tucker would sort of glow off the front. Nothing clicked but we felt closer. Likewise, because we were good friends, she felt comfortable calling me on my wackiness and nudging me towards the smarter solutions. The book takes place at a rundown hay farm in East Texas: so we tried stacked bales and rustic barns, and stables, and porch swings. But no… Nothing felt right for Tucker, and nothing had the right feeling of seeing Tucker through Patch’s eyes, lusting-hurting-hoping.
In the end, she tried three scenic backgrounds, all darker. They were lovely. She also did a couple neutral textures just to keep the focus on Tucker himself. Again, lovely…but not right. We had a marathon convo trying to pinpoint what it was, and as we were talking my husband said from the sidelines, “They’re beautiful, but anyone could have written those books.” That was the thing. Reese agreed, after she’d dropped it beside my other covers to compare. “It doesn’t look like your book.” Her voice moved away from the phone as she fiddled and painted. “I’ve got an idea, I’ve got an idea. Gimme a sec—” We hung up.
My phone buzzed with a text the next morning. “CHECK IT OUT.”
When I opened the file, I think I actually made a whimpering sound, because Geoff came to look over my shoulder. “Whoa! Jeez.” Reese had hand painted this dazzling, volcanic sky behind Tucker, edge to edge, a riot of magenta and cinnamon, and pale gold with little touches of baby pink for highlight. Down at the bottom where it dulled to hot orange, she’d framed out the barn and even the rustic windmill Geoff had wanted all along. A battered fence and gate. I called her. “Holy fuck.”
“Are you okay with the pink?” She sounded nervous. “I don’t want it to look too soft.”
“I love the pink. I love the cover. Reese, I beyond love it.” I turned to Geoff, nodding behind me. “We love it. This is it this is the cover.”
She exhaled and chuckled. “When I was laying it out, my husband came in and said ‘Whoa, that’s Damon’s book, huh?’ That seemed good.”
We both laughed. “And that’s what we wanted.”
Just before we hung up, Reese had one more surprise. “Can I tell you something? (pause) I was dying to work on a cover together. I knew we were friends, and we worked great as a team, and I also knew how crazy you get with your artwork, but I knew you’d push me hard and we’d create something special. Big question: Are you happy?”
Happy isn’t the word.
I’m so grateful for Reese and what she conjured up for me. I will never stop thanking her. And as much as I love Paul Richmond and his talent, I don’t think I’m going to be able to let anyone else do my covers from now on because dreaming up Tucker this way was so liberating, exhilarating. No one else could have written the book under this cover and no one else could have painted that cover for this book. Tucker in all his glory, the way Patch sees him, feels him. This cover starts the story before they read a word. Even before the next book drops, I can pretty much guarantee Reese and I will be conspiring and canoodling.
When I showed this cover to folks, the first reaction is always the same, “Whoa!” When Heidi Cullinan was reading the book during my final edits and saw the art, she confirmed we’d done what we set out to do. “You realize that it’s two different covers? Before they read the book they think ‘Christ, that’s a hot cowboy!’ Just the way Patch would at the beginning, before he really knows himself or who Tucker is, but after they finish the book, all that fire behind him and those eyes, they think, “I love Tucker so much, all I want to do is take care of him and stay with him.” Just like Patch. The cover is in POV, and that is what I love the most.
So, yeah… If you take away nothing else from this longwinded braindump, we had a blast. Reese Dante’s ability to put a story on a page in a single incandescent image is off the chain and working with her was inspiring-transformative-surprising. We’ve been friends for what seems like forever, and it turns out we come up with visuals together better than I could’ve hoped. I have a feeling some other covers need creating, if she’s willing.
Lickety Split: love won’t wait.
Patch Hastle grew up in a hurry, ditching East Texas for NYC to make his name as a DJ and model without ever looking back. When his parents die unexpectedly, he heads home to unload the family farm ASAP and skedaddle. Except the will left Patch’s worst enemy in charge: his father’s handsome best friend who made his high school years hell.
Tucker Biggs is going nowhere. Twenty years past his rodeo days, he’s put down roots as the caretaker of the Hastle farm. He knows his buddy’s smartass son still hates his guts, but when Patch shows up growed-up, looking like sin in tight denim, Tucker turns his homecoming into a lesson about old dogs and new kinks.
Patch and Tucker fool around, but they can’t fool themselves. Once the farm’s sold, they mean to call it quits and head off to separate sunsets. With the clock ticking, the city slicker and his down-home hick get roped into each other’s life. If they’re gonna last longer than spit on a griddle, they better figure out what matters—fast.
Damon Suede grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen for two decades. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him at DamonSuede.com.
Damon has brought a great giveaway along his tour. It includes a Grand prize of a signed print copy of Lickety Split, with a matching ecopy for convenience and other swaggy bits, plus three additional ecopies of the book… for a total of 4 winners. Just follow the Rafflecopter below to enter.
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