Picturing At the Waterline


When At the Waterline was accepted for publication, my mind’s eye almost immediately started seeing things: pictures, typefaces, covers, illustrations. What would the character Emma’s lightning bolt–like sketch of the Columbia River look like on the cover? What about a boat on fire at night? or a sail loosely woven together out of duct tape with a man hanging in the midst of it like a fly caught in a web? What would Marge’s painting of painted canvases floating down the river look like? or a sailboat sailing up the rapids of a churning river? Especially vivid in my mind was the image of a skeleton on a motorbike, resting at the bottom of the Columbia River. What would this story look like in the minds of readers? If the manuscript was going to be made into a thing you could actually hold in your hands, the thoughts and choices of other people would weigh heavily in how it would look: the front and back cover, the inside layout, the typesetting, possibly a map and illustrations. And after that, readers would have their own unique responses to the imagery. The whole thing would be much more than what it had been in my wee brain up until now.
Without much of an agenda, I asked some artist friends if they wanted to read the novel and see what they could make of it. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, other than maybe some illustrations to put to use in connection with the novel. Or maybe there could be a show in a local studio space or a loose collaboration to weave a conversation between one art form and another. Maybe a few artists could catch the wave of At the Waterline’s publication and benefit from its momentum. After all, these days you hear a lot about collaboration being an increasingly necessary path toward that vague but illusive thing called “success.”
A friend of mine (Aaron Scotthorn) runs his own contracting business, and he draws and paints on evenings or weekends—whenever he can carve out the time. Recently, he’s been doing some stunning photos on his Instagram account. After he read At the Waterline, he started drawing and “slinging paint,” as he puts it. The images he came up with offer the suggestion of masts, pylons, water, and smoke, perhaps the glow of fire in the distance. This mostly monochromatic work plays with vertical and horizontal lines in motion.

What strikes me the most about Aaron’s work is its boldness. These paintings are not easily reproduced or commodified, digitally or otherwise. The following set of images is my attempt at photographing one image from slightly different angles using the light from the sky above me. The silver paint is alive with light—glowing, shifting, and flashing. The piece moves as you move around it. I love that Aaron has taken a few prominent elements from the novel and used them as a launching pad to explore. I don’t think his work leaves the world of the novel entirely. For me, it captures some of the natural elements in the setting in a very tactile way.
 
Another friend (Rachel Zasadni) draws and paints casually and unobtrusively, but with more skill and vision than she lets on (even to herself, I think). She has come up with a couple of different pieces that I like very much. The closer I look at her watercolor of Beacon Rock, the more I see the likeness to the place itself, with the vertical formations of rock and trees. Beacon Rock in this image is very animal-like, a sleeping porcupine or hedgehog. The red kayak on the shore is a nice touch and seems to rest there like a small creature looking for shade. Her drawing of the marina has a generous array of boats. Boats of all kinds. An abundance of variety at various stages of repair and disrepair. This might have been a page from a collection of coloring illustrations for At the Waterline.


And speaking of coloring, Riley Pittenger has put together a handful of amazing, detailed drawings that are crammed under the deceptively reductionist category of “coloring pages.” To me, Riley’s illustrations are much more than that. His images effortlessly capture the sense of place I struggled to describe in many words during endless hours and years of writing. Now that Riley’s coloring pages are out there in the world, anyone else who takes the time to fill in the white spaces with colors of their own are able to move into the story in a tangible way. In particular, I’m thrilled that he took on the task of rendering a skeleton on a motorcycle at the bottom of the river. His vision of that space was as fresh and stunning to see drawn as it was for me when I discovered the words to write it.

Along with these specific people and their work, Ooligan’s designers and marketers have come up with iconic images for the inside and outside of the print version of the novel. Their use of color makes for astounding front and back covers that catch the eye from afar, both on the page and on a screen. It definitely stands out from surrounding covers.

You might look at this wide range of visual art and find some of it more or less accessible, more or less conceptual, and more or less illustrative or story driven. This array of work has helped me to see readers as more varied than I might have envisioned before. It has been a joy for me to see these artists take a story I wrote and make something new. It has made the lonely work of writing a little less so. I’d thought that I might be able to share the momentum of publication with other artists, possibly putting their work to some use in marketing. What I failed to anticipate, though, was how much their progress would go to work on me. With next to no guidance from me, they have done more than I ever could have asked for: they gave me new ways of seeing the story that I thought I knew better than anyone.