Yes, she smokes.
I was at a book fair late 2018, a beautiful spring-bordering-on-summer day. I put up my banner; I made my table all nice and pretty, put up an umbrella for shade, put some scatter cushions down for comfortable seating, arranged my books in what I hoped was an attractive manner, and got ready to talk to people about my book.
Allow me a digression: Designing book covers is 33% art, 33% science, and 34% roll the dice and take your chances. Some people may say they know how to do it, but looking at covers in general, it’s a hit and miss affair.
It seems in Romance, dudes lose their shirts all the time. And in horror, the eye is the go-to trope like gramma’s never-fail dumpling recipe. (Not my images, got them off the Internet—apologies if they are your copyright.)
I had half a dozen covers that I sent out for A-B testing before the first cover got the final nod. The main reason the cover got the nod is because it is elegant, and it captures the essence of who Leigh is perfectly. It bloody works! But only if you read the book… (Reactions to my A-B testing? “Too sexy.” “Not sexy enough.” “Whoa, I can’t read that with my kids around the house!” “What the hell is that?” “I can’t believe you even considered that.”)
Digression aside, I sit at this wonderful venue with my friends, and interact with people and I found out the most common question from passersby is “so, who is Leigh?” A question I still have to figure out my 30-second elevator response to. But one lady picked up my book, asked me the ‘who is Leigh’ question, and she immediately stopped herself: “Never mind, she smokes, I won’t like her.”
I was in a public place, trying to sell books, to be the nice guy, so I did not tell said lady to… well, let’s not be rude, shall we? But C’mon – does she not like Holly Golightly, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Parker (My favourite!) or the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland? 20% of the world’s population are smokers (that we know of) and this is a pretty arb criteria to dislike a full fifth of earth’s population.
Yes, my female lead, Leigh McCabe, is a smoker. And she was always going to be one. Since my first draughts of the book many, many years ago (2003, to be exact), while I was still trying to figure out how to tell the story, Leigh had her love affair with cigarettes. Why, though? Is it necessary? Is it needed? Surely it is a bad example?
The reason she smokes is because she is real. In the characters of Leigh and Mikey, my intention was always to make them as real as possible. Human. Nothing puts me off a book faster than picking it up and reading “A beautiful young…” (I don’t read further than that!).
Look, I get it: fiction is a means of fantasy and escape. We get to live vicariously through the perfect human beings (see my blog on the ‘Omega Male’), and we like to take escape, just for a while, in the indomitable lead characters: ‘the beautiful young…’ ‘the successful handsome…’ We need these perfect characters to take us away from the humdrum of our own boring lives. I did so not want to do that. I wanted to do the antithesis of the wonderfully perfect human fictional character. Leigh and Mikey were always crafted to be as real as I could make them out to be on paper. They have flaws. They have issues. They have bad habits. Just like you, just like me. Just like everybody else. Leigh’s cigarette is there as a visible parable for her base humanity.
Now for the joke: I don’t smoke. Never have, and probably never will. Never even taken a puff out of curiosity. Cigarettes freak me out in general, and I won’t touch a lit cigarette—even unlit ones. In my world, an ashtray is just one level below fresh dog poop in terms of disgust. (Which is second only to politicians!). And the same applies to my wife. But both my parents smoke. My father looks like a steam train at full tilt almost every waking hour of the day. (He probably smoked up a nice Rolls Royce in his lifetime!). My brother and his wife are smokers. As are all my cousins. The vast majority of my friends are smokers. Every girl I’ve dated before Andrea were smokers. The bulk of the models and makeup artists I work with are smokers. And you know what? All these people are wonderful people. Their nicotine habit may be considered unpleasant, unpalatable and so politically incorrect as to border on the greatest sin one can commit without imprisonment. But none of them are worth dismissing outright as human being with real lives and real feelings simply because they smoke! Put another way: do not judge those who sin differently than you.
That’s about as prejudicial and narrow-minded as one can get! And that is something I won’t blame anyone for not liking a person for: a small mind.
Yes, dear critic, my female lead smokes. And so bloody what? She is human. So before you dismiss her out of hand: pick up the book and discover the human purposefully hiding herself behind that cigarette. You may go on an adventure with her—one you may have never imagined. One that has overwhelmingly good reviews on Goodreads. I think it would be unfair to everyone—me as writer, the audience as reader, and most of all, Leigh as character—to sanitise her to appease the prejudicial and politically correct.
As for my cover: it changed. That is the beauty of being an indie author; one can experiment with these things.
And now for the bigger joke: The (ex)cover model, the beautiful Ami-Raine, does not smoke either. At the photoshoot where I shot what was to become the cover, Discovering Leigh was not even a fantasy, never mind a possibility. But my subconscious saw an opportunity, took it, and Ami-Raine was game enough to play along. Thank you, Ami.
Other models on this page: Liz, Jana, & Murf