I don’t believe in omens, though I confess I’m sometimes tempted to.
Like when I realized just three weeks ago that The First Muslim was being published on the day on which Muhammad’s birthday falls this year.* I wish I could say that this was the result of careful planning on my part, or on that of my publishers. In fact it’s either a wonderful coincidence, or…
You see what I mean about omens?
That was just about the time the first finished copy of the book arrived in the mail. Since it came straight from the printers, I didn’t recognize the return address, so wasn’t sure what was in the padded envelope until I opened it.
And went “Oh my God!”
I think I might have mentioned somewhere that the cover was elegantly understated. Perhaps even a tad overly under-stated. I do remember suggesting to the publishers that they increase the color values just a little – a slightly more saturated yellow as in the photo in the right-hand column, for instance. “We’ll see what we can do,” my editor said.
She didn’t get back to me on that, and I hadn’t expected her to. So I had no idea that the yellow had been transformed into gold! Thus the “oh my God,” repeated several more times as I traced the raised pattern of it with my fingers.
This had to be a special author’s copy, I thought. It’s been many years since publishers commemorated a book’s publication by ordering up such a one-off copy for the author (usually leather-bound, with gold leaf on the edges). It was a token of appreciation, and a lovely one, but they’d stopped doing it because of the expense. Now Penguin’s Riverhead Books imprint had clearly resuscitated the practice.
I called my editor immediately to thank her for ordering such a beautiful author’s copy, and then came the best surprise of all:
“Oh no,” she said, “this isn’t just for you. All the books are like that.”
So I’m still kind of amazed at the physical existence of my own book. Is this stunning production really the same creature as the innumerable drafts of much-scrawled-on typescript pages strewn around my study for years? It’s as though with publication it’s achieved a separate existence. Like a teenager leaving home, it will now make its way in the world on its own terms, an independent agent only tangentially related to me. All I can do is wish it well, cheer it on, defend it when it needs defense — and trust that others will agree that it lives up to the sheer elegance of its cover.
[*Re Muhammad’s birthday: the traditional Islamic date is the 12th of the month of Rabi al-Awwal, which falls this year on January 24. The Christian date changes each year since the Islamic calendar is lunar, which means that the Islamic year is eleven days shorter than the Christian one. To further complicate matters, the 12th of Rabi al-Awwal is the Sunni date; Shia celebrate the birthday, known as mawlid, five days later. And one more complication: not all Sunnis approve of the idea of celebrating the birthday. Observance of it is banned in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, for instance, whose dour Wahhabi version of Islam seems ever suspicious of joy and festivity.]