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She says her cover is blown

A leftist author in Texas is upset that words critical of Bush were deleted from the jacket of her new book.

October 07, 2003|Dana Calvo | Special to The Times

HOUSTON — Spike Gillespie never aspired to be the yellow rose of Texas. Nor did she think of herself as a steel magnolia. Rather, for more than a decade she's been writing about her travails as a combat boot-wearing single mother with leftist politics in the Lone Star state.

So it has surprised few of the literati here to learn that Gillespie is refusing to be effusively grateful to University of Texas Press, a good-sized publishing house that has enthusiastically promoted her book of essays released last week. Instead, she is miffed at what she sees as censorship by the publishing house.

The jacket of the book, "Surrender (But Don't Give Yourself Away); Old Cars, Found Hope, and Other Cheap Tricks," depicts Gillespie's car driving into the night, taillights ablaze. Several bumper stickers are legible, but one of them is -- at least to Gillespie -- conspicuously absent.

It was airbrushed out of the illustration, so readers looking at the cover would never know that Gillespie, 39, cruises around Austin with a Texas-shaped sticker on her car that reads "George W. Bush Is a Punk-Ass Chump."

The publishers say the change had nothing to do with politics. "We also changed the street sign and changed the color of the car. The image was manipulated and enhanced, but it had nothing to do with the fact that it was an anti-Bush statement," said Theresa May, editor in chief of UT Press. "Spike is a political person, but the book isn't.... We didn't foresee that it would be controversial, because we didn't think anyone would be paying attention."

But Gillespie said the editorial decision is a sign of what she calls the "current political climate," in which, she says, it is considered unpatriotic to criticize the Bush administration and institutions are preemptively censoring people who do. What's more, she says, First Lady Laura Bush is an honorary member of UT Press' advisory council, which influenced the decision.

"They didn't take off any others," Gillespie said, referring to other stickers featured on the back of her car. "There's one that says 'chainstoressuck.com'.... There's one for a local radio station. I hate to disagree with Theresa, but we're obviously in disagreement."

The book is a collection of 46 essays that chronicle the ups and downs of Gillespie's life with the occasional offbeat rumination on such things as a dead squirrel.

Upon seeing the jacket a few weeks ago, a surprised and irritated Gillespie created 5,000 scaled down replicas of the excised bumper sticker to slap on the cover. She handed them out at a recent book signing at an independent bookstore in Austin where more than 100 people, including the book's illustrator, May, and other publishing house employees came to lend their support.

The dust-up in Austin raised some eyebrows at larger publishing houses like University of California Press, which publishes twice as many books as UT Press each year.

"This is going to be different in every house," said Sheila Levine, editorial director of UC Press. "That wouldn't have happened here. It's questionable."

But Helen Ginger, director of the Writers' League of Texas, which has about 1,500 members and seeks to "promote the written word," said that smaller-name authors like Gillespie typically have little say over what appears on their book covers.

"I can see it from both sides," Ginger said. "The author turned in this picture, knowing the bumper sticker was there. But the publisher is trying to sell books, and they have the final say on what goes on the cover."

Gillespie's first printing run is 3,000, and it has received a good review in the Austin American-Statesman. The back of the book jacket is adorned with a glowing blurb from outspoken syndicated columnist Molly Ivins as well as other authors.

For her part, May says Gillespie is a savvy marketer who knows the airbrushed bumper sticker issue can sell more books. For that, the publisher said laughing, she is thrilled.

Gillespie's first book, "All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy: A Memoir" was published by Simon & Schuster in 1999, and Gillespie said the editors' impersonal treatment there drove her to seek out a smaller publishing house. Last week, even as she entertained calls from friends about the controversy, she qualified most statements with balanced praise toward her new editors.

"Despite all this, I'm going back to the table with them to talk about another book possibility because I like that they get my writing and they get my concepts for books, and they let me have a ton of say in the cover for this book. I like that my editor goes to lunch with me and takes my calls and gives my work a thorough read. That wasn't my experience with a big house," she said.

"I guess the goofy analogy would be if I had a boyfriend who had one long nose hair he refused to trim that drove me nuts but, other than that, he was a great partner and lover. I wouldn't kick him out of bed for that nose hair, but I might wince the times I focused on it."

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