My adventures in book covers continued with the next book in the Amanda Noble series. I’d gotten lucky with the first book since I needed an alligator and lived in the Alligator Capital of Texas. (Read that post.) But book 2, originally called AMANDA NOBLE, SPECIAL AGENT, was about animal smuggling. This left me with no clue what to do with my cover model. A variety of animals were talked about in the narrative, so I had no clear concept to follow. That soon changed.
By this time, I’d left the middle school library to work at a public library. One day I was checking out books for a patron when we got on the subject of what her son-in-law did for a living. Snakes. He was a snake handler/rescuer, and she said he had them everywhere in his house. My creative antennae went on alert, and an image of my niece holding a snake, albeit small (Where have I heard that before?) popped into my mind. “What do you mean he has snakes?” I asked. She told me he was called Clint the Snakeman and was a local celebrity, visiting schools and libraries and appearing on TV. Before the woman left, I knew the Snakeman’s name, Clint Pustejovsky, and how to contact him.
Fast-forward, and we—my niece, the photographer, and I—arrived at Mr. Pustejovsky’s home in a Houston area neighborhood. It was like any other city neighborhood, streets lined with houses and cars spilling from driveways. But once we entered the Pustejovsky home, well, that’s where the similarities ended. His mother-in-law hadn’t exaggerated. There were snakes everywhere. In terrariums, cages, and pillowcases. Yep, there were two pillowcases containing snakes on the sofa. Mr. Pustejovsky, Clint, had just returned from a visit to a school and hadn't had time to put the reptiles away. Oh, and there were the bearded dragons. Two little darlings basking under a heat lamp in an enclosure against the wall. My first thought was, “Do his neighbors know he has all these animals in his home?” Turned out they did, and they were fine with it.
Clint led us to his backyard where he told his teenaged son to get a snake named Joe. While we waited, we met his tortoise (We were surprised by how fast the little guy mowed his way around the yard.) and discovered another enclosure with smaller turtles. This family was so like my fictional family. As a writer, this brought joy to my heart.
When the young man came back I realized, as with the alligator, I’d done it again. I pictured a relatively small snake, but Joe was an eight-foot Burmese python. All our mouths hit the ground. And again, as with the alligator, I told my niece, Olivia, she didn’t have to do this if it scared her. Clint assured us everything would be fine. Joe was a rescue snake. He’d been found in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. The people who found Joe knew Clint, so they called him, and Clint took him in. Joe had been a part of the family since.
Clint had Olivia find a place to stand and then explained what he would do, drape the snake over her shoulders. He told her how to handle it so she moved with the directional growth of the snake’s scales. After all, we wanted Joe to be comfortable. Olivia, though—well she was a little uncomfortable. Especially when the snake slithered and tightened around her. Her voice quavered, “He’s squeeeezing me.” “It’s okay," Clint replied. "He’s treating you like a tree, looking for a perch.” And he was right. Once the snake settled in, he didn’t move again. And we started taking photos.
After some time, the photographer decided she had enough shots, so we were ready to leave. Then someone suggested I take a picture with Joe to use as an author photo. Umm. No. It’s an eight-foot snake that can squeeze the life out of me. Of course it would have been hypocritical to say that out loud at that point, so I let them talk me into it. I sat on the ground while Clint put Joe in my lap and I got accustomed to him. I was surprised by how heavy he was, like holding 35 pounds of pure muscle. Plus, he was surprisingly docile. He moved slowly and casually, not a care in the world. It was an eye-opening experience. I'd always been afraid of snakes, having been raised in the country, I learned to be wary. A bite could turn dangerous when one lived so far from a hospital. But this was nothing like I expected. This was a beautiful creature simply being himself. I was glad I moved past my fear to enjoy the experience.
The photographer proposed that I use a copy of the first book in my author photo, and when I opened the book, the snake stared into it as if he were reading it. He seemed mesmerized, captivated by the white page with its black scribblings. It was awesome. Joe the Burmese python was reading my book!
We ended up with a ton of photos and I was very happy with the way the cover turned out. Plus, there was the author photo of me and Joe on the back. But more than anything, it was an absolute pleasure to meet and spend time with the Pustejovskys and get a glimpse into their unique lifestyle.