When we last heard from Forest Hills-based writer Anthony Dobranski, he had published his debut novel, The Demon in Business Class, and he gave us a fascinating look at all the hands-on work of marketing a work of genre fiction. This is his latest project, and something you can get your hands on.
by Anthony Dobranski
You never know where a creative project can lead. Over the last few months I’ve designed an original Tarot card deck, illustrated by renowned local artist Jamin Hoyle. It was inspired by a fictional deck in my first novel, one that I made up.
So many people liked the idea of it, that now there’s a real one – and for only two more weeks, you can help back it on Kickstarter!
What are Tarot cards?
This lately-trendy fortune-telling tool has a long history, and some mystery.
Originally, Tarot cards were playing cards. Even the hottest fashions took time to travel in the pre-industrial days, so playing cards developed regional variations. What we Americans use for playing cards comes from the French style – hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds.
Play cards in a Spanish-speaking country, and you’re likely to see large cups for hearts, wooden clubs for our trefoils, coins for diamonds, and daggers or swords for spades. These are the suits also used in Tarot playing cards.
Cards have always been part of the life of society’s underworld, with gambling, sleight of hand, con games like three-card monte, and of course, fortune-telling.
Tarot cards took an odd turn, however, likely first in central Italy. Somehow, an additional twenty-two allegorical cards got incorporated, with images of exalted power: emperors and religious leaders, with pre-Christian, Catholic, and astrology symbols. No one’s quite sure how or why. My favorite theory is that they were originally meant as a kind of anti-gambling campaign, akin to warnings on cigarette packs – but wound up ironically adopted by the community they hoped to temper!
Tarot cards evolved in their European cultures over centuries, taking on new symbols, ad traditions of their own – like our romances of Ace of Spades or Suicide Kings. Even the number cards developed pictures, making Tarot the most visually rich of card games.
In Great Britain in the late Victorian era, a resurgent interest in mysticism and Pagan culture, led by the scandalous performance artist Aleister Crowley, brought Tarot cards into their current strange cultural context. Now they were a symbolic object, a tool for exploring occult and mystical interests. The work that most defined this new style is the Rider Waite Tarot, a collaboration between artist Pamela Colman Smith and scholar and writer Arthur Waite. If you’ve seen a Tarot image, most of the time, it’s Rider Waite.
With this mix of history, magic, and strangeness, Tarot’s complex symbols are a natural for fortune-telling, as any stroll around New Orleans’s French Quarter will show! Artists love the great canvas of seventy-eight images, making their own editions for centuries. The Tarot tradition also belongs to seekers, to people who feel a connection in reality beyond the realm of human senses.
Tarot cards were an obvious device when I needed a foreshadowing device in my literary fantasy novel, The Demon in Business Class. Unlike a journey to a mountaintop oracle, a deck of cards goes in your carry-on. It’s also easier to consult in a quick multi-tasking modern way, the way we look up horoscopes or tomorrow’s weather.
But I couldn’t make them work.
The problem with Tarot
Tarot is a rich set of symbols of power: potential and actual; appointed, gifted, or earned; social, legal, spiritual and cultural. It’s also pre-Industrial. This means it’s pre-American, pre-Suffragette, pre-Modern. It’s feudal, implicitly sexist, and really hard to understand.
My novel’s main character wasn’t a medieval scholar, had plenty of sexism in her day job, and wasn’t about to look up anything.
Tarot accommodated her. The hierarchies and divisions of ancient city-states aren’t far from the many groups that make up modern companies – we sarcastically call such things “fiefdoms.” Capitalism has its own symbols – The Market, first and foremost – and its own power centers. Just as theocrats could enable, or threaten, even emperors, so can Boards of Directors challenge CEOs.
It was lighthearted, but this corporatist spin on Tarot worked surprisingly well – to the point that fans began to ask me where they could get “her” deck! I saw that my real fellow humans had the same dilemma my character had. Tarot looked inspiring, but it was mostly confusing. Maybe I could change that?
A lot of work
It’s one thing to salt a novel with references to imaginary cards. Writing and publishing a real deck was a taller order. It took over a year to find the right partner, after some early fruitless efforts, and learning something about the business of working with an artist.
While I looked for one, I couldn’t wait – I had to start working and assume I would get one. Writing a deck of cards is not writing a story, exactly, but it has a lot of narrative elements. As part of a whole, it benefits from connections. It also has clear correspondences, and many visuals that are simply translated. Sailing ship captains beat to quarters; Captain Kirk says “red alert.” I had a lot of tradition to play with – but just as much to dispose of.
As I worked, I asked around, and met Jamin Hoyle. I’d been seeing his work on signs and posters for years – and so have you! Among many visible projects is the current Woolly Mammoth Theatre logo and its recent promotional campaigns. I also loved the children’s book he illustrated, Constellation Station, which is modern, mythological, and detailed.
Happily, the project really interested him, both as a concept and as a creative challenge. His skill and sensitivity, and his grounded playful approach, breathed vital life into my ideas.
Alas, a 400-year tradition is not so easily redone, at least if you want to do it with respect and quality. We’ve had to take on two more artists — incredible colorist Allison Carl, and production designer Studio Juli-ette, who works out of Seoul, for the box and booklet. We are working hard to get everything printed by winter gift-giving season!
See more online
Business Class Tarot is now on Kickstarter, raising funds for the first printing.
Kickstarter is a crowdfunding source, but unlike campaigns for support and assistance, a Kickstarter is specifically for products. It can be a download or a physical object, but it has to be a thing a person can buy and keep.
Also, Kickstarters are all-or-nothing – if one is even a dollar shy of one’s goal, one gets nothing! If this project interests you, please back us and help make it happen!
Our goal is $7,000, which covers the cost of the first printing. Our backer levels include fun swag and special benefits such as an autographed novel, an adult coloring book, and recognition in the Tarot guide.
We’ve had a great two weeks to our Kickstarter, with interest from all around the world. I was even interviewed by a Spanish Tarot blog. Sometimes the internet is just amazing.
Still, it’s a long road to getting fully funded, so I hope you’ll consider backing our Kickstarter, either for yourself or as a gift.
Also, please spread the word! Kickstarters live on word-of-mouth. It’s been fun to discover just how many friends and acquaintances were interested in Tarot. Post a link on your social media, and you might learn something new about your own pals!