Occasionally, I'm lucky enough to be invited to visit with book club members who have chosen my memoir as their monthly selection. I make a point of joining any book club within half a day's drive, because the members inevitably have such sharp observations that I always come away with something new to think about.
Last night was no exception. In fact, I was stubbing my toe on sharp observations before I'd even made it through the front door.
"You're the author?" asked a woman in obvious disbelief as I headed up the sidewalk and greeted several people gathered on the porch.
"I am," I said, waving my book as proof. "It's an honor to be here. Thank you for inviting me."
This woman continued to stare at me as I climbed up the steps. She wasn't hostile, exactly, but she was looking at me in a way that made me glance down quickly to be sure that I'd remembered the essentials: my purse, my notes, my pants.
While we waited for the hostess to answer the doorbell, this woman and I stood eye-to-eye while the other book club members shifted their feet around us like nervous ponies ready to bolt. "Were you expecting another author tonight instead?" I asked after a few moments.
My challenger shook her head vehemently. "Oh, no. We read your book for tonight. I just expected you to be..." and here she deliberately paused to look at the author photo on the back of the book. "Taller," she finished.
"And younger?" I suggested.
"Well," she said, and then the hostess opened the door.
Saved, I thought, but no. This woman wasn't done with me yet.
"When did you have this picture taken?" she demanded.
"Not soon enough," I said. "I probably should have gotten it taken ten years ago, at least."
With that, thankfully, everyone laughed and we moved into the house, where things proceeded more normally.
Still, her remarks stung. I had struggled, like all writers do, with finding the "right" look for my author photo. Unless you're Stephen King or Jodi Picoult, the publisher doesn't send you out on tour or pay for your book jacket photo. Most authors are left to sink or swim on our own dimes. Some of us ask our husbands and friends to take our pictures, while others bravely go out and risk paying for a professional photographer, hoping this might make a difference in sales.
How much does an author photo really count when it comes to selling the book? I have no idea. I only knew that I didn't want to end up with an author photo like any of the ones that Catherine Lacey gathered for her recent blog, all of which I'd seen while snooping at my local library to consider the photographic possibilities.
The thing is, how many possibilities are there for an author's photo? You can do black-and-white (artsy and classic) or color (fun and contemporary). Beyond that, your decisions are still limited: head on hand or arms folded? Smiling or not serious? Leaning or not leaning? And, if you are leaning, do you lean on a tree or a barn or a fence? That's about it. Oh, unless you want to add a pet (a dog if you're a mystery writer, a cat if you're a romance writer, a camel if you're a travel writer).
Not a lot to choose from, right? Plus, for writers like me, with a mortgage and kids in college, funds are sorely limited. I knew that I'd be lucky to afford a passport photo at my local post office. (Yes, I considered it.)
Then I had another creative brainstorm: What if I just hired my daughter as a body double? She's 21, blonde, blue-eyed and gorgeous. It wouldn't matter what kind of photo or pose she took, because my daughter is in that flawless bloom of young womanhood where she could be wearing a paintball mask and still look good.
Books might not sell better with a gorgeous author, but it couldn't hurt. I wished that I had the sort of look that can sell a book, like the young and lovely Vendala Vida, author of The Lovers, or exotic Jhumpa Lahiri, author of Unaccustomed Earth. Hotties have an easier time marketing just about anything in our society, from detergent to shoes -- unless you go in the other direction and market a product with someone noticeably dorky, like that little troll of a guy who has built his empire out of playing the downtrodden Windows PC guy on those Mac commercials.
If I used a body double, though, I'd have to send her to my book signings and media appearances. What would I do if I ever ended up on The Today Show or Jon Stewart? I couldn't disappoint Jon Stewart! He's the conscience of our country!
On the other hand, there was some merit in this idea: If I had a body double, I'd get a lot more writing done. And my daughter loves to travel.
In the end, though, I let go of the body double idea. Here's the real truth: I wanted to be on my own book jacket. After all, my book and I had traveled this far together. How could I abandon my memoir now?
In the end, I hired a neighbor -- an art student who is building a photography business from the ground up and was therefore in my price range. Mariah lives across the street and came over one evening to photograph me in the back yard. The process was painless mainly because she was so chatty and relaxed.
Mariah had experience photographing weddings and children, so she had no trouble moving me around various props: an old Adirondack chair, the back garden, the porch. She used a digital camera and was familiar with the many tricks used to massage portraits to perfection. I made her promise not to flatter me too much; on the other hand, I told her that it was fine to make me "look just a little better."
She did a terrific job. In these photographs, I look older than my daughter, but younger than I am -- which was apparently what threw off this particular book club member.
What I love most about my author photo is that there are all kinds of clues to my life: I'm wearing the silver earrings that my daughter and I bought together on a trip to Mexico, as well as the bright woven shawl that my stepdaughter brought me from France. There's a birdhouse in the background that one of my neighbors made me. My dog is there, too, though you can't see him because of the way the pictures are cropped: a white Pekingese that joined our family because I was so sad when my son went away to college.
The author photo does exactly what I wanted it to do: It is a portrait of me, welcoming readers into my life.