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January 9, 2012

Behind the Book — The Author Photo

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 6:41 pm

It’s that time again: my publisher needs a new author photo for the upcoming book. When I was starting out, back in 2000, before my first book, The Ice Master, entered production, my then-publisher Hyperion let me know that a very famous and important photographer specializing in author photos (he’s done half of the portraits that appear on the backs of book covers) was coming to Los Angeles to take my picture. Now, I’m someone who likes having her picture taken. This is due to the fact that, ever since I was a baby, my father– a talented amateur photographer– was always taking pictures of my mom and me. To this day, Mom hates to have her picture taken while I love it.

I was excited to be photographed by someone legendary. This is it, I thought. I’ve arrived! The photographer came to my duplex early one morning, and he was nice and professional. But I hated the pictures he took of me (which you will not see me posting here).

Because my first book was a serious nonfiction book about a tragic Arctic expedition and because I was young, he had me wipe off most of my makeup and change my clothes into something more formal and businesslike. Then he posed me wearing glasses, my hair pulled back, holding a stack of research papers and frowning, as if looking like an unhappy schoolmarm circa Little House on the Prairie would increase my credibility, as if my work on the book and in the book couldn’t just speak for itself.

I sat through that photo shoot unhappily, and when my publisher sent me copies of the pictures, I listened unhappily but politely to their enthusiasm, and then I went on a hunt for a different photographer. I found the terrifically cool Lisa Keating, who lives and works in San Francisco. She let me wear makeup and let me smile and she didn’t once tell me to put on my glasses, which I only need occasionally anyway. I loved my photos so much that I used another one of hers for the paperback version of The Ice Master and still another for my second book, Ada Blackjack.

Hyperion eventually liked the pictures too, but it took them a little while to warm up to the first one. They weren’t sure about “all this peeking around the corner of the camera business.” It wasn’t quite like any other author picture they’d published or seen. This, of course, was early in my writing career. I was learning already that when you’re working with publishers, just as when you’re working with anyone, you have to know how and when to choose your battles. I have learned when to concede and I have learned when to fight for something, and I fought for that picture. I wanted something different and interesting. Why would I want to do the same thing as everyone else?

By the time I had finished writing books three and four, I was living in Atlanta. Lisa’s photos were a couple of years old by then and I felt it was time for something new (even though there’s always the thought: My God, I was so young then! Why on earth would I want to take a recent picture when I could use one of me back when I was so, so young– or at least younger?).

I flew all the way out to CA to have Lisa take my picture again. It was a damp and foggy day, and my naturally curly hair just fuzzed and frizzed with abandon, which made my smile look more like a grimace, which ultimately ruined the pictures for me. Back in Atlanta, the day before my author photo was due to Penguin for Velva Jean Learns to Drive, I googled Atlanta photographers and found the hip and talented Stephen Hunton, who agreed to shoot me that afternoon in an Atlanta-area alleyway. I used two different shots from that session– one for Velva Jean Learns to Drive and the other for The Aqua Net Diaries.

Last January, Penguin needed an author photo for Velva Jean Learns to Fly (this gives you an idea of how far ahead publishers have to work to produce a book– Learns to Fly was released eight months later on August 30). You’ve heard me talk about my boyfriend Louis, who bakes bread and works for IBM and takes care of my websites, but he also takes wonderful pictures (though his interest is in documentary and nature photography). At the time Penguin needed the picture, we had just signed a lease on our apartment but hadn’t yet moved anything in, so we had plenty of space and light to work with. The result was my favorite author photo to date.

So now it’s time to take a new one or go back through the others Louis took of me last January and see what there is to choose from (the older I get, the more daunting it is to face a new author photo). Tomorrow I’ll be posting ones from the reject pile– i.e. ones you will never catch me putting on the back of a book. And later in the week I’ll post some options for the next author picture, with the hopes that you can help me choose which one to use.