Last weekend at a local book fair, one of my friends dropped by the writers’ tent where I was promoting my latest novel, Where Dragons Follow. She asked another writer sharing the tent to take a photo of the two of us with her smart phone. Later, I saw it in her Facebook post and felt disoriented. My friend looked terrific in the picture, but who was that older woman standing next to her? Couldn’t be me, I thought—for a second. As we used to say, in another decade, “I couldn’t relate to it.” I did not want to show the photo to my husband.
My self image, the way I think I look, contradicts not so much what I see in the mirror but the ‘me’ I see occasionally in photographs. The camera can be merciless; yet, I chide myself for caring about the way I appear in a photo. The inner person counts more than the image, right? Go tell that to some people in my age cohort whom I’ve heard say with dismay, “I was walking along [any commercial street]. I glanced at my reflection in a store window and didn’t recognize myself.” So many of us imagine ourselves as the pre-middle-aged enthusiasts for life and adventure we were and believe we still are, decades later. The inner self has a spring in the step. The reflected self stumbles.
When are we tempted to tinker with the way people perceive us? When we sell something. Do indie writers like me need a youthful image to sell books? Many I know eschew a cult of personality. They sell their work online and promote through social networking. Their own looks matter far less than their front book covers.
Nevertheless, bound books necessitate back cover images and text, often including a photo of the author. Will that photo give the prospective reader insights into the author’s nature? More likely, it reveals its subject selectively to encourage responses like, “He must be serious, yet quirky. He sports wire-rimmed glasses and wears a safari vest over his flannel shirt” or “Her novel must be imaginative. Her crooked smile and big eyes tell me so.” Is that nonsense? The ancient Roman, Cicero (106-43 B.C.) didn’t think so. He is quoted as saying, ‘Ut imago est animi voltus sic indices oculi’ (The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter). Are eyes mirrors of the soul or does a cover photo mask a writer’s true character?
My friend Josh, a professional photographer, spent nearly an hour with me out in the park as he collected variations on a portrait for my book cover photo. All those clicks resulted in a vibrant image I’m trying to live up to; but that face—it’s as if the skin weren’t mine. I like the image, but I feel as if I were looking at someone else, the way I feel when I look at me in my wedding photos. Who is/was that young woman? Is she still here, in some part of me?
I know she is. My husband and I still see the original in each other, what’s under the skin, what the wedding photos don’t show. My readers won’t know the essential Susan from my back cover, but it might entice them to pick up the book, turn the pages, and get to know me in a way that’s more than skin-deep.