It was four degrees in late November when I met my newly-pregnant friend on the street long after the sun had gone down. I was holding my purse in one frozen hand and gripping a purple gift bag that contained her birthday present in the other, and I was trying so hard not to destroy the carefully placed colored tissue paper that I'd molded into shapes of fluffy fans before placing them into the bag to make the whole presentation look prettier. She was hurrying up the dark road, bundled in a wool jacket that was buttoned all the way up to her chin, hauling a bulky camera case.
The last time Nicole took my picture for the back of a book I wrote, I texted her to ask what I should wear.
"Um, you should prepare a TON of outfits!" she exclaimed, and what's funny is that typically my reaction would be the same. I love trying on clothing – when I was little, the dress-up box in my basement that had clothing inside of it my mom used to wear was my absolute favorite thing besides my stuffed Cookie Monster – but this whole Author Photo deal was a brand new world for me.
"Where do you think we should do it?" I asked her. I was thinking of maybe the beach.
"How about the arboretum?" she suggested, and though a lot of the foliage had already sprung free from the branches of the trees to wait it out for the newest spring, I loved the idea.
I decided to go basic with the outfit for the back cover. It was a simple me, a somewhat unadorned version of myself. I put on dark skinny jeans and a black top that had a scoop neck that didn't scoop too low. I wore black booties with a five-inch heel and silver hoop earrings and a bunch of bracelets. I wore my hair down and straight and headed out with Nicole to the land of trees.
“Stand against that one,” she told me. She was pointing to a giant tree that was maybe an oak, and I leaned against it and suddenly realized that I had no idea what kind of pose I wanted to do for the back cover of my book. I mean, I’d thought about the book itself so much. My brain swam in wide, misshapen circles as I tried to pinpoint the kind of font I wanted the title to be. I’d agonized over the color of the smudge of lipstick on the side of a cup that would be part of the cover image. I’d realized that writing the blurb for the back cover – trying to sum up everything the story was about in a paragraph or two – was harder to write than the actual book.
But I’d never once thought about my author photo.
So there I stood on a cold day in November, and I was hugging a tree. I also sat next to the tree and posed demurely beside it, but I wasn’t quite sure what I was going for.
“Let’s talk tone,” I said to Nicole as we walked away from the oak tree near the parking lot and started heading into the depths of the arboretum. “I’m thinking pensive but not at all morose. The book is about a girl growing up and accepting that she has a shit load more growing up to do, so maybe reflective is the way to go.”
“I agree with you entirely,” Nicole said, and I trusted her because she’d read the book before I published it and she is just the kind of person who is good at everything. You want a cake made in the shape of a Magic 8 Ball? She’s your girl. Want every piece of furniture in your living room rearranged so that it looks – as you so specifically put it to her confused expression – “better”? She will push an entire sectional around herself.
We continued to walk around the beautiful area and every time she said, “Okay! Stop right there and smile!” I would listen and do as I was told. There were a few other people wandering around the place, but I didn’t care that much when they would stumble upon us, mid-shot. Even when she told me to “crawl like a tiger” and I did, laughing my ass right off, I didn’t care that people could see me.
We got the actual shot almost by accident. As we stopped so she could answer a phone call, I saw a tree in the distance with a great branch that would only require me to scale a bit of the tree to climb it, and as Nicole talked on the phone, I hoisted myself up that tree in heels, planting them carefully so I could make it up to the higher branch. And when I looked over at Nicole to see if she was off the phone, she snapped the picture that is now on the back cover of my first book.
I am not smiling in the photo. You can’t see my dimples, not even if you look hard. But the tone of the image is pensive and reflective and it’s exactly what I wanted.
A week or so later, I saw an article about author photos online. The article stated that when women take author pictures, it’s usually done in some kind of natural environment, like on a beach or at a park. Male authors tended to say cheese while sitting on some kind of leather club chair in a study, surrounded by books. And as shitty as it felt to realize that I was a cliché in this arena, I knew that author was right because can you imagine Kurt Vonnegut or Norman Mailer grinning next to a tree?
I will say that I consoled myself with the knowledge that I wasn’t exactly like all the other female authors. I didn’t merely stand next to a tree with a beatific smile across my face. I climbed that fucker. In heels.
And now, three years later, I am releasing my second book. I knew exactly what I wanted the cover image to be and I communicated with the graphic designers about how I saw the style of font, saying words to them over the phone like “haunted and broken,” and they eventually got it right. But once again, I gave little thought to the author photograph until the day I was having it taken.
I tried on a bunch of outfits after work that day. I could see in my dog’s face that she thought I should go with a tight bandage dress, but that’s probably because Wookie is a closet whore. And I did not want to look too whorish on the back cover of a memoir, though I was absolutely fine with hinting that there was a little of that girl inside of me.
I eventually settled on something I’ve never worn before. I put on really tight leggings that I think might just be tights and very high-heeled boots that lace up the back and a Catch-22 shirt Nicole bought me about a year ago and I tossed a black sweater over it.
Nicole had some reservations about the outfit. She worried the lettering on the shirt would end up being distracting, but I was not taking that shirt off. See, one of my most vivid and treasured memories of my father is the night he and I sat outside at Pete’s Tavern and ate dinner. It was one of those brisk city nights before it’s really springtime, but it was also one of the first days in months when you couldn’t see your breath so the patio at Pete’s was set up. And there we sat, just the two of us, and we were wearing our coats as we ate cheeseburgers and he told me about working on his dissertation when he was in graduate school and choosing to write about Catch-22, then a brand new book, and that he contacted Joseph Heller and they met several times and Heller gave him exclusive interviews about the book and his process and his intentions as an author. I remember every moment of that night. I can recall how the air smelled almost ashy and how the leaves on the ground looked like they’d make a great noise if I stepped on them and I can see – even now – the dimples on my father’s face as he smiled telling me the story, the dimples that match the ones in my cheeks.
So when I received that shirt last year, I knew I’d eventually wear it for a special occasion and I also took a look at my crammed bookshelves and located my father’s hardcover copy of Catch-22, the one given to him personally by Joseph Heller, and I took a look inside of it again and read the warm and lengthy inscription and I felt so proud of my father and I hoped he knew how proud I was of him while he was alive.
The night of my photo shoot, I took one last glimpse of myself in the mirror and thought that maybe I should toss on more makeup, but I finally just grabbed my stuff and maneuvered myself out the door as quickly as I could manage in those boots.
I met Nicole in the dark, right near the empty red phone booth near Main Street in my town. I had contemplated taking a picture of myself in a leather office chair while wearing a bikini to merge the male/female style conventions of the typical author photo, but I refrained because it was November and I was not tan.
I’m also not crazy.
But the empty phone booth – I love it. And I don’t know why. It’s just a red tall box, but there’s something about it that speaks to me and I smile when I drive by it the way I used to point with glee from the back seat of my parent’s car every time I saw a water tower in the distance when I was a toddler. And that love of a water tower is also something I cannot comprehend or explain.
I threw my jacket and my scarf on the ground and I wished I’d scheduled this event on a day when I wasn’t risking hypothermia, but there I stood in an empty phone booth in a tee shirt and pretend pants as people walked by and looked at me strangely. The second Nicole took the first picture, her camera died. It just stopped working and it was way too cold to sit around trying to fix it so out came her iPhone and she snapped a few pictures and then we went down the street to the candy store and took some pictures there and then I bought both of us huge bags of gummy stuff – worms and fish and frogs – and we ate them as we walked up the street to Starbucks and I looked at the pictures she had taken and I hated most of them because I can be pretty critical of myself sometimes, but I liked the one we finally chose.
“What’s the tone this time?” she asked me earlier as she pulled her camera out of the bag.
“Confident and strong,” I said – and I didn’t even have to think before I answered her.