A Picture’s Worth 75000 words

July 1, 2021 § 24 Comments

By Damhnait Monaghan

Shortly after she sold my debut novel New Girl in Little Cove, my agent sent me an email that made my giddy heart droop:

“You are going to need (and want) a professional author photo for your book jacket.”

Need? Maybe. But want? Nuh-uh.

Still, I went to my bookshelf and pulled down a few books to study the author photos, examining clothing, props and arm placement. Black-and-white or colour? Smiling or serious? Toothy smile or close-lipped? Who knew?

I googled a few articles, learning that your author photo should be a slightly better version of you. You on a good day, maybe your best day. I briefly pondered the appropriateness of using one of my wedding photos. They were only twenty years out of date. Then I put the whole thing out of my mind. There was no rush.

Then the U.K. entered a national lockdown. Even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t book a photographer, but the thought crossed my mind that a pandemic author photo had at least one advantage—the bar would be significantly lower. Most of the time during lockdown I wore a bra and brushed my teeth. Me on a good day meant I’d probably brush my hair, too. It seemed manageable. But weeks turned to months; my hair grew longer and greyer. I read another article that encouraged me to think about the message I wanted to send with my image. (Please buy my book?)

Now that I couldn’t book a photographer, I almost wanted one. My agent chimed in again. It was important to be happy with my author photo—who knew where it might be reproduced—but a talented amateur photographer was also an option.

I wasn’t sure there were any talented amateur photographers in my COVID bubble. My husband had recently been called upon to take my picture for passport renewal. Smiling was obviously prohibited—I suffered a prolonged bout of the giggles. The final image? My eyes squeezed shut, my mouth wide open, looking away. On balance, a professional seemed a better choice.

When the lockdown restrictions eased, I leapt into action. The photographers in my area mostly seemed to specialise in weddings. (Maybe I could still fit into my dress?) But I found one who also did portraits, and liked the samples on her website. She’d never taken an author photo. I’d never had one taken. A perfect match! Even better, she was free on the same day I’d booked an appointment at my hair salon. Hair? Check. Photographer? Check. Alas, unlike my wedding, this time there was no string quartet and even more disappointing, no open bar.  

I chose a favourite top, applied light makeup and met the photographer outside for the surreal experience of a one-on-one photo shoot in my back garden. I followed her directions to sit, stand, lean against a wall. I stared pensively into the distance, then faked laughter. If laughter was required, I thought, maybe I should’ve booked my husband after all.

While she clicked away, the photographer asked about my novel. As I gave her my elevator pitch and mentioned my long, tortuous path to publication, I forgot to worry about how I’d look. Instead, I reflected that despite all that was awful in the world, there were still things to celebrate. 

The next morning, I received an email and filled my computer screen with dozens of images of me. Scrolling idly, I wondered how I would narrow it down to one photo.

Alas, on closer inspection it was too all easy.  

Why had I worn a top with cap sleeves? The beefy arms on display (surely just the camera angle?) meant many shots were quickly rejected. Likewise, the fake laughing. Lips firmly closed was definitely my better side. And it’s best to draw a soft-focus filter over the puckering in my trousers crotch in some of the photos. Cropping is your friend, my friends.

Luckily, if someone takes several dozen pictures of you, there are bound to be a handful of contenders. Examining five in greater detail, I realized what might be meant by “the message” I wanted to send. In my favourite photo, I’m standing in the shadows, beside a tree. But something about that dark background and my knowing look didn’t seem to fit with my debut novel—a light-hearted romantic comedy. (As one of my friends said, ‘Save that one for when you write a psychological thriller.’)

Like any true diva, I asked for input from my people: my sister, trusted friends and my agent. As I waited for their feedback, I was struck by the similarity between the author and wedding photo shoots. On both occasions I was happy, excited, and a bit nervous about what lay ahead. Perhaps it was no surprise that we all chose the same photo: me in front of white hydrangeas—a favourite wedding flower. If only I’d worn that dress. It even had longer sleeves.

Damhnait Monaghan is an award-winning flash fiction writer. Her novella in flash The Neverlands won Best Novella in the 2020 Saboteur Awards. Her debut novel New Girl in Little Cove—a light-hearted fish out of water tale—is out now with Harper Collins. A German edition will be published in early 2022. Find out more at www.damhnaitmonaghan.com

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