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Writing Well

Installment Seven


Now that we’ve completed six installments of our Writing Well discussion and you know every essential element of becoming a published author, we’ll turn to the single most important issue in your future professional writing career . . . the author photo.

Go ahead, laugh. Get it out of your system. But answer me this – don’t you, as a reader, if you’re profligate enough to buy a hardcover novel (and now some paperbacks), flip back to the dustjacket photo of the author and assess him or her in some way? Of course you do. And please remember that those author photos have a life, on the Internet, in reference books and elsewhere, much longer than the average author’s.

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So let’s talk about this unheralded but essential part of your writing career for a few moments.

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For your first book, you’ll probably be taken by surprise when your publisher asks for a dustjacket and publicity photo of you. (For years I mailed such things to the publisher’s publicity department, but now, of course, they will ask you to e-mail a high-resolution quality photo of yourself.) If you’re like most of us writers, you’ll panic, paw through all available snapshots in the drawer or on the computer, find all of them pathetic (and certainly not worthy of your new incarnation as an author), consider a studio portrait – then realize that you have neither time nor money for such a thing, plus that you’re not that pathetically vain (yet) – and you’ll end up asking your Significant Other to take a good photo of you.

Well, good luck.

When my first publisher gave me twenty-four hours to send them a photo for the back of my first novel, Song of Kali, my wife Karen took the ancient manual Ricoh SLR I’d given her as a gift years before, said “Don’t sweat it,” had me step out onto the tiny front stoop of our tiny little house at the time, and snapped off several photos that she had developed that very day. I happened to be wearing an L. L. Bean cotton safari-type-shirt that particular day and the shrubs and trees next to the front stoop looked like a cane break or impenetrable jungle background – even the light falling through foliage throwing dappled shadows across me looked very jungle-bookish – so the photo worked fine for a novel about India and Calcutta.

For years, Karen took my cover photos for different books. It’s fun to read the credits for other authors you know and those you don’t know but whose careers might be following a similar arc. They usually have half a dozen books with their author photos credited to wives or husbands, then – if the career takes off – professional photographers’ names begin to sneak in.

Stephen King and I once compared notes about wives and author photos. In each of our cases, we’d been the photographer in the family. And we’d each given our wives decent SLRs as presents and later urged them to go to photographers’ workshops – both to the Maine Photographic Workshop, as it turned out. (Tabby and Karen were there just a year or so apart.) And in both cases, our spouses became the serious photographers in the family and we gave up our own fancy cameras, settling for pocket digital cameras to grab only the occasional snapshot.

“It’s a pain taking Steve’s picture for his books,” Tabitha once told me. “He’s got all these little author-photo tricks – you all do – and I’ll be damned if I’ll let him get away with them. I’ll shout ‘Get that goddamned eyebrow down! I see it creeping up.’ We never have fun in the author-photo sessions.”

Well, I could identify with that.

But what if you’re not like King and me and so many other writers I know, galloping to a spouse for your first dustjacket photos? What if you actually think about this sort of thing ahead of time? What are your goals and what might you end up with?

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In the old days – say the 1920’s through 1950’s – if one was a male author, dustjacket photos posed little problem. Put on a nubbly tweed or worsted sportcoat, preferably with leather elbow patches, light your pipe, and pose in three-quarter profile in dramatic lighting while hovering pensively over a book (not your book, of course, that would be bad taste), or – even better – with an entire wall of books behind you. Some photographers still want that shot for male authors.

We all hear stories that may or may not be urban legend.

William Faulkner, in the right light (and a photographer’s job is to find or create the right light) was a strikingly handsome man. He was also a vain man and one desperate for recognition as both a gentleman and an intellectual. ( Born and raised in poverty-stricken Louisiana rural red clay country, he ended his days riding to the hounds from his Virginia estate and liked to pose in red riding jacket and jodhpurs, complete with riding crop.) But as the story goes, when his original publisher sent a photographer to Louisiana to get a publicity author photo, Faulkner refused to pose for it until his complete set of the Great Books arrived. Time and publication deadlines grew short, but Faulkner wanted those Great Books behind him. It worked out, but the same compelling urban legend among writers says that if one looks closely enough at the book that Faulkner is pensively perusing in front of his library, that book is upside down. (Some of us don’t want to be photographed in our reading glasses.)

Hemingway, on the other hand, appeared indifferent to publicity and author photos, yet somehow the ones he released to his publishers always served his purpose perfectly. That purpose was to appear as the hairy-chested hunter, brawler, and fisherman who just incidentally happened to be one of America’s most celebrated authors. So while William Faulkner’s public photos from that era strike us as staged and phony today, Hemingway’s hit us with the same power and vitality as they did his readership and magazine-perusing audiences at the time. My favorite of Hemingway’s in the 1940’s was honest to how he worked – it shows him standing and typing at a high dresser that held his small typewriter, his sleeves rolled up, his black hair and mustache looking as healthy as thoroughbred’s coat, his forearms (as he pounded the keys with two fingers) as hairy and muscled as a mountain climber’s.

All of Hemingway’s photographs over the decades showed a masculine but thoughtful man, but the famous portrait by Yousuf Karsh – the older, bearded Hemingway in a thick, fisherman’s knit wool-and-leather turtleneck sweater – is extraordinary. Only the sad eyes, the sun-ravaged skin, and the presence of a comb-over (an affectation that the younger Hemingway used to ridicule on others with some savagery) warn us that this is the literary lion on the slope of decline.

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Truman Capote always thought as much about the image of himself that he presented to the world as he did about the content of his prose. This helped shaped his career (it even helped shape his lovelife and choice of future partners.)

In 1948 when his first collection of short fiction, Other Voices, Other Rooms, came out, the large dustjacket photo by Harold Halma showed young Truman in a shirt and checked vest, his hand draped casually over his groin, lounging on a curved-back couch with his head turned toward the viewer and giving him or her what can only be called a “come-hither” look. Young Truman Capote was a beautiful lad and this may well be the most seductive and controversial author photo ever to grace a dustjacket. The photo caused as much controversy and comment as the high-quality stories inside the book. Capote always claimed in later years that the camera had caught him off guard, but the truth was that he’d planned it carefully and posed himself for it and was personally responsible for both the picture and the ensuing publicity. (And also responsible, one would assume, for all the gay men in 1948 America – not to mention the many unsavvy women -- who fell in love with the photo and the author because of that photograph.)

Truman Capote continued to cultivate friendships with great photographers and the quality of his various publicity and dustjacket photos was astounding. In one black and white photo taken by Cecil Beaton in Tangier in the summer of 1949, the young, thin Truman is leaping into the air, arms and legs akimbo, his thin frame set against a mostly white Moroccan background and accompanied only by his own shadow. His shirt is tied rakishly at the waist like a knotted sash. Friends pointed out that this how they remembered Capote at that time – ebullient, uninhibited, and irrepressible.

Beaton in 1948 had taken a shot of a more pensive and sweatered Truman leaning against a backdrop of roses, cigarette in one langurous hand and his glasses in the other, prompting another gay author – Tennessee Williams – to observe sarcastically that Capote’s little face had a “look of prenatal sorrow, as if he were still in the womb and already suspected how cold the world is beyond the vaginal portals."

In 1946, Henri Cartier-Bresson had captured an even more subdued (but highly seductive) Truman in his garden – sitting sideways, in a white t-shirt, on a white bench behind which four-foot-long leaves filled the image – and the way Capote’s body is twisted, his right arm behind him, his left hand lifted with fist almost clenched, the overhead sun throwing his large eyes mostly into shadow, added both tension and sexual power to the photo. Another photo taken about the same time by Karl Bissinger showed Capote wearing a striped polo shirt while sitting alone at a plain white table, head in his hands (a cigarette burning in his left hand), a trailing vine dropping down toward that youthful head of hair, in a photograph that brought out an entirely different aspect of the author. (In this photo, Truman looks a bit like the young George Peppard, who would be so miscast as the lead in the film version of Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But then, Truman argued with the producers that Marilyn Monroe, not Audrey Hepburn, should play Holly Golightly. And there’s no doubt whatsoever that if they’d allowed Capote veto power on the cast that Mickey Rooney – complete with fake buck teeth and squinty eyes – would never have been cast as Mr. Yunioshi)

You get the idea here. Truman Capote was a writer who always considered his public image and who worked hard to craft the way that image was presented to both readers and the world at large. In 1967, LIFE Magazine put him on its cover standing between actors Scott Wilson and Robert Blake (yes, the Robert Blake who recently beat the rap of murdering his wife – his alibi being perfect L.A., saying he’d gone back to the restaurant when she was shot because he’d forgotten his gun.) The three are standing on a backroad in Kansas near where the Clutter family had been murdered. Scott Wilson had played the murderer Dick Hickock in the film and Blake had played Perry Smith, whom – many said – Capote had fallen in love with during their years of interviews in the Kansas state penitentiary prior to Smith’s execution by hanging.

Capote was the most photographed writer of the century, but the last years documented him becoming fat, decadent, and abandoned by his friends, until a 1979 photo presented a newly thin and again-beautiful Truman after a diet and facelift. The resurrection was shortlived. The final photo was taken of him on August 23, 1984 – a Polaroid snapshot taken at Joanne Carson’s home in Los Angeles (Johnny Carson’s wife was one of the only friends who had stood by Capote after his fall from grace due to his tell-all stories in the fragments of his never-finished Answered Prayers) – and it shows a heavy and totally defeated man again. He was a month away from turning sixty, but already he looked like an old man. He died in her guest room two nights later.

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What does this have to do with your future dustjacket and publicity author photos, you ask? Probably not a damned thing. But I like Truman Capote’s writing and I think that his life can be a cautionary tale to most of us who write.

Capote hasn’t been the only author who chose good photographers to put powerful, sensitive, or outright seductive photos on their dustjackets over the years, of course. My friend Harlan Ellison attracted more than a few lady admirers through his bachelor years in the 1970’s with provocative photos. In a real way, Harlan was the 70’s and early 80’s in these photos. Always those brooding, searching, deepset eyes, always that confrontational stare (even when he was looking to the side), and usually those gigantic sort-of aviator 70’s style glasses with the cool rims.

Yet in the first hardcover short-story collection I bought of Harlan’s (after I met him), his author photo was a pure snapshot – him in some sort of sheepskin jacket about 40 yards away from the photographer, waving his arms in the air near a gigantic plastic brontosaurus – and his “author’s bio” under the snapshot was succinct: Harlan Ellison lives in California and likes it a lot.

Harlan accidentally and incidentally taught me something about dealing with photographers and news people, including those who come to shoot video. The lesson was simple: don’t let them push you around. I happened to be at his home when a local network TV reporter – referred to affectionately as “Bill Lugatuna” – arrived with a producer and complete video and sound crew to interview Harlan about the Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson “Batman” movie that had just premiered. Harlan thought the film was brilliant and had written that it would change the look and feel of action-genre movies forever and probably start a new era where comic books would be adapted to big-budget movies.

Actually, it was Harlan’s wife Susan who taught me that first lesson about not being pushed around. When the female producer with the news crew ordered her people to rearrange all the furniture and some of the artwork in Harlan’s rich and art-crowded living room to improve the shot, Susan said quietly but absolutely firmly, “No, let’s not.” And then Harlan came in, ripped Lugatuna and everyone else on the video crew new polarized sockets, and explained – “We like it like this. We fucking live here. If this is our choice for how our living room should look, who the fuck are you people to be moving our stuff around and rearranging the art on our walls? You want the fucking interview, leave everything – and I mean absolutely everything, including Simmons standing over there like a wooden Indian – right where it is. Capiche?”

The reason this struck me at the time is that a few weeks earlier, in my modest little home in Colorado (where the front stoop stood in so perfectly for the jungle outside of Calcutta), a Channel 9 news crew had come out from Denver to do my first-ever little news feature about me as a writer (their angle for the story – “Popular Colorado Author Lives in Crappy Little House”) and they’d ordered me about like a marionette with too many handlers, telling me where to sit, what to be doing, ordering me to type on my newfangled computer and then to look pensive, moving furniture and lamps, rearranging my work desk, even going so far as to take down the drapes and shutters on the little window in my “study” so they could get a zoom shot from outside . . .

You get the idea. What noise does a weenie make if it falls in the forest when no one is around?

Which leads us to this whole idea of just saying no.

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Some years ago, the novelist Nicholas Evans (The Horse Whisperer) and I had a long, long dinner in Paris – with drinks before and after and several bottles of wine during – in which we talked about book tours and reporters and . . . most of all . . . about photographers one meets while on tour.

Most of the professional photographers I’ve met are smart enough and good enough at what they do, but they tend to lack creativity. Either that or they have way too much.

I’m no Harlan Ellison. I like to cooperate and I like to be polite to people. But too much affable acquiescence, anyone in a public and competitive profession such as writing soon learns, can lead to products that you won’t be pleased with. Thus I quickly learned the Bartleby’s Secret Weapon. (Most of you recall that “Bartleby the Scrivener” was Herman Melville’s brilliant story about the quiet clerk who, one day, without warning, simply began to say “I would prefer not to” to anything and everything he did not wish to do. Bartleby ends up dying in prison – simply turning his face to the stone wall and dying of starvation when his “I prefer not to” finally included eating – but not before his quiet refusals to do other people’s bidding led him to overturn a large part of the System As We Know It.)

Nick Evans, a quiet and humorous man, had used the same Bartleby approach.

In my case, as a sometime writer of horror and SF novels, local newspaper photographers often wanted to get a clever gimmick shot. (Here – as with so many aspects of becoming a professional writer – one can learn from experience, but it helps to think things out ahead of time so one can know how to react in advance.) In my case, I don’t think I’m stuffy (who does?), but I do take my work seriously and don’t choose to come across as a clown in most photos. So when I’m on book tour in Australia or New Zealand for my UK publisher and the photographer for a local daily newspaper puts me in his car, drives me to a local cemetery, and tells me to lie down in the rectangle of a cement-framed grave plot with a headstone behind me and – oh, yes – hold this little bouquet of flowers on my chest, I smile gently (as Bartleby did) and say softly (as Bartleby did), “I would prefer not to.”

“Why not for Chrissakes? You’re a horror writer, aren’t you?”

“Sometimes,” I say softly, “but the book I’m promoting here isn’t just a horror novel. Mostly it’s about the orphanages in Romania filled with HIV-positive kids.”

“Alright, alright. So get behind the tombstone, wouldja mate? . . . and lean out like you’re going to kill somebody, sort of lurching like a zombie and brandishing this . . .here, I brought a meat cleaver.”

“I would prefer not to.”

The next morning, on either Good Morning, Australia or the Australian Today Show (I forget which; I did both and some of the same guests were in the green room with me for each show), the interview went fine – the problems of those Romanian HIV orphans were discussed seriously – and then the avuncular host of the show said, “Well, Dan, to make you feel right at home here in Australia, we’ve prepared a little surprise for you . . .”

Camera # 1 panned around. Two of the other studio video camera operators were now sporting black silk capes and plastic vampire fangs. The pianist at the Steinway was now wearing a cape and fangs. The floor producer, earphones and mic still in place, smiled to show her fangs. Camera # 1 panned back around to the set and the avuncular host and his female second banana were now both sporting plastic vampire fangs.

It was great. I had to grin.

But I would have preferred not to.

Nicholas Evans, two years younger than I, was finishing touring for The Horse Whisperer at the time we met in Paris and it had been on The New York Times bestseller list for months. My book tours were usually modest things of a week or two at the most, but Nick had been touring for months, returning to his home in England only long enough to get some sleep and clean clothes before setting out again.

And everywhere he went, the local photographers and video news crews wanted him posed on a horse.

The problem was, Nicholas Evens did not prefer to be on a horse. He was not a rider. He did not live on a ranch. He did not especially like horses. He was a former British journalist and TV writer who had seen a small article about a “horse whisperer” therapist for horses in the States and who had turned the idea into a novel. He decided even before his tour began that he was not going to climb up on a horse – or even onto a saddle without a horse – to please monomaniacal photographers or news video people.

I’m probably photographed more by serious professional photographers in Paris than in any other city, but it’s usually a fairly painless procedure. Occasionally they want to drag me out to Cimetière de Montmarte or Cimetière de Montparnasse or Cimetière de Père Lachaise to photograph me at some tomb – Balzac’s, Proust’s, Oscar Wilde’s, or Jim Morrison’s – but usually they just dragged me down to the street to pose me sitting outside at a table (looking pensive, of course, in my very untweedy Armani sportcoat, with several saucers stacked up near my espresso) at a brasserie (Brasseri Lipp, near the Deux Magots is my favorite.)

But not Nick. They all wanted him on, next to, whispering to, or kissing a horse, or at least with some horsey tack in the shot.

Evans, ever so much more the real gentleman than I, still responded with his quiet but firm Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to.” One Parisian photographer who had hauled an entire Western saddle, bridle, reins, chaps, 10-gallon hat, and red kerchief up to Nick’s hotel room, actually burst into tears at the writer’s refusal, complaining – in a torrent of French and broken English – of just how much he had spent to rent all that crap. And wouldn’t Monsieur Evans, please, just this once . . . .

Nick preferred not to.

And so it went for him in Canada, the States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa . . . He left a trail of frustrated photographers, spurned horses, and uninhabited saddles behind him. But then in Iceland . . .

The photographer had driven him miles out of Reykjavik to a “corral” of stones piled not much more than two-feet high. The reason for the low walls was immediately obvious: the Icelandic ponies standing docilely within that stone corral were not much more than three feet tall themselves . . . small, shaggy, miniatures of real horses. Nick had seen other Icelandic ponies that appeared to be big enough to be real horses, but these cuties had either been bred for their small size or were really, really young.

What the hell, thought Nick, studying these tiny, gentle, HO-scale versions of horses. Just this once. He didn’t even have to climb to mount the cute little things, just swing one leg over them where they stood. He could just crouch and pretend to sit on the little pony if he wanted to. The photographer set up his camera and gear. The assistants fiddled with the separate flashes and screens and umbrella lights. The Icelandic pony placidly chewed some hay as if to say, I have world-famous writers on me all the time. The photographer (whose English, Nick said, was better than that of most of the chaps he went to Oxford with) said “Ready, sir” and Nick swung his leg over the cute, shaggy little mare and sat down gingerly.

And the Icelandic pony reacted as if someone had jabbed an electric prod between her buttocks. Before Nick could step back off, the pony had crashed through the lighting equipment, scattered the assistants, leapt the stone corral wall with a single bound, and had taken off across a boulderfield toward a nearby cliff’s edge that dropped 300 vertical feet to the sea. Nick hung on to hair and mane, his legs straight out, trying to decide exactly when he was going to throw himself off the galloping pony onto the sharp rocks and boulders blurring by beneath his trousers and polished wingtips. Just as he was about to release his grip and roll off, the pony stopped as quickly as she had taken off – twelve feet this side of the cliff’s edge – and resumed munching on the straw that she had brought with her.

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I haven’t mentioned any women writers and their dustjacket- and publicity-photo problems, but I do tend to peruse such photos at the backs of books.

I remember an episode of “Dallas” not long before that series went off the air years ago. One of the busty women characters on the show – it could have been Ray’s wife (I never understood why Ray, the half-brother, had to sleep in the barn, but then I never watched the show that religiously) – decided to become a novelist. One week she was writing the book (probably based on her own seamy past). Two weeks later on the show, she was on book tour with a bestseller. What I remembered about that episode was that a huge color photo, from the waist up, of the actress was the “author photo” filling the entire back dustjacket of the book and as people came up to her during her booksigning and asked for her autograph, instead of opening the book (this actress had probably never opened a book in her life) and signing on the title page, she would flip the book over and scrawl her signature across her dustjacket photo. (I’m sure the actress had signed more than a few of her 8x10 glossies.) It made sense to me and I’ve tried doing the same on some of my book tours, but readers and collectors just hit me with the nearest heavy object, so I’ve gone back to signing on the title page.

At any rate, women writers probably have more serious choices to make about their publicity and book photos than do men.

I was pleased some years ago to help the beginning writer Poppy Z. Brite find an agent. What I didn’t know was that Poppy, although just becoming published, was already an expert at promotion. (Following her on book tour in Paris is an absolute pain because all the reporters and radio and TV interviewers can talk about is how wonderful Poppy Z. Brite was. How . . . how . . . French!) When I agreed to write an introduction to one of her first books, Poppy sent me the bound galleys but also asked my opinion of the photo she’d had taken for the dustjacket. The photo was in black and white and showed Poppy naked, lying on an altar with a thick, black cloth draped upon it, and on which she’s hugging something that looks like a big, live, toothy and clawed ferret to her chest. The ferret’s teeth or claws had drawn a drop of blood that was trickling down her left breast.

I wrote her back that it seemed okey-dokey to me, but wasn’t this book coming out from Scholastic Press and being sold through Our Weekly Reader?

(As it turned out, Poppy’s press-release photos that went with that first book were even more interesting than the one she’d sent me.)

Not long ago I went out and bought a big book, a bestseller, that I had been avoiding. I’d been avoiding it because I’d written a novel on the same topic and with the same Romanian setting a few years earlier and – based solely on flipping through the pages of this book in Border’s – had decided that my book was much better written. But I would soon be working with the editor of this bestseller, so I wanted to take time to peruse it and to judge the editing. After bringing the book home, I flipped it open to the back inside dustjacket and author’s bio (and the book had endpapers, which I love) and there was the author’s photo.

She was dressed alluringly in what looked to be a velvet bathrobe and she herself appeared to have been draped on her stomach across what seemed to be an artist’s couch with blankets piled high on it. Her face was in the act of turning toward the viewer in a pose that would make one’s neck ache terribly if you held it more than ten seconds and one eyebrow was caught in the act of arching. She was wearing one pearl earring. Her come-hither bedroom smile was not quite as seductively effective as the young Truman Capote’s, but it tried. The bio under this photo read in its entirety – “ ------- -------- graduated from Yale and holds an MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won the Hopwood Award for the Novel-in-Progress.”

Naturally one looks at this sexy, seductive, provocative photo and thinks, They give out goddamned prizes for novels-in-progress?

Some years ago I was invited out to Portland, Oregon, for some mass-signings and a gathering of writers whose books were being sold in some huge local discount stores. The owner of the stores put us all up in a nice riverfront hotel and treated all the writers to a riverboat dinner cruise that first evening. Most of the writers there were women romance writers and I had a chance to talk to them for hours. It was an education.

I confess that until that weekend my image of lady romance writers ran along the lines of Kathleen Turner as “Joan Wilder” in the movie “Romancing the Stone.” Many of these romance writers gathering in Portland were attractive, but none of them quite held a candle to Kathleen Turner. Still, there was a lot of big hair there. But – as almost any professional writer knows – being a romance writer requires more than big hair and a penchant for overheated euphemisms. They are among the hardest working, most professional, most career-savvy, and – some say – most ruthless writers in the business. Shake hands with one and you come away with one of their bookmarks (touting their most recent release and almost always showing a picture of themselves).

Romance novels make up a little more than 50% of all books sold in the United States and it’s the ultimate dog-eat-dog end of the writing profession. These women eat their own and then look around for seconds.

But since so much of romance writing starts as a sort of factory system created by publishers – they actually hold “how to be a romance writer” seminars at airport hotels in major cities, sharing some of the strict forumla for writing in the genre and then testing the women at it, and the best of the best of the millions of wannabe writers often then get a crack at cranking out romances under publishing house false names – romance writers also tend to stick together (some say like packs of feral dogs, but this is unfair.)

My agent Richard Curtis knows a lot about romance writers since he represents many (and since the bulk of his income through commissions comes from them rather than from us low-earning SF and fantasy and horror weenies), but he may have made a tactical error when he took his wife Leslie on their honeymoon to California only to suggest to her that they stop by a nearby convention of romance writers -- “Just for an hour or so, darling, honest.” (If you’ve ever seen a conference-full of female romance writers in search of representation mobbing a known and successful male agent, you know what Leslie had to sit back and watch for eight hours or so on her honeymoon. Somehow – for reasons known to neither God nor man – Leslie is still married to him.)

My favorite experience with a romance writer was with Fabio. You may know the name. Fabio was the male-model with the pecs and long hair who posed shirtless for so many romance-novel covers over the years. They finally gave him his own Fabio Series of romance novels to write. (Now since Fabio speaks no known human language and can barely scrawl something that may or may not be his five-letter name, we have to assume that the publisher again hires unknowns to write the “Fabio” books. But one never knows.)

In the 1990’s, I was invited to travel to St. Louis for a gang signing at a major book distributor’s warehouse. It was an odd but intriguing idea. There were scores, perhaps hundreds, of us writers there – parceled out through many rooms in what turned out to be a huge complex of warehouses filled with so many paletted crates that the place looked like the last scene of “Citizen Kane” by way of the last scene of “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I’d hoped to meet some of these writers, but since we all ended up in our own little warehouse corners and niches behind crates during the signing – and since the organizers offered no other event for us, not even a cocktail party before or after – the only “writer” I ended up spending time with was the one at a table next to mine in my own little corner of the crates. This was Fabio.

Now some say that Fabio sounds like Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but this is libel. One can understand some of what Arnold says.

I’m obviously speaking from jealousy here. There I was, sitting behind my little folding table with stacks and copies of my books in front and perhaps one publisher’s laminated cover of my most recent novel propped up somewhere nearby. At any given time, I probably had two people in my line, and one of them was there to ask me directions to some other, more popular writer in the crated maze that was this warehouse. Fabio’s table, of course, had giant posters of his oiled body on the wall and crates behind him, stacks of glossy photos on either side of him, and a line of women – most of them with blue hair – that stretched down our long aisle between the crates, out into the main warehouse for the length of a blimp hanger, and then out into the parking lot. All of the women (and there were thousands) who came to get his autograph and/or to get one of “his” books signed asked to have their photograph taken with him.

So eventually I gave up my own little lemonade stand and simply spent my hours taking the proferred cameras and snapping their pictures with Fabio. The women invariably giggled, often two at a time under his huge biceped arms, and while I can’t swear that some actually came to orgasm, there was a whole lot of writhing going on. Fabio wasn’t quite shirtless, but the silk shirt he wore was unbuttoned and open down to his belt line. His pecs were quite apparent and many of the ladies had to set their hands on those bulging masses of muscle. One or two of the senior citizens – their blue hair was always at his armpit height, Fabio’s long hair often draped over them – wanted their photos taken while pretending to grope him or while clutching at his inner thighs.

Many of the women didn’t bring books or photos of Fabio for him to sign, but wanted him to sign them. I have to say that he did so with graciousness and flair. I was reminded while watching Fabio sign various portions of various ladies’ anatomies of the true story of Truman Capote in a rough bar in New York in the early 1970’s when a woman at the bar squealed, “Oh, I saw him on Johnny Carson last night! He’s a famous writer” and came over to the table where Truman was sitting with friends. The inebriated woman pulled up her t-shirt (she was wearing nothing underneath), offered Capote a marking pen, and said, “Would you sign my breast?”

“Of course, my dear,” lisped Capote. (Writers like to please their fans.) And he did so.

A minute later the woman’s equally drunken boyfriend staggered over to Capote’s table, handed the writer the same marker, said, “You wanna sign something. Sign this” and proceeded to unzip his jeans and present himself.

The others at Capote’s table recoiled, but Truman took the pen, considered the offered writing surface a minute, and then said softly in that unique Capote accent, “Well, this obviously won’t serve for an entire signature. But perhaps I could manage my initials.”

Meanwhile, the afternoon with Fabio in Citizen Kane’s warehouse dragged on. I think that I signed about 30 of my own books. I think that I took about 5,000 photos of women – and not a few men – under Fabio’s armpits.

So what’s to be jealous about? It was an afternoon well spent. (I’m only sorry that I drove there to that St. Louis warehouse, all the way from Colorado.)

#

So where were we?

Oh, yes – the most important part of your writing career: your dustjacket author photo and publicity photos.

No, we know they’re not that important. But they do last forever and, for most readers, they’re the only image they have of writers that they may really like. So they do require some thought ahead of time.

My friend David Morrell, a former professor at the University of Iowa, writes horror novels and nonfiction but is best known for his thrillers . . . specifically for being the “father of Rambo” in his novel First Blood. David researches his novels very carefully, including the tradecraft of espionage and the details of high speed auto pursuit and the proper handling of all sorts of firearms and the niceties of knife fighting. This is why the Secret Service and various alpha-male groups have made him an honorary member and why, not long ago, when I called David when I was visiting Santa Fe to see if he wanted to hang out, his wife Donna told me that he was away taking advanced knife-fighting instruction with the SEALS. (David broke his collarbone during the first lesson but stayed to finish the entire course.)

In David’s study at his lovely home in Santa Fe he keeps various memorabilia, including the knives sent to him by Sylvester (“Sly”) Stallone after every Rambo movie. (There’s a fourth and final one in the works.) What’s interesting about the knives is that for each succeeding Rambo movie they got larger. I won’t speculate on the psychological implications of this. (But let’s just say that Stallone’s later Rambo-knives are big enough to get all of his signature, plus John Hancock’s, on them.)

Nor will I speculate on the number of times that local or foreign photographers have asked David to pose with knives or nooses or guns or in trenchcoats while wearing snap-brim hats. Nor will I guess how many times David has had to use the Secret Weapon of Bartleby on such requests.

But I will post this author photo of my friend, grabbed from Google. It looks like his home behind him there. And other than the fact that Tabby King would shout “I see that eyebrow creeping up! Get it down!” if she were taking the photo, I think it’s a pretty fair likeness of my friend. Devoid of posturing and silliness.

So perhaps the moral of this installment of Writing Well is – honesty pays. It may pay almost as much in your author photos as it does in your prose. This, of course, is only if one becomes successful enough to need an author’s dustjacket or publicity photo.

Which reminds me – many interviewers and reviewers have commented on the fact that I have written in almost every genre that exists save one: the romance novel.

I think I’m ready.

I’m going to write as a man, of course (there are more and more male romance writers these days) and I’ve been working on the pseudonym I’ll be using. (Hey, I said I’d write romance novels, not that I’d put my name behind them.) I think that something along the lines of Buck LaTour would be good. Or Chauncey DeGritte. Or Coop Gravell.You know, something masculine but sensitive at the same time. Something with a little foreign threat to its sound, but also a bit dashing and sexy.

Whatever name I finally write under, I have my dustjacket photo all ready. It’s just a candid snapshot, actually – (I can’t remember if I was either stepping into the shower or out of the shower at the time, or who exactly it was who took the photo) – but with the help of a little Photoshop (I’m told that romance readers don’t like beards on their authors), I think my romance-author photo is ready for prime time.

Just remember, author – honesty pays.


(Webmasater's Note: Between installments of WRITING WELL, visitors to this web site interested in discussing writing issues can talk to each other and to me on the new ON WRITING WELL strand in the Dan Simmons Forum. While I will answer questions there from time to time, my hope is that these Writing Well installments might serve – at least partially – as a template for discussion so that we can move more slowly toward the usual huge questions of “How do I write a masterpiece and where can I get it published?”)

 >>click here to go to the Forum and On Writing Well thread


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