I drove from my home in Robbinsville to meet my friend Rob in Newtown, PA, I wondered who I should be when I got there. I was headed to a photo shoot and I was still a little undecided about this important question.
As I considered this, I also scanned my mental check list to be sure I was ready: Hair properly quaffed with enough pomade to choke a horse – check. Freshly pressed button down shirt with a bit of color (pale purple) – check. Shirt tail pulled out of my new jeans to give a casual air and to hide my girth (unsuccessfully) – check. Long, black (and threadbare) over coat, left open to look cool (and because I was too wide around the mid-section to button it) – check.
I breathed easy. I was ready for my first official author photo. But still, the question lingered. Who should I be?
Author pics have been a staple of the publishing industry since before Dickens. Rare is the successful writer who has not had his likeness captured in some form. Hell, I’m sure there’s even a marble bust, or a mosaic, or a cracked and chipped mural that includes the likeness of Homer (the poet, not the cartoon character) that was created in his time for his own legion of fans. There’s a reason for this. Author’s tell stories. Stories – the good ones, anyway – communicate ideas, and people want to know the source of those ideas. Words are magical things; readers are often curious about the magician.
I pulled up to the curb, parked the car, and walked up to the front door of Rob’s house. It was Sunday and his wife was out for the day. That meant Rob was on daddy duty, keeping their two young daughters company. Been there myself on weekends when my wife has had to work.
Rob Gougher is a member of our theater company. His capable coding keeps our website humming and his photography has made our shows look spectacular and help sell tickets. So Rob was a natural choice when I went looking for someone to make my ugly mug look presentable for readers.
I rang the bell and waited. Again, I asked myself that same question – who should I be? Rob opened the door. He wore a rust-colored Orvis jacket, and his Canon 60D – a cool tool with a long lens that gave me camera envy – was already cradled in his hand. Lurking somewhere behind him was Charlotte, his 9-year-old daughter with the elfin features, cradling a circular light reflector and standing ready to help her dad.
“Hey, Rob,” I said.
“Hi, You…“ Rob paused, his words and thoughts shifting in mid-sentence as his eyes fell to my shoes – loafers, Bass Weejuns, black, bought on sale with my wife’s employee discount.“…You didn’t wear boots…” he finished, his words trailing off with not a little bit of awkwardness.
“Yeah, I don’t really have any,” I lied. Hey, I live in New Jersey. It snows here. Who doesn’t at least have an old pair of snow boots, right? Stupid answer, but it was all I had.
Rob had instructed me to wear boots to the shoot, no doubt planning to keep them out of the shot as he clicked away. I had not complied. Again, fallout from my ambivalence about what I wanted to portray in these pics. And yes, because I felt a little silly dressing up for photos, but clomping around in ugly snow boots. However, in my defense, I also thought they might limit our options. I was thinking I might want some full-body shots, as ridiculous as that now sounds.
“Can you afford to ruin those?” Rob asked, dubious.
“Yeah, I’m good,” was my only reply. Another lie. In for a penny, in for a pound.
He and Charlotte wore more sensible footwear than I did. Rob had planned for an outside shoot and was afraid my nice shoes would be caked in mud, or worse. He was right, of course. After a few shots in front of his house, with Charlotte on tip-toe holding the reflector to cast just the right light, Rob lead me around to the back of the house. His backyard adjoined a wooded area, and beyond that a farmer’s field. It was open, empty and littered with stubble from the previous season’s harvest.
As we stepped from the back yard into the thin patch of woods Rob chose for our first shooting location, his logic, and his advice about my shoes, became instantly clear to me. Littering ground were numerous small piles of deer shit.
“Watch your step,” he said.
Rob went on to explain. He told me the benefit of living in a more rural neighborhood, was that you got to experience some beautiful wild life first hand. Seeing a herd of deer in, or just beyond, his back yard was not uncommon. But such sights carry a price.
He and Charlotte passed through with skill and experience. For me, however, avoiding the mess was like stepping on stones to cross a stream without getting my feet wet.
Rob eventually found a great spot where the sun was just right. The leafless trees with gnarled branches would make a great backdrop for the photos. Perfect for a an author of dark fiction.So is that who I should be, an author of dark fiction? I had enough personalities to choose from, is that really the one I should share. And isn’t that just a convenient label?
The truth is that we all have different sides to our personalities, and we show those different sides to different people at different times. I am one person when I’m with my wife, another when I’m with my our daughter, yet another when I’m with my brothers. And I was someone completely different when I once dressed up in a jacket and tie and went to work at a pharmaceutical company. It’s just a fact of life. We all do it, to a greater or lesser extent, whether we realized it or not. Any one who says they don’t is just kidding themselves. And fiction writers have it worse. Their fictional characters get thrown into the mix as well. Readers will sometimes wrongly associate a writer with those characters – especially the odd, eccentric or disagreeable ones. It’s tough to keep it all straight.
So the real question is this: which of these people that make up Dan Maurer, should I be sharing with my future readers? It’s not just about tagging myself a “thriller writer”, or “horror writer”, or “author of dark fiction” – whatever that means. These are just convenient labels are usually put on us by other people, or used by publishers to tell a reader on what shelf they will find the book.
As I thought about it, I decided it has more to do with the truth and how much of it people can give or take without stirring up too much shit with friends, family or fans. Why is it so important? I guess it goes back to why people are curious about the person who writes the fiction they read. Readers want to know that the person they are spending time with – the amount of time it takes them to read a short story, novella or novel – is someone they actually like.
David Foster (The Thing, Mask of Zorro, Hart’s War), a movie producer I once collaborated with on a treatment, said something that I’ll never forget. We were talking about a character in a treatment my friend, Jeff Rubin, and I were writing for him. One of the main characters, Harry, was a likeable guy, but his wife (soon to be ex-wife) was a bitch. David was uncomfortable with this. He saw that the plot had the marriage ending in Act I and the wife would be gone from the picture quickly, but he still couldn’t see why Harry would have married her in the first place.
“The character of the wife doesn’t work,” he said. “She reflects too negatively on Harry.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
And then he said those important words I remember even today: “We are who we’re with.”
Okay, it wasn’t Shakespeare, but I got his meaning. And if we are defined (by ourselves and others) based on who we choose to spend our time with, it only makes sense that readers will want to spend time with someone both interesting and honest. Someone who will put themselves out there, warts and all, and just say: This is who I am. Hope you like it, dude, cuz this is all I got. So I decided that’s where I’ll start. We’ll see where it leads.
After snapping pictures in both the thinly wooded patch, and the open field beyond, Rob was able to capture some great pics in beautiful light. He was right to suggest we schedule the shoot for “magic hour” as photographers and cinematographers like to call the sunset/dusk time of the day.
Rob worked swiftly and efficiently. However, after a while, Charlotte began to fidget. She wore only jeans with just an open hoodie on top of a t-shirt and it grew colder as the sun began to set. The young girl passed the reflector from hand to hand, each time giving her free hand a few seconds to warm in the pocket of her jacket.
Then she said: “Daddy, can I go inside and get my gloves?”
Rob and I both knew that was the signal. Those words were our two-minute warning. We quickly finished the last of pics and called it a day.
I thanked Rob and Charlotte for their help, said my good-byes, and walked to my car at the curb. As I did I looked back on the last 45 minutes. I was thrilled with the shots Rob captured. More importantly, I was content with where I landed as far as who I will be for my reader. I will be my honest, unvarnished self. Yeah, seems pretty simple, but trust me, few people are willing to do this in a professional environment. Some people have trouble doing it at all. It is certainly a new one for me; an experiment if you will. No doubt friends, family and readers will let me know if it works for them.
When I reached the curb I opened the car door, then paused, and thought twice about getting inside. Instead, I leaned in, popped open the glove box, and removed a few paper napkins left over from the Dunkin’ Donuts breakfast I had that morning. Pinching the wad of napkins between thumb and forefinger, I carefully began scraping the mud and deer shit from my shoes.
Yep, honest and unvarnished.
Photo Credit: Photography by Rob Gougher (© 213 Robert Gougher) firstname.lastname@example.org
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