When I first started my life online – and by that I mean blogging and having actual conversations using Twitter instead of just staring at it, confused – I had a stormy sky and a single lightning bolt as my avatar. It was a miniature version of the big stormy sky and single bolt that was at the top of my website for quite some time.
I was hiding.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I loved that picture and it really spoke to me back then. But it wasn’t my face. No-one online that I chatted with knew what I looked like. And that was just the way I liked it.
Then things started to change. I was commissioned to write a short story for an anthology that led to another and then I had a short story collection published. I got my debut book deal and all of a sudden people asked for a picture of me.
I was mystified and horrified in equal measure. Why would anyone want a picture of me? I was there, right there, in the gaps between those words. Wasn’t that enough?
My first photo shoot
You have to understand, I was recovering from pretty severe post-natal depression and trying to carve a new space for myself in the world. I was heavier than I’d ever been in my life and my body was stretched and distressed in ways that I still can’t bear to think about. It no longer felt my own. It just felt like a flesh bag in which a terrible car crash had happened.
I didn’t want anyone to see me, but there was a pressure to be seen. I went for my first photo shoot and the best picture that came out of it – and was my avatar for at least a couple of years afterwards – was one of me peeping over the top of a copy of The Kraken Wakes (my favourite John Wyndham novel).
I was still hiding.
Time ticked by. I landed a proper book deal for the Split Worlds series and then something happened that I never thought would: SFX wanted to do a two-page featured author spread about me.
Oh shit. That meant another picture had to be taken.
My second photo shoot
By that point I’d figured out that going to conventions was about three million times easier when I dressed up in fancy outfits of my own making. What better way to hide in plain sight than making a grand coat for everyone to look at instead of me?
I had discovered armour. I couldn’t remain unseen any more, not now I needed to be on panels and do launch events and all that stuff. So I donned said armour and went to Bath for the SFX shoot by Joby Sessions.
After about an hour and a half (I think, I was mostly traumatised by the whole pictures being taken for SFX magazine thing), poor Joby was faced with an author who just froze up every time the camera was pointed at her. We tried all sorts of poses in the fantastic Mr B’s bookshop. None were any good. So we went outside.
We took shot after shot. Time wore on. A man walked past us in a back street with the most beautiful huge velvety grey dog and we took a few shots with me and said dog which Joby liked more, but it wasn’t quite right. Then he said something along the lines of “come close to the camera and imagine there’s something inside it that you’re trying to touch” and that shot to the left was taken. I, of course, imagined there was an evil little faerie inside the camera that I had to get. He smiled straight away and said “That’s it. That’s the one.” I was relief incarnate. I bet he was too, poor chap.
It was the first photo taken since my wedding day that I actually don’t mind looking at. It’s still my Twitter avatar and I love the dramatic Doctor Who feel of it.
Then I got a book deal with Ace/Roc for two sci-fi novels and an email arrived from my (fabulous) editor, asking if I’d like to have my photo in the book.
My first response was, obviously: NO! Why on earth would I want that? Isn’t the book enough? Isn’t that the best part of me, right there, pressed between the covers? Why spoil it with my face?
But there’s more than that. I’m a woman who writes science-fiction. That is a massive negative modifier, despite the fact that it’s the 21st century. Because of my gender, my book is less likely to be reviewed, less likely to be displayed in book shops, more likely to be overlooked in general, and more likely to be left out of lists that fly around the internet. Just because I’m a woman. Did I want to put my face in there too?
Because when you’re a woman, you are judged by the way you look. I know everyone is, to some extent, but for women it’s taken to a whole new level of value judgements. I didn’t want people to make a judgement based on the way I look. I didn’t want my face to pollute my work.
But I also know I am screwed up about this
So I asked some friends who are professional authors what they think. They pretty much said “put a photo in, it shows you’re a real person and helps readers connect with you” and that’s a good thing, right? My editor wasn’t putting the pressure on at all, but I felt that if I didn’t put a picture forward I would be hiding again. I couldn’t win. And I couldn’t use my fantastical SFX picture because that belongs to them and it’s only because they are super lovely that I can use it informally online. Having it printed in thousands of books is different matter altogether.
And I didn’t want to end up going to conventions and having people do that “Oh wow you’re actually so much older than you look in your picture” face at me. It was time for a new one.
My third photo shoot
My husband had his first proper author pictures taken by Lou Abercrombie, as did several other author pals – and all were brilliant – so she was my first choice. I freaked out at the prospect of just booking it. I talked on Twitter about it and people gave great advice. So I put on my brave trousers and booked a shoot to be done at home, in the hope it would minimise the anxiety.
You have to understand, this was agonisingly hard. So hard, in fact, that I broke out into the most awful rash all over my face (of course it was my face) that very morning. But Lou was brilliant. She calmed me (and my stupid scaredy skin) down. She reassured me. She told me what to do and I laughed at myself and my ineptitude. I wore my armour, but I didn’t feel I was hiding so much.
Here are the new photos.
I know I have my hands over my face in both, but they were just my favourites. I feel like they are actually showing… me. And that’s why it’s taken me weeks to write this damn post. Because I was afraid of showing them. Of showing me.
I don’t know if that will ever stop being frightening. But the day I don’t do something because it scares me is the day the Fear has won. So if nothing else, that picture in the back of Planetfall this November will be a tiny personal victory over the fear of being seen.