Showing Myself in My Author Photo—Gray Hair and All
Caitlin Shetterly on the Honest Humility of Going Gray
It was a Friday this past March and I still didn’t have an author photo for my new (and first) novel, Pete and Alice in Maine. Last August, when I was tan and more lithe from daily swimming, Dan, my husband, who also happens to be a photographer, had started talking about the photo. We had lots of ideas for perching me on a rock overlooking Popham beach with the sunset behind me, or down by the estuary behind our house, the tall grass golden in some warm evening glow.
But we never made it out there—there was always too much happening, or it rained. Months went by. And now it was March, by far my most unattractive month, when sallow might be something I’d aspire to. I’d been sick with a sinus infection and was in the middle of a perimenopausal PMS that was stretching into two long weeks of agony. I was exhausted from shuttling my kids everywhere, working 3/4 time at a job and book odds and ends. I needed a haircut, a massage, a facial, a vacation, some sun.
And I had spent exactly zero time thinking about this photo since my inspired sunset ideas back in late August. Now my publisher needed the photo by Monday.
A long time ago, a friend was talking about Halloween costumes and I’ve never forgotten when she said, “Why would anyone want to go as an author? Authors are all ugly.” Obviously she wasn’t thinking of Jhumpa Lahiri, for instance. Also obviously, she had forgotten that I was a writer standing right next to her. But that stuck with me. “A face perfect for radio,” was another line that was bandied about at parties when I worked for NPR.
I think what actually happens for many writers, when we get to the photo stage, is that we’ve done this very vulnerable work of sitting in a room and getting a story down. And now, the blankets are about to be pulled off and we’re going to be revealed as the one who wrote all those sentences that came from somewhere deep inside us. We have to put our face on it. And although, of course, our reader wants to see us, to know us a little bit, it always feels to the author like a bit of a shock to turn to the camera. We’ve been on the other end of the lens, looking at the world.
That March evening, after our session, Dan and I sifted through the photos. In many of them, I looked tired, grumpy, pale, and older than I realized. Even so, there was a handful I thought were passable. I sent them to a friend to take a look. She texted back very quickly that she didn’t think any of them was “quite there yet.” She wrote, “You need to seem likable and approachable” We tried again on Saturday afternoon. But this next batch was even worse. Trying to look likable and approachable put me in a foul mood.
The same friend texted that I should just use my author photo from 2015, which graced my 2016 book, Modified. “It’s the only one I’ve seen so far that I can advocate.” She told me everyone does it; uses old photos, that is. She texted me the photo in case I didn’t remember how much of a babe I was 8 years ago. I looked longingly at that photo. I did look good: I was not yet perimenopausal, Trump had not yet become president, Covid hadn’t yet upended the world. My middle hadn’t thickened yet, I hadn’t yet had a gray hair—many yets were yet to come.
“I look nothing like that anymore,” I texted back. “If you dyed your hair you’d look like that,” she texted back.
“Does she think I should be dying my hair?” I whined to Dan. “I like your gray,” said Dan. I was remembering another friend who told me when my sons were small that her best advice for having two boys was to “Never go gray. They need you to stay young.”This book, for me, is all about, finally, at 48, listening to my own voice and knowing myself and what my heart says.
Tortured now, I sent my Friday night photos to my team at Harper. As an afterthought, I sent my old 2015 babe-writer photo to my agent and asked her what she thought, telling her that my friend had told me people use old author photos all the time. “People do,” she wrote back. Then, there was a flurry of emails and everyone said I could indeed use the older photo where I was blond and pretty. I think they all thought they were saying what I wanted them to say, which was “Go for it! It’s ok to be vain about this.” Instead they said, “We want you to love your photo.”
That night I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned and obsessed over the author photo which started to take on a life of its own, looming over me like Woody Allen’s mother in that movie, New York Stories.
I was agonizing over the deep feeling that I had tried to write a very honest novel. Bracingly so. About a marriage and how a woman can get lost. About children and girls. All that honest work and I was about to be dishonest about what I looked like?
As the night wore on, I was thinking back to how some of the younger readers in my agent, Lisa’s, office assumed I was Alice. I have no idea why people do that; assume fiction is memoir. And I was thinking about how in that earlier photo I look like I have it all—the smart, thin, pretty, blonde woman who lives in Maine and wears cool boots. Wouldn’t that make people hate me? I’d hate me.
At three AM I realized that I can’t fuzz anything out at this point in my life—if I do, I’ll lose a tiny bit of trust. From a reader, sure. But more importantly, from myself.
This book, for me, is all about, finally, at 48, listening to my own voice and knowing myself and what my heart says. Like my main character, Alice, I have spent a life often capitulating or not knowing how I feel. Starting to know myself is part of what was happening to me as I wrote this novel; I am now finding ways to be sure of how I feel. It’s an important process, one the book helped me start.
I wrote to my team at Harper the next morning: “I hope I’m not disappointing anyone. I know pretty is awesome. That older photo is my favorite photo of me ever!!! I was so pretty, and I didn’t even know it! Or feel it. Are we all like that? But I feel I’d be betraying my ideal reader, the other 40ish women who are going to read this book. I think middle aged women want and need honesty right now.
So I want to take this opportunity to finally celebrate my gray and wrinkles. I’ve asked Dan only to take out imperfections in skin tone from the lighting. After all, this is me. And Alice was created from a place of middle aged and still growing wisdom.”
Everyone on the team wrote back, “Thank you for saying all that.” I knew that Thank you was about more than just finally choosing a photo.
A lot of women went gray during Covid. It became a thing. Some stuck with it, realizing that they liked this new, honest version of themselves. Others stuck with it until some important milestone, like a book photo, and then dyed their hair again.
My photo is of a going-gray and, perhaps, sallow mom, who I was that March Friday after working and mothering all day. It’s the same person who will show up for readings and interviews. I have no plans to run out and dye my hair or Botox any lines.
I want to come as I am. Just as Alice was willing to show up as she was on the page. No apologies.
Pete and Alice in Maine by Caitlin Shetterly is available now via Harper.