Tolkien Was Born in Middle Earth and Other Misconceptions

In 3 days, I will start to receive beta reader feedback about my YA dystopian novel, Wrinkle (although one beta reader got back to me a week ago, which was unexpected and fantastic). I’m thrilled but scared, curious but anxious. It is quite possible these readers will tell me that my novel sucks. And that’s okay. I’m ready for that.

What I’m not ready for is the physical transformation I may need to undergo if the book is actually decent and if I find an agent and if the book gets published. You see, I do not look like a writer of speculative fiction. For your reference, I currently (as in, I literally took this photo 2 seconds ago) look like this:

Do you look at this photo and think, “Wow, that guy might be from the future”? No way. And that’s what I need you to think. At best you might look at this and think, “Wow, that guy might be from the future, if in the future people never hit puberty.”

In contrast, here’s what my boy Tolkien looked like:

Hot damn! You look at that photo and know right away that he has some stories to tell. He’s clearly an authority on other worlds. Look at that pipe! It was probably hand-crafted by dwarf-hobbit hybrids. Also, it doesn’t hurt that he’s English. I bet in an A/B test, you’d choose the English writer of epic fantasy over the American any day.

Now, I’m not saying that looking the part is all it takes to be a good writer. It has absolutely nothing to do with it, in fact. But I wonder if the way readers perceive authors affects their decision to trust the author’s storytelling ability.

Here’s another example, George R. R. Martin (initials seem to be another trend–J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, etc.) of Game of Thrones fame:

Sweet baby Jesus! After seeing that on the back flap of a book, do you have any doubt that he has an epic tale to tell? Walk yourself through this: You’re in a bookstore (does that happen anymore?) and you pick up A Dance with Dragons. Now, flip to the back cover and picture my smiling face instead of Martins? What happens, psychologically, when you see my face? What happens when you see his?

Here’s another one, a recently very successful fantasy writer named Patrick Rothfuss:

By the hammer of Thor, that’s a fantasy writer. I think the beard has a big part to do with it. Not only do these guys look like they know what they’re talking about, but they also seem highly approachable. I’m not saying that I’m unapproachable, but honestly, who would you feel more comfortable approaching at a book convention?

The flip side is to go with an author photo that makes the reader feel like they just stumbled upon an undiscovered beauty. My first experience with this was when I was reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I had fallen in love with her writing within the first 50 pages, and then I flipped to the back cover and found myself eye-to-eye with this beauty:

Look at those cheekbones! I could bathe in the indentation between them and her jawline. She’s pretty, but she’s interesting pretty. She’s just pretty enough to make you think that maybe you are the first person in the world to realize how pretty she is.

And with authors, they’re not just another pretty face. Because you have their precious words in your hands. In writing their book, they gave you permission to go inside of them, deeper and deeper until you can’t imagine knowing anyone like you know them, filling them and you with the pleasure and satisfaction of seeing something in someone else that no one else sees.

One more before I make my closing arguments. This is Karen Russell, author of a number of brilliant short stories and the recent novel Swamplandia:

I can’t think of anyone who exemplifies a literary beauty more than Russell. Her face almost has a quiet sadness to it, a welcoming sadness that comes with the burden of truly being about to see people for who they are. Russell looks like she knows things, and maybe she’ll share some of them with you if you read her book.

So where does that leave me, hypothetical author that I am? What sort of physical attributes do I need to be taken seriously as a YA dystopian author? (Again, I use “dystopian” very loosely here, as the future in my book is actually pretty damn good.) What would it take for you to take a single glance at me and think, “I trust what that guy has to say about the future.” Maybe I need those hipster glasses that J.J. Abrams wears? I have 20/20 vision, but I could wear fake lenses or something.

16 Responses to “Tolkien Was Born in Middle Earth and Other Misconceptions”

  1. Katie says:

    Your author photo needs to be you posing in front of a wall that showcases all of your handmade loincloths that you fashioned during your grueling and hard won battles with the elements, kittens, and the other residents of your condo building. I would look at that photo and say, “Yes. This is a man who has experienced dystopian futures first hand and lived to tell the tale to us all. I must leave this bookstore at once to go home and download this book to my Kindle.”

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Katie–I like the way you think. It’s not so much a wall as it is one of those circulating tie racks (but for loincloths), but a photo in front of it would do just the trick.

  2. T-Mac says:

    Judging by your photo, I’d trust you to write a manual on how to use MS Office 2010 or perhaps something about good dental hygiene.

    Given your previous experience trying to grow beards (, I think you should go a different route. Since the main character is a 16-year-old boy, perhaps you need a look that says, “I have experience with 16-year-old boys.” (kidding)

    Realistically, though, I think you should just buy the biggest broadsword you can find. Wield it in the picture. Anyone looks badass with a broadsword.

  3. Penelope says:

    I love this post! I agree with Trevor about the MS Office Manual or dental hygiene book.

    In all seriousness, I think your surroundings could help play into it – are you against a brick wall, on a beach, in the city, in the woods?

    I also think not looking at the camera and having a natural facial expression (i.e. not forced smile) would give a bit more intrigue to your look. But who knows – I have no idea how I’d handle this situation!

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      That’s a good call about my facial expression and the natural surroundings. Something futuristic, though. Maybe I could do a series of iconic poses from science fiction movies. Like Arnold in Terminator 2 or Neo in the Matrix.

  4. Red says:

    Meditate on YOUR Character, and BECOME that character. Do you want to be Snazzy, hip and today? Do you want to be classically traditional? Your clothing style should reflect the character. Next, get your thing. It should be small enough that you’re never without it, but not common enough that everyone has one. Tolkien’s pipe. Martin’s Greek Fisherman’s hat. Do you have a favorite writing implement? A pocket watch and chain? A tattoo that could be partially visible? A favorite brand of sunglasses? Me, I’d go picket knife or multitool. Or paracord. OOH PARACORD BRACELET!!! Then it’s on to the actual image. Do you want to acknowledge the photographer, or should they catch you doing something? Black & white or color (the correct answer is black and white, unless you can get Sepia). Finally, have someone else wield a device more apt to photography than you and your iPhone take the picture.
    And, for god’s sake, if you’re going to be a fantasy writer, don’t let anyone catch you creating any dwarf-hobbit hybrids. They loose the strength to wield a war axe, but bulk up enough that they can’t tip-toe through the glen undetected; even if they are good with a bowstaff.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Red–Your comment came in just in time for my comments of the month entry. Well done, sir. If you ever want to share your thoughts on dwarf-hobbit hybrids on the blog, please do. 🙂

      Also, for the record, I always write by moonlight using a quill made of phoenix feathers (the band, not the bird).

  5. Ansley says:

    Ok, let’s be honest. You look like “that guy”.

    Who is that guy, you might ask….

    You look like an everyman (keep in mind that I’ve never met you in person, I merely stalk you in cyberspace and pray to the gods that I get to meet you in person some day and kiss your hand…..wait……….nevermind…..) kind of guy. You have the tall, dark and handsome look of the guy who was popular in high school because he was not only the captain of the lacrosse team but also the lead in the musical.

    *deep breath*

    *that was long*

    So, maybe grow a beard, get a perm, stop working out and wear rumpled clothes. And pose in front of a brick wall instead of curled up on the bed with your cats.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Ugh. I don’t want to be “that guy.” Especially since I wasn’t that guy, not in high school, not in college, not ever. I’m not tall (5’10” on a good day), I’m not dark (I’m rather pale, really), and handsome? I’d say I’m more “pretty” than handsome, unfortunately.

      So yeah, I definitely need to go through the Five Ansley Steps to Weirdness. I loathe ironing, the so the rumpled clothes one shouldn’t be hard. I don’t know if I can be in a book photo without my cats, though…

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