So next week I get my photograph taken for Entertainment Weekly. It looks a lot like it will happen at the House on the Rock, after hours, so I may, like my characters, get to ride The World’s Largest Carousel.
Which, whatever happens or doesn’t happen will probably be more fun, or at least, significantly less smoky, than the author photograph session for American Gods, last December.
Now, every now and again I do something really stupid.
For example, when I started writing American Gods, I swore a mighty oath that I’d not cut my hair or shave my beard until I finished it. By March 2000 I was starting to look like a hassidic terrorist, and somewhere in there I said “Sod it,” and shaved off the beard.
But the hair kept growing. I wasn’t going to get a haircut until I’d finished writing American Gods.
When I tell people about this, they look at me as if I’m really weird, except for the Norwegians who tell me about one of their early kings who didn’t shave or cut his hair until he’d united Norway.( And he didn’t wash either. At least I still bathed.) So the Norwegians don’t think I’m weird.
Anyway, my hair grew and grew (it does that, and whenever I’m tempted to grumble I remember all the people of my generation who would be only too pleased to have hair that grows too fast, or any kind of hair really), and finally it was last October and people who didn’t know me were making Howard Stern jokes when they passed me in the street. And I was going to go on a Comic Book Legal Defense Fund Reading Tour...
So I finished the book. In first draft, anyway. And I went and visited Wendy at Hair Police in Minneapolis, and got my first haircut in 18 months; and then I went off on the CBLDF reading tour and raised many tens of thousands for freedom of speech, and this was a good thing. (Somewhere in there I talked Chris Oarr from the defense fund out of auctioning off my cut-off hair for charity.)
(You know, this would be much more fun if I could illustrate it with photos. Maybe when we put up the neilgaiman.com site I will.)
So I had short hair and nobody made Howard Stern jokes any more.
Now, author photos are weird things. For example, take the Good Omens photo session, in 1989, where Terry Pratchett and I were taken to a graveyard on the coldest day of the year. The expressions on our faces – variously described as brooding, intelligent, and mysterious, and by the Times of London no less, as sinister – are simply cold. (I was relatively okay. I had a leather jacket on. Terry wore an extremely lightweight jacket he’d borrowed from Malcolm Edwards, because the notion of the authors dressed respectively in black and in white. I was black.)
The easiest author photos have been the various Kelli Bickman photos taken over the years, including my favourite, the Smoke and Mirrors back cover photo, with its infinite regression of authors on a TV screen. But Kelli’s taking fewer photos these days, and is concentrating more on her artwork. (She’s MTV Featured Artist currently... you can see some of her artwork at www.kellibickman.net)
The hardest was the one in the UK in 1996 for Wired Magazine. The photo you may have seen from that session is the one of me holding a glowing book. The one you’ve not seen was the one of me, naked and wearing angel wings surrounded by candles. The one that I still remember with loathing was the one that wound up on the cover of Wired: it was me covered in sand. (A visual pun: Sandman. Yes?) And I would like to give a tip for young photographers who may want to attempt this shot.
Do not use builder’s sand. It may be cheap, but it burns the skin.
Trust me on this. I’ve been there. I know.
The American Gods photo session was nowhere near that painful.
I still think I may have messed everything up by having a haircut.
The photographer was a very nice lady named Sigrid Estrada.
(Kelly Notaras, my editor Jennifer Hershey’s right-hand woman took me down there. Jennifer herself, and my literary agent Merrilee Heifetz wandered along during the course of the afternoon.)
Sigrid took one look at me and said “I thought you were going to have longer hair.”
She looked very disappointed.
“No,” I said, apologetically. “I don’t.”
She sighed. She shook her head. I never quite found out why this messed things up as much as it obviously had.
Sigrid had a plan for a photo. The plan involved a lot of smoke. Her assistant held the smoke machine. Kelly Notaras was drafted in to hold a piece of cardboard to waft the smoke. And I stood there while Sigrid shouted “Smoke!” at the assistant holding the smoke machine, and the machine would belch huge gusts of white fog at me, and then she’d call “Waft!” at Kelly and Kelly would wave the paper and try to get the smoke off my face.
And that’s what we did for the next four or five hours. We did it with my leather jacket on. We did it with my leather jacket off. We did it with me standing up. We did it with me sitting down. We did it with me peering coyly from around the side of a huge sheet of paper. And all through this, the smoke was belched, and then the smoke was wafted. (Jennifer did some fine smoke wafting, too.)
Merrilee exerted an agent’s traditional prerogative and ran up between smoke belches and tried to tame the hair on my forehead. It didn’t tame, but she did her best.
And I began to understand what a kipper must feel like, at the precise moment it stops just being a herring, and realises that it has been smoked. For me that moment occurred at the point where Sigrid decided that it might be more... more whatever she was going for... if the smoke was splurted directly at my head, rather than just generally belched out around waist level.
I’d hold my breath and smile and be told that I shouldn’t smile, not for the kind of photo that Sigrid had in mind. So I’d stop smiling, and the smoke would splurt and Kelly or Jennifer would waft it and Sigrid would click away.
Days would pass before the taste of the smoke machine finally left the back of my throat. Still, it could have been much worse. There was no builder’s sand involved, nor was I being warned not to get too close to the candles or my wings would go up like tinder and burn my bare skin.
So a few weeks passed, and one day the contact sheets arrived. Lots and lots of photos of me. And smoke.
My son took one look at the contact sheet and said “Was your head on fire?”
“No,” I said.
“It just looked like it was, that was all.”
And he was right. All the smoke being let off at head level had managed to create a set of photos in which it was perfectly obvious that my head was indeed on fire.
Claudia Gonson (of the Magnetic Fields) was staying with us over Christmas. I showed her the contact sheet.
“They make you look like your head’s on fire,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “It’s a special effect.”
“And all the ones of you not wearing the leather jacket make you look like David Copperfield.”
“Yes. That’s a special effect too.”
“You don’t want to look like David Copperfield, do you?”
“No, thank you. Let’s stick with the ones with me with a jacket on.”
We picked one black and white photo, and one colour picture. The best thing about the black and white photo was the smoke in the background, which, far from looking like my head (or indeed any part of me) was on fire, looked instead like a mysterious sort of background, which might be clouds or mountains or, well, anything really.
(You can see one at http://www.codysbooks.com/index.jsp, while the figure of me from that picture, much photoshopped, is up on the front page of this website.)
I think they’re pretty good photos. I still feel vaguely guilty about getting the haircut, though. I just wonder what Ingrid could have done, if my hair had been longer. And whether whatever it was would have required quite so much smoke.