An aging novelist contemplates the face he presents to the world
“Hey, I saw that picture of you,” said my 20-something neighbor as she passed me in the local coffee shop. “So young-looking!”
It took me a while to grasp that she hadn’t been leafing through my high-school or college yearbook. She hadn’t gotten a glimpse of my driver’s -license picture (which hasn’t been updated in a decade and a half). She was talking about something of far more recent vintage: my author photo.
A picture that had been taken some five years earlier on a fall day in Battery Park. Even then, it had tasted of the aspirational. The photographer, harnessing every last trick in his digital magic bag, had found a way to plane away my crow’s feet, plant pixie dust beneath my skin, make the blue of my eyes pop like a Swiss mountain lake.
Is that me? I remember asking myself.
Well, of course it was. Just … more.
And so, as the years went by, I learned to ignore the people who told me how “hot” I looked on my dust jacket, how “flattering” the picture was, what “good work” the photographer had done. I comforted myself in the knowledge that author photos never really look like the people in question. Truth be told, this is the one form of vanity still available to wordsmiths. For one brief shining moment, we get to look like our best selves. Even if that best self was a generation ago.
Still, that passing remark from my young neighbor really dug under my skin. I felt like Blanche DuBois or Norma Desmond, dragged into the light of day. There was no getting around it anymore: I would have to update my “public face.”
So I asked the son of a friend to snap some pics of me in a local park, and it was only in the act of unspooling the images across my computer screen that I grasped — at some molecular level — how old I had become while I was looking the other way. The vertical fissure just above my nose; the crow’s feet, no longer diffused but etched; the unmistakable spackling of gray across my hair.
Is that me?
Yes. Right now, that’s the face I’m presenting to the world. And after some reflection, I’ve decided I’m okay OK with that. Because whatever went into making my books is present and accounted for in every sag and line and wrinkle. My body — like my body of work — is just the outward reflection of what’s inside.
So the next time some young neighbor bumps into me in a coffee shop, I want her to say: “You look just like your picture.” And I desperately want me to say: “Thank you.”
Louis Bayard is the author of seven novels, including Mr. Timothy, The Pale Blue Eye and the upcoming Lucky Strikes. He wrote the popular “Downton Abbey Recap” for the New York Times.