When I was pregnant, I had a picture in my head of what my daughter would be like.
She would be a reader, of course. (Not right away. Everyone thinks their child will be a genius, sure; but even I knew womb-to-library was probably a bit too much to expect.) She would be quiet and introspective and watchful, and spend a lot of time sitting cross-legged in a corner, her dark pigtails brushing the pages of the book she was reading. We’d have to repeat ourselves to get her attention. She would be polite and reserved, and everyone would remark about how well-behaved she was.
Please understand that, beyond babysitting as a teen, I’d never really had children in my life.
We were gifted, of course, with a bouncy, golden-haired hellraiser who wanted to see EVERYTHING and do EVERYTHING and touch EVERYTHING and had no intention of staying still, ever. She was a delight. She was a stranger. She was nothing that I had anticipated.
That’s how I felt about the book cover.
I don’t describe people much in my writing. This is largely because I rarely have strong pictures of them in my head. They are a collection of emotions and impulses and flaws and desires. They are voices. They talk to me. I don’t often see them. This is something I’ve worked on changing on the page; but even so, I tend to stick with general things, because in my head, I don’t have specifics.
So I had some trepidation about having someone put actual people on my book cover. And that was before I understood that I would be helping to choose who those actual people were. I did not know that cover artists, at least sometimes, work with real models.
I was asked to describe what I thought they would look like. I tackled all four POV characters, although we knew it was unlikely more than two of them would appear on the cover. Then, of course, came the task of finding models who looked “right.”
And wasn’t that weird.
Elena, it turns out, was pretty easy. My editor found someone perfect very quickly; my daughter looked at the model’s picture and said “She looks like she’s in charge.” (I look at the book cover sometimes when I’m having a rough day, and imagine that woman saying “GET BACK TO WORK, LIZ.” She would never let the vaguaries of real life skew her focus.)
Trey was more difficult, which was interesting, because long after I’d written the book I actually saw Trey in a movie. So describing Trey was pretty easy: Asian, of Chinese or Mongolian descent, muscular, black hair, dark eyes, mustache. (I left off the tattoos; but really, you should add them in your imagination when you read.)
That was not the difficult part. The difficult part was his age. Because it seems that in addition to seeing characters as Caucasians unless (and often even if) you’re explicit about it, readers will also see young people.
I’m not cagy in the book about Trey’s age. It’s in Chapter 1. It’s referred to throughout the text. It is, in a way, a plot point. The models I got were handsome Asian men of about 30. I pointed out the discrepancy, and there was a moment of “Oh. I didn’t realize he was THAT old.” The model we ended up with is still younger than Trey, but he could plausibly be Trey’s age. (Or perhaps I onlly think so because I chose him.)
It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that anyone over the age of 40 is, in one fashion or another, Grandpa Simpson. (“But we don’t mean you, Liz!” I hear you shout. Which is fine. So since Trey is, in point of fact, an aspect of me, y’all can grandfather him in as well.)
So after the models were chosen, I got to see them drawn as my characters. And that…that was strange. Because they were my characters, but they weren’t. They weren’t the people I’d had in my head, but at the same time, they were right.
My mother has taken some remarkable photographs of my daughter. She captures moments, expressions, things that fly by in real life and don’t leave the same impression. Strangers would look at some of those photographs, and look at my daughter, and have a hard time believing they’re the same person. I see it because I know her so well, and because that evocative snapshot is an aspect of her, albeit usually a fleeting one.
I feel the same way about the people on the book cover. They don’t look like my characters…but they do. One snapshot, one moment, one emotion, frozen. In this moment, I forgive them for being more beautiful than they are. Every mother likes lovely pictures of her children.
It is an emotional experience seeing an image in your mind made real, concrete, fixed. There’s a weird sort of letting go that has to happen: These are the people your readers will see when they turn the page. I did the best I could to choose faces that would make that as close to the experience in my head as I could get.
And I’m lucky, really, that we started with these two characters. Other characters will be harder for me to see visualized. I’m less emotionally entangled with Elena and Trey. I am caught between being very curious to see what we could come up with for the others, and feeling deeply protective toward them. Elena and Trey – well, they can fend for themselves, can’t they? I look at the book cover, and I think they’ve done rather well.
With endless, heartfelt thanks to Chris McGrath, who brought Elena and Trey to life so beautifully.