It may seem strange that my character, Mr. Handsome – a man in his 80s – is depicted in the book as a boy pharaoh.
One of the great delights, for both me and Peter, was seeing the artwork Catherine produced, story after story as I wrote them. There was nothing she could not draw, from fish to whales – from elephants to castles to monkeys hanging from banana trees. But when it came to Mr. Handsome himself, Catherine could not do it. In her first sketch of him, he looked like Georgia O’Keeffe. Catherine was mortified to show it to Peter and me, because she knew what she’d done. The three of us basically shrieked.
Over the next few weeks, I emailed to Catherine photos of likely candidates, including my friend June’s husband Gregory – a very handsome man, though certainly not yet in his 80s. Nothing sufficed. No amount of discussion. No amount of cajoling (“Come on, Catherine, all the sketches can’t be a bad as the Georgia O’Keeffe.”). Not even the photos I sent her of Sir Ian McKellan, especially in God’s and Monsters.
Finally, Catherine told me that she could not draw Mr. Handsome. By way of mollifying me, she said he was “larger than life” and that it would be interesting for readers to have to imagine what he looked like.
But the truth is that, once Catherine said she could not draw Mr. Handsome, I knew he could not be drawn – that if Catherine couldn’t draw him, nobody could.
Peter, with his eye for design, insisted that Mr. Handsome needed a face … that the book needed his face … that readers needed a face. Of course he was right, and the solution was simple. We used the image of Mr. Handsome from the story Night & Pharaoh, a boyhood dream in which Mr. Handsome, as a boy pharaoh, more or less solves the problem of slavery in Egypt.
The point? In some ways, Mr. Handsome will always be a boy pharaoh. In some ways, his face will always remain a mystery. Thanks, Catherine!