By Mary Ann DeSantis | Photography Credits: Author photo by @Beowulf Sheehan; Book cover provided by Minotaur Books/St.Martin’s Publishing
A young woman creates a family she wants through photo manipulations in this debut novel by Mary Dixie Carter.
How do we know what’s real or what isn’t in a world of enhanced and fake photography? Do our favorite photographs really reflect our reality?
Readers of “The Photographer” may ask themselves those same questions as they realize how easy it is for the book’s protagonist, Delta Dawn, to create the life she wants through photo editing programs. A children’s photographer in New York City, Delta creates imaginary scenes that fool her clients into believing their lives are perfect. But then she uses her talent to create more than just impeccable photos for clients — she finds sinister ways to insinuate herself into a family that represents perfection compared to her own troubled childhood.
The new psychological thriller by Mary Dixie Carter is spellbinding, yet disturbing as the story unfolds. The book offers many layers — from Delta’s obsessive and unpredictable behavior to the Straub family’s powerful urge to have a baby through surrogacy.
“I didn’t set out to write a psychological thriller. I just started writing and it became one,” says Carter, who had a brief stint as an actress before becoming a writer for publications like The New York Observer, TIME, and The Economist.
“The book went in that direction because of my background as an actor. I’ve read many, many plays. The actor needs to escalate tension… and quickly. You need to get on with it. Find the conflict and escalate and that’s kind of in my bones,” she explains.
Acting is also in Carter’s DNA. If her name rings a bell, it may be because her mother is the late Dixie Carter, a Tennessee native and actress who played Julia Sugarbaker on the sitcom “Designing Women” from 1986 to 1993.
Carter’s own experiences with a very Southern name led her to pick the name, Delta Dawn, for her main character in “The Photographer.”
“My mother took it personally if someone dropped the Dixie from Mary Dixie,” she says with a laugh. “I sometimes felt like a fish out of water growing up in New York and California. My name calls attention to itself. I wanted that for Delta, also, because Delta feels herself to be an outsider in the Brooklyn world. The lyrics in the Tanya Tucker song also describe this character’s psyche.”
The idea to make Delta a talented photographer stemmed from a real-life conversation with a photographer that Carter hired to take pictures of her own two young children. Although the photos were beautiful, her children’s eyes were cobalt blue in the pictures but they aren’t in real life.
“I told her ‘I’d like for my children’s eyes to be their real color,’” Carter remembers. “And she said, ‘There is no real color.’ That psychology was fascinating to me. What I heard is there is no real color, no real anything — you make it what you want it to be.”
The photographer adjusted the eye color and Carter came away with the plot for a story where the character created photos to represent life in the way she wanted it to be. While writing the book, Carter took a Photoshop class.
“I can’t claim any expertise, but I wanted to understand it [Photoshop] well enough to get into Delta’s head and to sound convincing,” says Carter.
Although she lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., Carter’s Tennessee roots run deep. She still owns and frequently visits her mother’s home in McLemoresville, Tenn., north of Memphis.
“I am very connected to Tennessee. Going to the house in Tennessee is the nearest thing to my mother. She and my grandfather were both born there,” she says. “It gives them (my children) her essence. It’s a part of who I am and I want it to be part of their lives, too.”
Her extended family — mostly cousins now — often gathers there and reminisces about their childhood summers spent with her grandparents.
“We had so much fun and that’s still the case when we get together,” she recalls. “My grandfather had a store in Huntingdon, Tenn., and we had the run of the place. I remember playing in the huge basement of his store, H.L. Carter and Son.”
Carter can still break into a song she recorded at eight years old for her grandfather. “One summer when my sister Ginna and I were there, we did a radio commercial for my grandfather’s store,” she recalls. “He drove us to the radio station and we sang. It was a fabulous moment to hear ourselves on the radio.”
Her voice will soon be heard on the audio version of her debut novel. “They wouldn’t let me sing, but narrating the story was a happy experience of bringing my writing and my acting together,” she says.
“The Photographer” has received rave reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and well-respected critics. It’s predicted to become a summer reading blockbuster, and Carter has already sold the TV rights for the book. She has begun work on a second book although this summer she says she’ll be promoting “The Photographer” more than writing.
“There are lots of things to do with promotion,” she says, “but when that dies down some, I’ll be able to put my nose to the grindstone.”