The “fake” spy novelist behind the biggest episode of plagiarism in our time was addicted to stealing from other writers. Three weeks after confessing his crimes, he opens up for the first time about what really happened—and how he stayed sober.
Just over three weeks ago, I was publicly exposed as a thief—someone who stole other people's words and tried to pass them off as his own. I copied and pasted passages from some of my favorite authors of spy and thriller fiction—Charles McCarry, Robert Ludlum, John Gardner, Adam Hall—and made a kind of collage out of them that was published under the title Assassin of Secrets by Little, Brown. I used a pseudonym, Q.R. Markham, that was itself borrowed in part from Kingsley Amis. The book remained on the shelves for just five days before hundreds of thousands of copies were recalled and pulped. It received some good reviews, was picked up by the Book-of-the-Month Club, and even made a best-of-2011 list. It was a dream come true.
Then on Monday, November 7, members of a James Bond web forum discovered that sections of my book had been lifted verbatim from a John Gardner James Bond novel called Licence Renewed. The following day, a prominent spy novelist, Jeremy Duns, who had actually been kind enough to blurb Assassin, read the forum and contacted my publisher. On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story detailing my crimes. My bright new life as a writer of espionage thrillers suffered a sudden, violent death.
They call a person like me a Plagiarist. It’s one of the harsher words we have in our language. Perhaps not up there with Pedophile or Rapist, but not as far behind as you'd think either. For years, I’d been dreading being called that word, and marveled all the while that I'd somehow avoided being caught. I associated its three syllables strongly with public humiliation and shame. And though that’s exactly what I’ve received, the fact is I’m still here, still standing, and still sober for 15 straight years.
But in a very short period of time—we’re talking hours—the revelation of my crimes turned my life upside-down. I lost my job in the Brooklyn bookstore where I was a part owner, my beautiful girlfriend left me (and the apartment we were going to share), and my future in the only field I know anything about, books, came to ignominious end. Many of my friends and associates turned their backs on me right away. Others stepped forward to provide comfort and solace. Some felt like they had probably never truly known me and it made them uncomfortable. Others didn't need an explanation at all. One thing, I believe, they all felt was confusion. Why does a person do something like this?
I was trying to write a short story for the first time when I came upon a paragraph I liked in a story by B.S. Johnson called “What did you say the Name of the Place was?” I suddenly realized it fit my narrative perfectly. It was so easy to do, as easy as picking up a drink.
It’s a fair question. And since I’m only three weeks removed from the implosion, I can only really speculate on the answer. Why did I do it? I think the truth goes back to the late '90s, when I was newly sober (counting days, actually) in a small, mid-western liberal arts college with an astonishing library. That’s where I became a word thief: skimming through collected issues of old magazines like The Transatlantic Review and New World Writing and Eugene Jolas' Transition, bound in crimson hardcover. I was 20 years old, and trying to write a short story for the first or second time when I came upon a paragraph I liked from a short story by B.S. Johnson called What did you say the Name of the Place was? It was so easy to do, as easy as picking up a drink, if you think about it. The lifted paragraph perfectly fit my narrative. And it temporarily assuaged the awful feeling I had in my head that I was no good as a writer. In retrospect, maybe that's when I transferred my obsession from drinking and drugs to plagiarism. My addiction didn’t disappear; it simply morphed into something else.
I first tried to get sober when I was eighteen. I'd smelled up my mother's house with Pernod Anis after a nasty break-up, been caught, sent back to school, got drunk on the plane, and spent the week in a black-out. When I came to, another student took me to my first AA meeting. I remember vividly that I didn't want to drink afterwards.
Have you ever heard someone at an AA meeting say that you'll lose anything you put before your sobriety? Well this is a story about precisely that. Some months after my first meeting a poem I'd written in high school was picked for the Best American Poetry anthology. I was nineteen. My ego had already left the building. I should have been at my happiest, getting into my studies and rejoicing at the blowjob heaven of youth and possibility in those playground groves of academe. Instead, I spent sleepless nights trying to recapture whatever oddball inspiration I'd had that landed me in the Anthology. I manically tried to publish more poems, and eventually picked up a drink again. That run lasted several months, and it was not fun. I tried to keep my drinking secret from friends who'd seen me get sober, but I was a violent, fall down drunk. Suddenly I was back to paying people off for having broken their windows the night before, or their dishes, and generally making apologies for things I didn't remember doing.