The person behind the writer

This New Yorker article threw me a bit off balance. It describes a best-selling author’s path to success, except it’s not what you’d expect.

Dan Mallory, a.k.a. A.J. Finn is an editor and the author of best-selling thriller ‘The Woman in the Window’. He seems to have turned his life into fiction, inventing fatal illnesses and family deaths to gain sympathy, manipulating others, impersonating his brother and repeatedly lying to advance in his career. As it turned out, his best-selling debut, too, strongly resembles an 1995 thriller called ‘Copycat.’ Has he plagiarised it?

It got me thinking, more than ever, about the ideas and perceptions we foster about writers. A writer seems to be two people at the same time: the first one as smart and witty as their characters, if not even smarter, and the other one a person who sits behind a computer, still wearing their pyjamas, while muttering under their coffee-stained breath. Let’s be honest: no one wants to know that this second person exists, probably not even the second person themselves.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

This is why stories like Dan Mallory’s can come as a bit of a shock. A writer is seen as a sort of archetype. In a masterclass, a well-known thriller writer said a reader once flattered him by calling him smarter than his protagonist. The author disagreed, saying he’d had to research for days or weeks so his protagonist could come up with a quick and brilliant solution. The reader didn’t give in though, saying he was still smarter, because he’d written it. I guess it’s not that sexy to believe that behind a brilliant character lie hours of head-banging sweat and of moments of despair.

When I started to work in communication, I was thrown back to find out that what we believe isn’t based on the quality of the available evidence. We only use it to help us prove what feels true. In other words, our decisions are not driven by reason, but by gut feeling. We just use reason to back it up.

It’s not so unlikely, then, that Dan Mallory duped the whole industry. Deception is, after all, a good crime writer’s main skill. The whole thing does raise quite a few questions about the publishing industry and whether it was the charm, the lies or something else that fuelled the whole thing.

So far, the ending of this story hasn’t yet been written. Will Talented Mr. Mallory get away with it?