Thursday, January 22, 2009

Interview with Paul Maliszewski, Day One

I recently spoke with my old friend Paul Maliszewski about his new book Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders. Click here to read a description of the book; come back tomorrow to read the second part of the interview.

Diana Joseph: Describe the kinds of research it took to write your book.

Paul Maliszewski: Well, I interviewed the few fakers who agreed talk to me as well as some of the people fooled by various hoaxes. But mostly I just did a lot of digging, reading, say, all the fake journalism created by Stephen Glass, the reporter who fabricated all or some of twenty-seven articles for The New Republic. If my book has any value, it lies in how I look closely at the fakes themselves. That doesn’t sound extraordinary—and it shouldn’t be unusual—but much of the writing about these cases focuses on what was done—the scope of the fraud, or the brazenness—and then includes just a few examples from the fakes, for color or padding. I was more interested in the fake stories, and I read them as stories, to see how they worked and how they managed to fool us. I also read everything I could get my hands on that was even tangentially about the subject of fakery. None of this was like homework though, as I’m pretty endlessly fascinated. It’s hard for me to stop reading about the new cases that come up in the news.

Joseph: You wrote these essays over a period of ten years. Did you always envision the essays coming together to make one book?

Maliszewski: I didn’t. I’m afraid I don’t have much vision beyond writing a new essay or story and then, when I’m done, trying to follow it with something else. What I did know, however, is that after I wrote the first piece, “I, Faker,” I still wanted to write more. This was the essay about the time I spent working as a reporter at a business newspaper in Syracuse, our old stomping grounds. It was my first real job after we finished graduate school. Anyway, I got frustrated with the newspaper, by what they weren’t addressing, and so started to send satirical letters to the editor under assumed names. While I was contributing those satires, Stephen Glass was found out, and my first instinct was to think, Oh, look, here’s someone doing what I’ve been doing, just on a much larger stage. I figured I’d discovered a comrade. This was before I’d read his articles with any attention. He wasn’t, it turned out, writing satires, but what continued to drive me was this hunch that satirists, fraudulent journalists, forgers, and con artists did have some undeniable similarities. At some basic level, they’re all trying to make things that appear like other things. Their motives and intentions may be wildly different, but their techniques overlap.

Joseph: How did you become interested in fakers?

Maliszewski: I owe a huge debt to Michael Martone, one of our teachers at Syracuse. It was while we were in grad school, or shortly after, that Martone started to write pieces for The Blue Guide to Indiana, his fictional travel book for his home state. I’d always liked satire—as a kid, I read Mad magazine and watched Saturday Night Live and Monty Python, and when I lived in Pittsburgh, after college, I sat in on a class, one I still think about from time to time, on literary satire—but Martone really got me to consider the possibilities of fiction. How, for instance, can stories ape the style and language of various kinds of non-fiction? Martone liked to talk, too, about forms, the containers we make for our stories, and frames, the context in which we read or publish them. Neat stuff, as he would say.

Around the same time, I read an article by Lawrence Weschler in Harper’s called “Inhaling the Spore,” about the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a place I won’t be able to describe fully, so suffice it to say that it’s an institution housed in a nondescript storefront in Culver City, California, just outside of Los Angeles, and founded for the study of a fictional version of natural history. The exhibitions, each lovingly realized, all seem real—they have that tone of the well-informed, slightly stuffy curator—but the points where fact ends and fiction begins are exceedingly hard to detect. Weschler’s article later grew into his book Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, which I recommend and continue to press on friends.

(to be continued)


Jorge said...

I wonder what those that didn't agree to an interview, the fakers, that is, I wonder what their response was to being asked for an interview regarding their activities.
Regardless, it sounds like an interesting book and will be on my to-read list.

DeWolf said...

Definitely going to pick this one up. I read several online articles/interviews about the Chabon lecture; they were both intriguing and entertaining.

Matthew said...

That bit about sending letters to the editor under an assumed name is something I did while working on a college newspaper. Of course, at the time I was one of the editors, so I'm not sure where that lands me in the grand ethical scheme.

Anyway, that letter writing leaves me a personal interest in the material. I'll certainly pick up a copy of the book, and I look forward to the rest of this interview.

Paul said...

Jorge, thanks for your question. Those who didn't agree to interviews either didn't respond or said, no, thanks. Even when I did get an interview, some of the fakers were slippery characters. See especially my piece about Clifford Irving, the guy who made up the autobiography of Howard Hughes. When fakers write their own accounts (as Jayson Blair did and Stephen Glass sort of did in his closely autobiographical novel), they're hard to trust. As we say of certain narrators, they can be unreliable.