Friday, January 23, 2009

Interview with Paul Maliszewski, Day Two

For a description of Paul's book, Fakers, click here.

For Day One of our conversation, click here.

Joseph: What’s a story about fakers that didn’t make it into the book?

Maliszewski: There were a few ideas that I ended up not following up on, but there was one story, a good one I think, that just got away. In 1999 or thereabouts a doctoral student in history at Princeton fabricated the archive for her dissertation. She was working in Renaissance studies, writing about a certain village in Italy, and had come across an amazing store of village records. Her committee had read and approved of her dissertation and was all set to pass her. The committee thought very highly of both the student and her dissertation. She was the star of the department, getting much of the attention and awards. She even already had a job offer for the fall, tenure-track, at a major university. Everyone was pleased. All that remained to do was some formality, a bit of paperwork. That summer, a fellow graduate student happened to be in Italy when he realized he was near this village. He decided to stop, to see the archive for himself. He found nothing there. The records, it seems, were all invented. He and a third colleague revealed the deception, and the department withdrew the faker’s Ph.D. According to some accounts I was told, the student who discovered the fraud was, soon after, found to be faking himself, having applied to the program using forged letters of recommendation.

This story has never been written about. I heard it from a friend of a friend, who got his Ph.D. in history from a different school around the same time. By interviewing graduates of Princeton who were in the history program contemporaneously with the faker, I learned the student’s name, the name of the person who discovered her fraud, and the faculty members on her committee, several of whom are well-known. Only trouble was, nobody would talk to me and there was no record of the dissertation anywhere. I’d written about plenty of fakers without interviewing the principals, but here there wasn’t even any text for me to read. I could go no further. At least in the world of fact. In the world of fiction, maybe it’s the kernel of a novel.

Joseph: How did you decide what to keep and what to leave out?

Maliszewski: Oh, I left nothing out—except, I guess, for some of those satires that I contributed to the business newspaper. In general, I try to be pretty selective about what I write. That is, I do the selecting before I start writing. Essays are an undertaking. They involve a lot of research and time. So there were plenty of fakes I let go by, unremarked upon. And there are some infamous fakers, too, like James Frey and JT LeRoy, whom I don’t cover in great detail, simply because so much has already been written about them.

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