NPR Story
2:48 pm
Tue July 10, 2012

Bad Book Review Sparks Fictional Friendship

Originally published on Wed July 11, 2012 10:38 am

On July 2, The New York Times ran a review of author Patrick Somerville's book This Bright River. It was not a flattering assessment. Film and literary critic Janet Maslin described the starting point as "generic" and the destination as "soggy."

When Somerville read the review, he realized the whole thing hinged on a factual error: Maslin mixed up two characters from the very beginning, confusing which one got hit in the head.

To clear up the mistake, Ed Marks, an editor at the Times, began an email correspondence with one of those characters, Ben, who has an email address set up by Somerville. Ben, through Somerville, and the editor developed what Somerville calls a "ghost relationship."

NPR's Neal Conan talks with Somerville about his Salon.com piece, "Thank You for Killing My Novel" and how people we never meet can change our lives.


Interview Highlights

On how the character in his novel became friends with New York Times editor Ed Marks

"It was very strange, to say the least, but it was pretty fun, too. ... I made the email account because [my character, Ben] has a couple exchanges with other characters [in the novel] and I thought it would be a fun thing to do to make it real. ... And so I logged in to the account and checked, and there was an email from an editor from The New York Times. And the subject line said: 'Did you get hit in the head?'

"... It seems a little cute, I know, but I thought, well, since he's doing it, I'm going to do it, too. And so I wrote back as though I was the character, and we went back and forth. And it turned out, actually, outside of the fact-checking issue that we had to deal with, we had a lot of other things in common, too.

"... [It seemed like a friendship but] I couldn't quite say. I couldn't speak for Ed, but I thought so. And then Ed confirmed it later on that he was, in fact, friends with Ben. ... Although, I should also say that Ed and I had to drop the ruse. Eventually, it just became a little bit too much. And so now, I don't want to speak for Ed again, but I would say I'm friends with Ed."

On what Somerville calls "ghost relationships"

"I've thought in the past that I may be in love with Virginia Woolf. I'm not sure. I'm not sure if that stands. And that's not true when I'm reading The Waves, I should say, too. But it's true of all of her other books. But, you know, these are intimate, personal connections, and books give that to us. Letters give that to us. And I don't think that it's a new thing.

"But I think that it's something that's been amplified by the Internet, as well, because there's so many cross connections that can come from, I don't know, chat rooms, comment sections, things that people post, Twitter, Facebook. There's just so many people who can comment on other people and have an impact on somebody's day. It's a pretty amazing phenomenon."

On the paradox, and the beauty, of "ghost relationships"

"You [might] never know your neighbor and you can have a very important relationship with somebody who is far, far away. And the funny thing, too, is I've gotten a bunch of emails now from people who read the Salon piece, who are telling me about their ghost relationships that they're in. And one gentleman wrote me to tell me all about a friendship he struck up with someone 15 years ago via email and has continued to this day. They email each other every week. They've never met ... And the guy said to me he didn't know if he wanted to meet him, either. He didn't know if that would work right.

"And maybe that's the thing [that] gives people the sense of freedom to be able to be honest, more honest, or to be themselves. That cloak of anonymity is just enough to make us comfortable and be a little bit more revealing than we would be if we were sitting in a coffee shop with someone."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

Earlier this month, The New York Times ran a review of Patrick Somerville's new novel, "This Bright River." Film and literary critic Janet Maslin didn't like it. She described the starting point as generic and the destination as soggy. When Somerville read the review, he realized her analysis hinged on a factual error: Maslin mixed up two characters.

To clear up the mistake, an editor at The New York Times began an email correspondence with one of the characters in the book, Ben, who got a little help from the author. They started what Somerville describes as a ghost relationship, a little like his relationship with Maslin, a woman he's never met but who loved his first book. And, well, he has sort of relationship, a connection with someone else we never meet: a stranger on the bus, a passerby, someone in a chat room, someone ephemeral who can become important in an incorporeal sort of way.

Call and tell us about a ghost relationship you have had: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Author Patrick Somerville joins us now from the studios at Chicago Public Media. We've posted a link to his piece for salon.com, "Thank You for Killing My Novel." And we should mention that other reviewers did like "This Bright River." Nice to have you on the program today.

PATRICK SOMERVILLE: Hey, Neal.

CONAN: A little odd to be involved in a correspondence between one of your characters and a real-life editor at The New York Times.

SOMERVILLE: Yeah, yeah. It was very strange, to say the least, but it was pretty fun, too. You know, it was an odd morning, waking up afterwards and I logged in to my character's email account. I should say, I made the email account because he has a couple exchanges with other characters and I thought it would be a fun thing to do to make it real.

CONAN: In the novel, he has.

SOMERVILLE: Right, in the novel. And so I logged in to the account and checked, and there was an email from an editor from The New York Times. And the subject line said: Did you get hit in the head?

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Well, that was the event in question that Janet Maslin got wrong as to who got hit in the head.

SOMERVILLE: That's right.

CONAN: And so, had your character gotten any other emails before that?

SOMERVILLE: One. One email from a friend of mine. But I should say that we did have the whole exchange in character as well.

CONAN: You and your friend.

SOMERVILLE: Yeah.

CONAN: And you stayed in character when you - you didn't say, wait a minute, this is me?

SOMERVILLE: Yeah. Somehow - it seems a little cute, I know, but I thought, well, since he's doing it, I'm going to do it, too. And so I wrote back as though I was the character, and we went back and forth. And it turned out, actually, outside of the fact-checking issue that we had to deal with, we had a lot of other things in common, too.

CONAN: And you wrote in your piece that, in fact, your character and this editor struck up a friendship.

SOMERVILLE: Well, I said in the piece I wasn't sure. I couldn't quite say. I couldn't speak for Ed, but I thought so. And then Ed confirmed it later on that he was, in fact, friends with Ben.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: So this character has now got a second life.

SOMERVILLE: Yeah, yeah, I supposed he does. Although, I should also say that Ed and I had to drop the ruse. Eventually, it just became a little bit too much. And so now, I don't want to speak for Ed again, but I would say I'm friends with Ed.

CONAN: You're friends with Ed. OK. You did say also in the piece at least one point during this - while you were still being in character, you went out of character and you did - you've been a little vague about what happened.

(LAUGHTER)

SOMERVILLE: I got a little bit mad at one point. But I quickly cleared that up, and he was very kind in response to my anger, and then we moved on. I mean, one thing that's important to remember is that I feel pretty grateful that anybody is paying attention to any of my books in the first place. And so, it was easy to, I don't know, have a little bit of fun with it as well.

CONAN: So that's one ghost relationship - the editor and the character, now you. There's the other ghost relationship you write about, between yourself and Janet Maslin.

SOMERVILLE: Well, yeah. I said in the piece I'd always felt this great fondness for her whenever I saw her name because it was so amazing that she had paid attention to my first book, "The Cradle," and, I don't know, had said so many nice things about it, it really made a big difference at that moment in my career. And so, yeah, the two stories alongside one another sort of just got me thinking about all the ways in which we're connected to people we'd know and we don't know at the same time, people we've never seen in the flesh, but who have a huge impact on our lives.

CONAN: Or we have seen in the flesh, but never really meet.

SOMERVILLE: Right. The opposite is true, too.

CONAN: Yeah. The person on the bus, the person on the subway.

SOMERVILLE: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.

CONAN: Even, you say, authors who have - who are loved, truly loved by people and, of course, are dead.

SOMERVILLE: Yeah. I've thought in the past that I may be in love with Virginia Woolf. I'm not sure. I'm not sure if that stands. And that's not true when I'm reading "The Waves," I should say, too. But it's true of all of her other books. But, you know, these are intimate, personal connections, and books give that to us. Letters give that to us. And I don't think that it's a new thing. But I think that it's something that's been amplified by the Internet, as well, because there's so many cross connections that can come from, I don't know, chat rooms, comment sections, things that people post, Twitter, Facebook. There's just so many people who can comment on other people and have an impact on somebody's day. It's a pretty amazing phenomenon.

CONAN: And with the Internet, there's the further ambiguities: Are they who they say they are?

SOMERVILLE: Are they who they say they are? Right. Right.

CONAN: They could be a character in a novel, for all we know.

SOMERVILLE: Right. And everybody could know that that's true, too, but go ahead with it anyways.

CONAN: And then you've - well, your metas pile on your metas, and...

(LAUGHTER)

SOMERVILLE: Meta, meta. Right.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: So what is - you mentioned Virginia Woolf. Obviously, there's an intimacy in reading somebody's book. You know them, in a way. Well, it's hard to get to know more than a very few people that well.

SOMERVILLE: Yeah, it's true. I think that that's sort of the big paradox of this whole question, is that you can never know your neighbor and you can have a very important relationship with somebody who is far, far away. And the funny thing, too, is I've gotten a bunch emails now from people who read the Salon piece, who are telling me about their ghost relationships that they're in. And one gentleman wrote me to tell me all about a friendship he struck up with someone 15 years ago via email, and has continued to this day. They email each other every week. They've never met.

CONAN: And what do they write about?

SOMERVILLE: Their lives, their days. The one - one's mother was in the hospital, and they had recently shared a correspondence about that and how hard that had been. And, right, they've never met in the flesh. And the guy said to me he didn't know if he wanted to meet him, either. He didn't know if that would work right.

CONAN: It makes you think of pen pals. You wrote to somebody in the Soviet Union when you are in grade school.

SOMERVILLE: Mm-hmm. But everything happens a little bit faster.

CONAN: It does. And does - that sense of anonymity, but the sense of immediacy too.

SOMERVILLE: Well - and maybe that's the thing, like maybe that's what gives people the sense of freedom to be able to be honest, more honest, or to be themselves. That cloak of anonymity is just enough to make us comfortable and be a little bit more revealing than we would be if we were sitting in a coffee shop with someone.

CONAN: Would it have been as easy to strike up that friendship you now have with Ed had you been you and not Ben?

SOMERVILLE: No. I don't think so. I think it would have been awkward, because it would have been clearly, you know, someone with a conflict who wanted to clear up that conflict. And I don't know. And I think that the fact that it was all sort of dressed up as this game made it seem a little bit more fun.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Amanda in Cincinnati: I find it's very easy to develop relationships with travel reviewers on TripAdvisor. You're interested in the same places. You share your travel experiences, as well in getting - as well as getting tips and advice. And that's - it's not just immediacy, as you were saying. The boutiquefication(ph) of the Web allows you to find people interested in very precise things that you are also interested in.

SOMERVILLE: Mm-hmm. And the travel thing, that rings true to me, too, because when you're on vacation, everybody's a stranger, you know. And you're just - you're willing to trust the website you read about the restaurant down the road, just as much as you'd be willing to trust someone you don't know who's sitting next to you in the lobby of the hotel.

CONAN: We want to hear about your ghost relationship: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Our guest, Patrick Somerville, author of "This Bright River," and before that, "The Cradle." And let's start with Avi(ph). Avi is with us from San Francisco.

AVI: Hi, there. How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

SOMERVILLE: Hi, Avi.

AVI: So I'm a musician. I play in a band called Goodnight Texas. And we've had sort of some issues in the past, like booking shows. So I sort of created a fake person to represent us, sort of, by email. And he sort of made friends with various club owners, like, around the country. And they kind of - they periodically will ask to, like, meet him, or if he's in town like, oh, they'll take him out for a drink or come by the club. The fake guy's name is Larry. So, like, they keep asking me to meet him, and he's sort of conveniently out of town whenever they want to meet him. It's getting like I am the...

CONAN: And are you blowing Larry's cover now on national radio?

AVI: I think I am. But I was thinking of writing a fake obituary for him.

(LAUGHTER)

SOMERVILLE: Well, Avi, let me ask: Why is Larry better at it than someone who is actually in the band?

AVI: I don't know. I always just - I don't know if it actually is better or not. But I think I've always just sort of thought that if you have some sort of representative who works for a company, that it seems more professional. And with emails, it's easy to do that nowadays, to...

SOMERVILLE: The lair of authenticity. Yeah.

AVI: A lair of authenticity.

CONAN: Is Larry a tougher negotiator than you are?

AVI: He's a little better talking about money, like it was for booking shows. Like I'm a little timid about that if someone would ask about pay, you know, about, like, oh, you know, but you completely show a gig on a bill or you can open up. And then the follow up was like, hey, good. Can we, you know, make $100 or something like that? I kind of - personally, I brokered a story about that, but I - if you have someone that's easier to say, somehow the (unintelligible).

CONAN: And does Larry insist the green room be stocked with champagne?

AVI: Jack Daniels.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: OK. Well, as long as he's got his priority straight, we wish Larry the very best of health.

AVI: Thank you.

SOMERVILLE: Thanks, Avi.

CONAN: We're talking with novelist Patrick Somerville about ghost relationships. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Rick, and Rick's on the line from Tallahassee.

RICK: Hey, thanks for having me.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead, please.

RICK: I wasn't sure if it counted at first, but when I was younger, when I was about 14 - I'm 22 now - I got one of my first gaming systems. It was like online gaming, and there were headsets, and I sort of fell in with a regular group of friends, like two or three, four or five people who I would see during - not see, speak to nearly every day over the summer playing video games and whatnot. And I've actually kept up with a few of them until now. And I really agree with what your guest said about it being easier to open up to someone, because I really did feel a lot closer to these people than I did...

CONAN: And you've only met their avatars?

RICK: Right, right. And sort of I feel like the other side of that, though, is that it's very easy to fall out of contact sometimes. And it was kind of sad, actually. I spoke to one of the members of that group who lives in California, after not having talk to anybody for a couple of months, and he was like, oh, my gosh, did you hear our friend Justin? He had been killed in a car accident, so - and I don't know. It - you know, it hurt.

CONAN: Yeah.

RICK: It was real.

CONAN: And...

SOMERVILLE: Your close - I'm sorry.

CONAN: No. Go ahead, Patrick.

SOMERVILLE: Yeah, but I was thinking, you know, that's the thing, the upside of being close is that maybe you don't get that cloak of anonymity we were talking about. But you get the news whether or not someone decides to broadcast it, because it's sort of right there. And I think that might be one of the problems when people say, oh, it doesn't count as community. The Internet doesn't count as community. I think - I don't agree with that at all. But one of the problems is that in person, physical communities, people don't decide what to broadcast about what has happened. It's just there. You see it. Everyone can see it, you know?

CONAN: Well, we're sorry for your loss, Rick.

RICK: Oh, no, no. Well, thank you. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Let's see, we go next to - this is Angela. Angela with us, from Ann Arbor.

ANGELA: Hi. I'm an emergency room psychiatric social worker, and I have to talk to different hospitals every day, different insurance companies. I've been doing this for about 12 years, and we have formed friendships with people at hospitals and insurance companies I've never met. But I've talked to them every day for 12 years, and they're like our friends out there. I wouldn't recognize them if I bumped into them in a grocery store, but, you know, they know about me and my family. I know about them and their families, and it's - they are relationships.

SOMERVILLE: Mm-hmm. It's all by telephone?

ANGELA: It's all by telephone.

SOMERVILLE: I love those. I love pure telephone relationships. I used to have a couple of those when I was working as an editor. And, yeah, you connect with people. You know the people who you would get along with, hanging out at a bar, and it's funny how those relationships just kind of grow no matter what.

ANGELA: Well, and you have to trust each other. We have to trust each other to, you know, provide the correct information. And, you know, we're dealing with people in emergency rooms that are in crisis, and you know those friendships that you formed and the professional relationships, they trust you. They take your word for what you're saying, and it's just - it's been 12 years of forming those relationships. And I don't know if it would work that well face-to-face.

SOMERVILLE: Would you ever want to meet at a picnic?

ANGELA: You know, I don't know. I met some of my colleagues at one of the insurance companies unfortunately, a few years ago, following the death of one of their colleagues. And I had talked to this gentleman for seven years on the phone. I had never met him. It was like losing a very close friend, and they happen to have a memorial service close enough that I could run down and meet them. And the people you have in your mind - what they look like or what they are versus what they really look like.

And it was very nice to meet them and, you know, we've certainly gone back to doing all of our work over the phone. But I don't know. I mean, part of how the relationship is formed is through the energy of the job and, you know, the gallows humor that goes along with the job and the stress and the situation. And I don't know if would be the same outside of that.

CONAN: Have you scrubbed out the real images of the people you met and replaced them again with the - what you thought they'd look like before you met them?

ANGELA: In some cases, and in some cases, I've gone back to how I think they should look. And, you know, they...

(LAUGHTER)

SOMERVILLE: This is almost like books again.

CONAN: Yes.

SOMERVILLE: Almost like when you...

ANGELA: We all joke. Yes, I'm really six feet tall and 125 pounds and long, blonde hair. That's exactly what I look like.

(LAUGHTER)

ANGELA: You know, we recognize each other's voices and phone numbers so well that there are times where we don't answer the phone in the most professional way. We see the number when I answer and go, oh, how are you? Did you get better today? Or you call me back and...

CONAN: Well, we're...

ANGELA: You know, if we ever make a mistake, if they ever change their phone numbers, we're in trouble.

CONAN: Angela, we're glad you included us on your phone list.

ANGELA: Well, yes. I recognized your number. It's in my speed dial.

(LAUGHTER)

ANGELA: Have a good day.

SOMERVILLE: You too.

CONAN: And, Patrick, thank you so much for your time today and good luck with the book.

SOMERVILLE: Hey, thanks a lot for having me.

CONAN: Patrick Somerville's novel is "This Bright River." He joined us from the studios at Chicago Public Media. Tomorrow, a look at the economic boom in Africa. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.