Confessions of a Plagiarist

By Quentin Rowan 11/30/11

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.

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Portrait of the "author"
Home page illustration by Danny Jock

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 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 18. 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 19. 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.

One night in the middle of January 1997, I was at a dance party in someone's living room. I was guzzling Genesee Cream Ale but couldn't get drunk. Everyone was saying, "Let's dance all night!" But I knew I couldn't dance all night. That little thought, trivial as it sounds, was my moment of clarity. If only I had recognized some more "can’ts" at that moment. The second time around I did all the things you're not supposed to do: met a girl, got into a relationship, found a sponsor who I thought was really cool rather than a good AA'er, and, most crucially, instead of taking it one day at a time I got obsessed once more with literary fame. The one thing I did manage to do is stay sober: it's been nearly fifteen years.

Over that same time period, I've fought a mostly losing battle with plagiarism. We’ve all heard in meetings the description of the alcoholic as the egomaniac with an inferiority complex. That was—is—me in a nutshell. I wanted recognition, I wanted praise, but I had no faith in my own abilities. I had grown so used to being thought of as a wunderkind that a kind of false self emerged, one that was confident and hard-working and thrived on adulation and encouragement. It was an image that was completely at odds with the fear, self-doubt, and dishonesty that occupied my skull.

Between the first piece of writing I stole in the library all those years ago and my fake spy thriller, I struggled with plagiarism in the same way sober people struggle with smoking, sex addiction, food addiction, and gambling.

I was a voracious reader and always marked passages I particularly liked or wished I'd written. Though the number of pieces of writing I published—poetry, fiction, book reviews—is finite, the number of sources I stole from seemed endless. For example, my short story Bethune Street, which appeared in The Paris Review, contained phrases and passages I’d lifted from Graham Greene, Robert Stone, Stephen Wright, Janet Hobhouse, and Howard Nemerov. That's all been discovered now. If you go online and Google my name you can find all kinds of Internet scholars making lists of the cribbed sources.

Between the first piece of writing I stole in the library all those years ago and the debut of my fake spy thriller, I struggled with plagiarism in the same way others struggle with smoking, sex addiction, food addiction, and gambling. Especially gambling, where you're always chasing your last thrilling high, regardless of the awful consequences. I tried to practice the first step with my obsession many times, to admit I was powerless over it  and it was making my life unmanageable, but it never worked. I just couldn't let go of it. My whole identity had become that of an aspiring writer. I wanted to be famous.

Somehow, I managed to reduce the theft in my mind to a much more abstract thing. I was taking words that I wished were mine from writers that I loved. Charles McCarry, author of The Tears of Autumn, is my favorite writer of all time, in either spy fiction or literary fiction. Was I conscious of the fact that something I was doing would affect him in the real world? The answer is no. I couldn’t see that far ahead. I wouldn't let myself. Through a maze-like process of denial that I knew so well fro the rooms of AA, I was able somehow to push those thoughts to the background. The same goes for the rest of the long list of thriller writers I plagiarized: John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Adam Hall, Robert Ludlum, David Morrell, Daniel Silva, and more. These were individuals who had brought me pleasure and enjoyment as a reader; and had I been able to think of them as anything other than satellites in my monomaniacal orbit, I don't think I could have done it.

It wasn't any fun: I would look at the books on my shelf and think, "Oh, that's a great book. Oh, Wait a minute, I stole from it." And then I’d have to hide the book somewhere so it didn’t remind me I’d stolen from it. If the books were people, it would be akin to domestic abuse: I was hurting the ones I loved.

Throughout the process of compiling the series of unattributed quotations that made up Assassin of Secrets, my mind would occasionally turn to this: what if I'm found out? Since the plagiarism story broke, many people have speculated that this was a form of self-sabotage. I would probably agree. There was some kind of built in death wish to the whole process. Did I want to be caught? As hard as it's been, it's been a massive relief, spiritually, to know I never have to do it again. In AA, they say you're only as sick as your secrets.

So I guess I was pretty sick.

Before my book came out,  whenever I thought about being discovered, I thought about killing myself.

Would I jump off the Williamsburg Bridge? Take pills? Slit my wrists? But when the dreaded call from my publisher finally arrived, I knew I couldn't end my life. In the five minutes between hearing I’d been busted on the James Bond forum and the big conference call with the publisher, I had to make a choice. I opened my window, and thought about climbing out. Then I paused for a moment.  Maybe I'm just a wimp, but in that moment I realized there were too many people I loved on this earth to leave it. I'm still alive mostly because of AA.

So I shut the window and told the truth.  I didn't deny anything. Some allegations had been made. Jeremy Duns, an author I admired and had, quite unfairly, asked to blurb the book, was the person who took it to my publisher. They told me what the allegations were and I copped to all of them. It was liberating. My publisher thanked me for not dragging things out any longer, and an hour or so later they sent out a press release stating that  the book contained plagiarized passages and that all booksellers should return their copies. Customers could return their copies for a refund.

I spent most of that day crying. I called my parents and told them. I called my business partners at the bookstore and told them. I called my girlfriend and told her. I called my sponsor and told him.

My parents cried. My girlfriend left our new apartment and never came back. My sponsor said, "The only person who cared about whether you published a spy novel was you. It didn't matter at all to the rest of us. We're just your friends and care about you whatever you do."

People were calling me name I probably deserved to be called, like the worst plagiarist in history, a fake, a fraud, a douche, and a poor dumb bastard. They said I balls of steel and brains of lead, and looked like a fat John Lennon or Carlos the Jackal.

The realization that I was loved already and didn't have to fight to earn that love was mind-boggling. It was quite the opposite of my notion that I had to struggle to show the world I was worthy. As the days went by, however, my sponsor’s words proved to be true: people in my support group, both AA and non-AA, came out of the woodwork to wish me well, to check-in, to take me out to coffee. It was like being a newcomer all over again. The way it makes your heart hurt to see that people genuinely care.

The media and the internet called me names I probably deserved to be called, like the worst plagiarist in history, a fake, a fraud, a douche, and a poor dumb bastard. They said that I had balls of steel and brains of lead, and looked like a fat John Lennon or Carlos the Jackal. One commenter encouraged people to cut off my fingers. Another responded that "snuffing this loser" wouldn't be worth the "wear and tear on my silencer or the bullet." And this one, a favorite: "Odds are I could just hand him the gun and (at this point) he'd do it himself."

Everyone loves a train-wreck.

I was receiving so many phone calls from the press that I had to turn my phone off for a few days. The Wall Street Journal went so far as to write my friends on Facebook (when I still had a Facebook account) and even used an old college friend as bait. Everyone who left messages was very reasonable. Just wanted to chat, off the record, etc. My poor co-workers at the bookstore were especially bombarded. Certainly no one was prepared for that kind of attention. Especially me.

But in the rooms of AA, and among friends and family, people responded with love and concern. I suppose it's easy to see something in black and white if you don't know the individual involved personally. It's easier to make moral pronouncements rather than see human flaw or human weakness. I was that way before I knew I was an alcoholic. Before I knew this was a disease, I saw myself purely as a screw-up. Morally weak. Perhaps one day plagiarism will be seen, if not as a disease, at least as something pathological.

And it is thanks to the rooms of AA that I am still here, on my feet, on a different coast, starting my life over at 35. I guess it begins with a confessional on The Fix.

So here I am, ready to dodge bullets from the folks in the comments section. Fire away.

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