Life is not going well at all for Shelby, whose beloved wife has suddenly died, or Gibson, sliding into depression in the midst of his coming divorce, two of the three main characters in Zoe Whittall’s lovely new novel “The Fake.” And that’s before they meet the third, the exquisitely charming pathological liar Cammie. In an interview, Whittall, 47, talked about the genesis of “The Fake,” the evolution of her writing, the saving grace of humour, irony and making stuff up, and the surprising good as well as predictable havoc strewn in Cammie’s wake.
“The Fake’s” acknowledgments page thanks “everyone who was around in 2007 to listen to me when I figured out the truth.” The novel has roots then and there?
Not to go into details, I will say that I have had experiences with people like Cammie in my life. That’s why I wrote the book. But it’s also why it took me a really long time to be able to fictionalize the experience. I needed to find the coherence and the humour and the irony in it. I’m the type of novelist who needs to find irony in every line and keep it alive in the language. If not, then I can’t feel like I’m succeeding in creating characters who aren’t just robots moving around on the page.
In 2016, the Giller-nominated “The Best Kind of People” was a new way of writing, more plot- and narrative-driven than your earlier work. Have you kept evolving?
With each novel, I try to do something a little different, flirting with different forms. “The Best Kind of People” was a social novel in third-person omniscient mode, but “The Fake” was more of an intuitive process, the fastest book I’ve ever written. I didn’t set out to structure or write it in a certain way because, once I decided to narrate it from two different points of view, Shelby and Gibson, it all fell into place. I already knew the beginning, middle and end. I think my work in film and TV writing has helped to teach me about plot. I started out as a poet. My first novel was really a poet’s novel. I’ve naturally been more inclined to be a style first, sentence first kind of writer. Plot was never my natural strength.
So this wasn’t a stab at “a con artist story,” to coin a sub-genre?
No. Most stories about con artists have a structure like a mystery and I knew right away that I didn’t want to keep the truth from readers at the start. They have to know right away.
The propulsion in the story is about when and how will Shelby and Gibson find out the truth? And even the real truth about Cammie is a still a bit elusive in the end. There are so many stories out there about con artists that are quite morally black and white. I wanted readers to kind of feel the way Shelby and Gibson feel, unsure about what’s right and how to handle it. Cammie is a confusing character. She’s manipulative and plays people, but she also changes Gibson and Shelby’s lives for the good in some ways.
There’s no explanation of the lies she tells or why she tells them. Shelby, with her laptop’s 12 open tabs on pathological lying, can’t figure it out.
It’s impossible for them to know why. Research why people lie in these extreme ways and you find there’s no consensus. Is it a trauma response? Did she hit that stage of childhood where she learned how to lie, like all kids do, just never got over that developmental hurdle? Sociopathic or Munchausen’s, a mental illness? Something more sinister? And how do we deal with that in a society that doesn’t deal well with anything like that?
Some of the minor characters see what Cammie is doing and try to warn Gibson and Shelby. But that only works when they are observers — when Cammie turns her full attention on them, they’re just as susceptible.
I’ve had a few experiences with pathological liars and now it’s like a light shines down from the ceiling on them. I’m at a party and someone’s very charming; in 30 seconds I will know, my whole body will know and will be flashing, “Stay away from that person.” What’s really interesting is the very similar patterns of speech and manipulative tactics they share.
The novel proper is told from two viewpoints, Gibson and Shelby’s, but there are a forward and afterword from Cammie, the very definition of an unreliable narrator. What’s a reader to make of those?
At first, I thought it would be impossible for readers to hear from Cammie. I can’t embody a character I can’t know, who has no interiority. But then I thought those parts could provide insight into just how charming and manipulative she is. I tried to write them in a way that when you’re reading it, you think, “I believe you, you’re giving me enough detail and enough humour and emotional catharsis that I believe exactly what you’re saying. I believe there’s a baby in Barrie, there’s cancer, all these crazy lies.” I wanted readers to feel manipulated by her and to not be sure what the truth is. I wanted there to be some curiosity.
Then there’s the paradoxical good Cammie does Shelby and Gibson.
Liars often love bomb people they meet and make them feel amazing. They’re actually collecting data to figure out ways to, like, control or hurt you, but the attention Cammie gave the other two did pull them out of their isolation and depression.
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