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Bad Book Review Sparks Fictional Friendship

Patrick Somerville set up a real email address for his character, Ben, who he describes as "kind of a wayfaring pothead version of <a href="http://www.npr.org/people/2101852/will-shortz">Will Shortz</a>."
Liv Friis-larsen
Patrick Somerville set up a real email address for his character, Ben, who he describes as "kind of a wayfaring pothead version of Will Shortz."

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."

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