Thursday, September 8, 2011

Adam Langer on Literary Frauds and "The Thieves of Manhattan"

In the past several years, American publishing has been battered by literary frauds, from the bestselling drug-rehab memoir of James Frey to the fake gangbanger autobiography of Margaret B. Jones. Meanwhile, instead of being a male teen prostitute, the novelist J.T. Leroy turned out to be a middle-aged mother named Laura Albert. In Adam Langer’s witty new novel “The Thieves of Manhattan”(Spiegel & Grau, $15), the writer takes on the fictional literary deceptions perpetrated by Ian Minot, a failed and bitter short-story writer who signs a memoir deal with the devil.

Ian is working as a barista in a Manhattan cafe when his writer girlfriend leaves him right before she gets a big book contract. A natty-dressed patron named Jed offers him the chance to commit literary fraud to wreak revenge on New York publishing. Ian agrees, and finds himself immersed in the intrigue and violence involving a beguiling artist and a counterfeit copy of the priceless Japanese book “The Tale of Genji.” Langer sends up pompous literary agents, editors who don’t read their own books and the dying brick-and-mortar publishing world. In a film noir twist, Ian is double crossed, with enemies and saviors in unlikely places. As a murderous duo bears down on him, Ian will either find love and literary acclaim or will wind up buried in a lonely field somewhere.

Langer, 43, is the author of “Ellington Boulevard,” among other novels. He spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by cell phone from a mall in Bloomington, Indiana.

Q. America has been swimming in a sea of literary fraud. Was there one aspect of this that interested you?

A. I was swimming in it with everybody else. I had watched a movie on Clifford Irving, the one who had the literary hoax in the 1970s, “The Autobiography of Howard Hughes.” Then there was J.T. Leroy, but that’s a different kind of hoax. I’ve always been intrigued by con games and have interviewed con artists. I wanted to do something set in the exploding world of publishing. I wondered what it would take to commit the perfect literary crime. If you wanted to scam the publishing industry, how would you do it?

My last book was a memoir on my dad. I tried to tell the most true story I could., but it was really tempting to tell the most outlandish story.

Q. Do you think it is an immoral or amoral act to lie in a memoir?

A. I don’t want to make moral judgments, but I think there is a contract between reader and writer that when you are telling what is allegedly a true story, you are doing your best to do that. People do a lot of things in memoirs--they condense time and put particular thought processes in a particular moment. If it is to get at a larger truth, it is one thing. If it is to sell books, it is another.

Q. Do you see Ian Minot, your main character, as an angry and principled writer?

A. He’s angry and principled, but he’s wrong. He buys into the b.s. of the publishing world, that there was once this venerable publishing world that would have published his stories, but now this world is full of liars and con artists. By the time this book is done, most of his assumptions have been flipped around.

Q. Your book is blurbed by Laura Albert, who wrote the novel “Sarah” and invented the J.T. Leroy hoax. How do you view her?

A. I cut a break for Laura. A lot of people were offended, but I saw it as a kind of really cool performance art. We’ve talked on the phone and had crazy conversations. Do I know her? No. If I called her this minute, I’d either never hear from her again or we’d have a three-hour conversation, with no middle ground.

(This interview ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in August 2010)

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