Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Info for a friend

It all started innocently enough.

Early last week, I got a message from one Nicole B. I almost didn’t open it—the subject line said, “help”, an inauspicious tag line when the message is from a stranger. Usually when a message starts with “help”, it purports to be from a voluptuous 22-year-old Russian beauty who is looking for a date, a date with your credit card number. But the tone is so desperate and her intentions seem so honorable.

How could I say no?

This Nicole B. was not looking for a date; this Nicole B. was looking for what she termed info. Nicole B. was looking for info on the Web. Imagine that! My friend, you’ve come to the right place. Info, info, info. Nothing but info. A veritable sea of info: you could drown in all that info.

This info was not for herself either. Rather it was for a friend. And not just any friend. It was for her best friend:

My best friend is doing a report on Catherine Marshall and I was hoping you could help me find info for her. She’s really scared about this whole project for school, it’s a huge part of our entire semester grade, and if she fails this she fails the class. It’s very difficult to find info on Catherine Marshall. Your help is most appreciated.

Okay. I confess: I almost bit. It seemed so compelling: a scared best friend; a long-dead author of Christian romances; a big assignment; unspecified difficult-to-find info. I toyed briefly with actually becoming that Catherine Marshall, the real Catherine Marshall. She’s been dead for 25 years; I’m sure she wouldn’t mind. I could even type in ALL CAPS LIKE MY AUNT FRANCES to make it seem more realistic.

It’d be a challenge, but I just know I could pass for a 93 year-old writer of faith-based fiction.

But I couldn’t do it; I had the distinct feeling that Nicole B. wouldn’t buy it anyway. I don’t know why I suspected cynicism and suspicion. Maybe it was the apostrophes in her email, correctly and casually deployed. Maybe it was the way she was interceding for her poor BFF—she’s really scared—that put me on edge. Why did she write me? Nicole B. just didn’t seem like the sort of girl who would be unable to dredge up her own info.

When I wrote back to her, I pictured an Amy Winehouse, a tough girl, perhaps with a heart of gold, but perhaps not. Perhaps she was a mean girl who would make fun of a small furry geek girl without any tattoos.

It seemed like a big, fat trap.

I wondered: does she actually think that it’d be normal for a person with a common name to have the inside scoop on her doppelgangers? And why was her friend so fearful? Didn’t her friend have the wherewithal to type Catherine Marshall into some search engine?

Perhaps I was wrong in assuming it was for a high school project. Maybe (just maybe) she was helping her friend with her PhD dissertation. It’d be some post-modern feminist treatise about hegemony in the narrative interstices of the Christian romance novel and her friend, a budding Catherine Marshall scholar, was freaking out. Her therapist was on vacation. Her credit cards were maxed out. Her freezer contained nary an ice cube; the antidepressant bottle in her medicine cabinet, empty. Here she was, on the verge of being the number one Catherine Marshall scholar in the MLA, and she was just freaking out. It was then that her Amy Winehouse-like friend jumped in to the rescue, looking for more primary sources.

Probably not though. We do know that it’s a huge part of her grade, but it doesn't sound like a graduate program. It’s a book report, isn’t it? That’s the genre our Nicole B. is implying. Maybe a 9th grade reading assignment. I envision 4 pages cribbed from the Web equivalent to Cliff’s Notes.

Wait a minute! The Web equivalent to Cliff’s Notes—Isn’t the Wikipedia entry for Catherine Marshall the 4th item that Google returns? There’s something fishy going on here. I should be wary.

But I couldn’t resist. Once again I wrote back to Nicole B.

I played it cool: I just asked her what she’d found so far. And signed it Catherine Marshall. I’m not sure why I did that. I don’t even turn around if someone yells, “Hey, Catherine!” (with the exception of my mother, of course). And I never, ever sign informal email with my last name. Never.

Nicole B. wrote right back—almost too quickly. She’s clearly a girl who expects answers. She said:

A question: I don’t know a lot about Catherine Marshall, but is this really her? I love Christy. I own the book and the movies. =D

Is this really her? I’m such a big fan. The custom smiley. =D

C’mon. She knows I’m not really that Catherine Marshall. How could she have missed all of the bios that reported that this author of “affirmations of faith” bought the farm in 1983? Not a single biography that I saw neglected to mention that she died in 1983. And there are plenty of biographies. Plenty.

Even the People-style website Who’s Dated Who reports that she married Rev. Peter Marshall in 1936 (although it did not warn the casual reader that Rev. Peter Marshall never emceed The Hollywood Squares, which would’ve been my first thought).

Then I clicked on the wrong link.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the repurposed Olan Mills photos yet—someone must’ve grabbed them off the Olan Mills web site, from their portfolio of past work. They're photos like the one on the left, with inventive captions like, Bobbi isn’t the first waitress to fall for her manager, but she and Dale both got fired from Shoney’s.

What, you must be thinking, does Olan Mills have to do with Catherine Marshall?

Here’s what: when I followed a biography link for Catherine Marshall on the HarperCollins website, I found yet another Olan Mills photo, one I hadn’t seen before. This one seems to have been altered with a ball point pen: the eyeballs have been intensified into smoldering black coals and a sinister mustache and soul patch have been penned in.

I don’t think that’s the real Catherine Marshall. I bet someone would’ve mentioned the soul patch by now: “Catherine Marshall: The only best-selling Christian romance writer with satanic facial hair.”

They would’ve said something. Certainly they wouldn’t have kept quiet.

When I saw this, I began to wonder about Nicole B. and her BFF. Was I being had? Am I getting picked on by the mean girls again?

But mean girls and Catherine Marshall doesn’t add up.

I’ll write back to her one last time, I decided. One last time. A short message to dispel the notion that I might be foolish enough—and gullible enough—to fall for that old line about ‘my best friend’s homework’. Honestly!

Yes, indeed, my refrigerator is running. And I have Prince Albert in a can.

There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re the butt of a stranger’s joke. I picture Amy Winehouse laughing so hard that her mascara runs. I picture Amy Winehouse laughing as hard as I did when I got the Olan Mills photo set. Ah, but that was different. Those photos are of anonymous strangers; Nicole B. knows my name.

If your friends put something over on you, you feel okay. You can be the good sport. Everyone gets to laugh at you and it’s just fine. You feel loved. You don’t feel that way if someone you don’t know is laughing at you.

But here’s what Nicole B. said at the end of her next message:

Hey, I’m getting a book published. I’m excited.

And then she added, almost as an afterthought:

So who exactly are you?

This response makes me even more confused. Why is she telling me about her book? Should I be jealous? Will it be published by HarperCollins? Confessions of an Internet Prankster by Nicole B. How old is she anyhow?

And, as she so succinctly puts it, who exactly am I? Exactly. She’s seen my home page—that’s where she no doubt found my email address—and she’s unconvinced that this is exactly who I am. Whoever I am, I am not well represented by my home page.

I think about writing back to her again—just one last message to settle the score—and suffer what I’m sure is a minor Woody Allen-style identity crisis: Who exactly am I? It’s the exactness that has me worried. If I were allowed some wiggle-room, I might be able to squirm out of this, but as it is there’s not a lot I can do. I’ve been forced into a corner and exhorted to be precise.

What should I tell her? Who exactly am I? I’ve got it: I’m the type of person who’ll follow a mystery—no matter how dumb and improbable—to the ends of the earth. That’s who I am. Someone who seizes upon ambiguity and absurdity and chews and chews, a goat loose in the garden.

I write back, but make no mention of my own identity. It’s not important. What’s important is who she is. After all, she’s piqued my curiosity, and once my curiosity is piqued, very little will still it. What kind of book is she publishing? What’s the genre? Who’s the publisher? What’s the imprint? A million dollar advance? A round-the-world book tour? Readings in airport bookstores? Autographed first editions going for $3,000 on eBay?

Sold! Sold to the goat with the vivid imagination!

In our next exchange, Nicole B. confesses to being 16. Her message was sent at 3:51am, which does not suggest a healthy lifestyle for a 16 year old. Unless, of course, this is a time zone issue and she’s on Eastern Standard Time. In that case, 6:51am is early, early for a budding author who should be cultivating dissolute habits. Shouldn’t she be smoking a cigarette? Shouldn’t she be pouring bourbon on her Wheaties? At the close of her message, she tells me that she is setting off for school: this does not sound very writerly.

I’ve read Jim Carroll; I know what 16 year-old writers should be doing.

It is not until her next message that she reveals that she has a literary agent. Oh, right. No unagented fiction. All of the decent publishers say that. Smart move to get an agent. Smart move. And she tells me that she’s designing the cover with the help of ‘a professional IT guy’. Oh, that’s a good idea too. That’ll keep the publisher from digging out that standard bodice-ripper artwork, the one with the guy who’s a ringer for Fabio, with an open shirt and hairless chest. Who’d want something like that on the cover of their first novel?

No-one. You’d certainly want to design your own cover.

It’s just so implausible that she has me hooked. I’ve stopped seizing upon that image of Amy Winehouse. Now I’m envisioning Joyce Maynard or Kaavya Viswanathan: a young woman posed for her debut media coverage looking dreamily out of a dormer window. Ah, soon she’ll fall madly, deeply in love with a middle-aged reclusive literary figure whose greatest work is behind him.

Naturally I tell Mark what’s going on as Nicole B. and I continue to exchange messages. The deeply ambiguous nature of this conversation—one of us is clearly the dupe here—has me wound up. It’s like the cat chasing the beam of the laser pointer: we all know this is nothing, a bright shiny nothing, but I feel compelled to chase it. Compelled.

Mark tells me: "It’s probably a fat old man like me, and not a 10th grade girl at all."

I try very hard to visualize a fat old man, sitting at his keyboard in a SRO bathroom-down-the-hall place in the seedy part of town and I just fail. Nicole B. is not a fat old guy sitting around in ratty underwear. She helps me along too. She bades me farewell, telling me she’s off to frolic about in the snow.

Frolic about in the snow: Is that the locution of a fat old man? I ask you: Is it?

She’s wowing me with details. Her novel, which takes place in 1857 is being published overseas, in Germany, being translated by her agent. But they will publish it in English eventually; they’ve acquired the rights to do so. The cover—she describes the cover to me—the cover has columns and a long patio. It sounds very romantic. I embellish it with vines and creepers, a Truman Capote-esque profusion of vegetation in a humid climate.

Even if I bought the agent who doubles as a translator, I could not go for the self-selected cover. For I have never known an author who wasn’t shocked by the publisher’s choice of cover matter. Every writer I know has begged for a change of cover. Implored. Either it’s got a picture of the writer (usually as a younger person, a photo the writer hates) or it’s got appalling graphics that have nothing to do with the story or both.

Why is it that once someone starts making up the details, they have a hard time staying the course?

Once Nicole B. tells me enough, she fades away, back into the Web’s dim recesses. She disappears just when I am beginning to enjoy the story.I wonder if I have become part of her friend’s book report. I wonder if I am now the real Catherine Marshall.


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