NEW YORK -- From his first story collection, "Delirium Eclipse," to his most recent novel, "Seven Lies," James Lasdun's fiction often has dealt with the unsettling surprises life sends our way.
Imagining such twists in no way prepared the writer for the ordeal he describes in "Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked." The book chronicles the scary evolution of one of Lasdun's former writing students, a woman he calls Nasreen, from a friendly email correspondent discussing her novel-in-progress into an enraged cyberstalker spewing anti-Semitic venom and accusations of creative theft in Amazon reviews and other Internet venues.
On a visit to New York City from his home in upstate New York, Lasdun discussed the unnerving impact of being assaulted online.
Q: Publishing a book about this woman's behavior carries the risk of provoking further aggression. Why do it?
A: I felt I had to defend myself against these public attacks that were occurring on the Internet and in emails to people I knew, including prospective employers. It's such a weird, complicated story, and I discovered in telling it to people that the convolutions made them think I was crazy. I felt I had to get a document that laid it all out.
Q: In the emails you reproduce in the book, she seems to become someone completely different from the person you knew in class. Were you stunned?
A: I was stunned and mortified, because I thought I could judge a person, and I turned out to have been spectacularly wrong. I suppose there must have been elements of what she became after she turned on me, but either she did an extremely good job of disguising who she really was in class, or she changed. I saw her writing; it was intelligent and sensitive. This anti-Semitic stuff in her emails just blew my mind; she'd never given any indication of that at all. I've never encountered anyone who changed like that, so it's really a mystery.
Q: She escalated from emails to a nasty Amazon "review" of your novel "Seven Lies" and a hostile comment on one of your book reviews in the Guardian. Are public figures like writers especially vulnerable online?
A: The Internet is this whole new universe, a completely unpoliced wilderness where anybody can say anything about anyone. Everybody knows it, but that's not enough to protect people. My guess is that Amazon finally took down her review because she'd posted others on the sites of the novelists she accused of selling her work to, so they got complaints from several people. But Amazon isn't policing it, and neither is your publisher or agent; you've got to look out for yourself. What are you going to do? Spend your life Googling yourself? It's insane!
You used to be able to write book reviews, as I do for the Guardian, and maybe someone would write a letter to the editor, but that was the end of it; you wouldn't get 50 comments in a public section. That is a platform for malice, and I've heard stories of well-known writers who have stopped blogging because they don't like getting hate mail. But does that mean you should abolish comments sections? I don't think censorship of any kind is good, but I do think big institutions like newspapers should employ someone to watch out for that sort of thing. It's devastating to be attacked like that, because even if it's one nasty little person doing it, you immediately multiply that antagonism into a whole world of people who think you're worthless.
Q: Is that the impact it had on you?
A: The main problem for me was that it took over my mind. Everything I wrote started to be about Nasreen; it became very difficult to think about anything else. The internal freedom you need to write fiction was just not accessible. So this book began as an act of self-defense, but then I got interested in exploring other subjects that seemed connected to it, like anti-Semitism and the question of reputation, and to use my experiences with Nasreen as a unifying theme.
Now I feel freed up in many ways. It's not like the situation is resolved, but I feel that even if it starts up again it's not going to affect me in quite the same way, because I've got the book now. I feel I'm ready to move on to other things.