Laila Lalami on the public writer vs. the private self

Reader, I have two selves. For many months, or sometimes years, I work on a novel in the privacy of my home. Each book presents problems of its own: characters that are not yet fully alive, subplots that threaten to overtake the main story, a narrative structure that needs to be rethought. Whatever the challenge, the work is never easy. Fear sits beside me. Doubt is my daily bread. If I’m lucky, I finish the book and it gets published. Then I give readings, do interviews on the radio or television, attend book parties and writers’ workshops and literary festivals. I become, however briefly, a public figure.

The line between public and private selves is different for different writers. Some are comfortable sharing many details of their lives. Neil Gaiman tells fans about his book projects, encourages people to get involved in refugee relief and tweets pictures of his wife and baby son. Other writers prefer relative anonymity. Thomas Pynchon famously doesn’t give interviews and is rarely photographed. Most writers probably fall somewhere in between.

What if a stranger decided to blur the lines without permission? This is what happened to Elena Ferrante last year. Ferrante became an international sensation following the publication of her Neapolitan quartet, a cycle of exquisite novels that probe the nature of female friendship. All of Ferrante’s fiction has appeared under this name — a pseudonym — and she has assiduously withheld details of her private life. But that anonymity ended when Claudio Gatti, an Italian reporter, revealed Ferrante’s real name, disclosed details of her family history and uncovered real estate deals she made.

Gatti claimed he was trying “to assist us in gaining insight into her novels.” But Ferrante has always deemed the work itself to be sufficient. The books could dazzle, while she retreated behind a mask. And many readers, myself included, found this anonymity refreshing. Why should the writer explain anything? We have the book. It is enough, and it is everything.

My first book, “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits,” was published nearly 12 years ago. This was around the time when many independent bookstores began shuttering, book review pages started disappearing and the work of publicizing books shifted to writers. I’d been keeping a literary blog under a pseudonym, which I dispatched when it became clear to me that if I wanted people to find my book I’d have to tell them about it. So I set up a personal website, with links and information for readers. After my second book, “Secret Son,” was released, my publisher asked me to join Facebook and Twitter.

I’ve always been ambivalent about social networks, because they exploit and amplify the duality between public and private selves. Everyone can present to the world a flattering, polished portrait, while preserving for their friends or for themselves the ugly or messy parts. It is easy to forget that behind the artfully posed picture is a human being of flesh and blood. Nevertheless, I joined both Facebook and Twitter, and used them to help promote my second book when it came out.

That experience taught me that I needed to adjust to a new divide between private and public selves. The greatest surprise for me has been how curious people are about the person behind the work. Much of that curiosity is harmless — nothing more than an attempt to understand where the artistic spark comes from, to trace parallels between life and art, to find new ways to read the book in light of its author.

But sometimes that curiosity feels insatiable or invasive. A couple of years ago, someone stole my photos and biography and set up a Twitter account in my name. One fan started sending me emails in which he addressed me as “Sweetheart.” Another tweeted me pictures of his genitals. Packages have mysteriously appeared at my door. Twice strangers tried to hack into my email account. I receive hate mail fairly regularly. During the Arab Spring, when I wrote several essays about the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, my website was the subject of a denial-of-service attack. It happened again after I wrote a piece about the role of white identity in the 2016 election.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

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