My latest novel, The Fiction Writer, is a modern-day gothic mystery that explore the boundaries of creative freedom. It asks questions about writing and ownership and who owns the right to tell any story.
My main character, Olivia, is a writer, whose most recent novel, a retelling of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was a flop. So when her agent brings her an offer for a well-paying ghostwriting gig, it almost feels too good to be true. All she has to do is go to Malibu and spend some time with sexy mega-billionaire, Henry “Ash” Asherwood, who wants her to write about his late grandmother’s connection to Daphne du Maurier. But once she’s there, nothing about the project is what it seems, Ash seems more interested in her than their writing project, and what really did happen to Ash’s dead wife Angelica?
I first got the idea for The Fiction Writer when I came across a piece in Vanity Fair called “Who Really Inspired Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca” by Rosemary Counter. Counter goes through all of du Maurier’s potential inspirations for Rebecca, one of which is its similarity to Jane Eyre. But what I was most fascinated to learn was that du Maurier was accused of plagiarism after Rebecca was published—by not one, but two, other authors. One of these even went to trial in the 1940s in New York (du Maurier, however, ultimately won in court).
Rebecca has long been a favorite novel of mine, and reading this article really got me thinking about what makes any novel unique. Are there only so many plots and characters that can be written? And if there are, what sets one version apart from another or makes it original in its own right? What happens if two writers get similar ideas? I had always considered plagiarism to be intentional theft of someone else’s work. But what if the lines are truly blurrier than that?
This encapsulates all of what I set out to explore in The Fiction Writer, as Olivia struggles with many of the same questions as to what’s original and what’s not, surrounding both her own work and the ghostwriting project Ash wants to hire her for. Olivia’s agent in the novel is fond of telling her, “There are no new stories.” But Olivia – and I – tend to disagree. However even Olivia starts to notice the meta quality of her predicament: a writer who wrote a retelling of Rebecca who ends up in a story that’s unfolding a bit like a Rebecca retelling of its own. And she begins to wonder if maybe her agent is right after all.
By the end of The Fiction Writer, there are (multiple) fictional accusations of plagiarism, in a way, mirroring what happened in real life to Daphne du Maurier. But even the characters in my novel can’t agree over whether these acts are truly plagiarism or not. Who owns any story? What gives a fiction writer the right to tell any particular story? What makes any story unique, and original? I am fascinated with the answers to these questions, as both a writer and a reader.
Unsurprisingly, other fiction writers have also delved into this topic of novelists and plagiarism, exploring questions about ownership, identity, and who has the right to tell a story. Here are three recent novels that I loved that tackle similar questions of ownership to read alongside The Fiction Writer.
The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz explores what could happen after a writing professor steals his student’s sure-to-be-a-besteller story idea, once he learns the student has died. Who could ever know? And what could possibly go wrong? When his novel actually becomes a bestseller, it turns out a lot can go wrong! I love how this novel is about writing, publishing, and ownership but it also reads like a fast-paced thriller.
Yellowface by R.F. Kuang is about a struggling novelist who steals her former classmate’s manuscript after she dies. It tackles similar issues as The Plot, except she steals more than just the idea. She tries to pass the whole book off as her own. And I love that the theft, in this case goes beyond writing, as it also deals with cultural identity and appropriation in a really thought-provoking way.
Who is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews goes one step past plagiarism when a former publishing assistant may just end up taking over a reclusive famous author’s life, identity and writing career. A twisty and (deadlier) take on what it means to steal someone’s creative work as well as their life. I loved that this felt like a take on The Talented Mr. Ripley in the world of writing.