Christopher Sebela

writer, wronger, rearranger

The requests threw Rowan into a panic: “I thought, Oh, wow, they want it to be more than just a parody of these silly men’s paperbacks—they want it to be a real thriller.” He wrote, in an e-mail to Duns, “That’s when things really got out of hand for me. I just didn’t feel capable of writing the kinds of scenes and situations that were asked of me in the time allotted and rather than saying I couldn’t do it … I started stealing again.”

Of Rowan’s method of cutting and pasting from numerous books, one commenter wrote, “Sounds far more arduous than just writing the damn thing himself.” Jonathan Lethem, who knew Rowan from the bookstore, told me that making a text from other texts “is not a lazy man’s game. As someone who sort of did this, it’s an immense amount of work.” Over fifteen years, Rowan had become adept at it. “All I did was read. I knew what felt right,” he told me. “I could kind of picture the set of books that I had been using”—he corrected himself—“stealing from. And I’d think, What about that scene? I’d see the text on the page. I don’t know what you’d call that.” (The medical term is “eidetic memory.”)

For action scenes, Rowan borrowed from Robert Ludlum, and from the Bond continuation authors, often changing only names and technical details. For the book’s more meditative passages, he spliced denser prose from O’Brien’s “Dream Time” and from Charles McCarry. The original “Spy Safari” draft had featured a villainous organization called the Zero Directorate, which was killing spies. In his revision, Rowan wanted to raise the stakes, and he thought of a McCarry book, “Second Sight,” in which spies are given a drug that makes them confess their secrets. “I just took the whole theme from that book,” he said, including many of McCarry’s ruminations on espionage. Duns said that those elements were “what I fell in love with. Reading those passages, I felt sick with envy.”

Rowan worked on the revision for two months. “There was almost a sense of it being a creative process,” he told me. He wrote to Duns, “It felt very much like putting an elaborate puzzle together. Every new passage added has its own peculiar set of edges that had to find a way in.”

Lizzie Widdicombe, Quentin Rowan, a.k.a. Q. R. Markham, Plagiarism Addict

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