Zoe Whittall on using her relationship with a liar as inspiration for 'The Fake'

·4 min read

TORONTO — Zoe Whittall doesn't usually write about her own life. She tells people it's too boring, and she likes making stuff up too much.

Her latest novel, "The Fake," is the exception.

Whittall's yearlong relationship with a scammer served as a springboard for the book, which follows two people who become entwined with a woman who seems to lie about everything — including her supposed cancer diagnosis.

The novel's antagonist is similar to Whittall's ex. Both were charismatic storytellers who told tall tales about their pasts in a largely successful effort to win people over.

"As far as I know, she lied about having cancer," Whittall said of her ex-girlfriend. "It's hard to fact check that, you know."

What at first seemed like a whirlwind romance turned out to be a tornado, Whittall said. Drama followed her ex-girlfriend everywhere, and many of her stories turned out to be lies.

"Ever since I had that relationship, I always knew I wanted to write about a con artist, and I was never sure how that was going to happen," she said.

In "The Fake," published Tuesday by HarperCollins Canada, she wanted to capture the feeling of being close to someone who lies habitually, the way it turns everything upside down.

"Being with a pathological liar often feels like you're living in the last 10 minutes of a 'Law & Order' episode.

"But you can never really know the 'guh-gung,'" she said, mimicking the TV show's famous sound effect, "the final beat of the story, because in some ways, liars are unknowable."

In that not-knowing, she said, there is ample opportunity for self-doubt. You might find yourself asking: how could I question the person I love? What kind of person does that make me?

"How could I think someone doesn't have cancer?" Whittall said. "To admit that you feel like something's off kind of throws everything up in the air."

In many cases, Whittall said, scam artists will target people who are especially vulnerable and more willing to accept the lies they're fed.

That's true of Whittall's two protagonists, Shelby and Gibson, who have both found themselves single for the first time in years at the start of the book.

"They're trying to pick themselves up, and here comes this person who love-bombs both of them, who becomes this person that they feel uniquely attached to, because she's kind of narcissistically mirroring what they want and who they are," Whittall said. "So they're kind of willing to believe it."

Of all the lies Whittall's antagonist Cammie tells, it is the possibility that she's lying about having cancer that feels the most galling to the other characters in the book.

"Most people have been touched by cancer. Most people have known someone who's been sick or has died, and it's just such a horrifying experience to witness or to experience yourself," Whittall said.

"I think that's where the horror comes from."

The book joins a veritable pantheon of swindle stories that have found success in recent years, many of them based on actual events.

They range from "Inventing Anna," the Netflix series about Anna Sorokin — better known by her nom de scam, Anna Delvey — to "The Dropout," which chronicles Elizabeth Holmes' false claims that she'd invented a device that could scan for hundreds of diseases using a single drop of blood.

"White Lie," a Canadian film that premiered in 2019, meanwhile, tackles the cancer scammer. Its main character lies about her diagnosis not only for attention, but also for financial gain.

There are also high-profile documentaries and podcasts including "Scamfluencers," "Scam Goddess," and "Do You Know Mordechai?," which takes an episodic approach to a single case.

Like many others, Whittall is a fan.

"I'm particularly drawn into listening to people explain how they were conned, and the exasperation that you feel when you know something's off, but you can't put your finger on it."

Honest people, she posits, are fascinated by liars.

"Culturally, we're at a moment where truth has never been stickier or more movable," Whittall said.

"Facing the truth about ourselves is hard. Especially as we get older, it's hard to acknowledge our own flaws and look at ourselves and be self-aware. And liars don't soul search. They don't wonder if they're good people. They escaped this very human preoccupation."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 21, 2023.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press