Photo: Courtesy of the author
‘The Fake’: Zoe Whittall’s Latest Novel Was Inspired by a Real-Life Fraudster
The story of Cammie, who fakes a cancer diagnosis to reel in her marks, is timely, given a plethora of TV series and films about con artists / BY Rosemary Counter / March 20th, 2023
Canadian author Zoe Whittall’s latest novel couldn’t have come at a timelier cultural moment. Thanks to Inventing Anna, The Dropout and The Tinder Swindler — or maybe because of them — everyone’s obsessed right now with hustlers, con artists and grifters. Whittall is no exception, only her fascination began years ago with the shady real-life events that inspired The Fake. In the book, which Whittall is careful to stress is entirely fictional, not one but two too-trusting people fall for beautiful and charismatic Cammie, who claims to be battling cancer (mm-hmm). What does Whittall think makes creatures like Cammie so alluring? Why do the conned deserve our empathy? And, can I possibly squeeze the real-life story out of the prolific author? From her new home in Prince Edward County, Ont., Zoomer talked to the former Torontonian about why grifters are so interesting, how to spot one in a crowd and podcast recommendations.
Rosemary Counter: I have a feeling that you, like me and everyone else, are a bit obsessed with grifters at the moment. How’d you get into them?
Zoe Whittall: Oh, totally. I had a couple of experiences in my 20s with pathological liars and I’ve been really drawn to learning about them ever since. There was a great CBC podcast by Kathleen Goldhar called Do You Know Mordechai? about a man who tricked women on dating apps. I was of course really into Anna Delvey and Elizabeth Holmes. I find it hard to look away.
RC: Weird question, but do you kind of like them?
ZW: I don’t know if I like them, but I like reading about them because they’re so fascinating. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought more about what it means to be an honest person and be self-reflective about how your behaviour affects other people. These grifters are in some ways just delusional, and they make people around them delusional as well, which is maybe the only way to explain their behaviour.
RC: There’s this podcast I like called Scam Goddess where the host is always talking about grifting like it’s an actual job. It’s hard work!
ZW: I love that one, too! It’s true that grifting takes a whole lot of hustle and dedication. And I’m such a bad liar, which you’ve got to be great at. Cammie is kind of a composite of people I’ve met in my life, who’s then radically altered. In the first drafts, I didn’t write anything from her perspective. A friend said the reader really needed to hear from Cammie herself. But writing a liar character is really difficult because, by design, you can’t ever know them. They’re so charming and likeable and persuasive, but ultimately unknowable.
RC: I like how the book shifts the focus from the scammer to the scammed. Those people tend to be dismissed as gullible suckers.
ZW: In my research into the scammer’s pathology, I learned that they’ll actually study the lives of the people they want to manipulate. They choose their targets specifically for their vulnerabilities and they shape-shift themselves into what that person needs. No wonder it feels like, “Wow, I finally met someone (a new lover or a best friend) who really gets me.” It’s hard to feel that feeling as a red flag, but it is. Real human connections aren’t usually so seamless.
RC: Anything else you’d want a would-be scammed person to know?
ZW: Well, if you’re at home watching one of these shows it’s easy to think, “Why don’t they just leave? Why don’t they have the feeling that I have?” Because, for the person being manipulated — who’s already vulnerable, because they’re a people-pleaser or a co-dependent person or maybe they’re just lonely — it’s not easy to let go. When you find someone you think really cares for you, because that’s what they’re telling you, you don’t want to throw them away. You see good in them — and there is good is them, too, because nobody is just one thing — so you cling to that. Cammie is manipulative and dangerous, but also fun and seductive. It’s confusing.
RC: Are you at all sympathetic? I feel like someone who fakes cancer is indeed sick, just in a different way.
ZW: Absolutely. I spent a lot of time researching psychiatric disorders that might explain this behaviour. Münchhausen’s [syndrome] is definitely part of it, and narcissism and pathological lying. My character Shelby, who is conned, suffers from anxiety and hypochondria. She’s always worried she’s sick and convinced she’s sick, though Cammie actually says she’s sick.
RC: That’s a fine line. In your acknowledgements, you thank “everyone who was around in 2007 to listen to me when I figured out the truth.” So, my last question is, Zoe, what in the world happened in 2007?
ZW: I don’t want to get into specifics, but I will say the book was inspired by something real. I can’t write memoir to save my life, and Cammie’s incredibly different than anyone I’ve encountered, but lots of this book was taken from my real life. That’s all I’m saying!
RC: Okay let’s do one more then: If anyone were to try this on you again, would you spot it?
ZW: Yes, for sure. I’ve actually developed this weird intuitive sense to see these people for what they are. If I walk into a party and there’s someone there with a narcissistic personality, I can see it immediately, and I stay far away. Most of the time, I’ve been right.