From The Millions:
When my debut novel came out, I had two firsts—a work of published fiction—and a lawsuit.
I had never thought about lawsuits before. I incorporated everything and everyone I knew or imagined into my fiction, spinning them into characters. At first, to my surprise, most people didn’t know they were any part of my stories. I was sure my mom would be delighted that I used a story in my novel that she had told me a million times over: how at 19, she had been jilted at the altar by the man she thought she loved, marrying a brute on the rebound. She was later visited by her ex, who brought his wife with him, taking my mom aside to whisper to her that he had made a mistake. “It’s really lovely you wrote that,” she told me, “but that character is not anything like me at all. Plus, that never really happened that way.”
My mother might not have recognized herself in my pages, but another family—one I didn’t know—did. A week after my first novel came out, I received a letter from a lawyer. A family, who lived in Pittsburgh, where I was living at the time, just happened to share the same (very common) names I had given my characters, along with the same dramatic conflict. They were suing me for invasion of privacy. I called my publisher, shocked. “I want to countersue.” I cried. “Even if I did know them, which I don’t—how could they imagine I’d be stupid enough to use their names and their situation?” There was a funny silence and then the publisher said, “We’re changing the names in the paperback. We don’t want to hold up the book because of some lawsuit.” I was upset. These people were claiming that I had stolen their life when I hadn’t! And worse, I had to change the names because of them and only then was the lawsuit dropped.
. . . .
When I was asked to write an essay about food issues for an anthology, I wrote about a long-gone ex who monitored my food intake until I was down to 95 pounds, who clouded my vision so I couldn’t see how controlled I was. Of course I knew enough not to use his name, his physical description, or his job, but even so, two weeks after the anthology was published, I got a call from the publisher’s lawyer. Somehow my ex, who I hadn’t seen in years, had read the essay. Though he insisted he had never done a single thing I had mentioned in the essay, he still recognized himself. And he wanted to sue.
“His wife is very upset,” the lawyer told me. “He said that’s why he called. Did you ever tell him you were writing about him?”
“Never,” I said.
“Okay, good,” the lawyer said, “then I can make him go away.”
So was that the key, I wondered? You had to ask people before you wrote about them, even if you disguised them? When I was asked to write an essay for an anthology about infidelity, I played it safe. I asked permission. I was writing about one long, hot brutal summer when my first husband was cheating on me. His sister, who was also my best friend, was orchestrating his trysts without my knowing, and her shrink was stalking her. She not only okayed the piece, she enthusiastically provided extra details. She was fine when my piece was reprinted in a major magazine, fine when it landed me on the Today Show, but when I got a movie option, she immediately threatened me with a lawsuit. I was gobsmacked. “But you gave permission!” I insisted. “And it’s my point of view of what happened!” I had to hire a lawyer from The Author’s Guild who assured me that because she had known about the story for so long, because it had been out there, she had no recourse. And he wrote a polite letter to her to tell her so.
Link to the rest at The Millions
PG doesn’t do litigation any more, but earlier in his legal career, he spent a lot of time in court and enjoyed most of his experiences there.
As an aside, it is almost always more fun to be a lawyer than a client when you walk into a courtroom.
As yet another aside, from his experience representing other lawyers and one judge in litigation matters, PG can attest that most lawyers make terrible clients.
That said, how do you avoid being sued and having to go to court as some lawyer’s client?
While there’s no bulletproof method that always works, based upon PG’s lengthy legal experience, following are some rules which will reduce your chances of having to go to court:
- Don’t be a crazy person.
- Don’t be born into a family full of crazy people.
- Don’t hang around with crazy people and, in particular, don’t marry a crazy person.
- If you are a lawyer, don’t represent crazy people.
- If you are a doctor, Hippocrates notwithstanding, don’t have crazy patients. (Psychiatrists are on their own here.)
- If you are an author, don’t write about crazy people you have known.
The large majority of the general population doesn’t go to court. Most people live and die without seeing the inside of a courtroom except for Judge Judy on TV.
In PG’s experience, the incidence of crazy people in courtrooms is significantly higher than their distribution among the general population.
This doesn’t mean that non-crazy people aren’t dragged into court on a regular basis.
However, if you spend a day in an active courtroom, you’ll see more people who aren’t quite right than you would if you spent the day in a dentist’s office or grocery store.
The problem with avoiding crazy people (or accepting them as clients for legal work) is that crazy people can be very cunning about concealing their true character.
Being crazy doesn’t always mean they aren’t intelligent. An experienced crazy person understands that drooling on the floor will put people off, so he/she/they/zie/sie/ey/ve/tey/e will try to appear normal and sometimes succeed long enough to make it through a marriage ceremony, meeting with a lawyer or even, on occasion, an appearance before a judge.
That’s about all the wisdom PG can generate today, so he must now devolve to his normal self.
Given that the collective wisdom of visitors to TPV is vast, insights into crazy people and how to avoid them (or any other subject) are always welcome in the comments.