Though it wounded him to have his work considered unoriginal in any way, Martin tried to take the comparisons to another writer as a compliment. That was at the start of his book tour. By the middle of it, venues were cancelling appearances and the tour was cut short in disgrace.
‘Derivative,’ the first online magazine review said.
‘Derivative is being kind!’ a man commented to a swarm of ‘likes’. ‘I believe the word you’re looking for is plagiarism.’
The P-word. It churned the writer’s stomach and loosened his bowels. It was a pang of guilt most foul to be accused of stealing another’s work and claiming it as his own. He’d never even heard of the guy, much less read any of his books.
There were murmurs of ‘Bret Easton Ellis this’ and ‘Glamorama that’ threaded through the five-star ratings from young readers who’d also never heard of the global phenomenon. Littered among the fawning, all-caps praise were complaints of ‘How is this even allowed? Aren’t there laws to stop this kind of thing?’ Slowly, the rave Amazon reviews from teens were overwhelmed by a deafening wall of criticism from adults.
‘Jeremy writes as though we had never heard of BEE,’ wrote one professional reviewer of Martin Jeremy’s self-published debut, Braindead. ‘It is one thing to be influenced by an author, it is another thing entirely to steal from an author’.
Braindead had been lauded by young adult readers the world over, becoming a viral sensation virtually overnight. Martin began writing it in his teens and, over eight years, finally completed a five-hundred-page tome that tracked the lives of three eighteen-year-olds wreaking havoc in the affluent Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. Martin lacked the financial backing to have the manuscript professionally edited, opting instead to give it to a friend and best English student from school, Judy—a now 22-year-old journalist who hadn’t read any of Easton Ellis’s work either. Then he published it himself.
Braindead had all the things a teen could want in a novel; sex, drugs, scandal, violence, and outrageous black comedy. Fanpages erupted on social media, both for the author and the characters themselves. Hundreds of thousands of drawings were being uploaded to Instagram with artist’s impressions hashtagged #braindeadfanart.
Martin was forced to hire a manager to field the flood of enquiries into acquiring rights to produce a series. There was talk of a Netflix movie with a bigger budget than ‘The Irishman’. Fashion labels sent him the clothes mentioned in the wealthy teens’ debaucherous shopping sprees.
Then he had to hire a lawyer.
Martin’s prose was a semi-stream-of-consciousness, first-person, present-tense literary assault that hooked its audience from the opening scene and didn’t let up until the final blood-soaked page, leaving readers breathless; exhausted from spending nights on end with Oscar and his two accomplices. Even after closing the book, readers couldn’t get enough of Martin’s style. The problem was, to many, it sounded just like Easton Ellis.
In addition to the heady mix of teen angst salved with vice and obscene wealth, Braindead also had a plot element that, critics insisted, crossed the line between homage and theft: the three kids were terrorists financed by middle-eastern warlords—a direct lifting from Easton Ellis’s 1998 novel, Glamorama, in which a cell of international supermodel militants blows up cafés and passenger planes.
Martin could ignore the accusations no longer. He bought the entire Bret Easton Ellis back catalogue and devoured them with increasing levels of anxiety as what appeared to be his own words leapt from the pages written decades before. Easton Ellis’s early works bore into him like great, insatiable termites. The rich, vapid, vacuous teens with evermore trivial crises; the departure from world-building to snappy, of-the-times dialogue executed with deceptively-tortured restraint; an economy of words that gave the impression of literary laziness—if only they knew the effort behind each word omitted! Now, reading Less Than Zero, he was reading his own style, but with something imperceptibly … better.
In American Psycho, Martin read the chapter Easton Ellis had written as a single, meandering, unhinged, unpunctuated sentence, and his chest became so constricted he could barely breathe.
He’d done that.
He was physically ill as he read the scene of Patrick Bateman suffering an anxiety attack over comparisons between nearly identical business card designs. Martin had written a scene in which Oscar had a mental breakdown when, after finally selecting a plain white t-shirt that cost $350, five other teens obsessed over imperceptible variations in their own overpriced white t-shirts. Martin knew the movie ‘American Psycho’ had been based on a book but he’d never seen it. He certainly had no idea about the famous business card scene. Now, he felt as though he were experiencing some nightmarish version of déjà vu.
Electing to self-publish at 21, Martin hadn’t been remotely prepared for the popularity of his debut novel. Having kids from the other side of the world telling him Braindead had changed their life was beyond his wildest imagination. And, up until this point, Martin had believed he possessed a pretty wild imagination. Now, that illusion was being crushed by literary authorities and Ellis fans—zealots all—with great prejudice.
He’d heard people talk about the regret of going viral; even when it was for something good. He understood now: The internet was a cruel, merciless place, and everyone had a connection and an opinion.
He had visions of being stoned—not stoned like the kids in his book—stoned with rocks. Buried up to his neck while anonymous people selected stones from bags branded with their internet provider's logo, heaving them unimpeded by identity, conscience or consequence. Faceless cowards threatened to kill him. Martin was thankful his author profile pic was a terribly-painted portrait rather than a photo—a reference to Oscar being a frustrated but talentless painter that may well have saved his life.
He pulled down his website and attempted to deactivate his Facebook page but Peter—one of his infamously-hopeless mates—was the sole administrator and he couldn’t navigate the labyrinthine process to shut it down. At last check, Martin’s inbox was at twenty-six thousand unread messages, most of them flagged for abusive language.
Against the advice of his lawyer, Martin penned a grovelling apology to Bret Easton Ellis himself that, via his management and publisher, was responded to with a cease and desist order. It was followed shortly thereafter by a surprisingly courteous letter advising him that he was to be personally sued for every penny he’d made from the sale of the book, any associated marketing, publicity, and merchandise. They even suggested his Instagram and Twitter followers were to be digitally transferred to Easton Ellis’s own accounts. In his state of abject despair, Martin agreed it sounded reasonable. He wouldn’t have been surprised if Bret’s lawyers—he was certain there was a veritable army of them—pushed for his incarceration.
A court date was set. In nine months, Martin would be put on trial in a public hearing. There were rumours that Easton Ellis himself would be in attendance for opening statements and generous seating would be allocated to media and fans. In a ruling that reminded Martin of his little sister’s birthdays, he was allowed to bring five supporters.
“Can’t I just plead guilty and be done with it?” Martin said to his lawyer.
“If you plead guilty,” replied the QC, “they’ll destroy you. It will also open up a pandora’s box of litigation against any author who unknowingly copied another writer’s work.”
Martin nodded that he understood, though the weight of the whole fiasco was already telling. The taxing combination of guilt and virtual stoning had cost him ten kilograms of his already-slight frame and there were grey hollows where his bright blue eyes once keenly observed the world. Martin wept.
“What do you suggest I do?” he asked.
His lawyer said, “Write.”
“Write? Write what?”
“You have your supporters. Write a story about your trial, write about your journey—your truth as everyone likes to say these days.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever write another word,” said Martin with a sigh.
“Then how the hell are you going to afford me?” replied the lawyer.
And so, after a week of wallowing in self-pity, Martin Jeremy typed the first words of his new novel. He was terrified of making the same mistake as he’d made with Braindead, having never read anything outside the school curriculum, and began researching tips for avoiding plagiarism. Unfortunately, the first two articles he found were contradictory. One said Read everything you can so you’ll know what’s been done, the other said Don’t read too widely or you risk being influenced. At least they both agreed on one thing: write what you know.
To escape the media frenzy and the hate mail, Martin packed up his laptop and bought a ticket to the most geographically remote country town he could reach by train. He wandered through scrublands, took odd carpentry jobs, met people—shepherds, artists, prostitutes—and listened to their stories. And they listened to his. They’d never heard of Bret Easton Ellis either.
He had an affinity for the artists in particular and spoke with them about his experiences of persecution. He warned them of the dangers of stealing, of coveting the talents of others, seeking riches instead of truth in their work. Martin Jeremy the literary pariah became Martin Jeremy the mentor and he filled town halls—small ones at first—with his message of hope for those trying to find their own voice.
Six weeks later, he called his five best friends to join him in the remote rural town in which he’d settled. They had been concerned about his well being and were relieved to hear from him. They assured Martin they’d arrive within the week. His friends had no jobs to speak of as they’d all been living off Martin’s fame and were now guilty by association. Another handful of friends thought it sounded like a lark and, on a blissful Wednesday afternoon, twelve of Martin Jeremy’s friends arrived at the small country train station in the middle of New South Nowhere.
“Friends,” said Martin, arms wide beneath a poncho he’d been gifted by a local weaver.
“What’s with the beard, dude?” said Matthew.
“I am not digging this look,” agreed Mark.
“Luke?” said Martin, one of his staunchest allies in all things fashion.
“It’s a no from me, man.”
“Though, as far as tortured artist vibes go,” added John, “I don’t mind it.”
They all embraced and Martin kissed the cheeks of the entire party before they headed to the pub. As they ate, a girl Martin had known since primary school tapped away on her phone. It was his editor.
“Everything alright, Judy?” Martin said.
She looked up with a start, whisking the phone beneath the table. “I was, ah, just telling Mum I’d gotten here okay.”
“It’s alright, Judy,” Martin said with his warm smile.
“Are…are you high?” she asked.
Martin looked at her without malice or indignation though he knew she had ratted him out to her mate at the paper from which she'd been unceremoniously sacked. “A little,” he said.
Despite her efforts, Martin could see Judy continued to fiddle with her phone and that she’d pressed the record button of the voice memo app.
“So, what have you been up to since you left?” she said.
“Talking and listening,” he said. “Though trying to do more of the latter.”
“Right,” she said in the way people do when they’re not listening. “And where did you say you’d been since you left home?”
Martin’s face relaxed into another broad smile that caused Judy to shift uncomfortably. “Whatever you’re about to do,” Martin said, “do it quickly.”
He kissed her on the cheek and continued to walk around the table, conversing with his companions, all enthusiastic to join his pilgrimage through the countryside.
A week later, a thirteenth joined the group. It did not take long for the man’s identity to be revealed. It was indeed Judy’s friend at the paper—an arts journalist at The Age.
“Why have you betrayed me?” Martin said to Judy as they sat in a truckstop diner on the highway to an artist’s colony deep in the mountains.
She broke down, weeping into her tepid sausage roll. “I’m so sorry, Martin,” she sobbed. “It’s been impossible to get any work as a writer after you credited me as the editor of that bloody book. By any journalistic standard, I’m as guilty as you are.”
“And for that, I am sorry. I wish you had been spared all of this.”
“Jackson—he’s the journo—he said if I could get him the scoop on you, there was a job in it for me. Back at The Age, I mean.”
Martin nodded. It was a dream gig for any aspiring journalist. “I forgive you,” he said.
“That’s great, Marty,” she said, wiping snot from her nose. “But it’s myself I’m not sure I can forgive.”
“What’s up with her?” asked Peter.
“Judy’s decided she will not be joining us,” Martin replied.
“Really? How come?”
“The sharks are circling,” said Martin. “They know where I am now. It won’t be long before they take me away.”
“Don’t worry, mate,” Peter said. “I’m with you.”
Martin smiled and placed his hand on his shoulder. “I don’t blame you at all, Peter. But I believe when the time comes you’ll deny ever knowing me.”
Incredulous, Peter said, “Why would I do that?”
“Because it is one thing to be a friend of someone riding the wave of success, it is much harder to be willingly drowned with them.”
The next day, the group awoke to find Martin’s campervan empty and the journalist’s hire-car gone.
“You’re sure you want to do this?” the journalist asked.
“I do,” replied Martin. “If I ever want to be taken seriously again, I must write my own story. But first, I need you to clear my name in the court of public opinion.”
The journalist interviewed Martin for the six-and-a-half hours back to Sydney, recording every word, taking notes when it was Martin’s turn to drive.
They pulled into the car park of the newspaper’s sprawling complex and made their way to the studio used for live interviews. The bearded hippy gave staff no reason to take a second look; they were accustomed to the arts journalists bringing his type in. Had they known that Martin Jeremy, the biggest story in the country was in their midst, they might have destroyed the building trying to get an exclusive.
On Martin’s insistence, the interview would not be pre-recorded. He wanted it live and raw. Warts and all. Scheduled during their car trip, they were due to headline the entertainment report, syndicated across all major news channels.
The interview started with a short introductory piece-to-camera by the journalist whose only purpose it seemed was to verify the identity of the dishevelled gentleman sitting beside him. With his long, coarse hair and tangle of facial hair, Martin Jeremy would have been unrecognisable to his own parents.
“Where have you been for the last few months?” the journalist asked.
“I went bush,” Martin said.
“You ran away?”
Martin smiled. If he hadn’t looked so pathetic, the audience might have mistaken it for condescension. “I have an important engagement coming up in the courts,” he said. “I needed to get my head straight; away from the ‘feedback’ I was receiving from an understandably upset section of the public.”
“Fans of the author whose work you plagiarised.”
Martin twitched imperceptibly but nodded in agreement. “That’s right.”
“You’ll be pleading guilty then?”
“I’m afraid I can’t discuss the case.”
“Of course,” said the journalist, sticking to the script they had rehearsed in the car. “So what have you been doing all this time?”
“I’ve been writing again.”
“Can you tell us a little about it?”
There was a pause. Martin looked at the journalist and gave him a new smile. Then he went off-script. “Absolutely,” he said to the journalist’s shock.
“After discovering that my first book unintentionally contained so much of another artist’s work, I was determined to find my story. I wanted to give hope to those who felt hopeless. I went deep into rural communities and found fascinating people from all walks of life. I considered writing about them, but then I would be stealing their stories. I hope I helped them find their stories and encouraged them to tell the world; that there was hope if they just believed.”
“And your entourage?” said the journalist.
“My five best friends and some other colleagues and I were going to travel around spreading my message.”
“What stopped you?”
Martin chuckled. “You did.”
The journalist shifted in his chair. “Are you suggesting that I hauled you back here against your will?”
“No, I was ready. I understand there are a lot of people who have very strong feelings about what I have done and that, eventually, I would have to face my accusers. I was hoping to have continued on for another month or two but Judy blew my cover and here we are.”
“What are you hoping to write about from all this?”
“I will have my day in court, accept my punishment, and live to see another day. The second half of my book will be the lessons I learn from those experiences.”
The journalist frowned. “So…” he began, frown deepening. “So, you’ve gone out into the wilderness for forty days, were a carpenter, you’re joined by twelve others to spread a message of hope before being betrayed by a friend, dragged back to the city to be tried and prosecuted for a crime without a fight, now you’ll accept the punishment with the intention of returning to write again?”
“That’s right,” said Martin with a warm smile.
“Jesus Christ,” the journalist said.
“Can you say that?”
“You’re plagiarising the New Testament.”
“The what?” said Martin.