Sarah Hepola


A brush with a compulsive liar

I wish I could remember how she came to me, what detail opened the door that I would walk through to meet her. Did we have a friend in common? Did she name-drop some magazine? This would have been 2011, or thereabouts, and my inbox was a game of whack-a-mole, where the moles were always winning. And yet, I wrote her back:

Hi Anna. Nice to meet you. I’d love to have you write for Salon sometime. 

I don’t have the emails anymore, so everything I recount here is from memory, and the memories are not particularly sharp, because why would they need to be? She was just a freelancer. But a few details stand out. The email, for instance, where she told me she had a two-book deal. I was trying to sell my own book at the time, and I noticed anyone who’d beaten me to the punch. The writing world is such a polite bloodsport, all of us toasting each other on Facebook and at cocktail parties, but I kept a private grudge list: Who had been published, and where, and how. My brain was an up-to-the-minute ticker tape of everyone’s literary status, but hers came as a surprise. Who knew? Anna March, some random freelancer, had a two-book deal.

I have this other memory. A conversation with a friend who’d worked with her before, and I asked about Anna. “She’s a bit of an edit,” my friend said, “but she has provocative ideas.”

A bit of an edit. Every magazine has writers like this. One of the many revelations of being an editor is how SLOPPY some of my fellow scribes could be. At Salon, our staff writers were impeccable, intimidating in their polish, but the freelancers could be a heavy lift. Even contributors with serious name recognition could turn in drafts laden with typos and half-baked ideas. Did they not care? Did they just assume someone else would clean up their messes? At first, stuff like this sent me into a panic — what to do? it’s a disaster! — but after a few years, I secretly came to enjoy it.

Call me a masochist, but look: You work with a writer who never has a comma out of place, and you are basically the person who copies and pastes. You work with someone like Anna, who has promise but needs assistance, and you feel: Necessary. Maybe even important. Anna was lavish in her gratitude: Thank you, you’re amazing, couldn’t have done this without you. I was working behind the scenes much of the time, only pushing out a couple essays a year, and the stories I edited became a kind of salve for my ego. “I loved that piece,” a colleague would say, and I felt a bolt of satisfaction, like the compliment really belonged to me.

The first hint I got that something might be off with Anna happened right after my own book deal. I finally did it: Sold my memoir to a real-live publisher in July 2013, and I arrived home one day to find an enormous arrangement of orchids on my front porch.

“Holy shit, X sent me flowers!” I thought, because inside my foolish heart, there is always some X, and the fragile, girlish hope he might romance me in this way, but no. I opened the card. It was signed Anna March.

Anna March? The freelancer? But I barely knew her. I waited a day before writing a warm but measured thank you, and she emailed back quickly that if I ever needed a place to write, I was welcome to stay at her beach house.  Another thing you come across in the writing world: People with secret money. Family money, trust-fund money, who-knows money. Most writers can’t pay the rent on their work alone, but they have these fancy lake houses, two-story lofts in the city, summer homes whose mortgages are definitely not being covered by those $150/piece Internet fees. It was good, I thought to myself, to have a rich friend with a surf-side getaway. I kept her invitation on the back burner, a break-in-case-of-emergency retreat.

That Christmas, I received a mysterious plywood box in the mail. It was about the size of a small sled, and quite heavy. I can’t imagine how much it cost to ship. Inside was easily a hundred dollars of expensive chocolates. Chocolate-dipped pretzels and chocolate-dipped toffee and I seem to remember some high-end cocoa, all of it wrapped in that elegant way of needless silk ribbons and a zillion pieces of tiny accordion paper that whispered of money. I did not think this package had come from X, and as I unloaded the bounty on my kitchen counter, I knew exactly who sent it. So weird. Why me? Anna March.

My Anna March story is different from other people’s Anna March story. Theirs are more enraging: Money promised and not delivered, writing workshops canceled at the last minute. Hopes dashed, futures compromised, trust broken. The LA Times story that ran Thursday, reported by Melissa Chadburn and Carolyn Kellogg, exploded in my social feeds, and suddenly it seemed like everyone had an Anna March story. A long trail of petty deceptions and low-level grifting: She never did have that two-book deal, she was badly in debt, and changed her name at least three times. So my Anna March story isn’t much of a story at all. I have no beef with the woman. In fact, she was generous to me. In searching my Gmail for any recent correspondence, I came across her offer to throw me a cocktail party in LA the next time I visited, though she later rescinded it, saying her life was a bit of a mess. Apparently quite the understatement.

I feel sad for Anna. I feel worse for the people she’s conned, of course, and I wish to God she’d taken all the money she blew on top-tier chocolates and USPS shipping costs and paid a few people what she owed them, but I feel sad for Anna, too. Or Nancy. Or Delaney. Or whatever her name is now. I was a liar once. When I was a little girl, I lied about tiny things, but also big ones. I told a friend that the teen actor River Phoenix had called me, much like Anna once told her friend that Bob Dylan had called her, and OK, I was 13 and Anna was a grown woman, but the lie came from the same withered place of wish and diminished self. The idea was that if this were true, I would have value. The idea that if this were true, I would be special.

The last time I saw Anna March — the only time I saw her in person, actually — was a book event I did in Portland in April 2016. Anna had organized the event, which required me flying myself across the country, putting myself up in a hotel, none of which was paid for by her, but I agreed to it because the event sounded interesting, and because one of the panelists was Cheryl Strayed, a writer I greatly admired, and I liked the idea of being on a panel with her, seeing my name on a poster that had her name as well. (I would be special.) Anna may have bungled many events over the years, but this one went swimmingly. Powell’s was packed that night.

Anna and I were chit-chatting before things got started, and she said, “I wonder how many dick pics I’m going to get after this is over,” which I found to be a very odd comment. I was personally anticipating zero dick pics, which has long been my average. Anna is in her 50s. She reminds me a bit of Roseanne Barr.

“Wait, why do guys send you dick pics?” I asked, and she made a face of exaggerated annoyance, like: Why do guys do anything?

I turned to the writer beside me. “Do you get dick pics after book events?”

Her eyes went wide. “No! Why, do you?”

I’ve been reading a lot of Tom Wolfe lately. His death earlier this summer brought on a bout of nostalgia. And Tom Wolfe’s animating theory, inspired by the work of Max Weber, was that human behavior can be explained as a competition for status. Such a competition is intense in the writing community, in part because status is so hard to come by. And so the literary world becomes studded with people like Anna, who exaggerate their importance, boost their credentials, flaunt their generosity as a bait and switch for their need. They tell you they’re friends with Malcolm Gladwell, because someone must be. They tell you they went to the National Book Awards, because who could say they didn’t?

Con man is short for confidence man because that’s the feeling they inspire, and confidence is what most of us writers desperately want — staring at our stubborn manuscript in basements and offices and darkened bedrooms across the land, wondering: Is this any good? Will anyone care? Should I just stop now? Someone who will reach out in the darkness and say: You can make it, and I will help you.

I don’t know where Anna March is now. I don’t know who she is now. But I hope she makes amends for what she’s done, I hope she finds some peace, and I hope she’s taking notes. Because if she could ever drop the act and get real about who she is and what she’s done?

She’d have one hell of a story.