Friday, September 14, 2012

Semi-rant about Internet Safety, Personal Space Bubbles, etc.

The interwebs have been abuzz this morning with talk of the attack on agent Pam van Hylckama, allegedly by a writer whose work she'd rejected. (Pam is an agent-pal and I have no reason to doubt her story, btw, but I say "allegedly" because obviously we don't know all the facts in the case and presumably the investigation etc is ongoing and nobody has been found guilty, so. ANYWAY....)

Scary stuff, for sure. My initial reaction is, thank god Pam is ok, and seems to have no more severe injuries than a bruise (and some shattered nerves!) -- and her little dog deserves a huge reward. Hugs to Pam and family.

My second reaction is more selfish. How could this have been avoided? How, indeed, can I personally avoid a situation like this?

It's true that agents do get a lot of crap. I've had authors show up outside my house, authors drop off notes in my home mailbox or at the bookstore (with no postmark - in other words, delivered by hand) authors come talk to me while I am at an event or show up while I am working at the bookstore to ask for advice, authors follow me way too closely in conference hotels, and authors call me on my cell phone. All of which very much freaked me out, but always ended up just being genuinely nice but clueless people who I could explain "look, this is inappropriate" and they get it, or if they don't get it, they at least go away.

I've also certainly gotten my share of thoroughly weird queries and responses to rejections. The query for a thriller about a dude who kills literary agents comes to mind. (eep!) I do not respond to such queries, and I save them in a "In Case I'm Murdered" file. Yanno, to be on the safe side. I've had people snap back and accuse me of being racist or hating men, etc, when I reject them. But I myself have never gotten actual threats, thank god. And 99% of the many, many authors I interact with on a daily basis are delightful and non-freaky.

Let's be clear: The dude who attacked Pam is not a "disgruntled author." He's a CRIMINAL. I'm trying to avoid the obvious word, because I hate when people just say "he's crazy" - (is that a diagnoses, Doctor Internet?)... but the behavior is certainly crazy, whether or not the person is. If the allegations are true, he didn't attack Pam "because she rejected him" -- he attacked her BECAUSE HE HAS SOMETHING WRONG WITH HIM. And, though I don't know him personally and I am not trying to diagnose what that "something wrong" is, it's safe to assume he has emotional and/or psychological disturbances of some kind. This isn't really a case of "authors behaving badly" as it is "unbalanced individuals behaving erratically."

So what to do? Like most people, I try to keep my personal address and phone number off the internet (though strangers still find them with disconcerting regularity). I don't have phone or address on my business cards or website. I don't use 4Square or Facebook "check-in" apps. But still, like many people, I live my life online. I tweet or facebook about places I visit and things I do. And as a semi-public figure, where I work is common knowledge. Because I work all the time, it is easy to figure out where I am, pretty much all the time. Even if I unplugged completely, I still live in a small village, and if you know the name of the village (which is no big secret), you can find me - because I am usually visibly standing somewhere near the center of it!  (Of course it is also no big secret that I have a dog who craves the taste of human flesh and would love to bite a stranger on my behalf, and honestly I pity anyone who breaks into my house, so I have little fear on that front.)

I guess the point is -- writers, agents, anyone who lives part of their life in public (which is an ever increasing number of people) -- ALL OF US need to be vigilant. ALL OF US need to watch how much info goes online, and use a certain amount of discretion.

Also, ALL OF US need to be considerate about personal space bubbles -- just as you wouldn't ask a stranger to examine you in line at the supermarket if you found out he was a gynecologist, don't creep around a literary agents house and wait for her to go outside to water the plants so you can ask her questions about your work. There's a time and a place. Don't be a creep.

But you can't really predict or protect against a stranger snapping on you. And you can't live your life in fear. I guess the most we can do is just be as nice as we can to each other?

What do you think?


  1. At some level, crazy and criminal go hand in hand. I don't think they can be separated. I was mugged once, and it takes a long time to get over it. Visibility wasn't an issue. My thoughts go out to Pam.

    1. It's true. I've been mugged (when I was in college) and it was really scary. I was v shaken up for a long time, though not physically hurt. Ugh.

      In this case the visibility is an issue because the creep supposedly stalked her and knew her locations because of 4sqare and Twitter. :(

  2. Love this!

    "Also, ALL OF US need to be considerate about personal space bubbles -- just as you wouldn't ask a stranger to examine you in line at the supermarket if you found out he was a gynecologist, don't creep around a literary agents house and wait for her to go outside to water the plants so you can ask her questions about your work. There's a time and a place. Don't be a creep."

  3. Very well said, Jenn. (I knew you couldn't resist.) Pam's assailant had prior convictions. He IS a criminal. (I really object to the term "author" in headlines for stories about the attack.) And we all need to be careful.

  4. This is such a frightening incident - thankfully, Pam is okay, but you're right, it's an important lesson in being more vigilant.

    At RWA Nationals in NYC last year, I WAS the author behaving badly. I was in an elevator and saw a name on a woman's nametag - she was the very first agent who'd ever requested my work. She ended up passing and I went on to sign with another agent. But the thrill of actually meeting the first agent who'd ever said "I want to see more" to me sent me zipping into fangirl mode and I started the "Oh-my-god-it's-you" squealing.


    And I emphasize the but...

    I saw IMMEDIATELY that I was making her uneasy. She lost her smile. She took a step away from me in an elevator.

    I scared her.

    I reeled myself in, turned my back and said nothing else. I don't care if that was rude. I was responding to the fear on her face.

    It's okay to get excited and even giddy about meeting an agent that may be the one to sign you. It's NOT okay to ever make anyone afraid.

    1. Aww - I am sure she understood. It is too easy to slip into fangirl mode! (When I've had a drink, ask me to tell you about the time I accosted Nathan Lane at a theatre and made him freeze like a deer in the headlights!)

  5. How do you do? My name is Julie. I will not stalk you. I promise. I know that 'no means no'. As a writer, I appreciate you making the distinction between bat-spit crazy and the rest of us. (My interwebs doctorate is forthcoming.)

    Thank you. Nicely written. I hope Pam is feeling better today and can feel safe again soon.

  6. I agree. We only have control over our own choices, our own reactions. Don't surrender what you DO have to fear.

  7. I was on twitter when Pam's tweets came through. Truly horrible. This kind of nastiness, or even the lower grade stalking you describe is so damaging to everybody. Because I have been on the receiving end in my otherwise life, I've been shy of interacting with agents/editors even when it is appropriate to do so (in conferences).

    BTW - thank you for making the distinction about why the wingnut attacked. I am aghast at some of the "Writers! Don't physically assault agents!" rhetoric flying around.

  8. MaryAnn a.k.a JAustenwannabe11:06 AM

    What do I think? I think what happened to your friend is just awful, and I'm so sorry. You should not have to live your life in fear, simply because of your job. The person who attacked her is nuts and/or a real dirt ball.

    Tell her, for what it's worth, MaryAnn says--stay strong and don't let the boneheads of the world keep you from living your life exactly the way you want to.

  9. Sadly, I think the difference is in perception.

    The gynecologist in the grocery store isn't going to "help make me **famous**" (<-- you have to picture this with glitter, sparkles, and rainbow unicorns), but many people think an agent will.

    Likewise, TV and movies have never shown persistence paying off when random characters stalk their gynecologist, but if the "determined" individual dogs the judge, agent, school official demanding another chance at greatness until the other person inevitably capitulates, then they're showing moxie. They're praised for not giving up until they find the perfect approach that will convince the other person of their greatness.


    1. Good points.

      (I'll show THEM moxie!) *moxie growls*

  10. You and a few other agents spoke about this at LeakyCon and that was the first time I realized just how much crap you guys have to put up with! It's scary stuff. I'm glad she's okay and hope nothing like this happens again.

  11. This is truly horrifying. Thoughts and prayers to Pam.

    But it does open a conversation about how much we know about the digital footprints we leave behind every single time we're online. Whether just logging into a network (personal or public) and interacting with others online, there is a trace left behind. And anyone can pick up that trace and follow it. Scary.

    I may be researching this very topic for my current WIP and have become rather paranoid. I'm making some changes ASAP.

  12. I am very careful not to mix business and pleasure. When I was on the lookout for an agent, I never, NEVER pitched my book to them outside of proper pitching channels (e.g., query), even though I met them in various places.
    Pam is a professional who continued business as usual even right after this incident. I'm glad they caught the crazy who assaulted my agent!

  13. Thank you, thank you! I've been wound up all morning about how he, as an "author," is being compared to the rest us. What really gets to me are the tweets that say, generally, "Authors! Don't attack agents!" Um, we don't! *sigh* Anyway, I'm so glad its not just me.

  14. Someone broke into my house and all my dog did was pee on the floor. (Okay, the someone was my friend using the spare key to leave me cookies on my birthday, but still . . .)

  15. Anonymous11:44 AM

    This was a great post and I absolutely agree! This was so horrible, but there just wasn't something right with this man. I think most of the authors/writers I know would NEVER EVER think of doing something like this!

    Sometimes I do wonder where common sense goes, though...

    LOVED this: "ALL OF US need to be considerate about personal space bubbles -- just as you wouldn't ask a stranger to examine you in line at the supermarket if you found out he was a gynecologist, don't creep around a literary agents house and wait for her to go outside to water the plants so you can ask her questions about your work. There's a time and a place. Don't be a creep."

    It's so true. I have my doctor's cell phone because we've become friends, but I refuse to harass her when I have questions! I should say also this is one of those reasons I don't give my students my cell phone either.

    Thanks for posting this!

  16. Anonymous11:47 AM

    I was a small gift shop owner in a renovated downtown area. Not far from my shop was an old hotel that housed many who were, unfortunately, mentally ill. I dealt with them daily. Most were on their meds and were okay. But once in a while, someone came in, off their meds, sometimes hallucinating (it was obvious), and it was scary as hell. The point I'm making, though it isn't a politically correct notion, is that there isn't a place for those who are truly dangerous and mentally unstable to go. Being rejected was just a catalyst for this “author” guy to "go off." Normal people (and I use the term loosely) do NOT stalk other people, and as writers, do NOT go off the deep end because of a rejection.--Sharon Davidson

  17. What happened to Ms. van Hylckama is terrible.

    I've wondered about "living your life out online" before -- on one hand, it's great to have publicity, and build relationship circles that could help in later book promotions, etc., but... it's also dangerous! One has to wonder, which do you choose -- the easier route to having a platform, or the safer one of being relatively unknown?

  18. Most immediately, thank goodness Pam is fine. It certainly is a grim reminder of the dangers of living too openly online. But I especially love your call for all of us to be as nice as we can be to one another, I agree.

  19. I feel so very sorry for this agent. I wish the solution was for everyone to just be nice, but some people don't need much to set them off, whether you're nice or not. Sometimes being nice is seen as an invitation for people to be creepier and cross the line. I'm not saying everyone should be cold and mean, but it's important to be professional and set boundaries. It is also important to respect other people's boundaries and try not to take it as a personal affront.

    I had a stalker in college (this was before 4square) who tried to break into my house (my dog was also the hero), and it was the scariest day of my life. I think any agent--or any person for that matter--who receives a death threat or encounters behavior that leaves a bad feeling in the pit of their stomach, should report it to the police. Most of all, I hope Pam realizes this was not her fault.

  20. Truly frightening. So glad she contacted the police, and so glad they didn't assume it was random.

    I really like the distinctions you made here -- this isn't a problem with authors, it's a problem with unbalanced individuals. And it didn't happen because she rejected him - it's because of the choice HE made.

  21. Anonymous1:19 PM

    Yes, yes, ma'am. Threw a few tips about social media safety on my blog today, especially about domain names leading to your home address--a whole lot of people don't know about that one.

    The bigger issue is HOLY COW calling this guy a rejected author. It is to laugh. He's a felon. (Allegedly.)

    We take reasonable precautions, we draw boundaries, then we live. I'm not going to cut myself off from the ability to interact with Laurie Halse Anderson, David Lubar, Steven Malk, and surprisingly, Deepak Chopra. All of whom I've talked with on Twitter.

    Also The Original Old Spice Guy, but we won't go there. *sigh*

    I love how resilient Pam has been about this, and how pragmatic you are.

  22. Agree! Let's all just be nice to each other, ok? Niceness is what makes the world go round.

  23. I'm so glad she's okay. When I first read the twitters on what happened, I was concerned for her safety. Now, I'm not really anyone but I once had someone email a letter asking for my opinion on this one scene. This person knew I was an author. I still remember the sick feeling in my stomach as I read the details on how to kidnap a child around my son's age. Even the police said it was creepy as this person described my son in detail. I don't usually post any info on him and after this experience I try not to give any info on him.

    Pam's experience really is scary. And you are so right. The guy who did this is a criminal.

    I'm so glad she's okay and kuddo to her dog who protected her.

  24. A change in perception is definitely necessary. Agents aren't our besties, our all-purpose resources, or our "gateways" to fortune and fame. They are professionals doing their job and they need to be treated as such.

    This scenario was obviously a severe one, but the sense of entitlement among a lot of aspiring authors needs to be continually addressed. I'm so glad Pam is okay, and we can all definitely benefit from being aware of our surroundings, how much we post and where, but none of this is her fault. It's the fault of the person who *chose* to stalk and attack her. And that behavior needs to stop on the stalker's end, just like angry email responses need to stop on the writer's end.

    You guys are professionals. We need to be professionals too.

    Great post!

  25. Her dog biting the attacker gives me comfort, and makes me appreciate my dogs more, even if one of them just peed in the front hall.

  26. This is part of the reason why I prefer a penname (or two). Sure, the super-duper-hacker-stalker can probably figure out who you really are and find you, but at least it's not just all right there on or whatever. You just never know what you random thing you write about or tweet about or what decision you make might end up flipping someone's crazy switch.

    Be strong. Be smart. Be safe. And/or own a killer dog.

  27. It's a sad fact that some people are mentally ill. Some mentally ill people write books. Some think their books should be fawned over.
    And some people just can't take NO for an answer. This overused cliché takes on a new meaning with this awful incident.

  28. Social media bothers me because it's constantly defaulted to show waaaaay too much about you on line to random strangers. I think reasonable caution is important (although I know that all kinds of creepy info is out there, even if YOU aren't the person who put it out there.) careful about what you post, but also get a dog with big teeth, like you have?

    I'm sorry to hear about the attack--I was rather horrified when I heard about it. I hope she's able to feel safe again soon.

  29. First of all I am so dismayed by what happened to Pam. I'm so very glad she's (mostly) okay.

    My general feeling about life on the Internet has always been that crazy people are crazy people. They can find you online or they can follow you home from the grocery store. I don't see any extra danger in living online.

  30. I still can't believe someone did that. I've heard stories of authors sliding pages under the doors in bathroom stalls, and stuff like that, but this, literally made me want to find the guy and punch him in the face and say YOU'RE GIVING AUTHORS A BAD NAME! His actions ARE crazy.

    Please protect yourself, and be safe. I love all you agents (even when you reject me). You guys offer so much knowledge, and giveaways, and you're so cool at conferences. I'm so glad Pam was okay!

  31. Oh my God, that story is really freaking me out! I'm so sorry for Pam, that must have been incredibly traumatizing.

    How are these people getting this personal home address information? That's what boggles my mind. I've never seen any agent put that kind of information online so I'm assuming it must be hackers, but I still don't understand how they're doing that. It's terrifying, and the fact that people have showed up on your doorstep raises all the hairs on the back of my neck.

  32. I wonder if at any point that guy thought 'damn, I'm really going to have a hard time getting an agent now...'.

    Glad Pam is ok.

  33. "Criminal" is a better word. I wrote an article about this at The Indie Times.

  34. Anonymous2:16 PM

    It is hard to get a rejection letter, but there are so many industries where people are going through the same things writers are. Singers, songwriters, actors are just a few and in this economy, the word no is heard a lot. Thick skin is needed. I agree this person is a criminal and should be treated as such. He just happens to be a criminal who is a writer.

    While some of you wonder how you can be found, it is not hard. It is scary, but in reality if someone wants to find you, they will. And that goes for anyone. Not just people who deal with the public. While I keep a P.O. Box for my book website, I also have a full time job. Every company has their own websites with addresses, etc. So you're out there with your bio, picture and right where someone can find you. Everyone gets warned about Facebook and Twitter, but I think poor decisions about what you say and how you represent your brand is what I am more personally worried about. I've found websites without telephone numbers and while it's frustrating if you really need to speak with someone, you can Google and find an address and telephone number through rating companies and local address and map companies. We need to protect ourselves and our families as much as we can. Unfortunately, there is always going to be people who'll try to hurt us.


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