Girl, Interrupted

Before Plain Layne disappeared, readers knew her as a fiery online diarist, an outspoken lesbian, and a beauty straight out of a Midwestern Botticelli. Afterward, they knew her as a hoax.

 

City Pages:Are you Plain Layne?

Odin Soli: Plain Layne was an online character that I wrote.

CP:Were there others involved in the writing?

Soli: I was the only writer, but the website's visitors sometimes helped form her personality.

CP:How many of your friends knew you were doing this?

Soli: My wife knew, but beyond that, I'd rather not say.

CP:Who is the person in all those "Plain Layne" pictures?

Soli: I don't want to comment on that.

CP:Okay, but is there a singular person out there whose life you fictionalized into Plain Layne?

Soli: Absolutely not. Layne was a complete fiction. There was no model from which Layne began.

CP:But Acanit was modeled on people from your past?

Soli: Yes, she was a composite of the best man in my wedding and a female acquaintance who had worked in occupied Palestine. He never talked about his Muslim background and she never talked about her experiences in the refugee camps of Lebanon. I used Acanit to explore the parts of them I never knew.

CP:Do those people know they became an online character?

Soli: No, there was nothing identifiable about them.

CP:How many readers did you personally interact with?

Soli: It depends how you define personal interaction. Most people were reacting to the blog itself. The comments were a type of personal interaction--that's why I called it "creative interactive fiction." People got whatever they wanted out of Plain Layne. Most folks never commented. Others became very caught up in the character, much like you would with fan fiction or massive multiplayer online role-playing games. All I did was share the character. It was also interactive in that people would suggest new plots.

CP:There were people who made plot suggestions and you followed them?

Soli: Yes, absolutely.

CP:Did they know that?

Soli: Some did. People have asked at what point readers began to suspect that Plain Layne was make-believe, and the answer is, from the very beginning. Three years ago, there were people who wrote to say this is a great literary exercise. I like to compare it to what Paul Ford has done with the characters on Ftrain.com.

CP:But you have to admit there's something that makes other online writing, role-playing games, and even fan fic different from what you did: Plain Layne was clearly an attempt to trick people into believing she existed.

Soli: What's the most classic dilemma a writer faces? Making believable characters. How many times when reading a novel have you tossed it over your shoulder and said, "Oh my god, this character is unbelievable"?

CP:But the entire time reading a novel, I know it's a fictional character.

Soli: Some people figured it out. It's one of the things that came out in the comments.

CP:But you consciously deleted those comments.

Soli: Not always. And there certainly was a lot of speculation around the blogosphere.

CP:Did you ever feel deceitful about interacting with people using Layne's persona?

Soli: Most of the time the interactivity was a wonderful challenge, since every exchange forced the character to evolve. Just think about all the conversational questions that most literary characters never confront, or only at the preplanned behest of the author. What did Layne do today? Could she share a recipe? Was she going clubbing this weekend, and if so, where? What did she think of the Pawlenty administration? Why didn't she pull her head out of her ass and quit the girlfriend du jour? It was fiction in a hurry.

CP:It seems that Layne's followers are now dividing themselves up into two camps. There are those who revel in the playful, postmodern identity game. But other people are very upset about being duped. What would you say to those people who feel deceived and hurt?

Soli: That's a hard question to answer. You really can't predict how people will react. I don't mean to denigrate anyone for their reactions, but one of the things that most surprised me coming out of this was the fandom. It's like when Friends went off the air. There were people who felt personally betrayed.

CP:Let me ask it a different way: If the audience had known the entire time that Plain Layne was fictionalized, would it have been as popular?

Soli: Absolutely not.

CP:So there must be something at work more than just theFriends phenomenon.

Soli: The internet is an environment in which all the richness of communication and self-representation gets flattened into plain text. It literally is a text--a plain text that gets shared with many authors interacting in different ways. The suspension of disbelief is easier in this medium, but fundamentally people suspend their disbelief because they want to participate.

CP:Why did you take the site down?

Soli: Over the years, I tried to take it down several times. I felt like Sir Conan Doyle trying to throw Sherlock Holmes over the waterfall. It was very difficult because the audience wanted control. Also, I have a wife and two small children who will need to go to college some day.

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