Image: Hate Story cover, designed by Brett Bakker. The grim reaper rises up between silhouettes of a man and a woman, speech bubbles floating like ghosts. Subtext reads: Online shaming is a myth … or is it?
Above the title, a blurb from Giles Blunt, bestselling author of the John Cardinal mysteries: “From Twitterized mobthink to Facebook fact-bashing to knuckle-dragging attacks on science, our current reality—online or off—presents formidable problems for the satirist. Cottrill takes up that challenge and runs with it, skewering journalists, online vigilantes, and cyberbullies with undisguised glee.”
Jeff Cottrill is a Toronto-based writer, actor, journalist and spoken word artist. His first novel, Hate Story, published by Dragonfly Publishing, is set for a launch via Zoom on Saturday, March 19 at 3:00 p.m. (EST).
When Jeff and I were messaging back and forth about the possibility of him writing a guest post, the question came up: What should he write about? A long-time fan of artist process and inspiration, I suggested that he talk about what inspired him to write Hate Story. Here’s what he had to say…
I’ve frequently quipped that my upcoming book, Hate Story (Dragonfly Publishing), is “my seventh or eighth attempt at a first novel.” This is accurate—or at least, it feels accurate—as I’ve suffered several embarrassing false starts over the past 25 years in my attempt to pursue my original dream of being a novelist. But it may be more honest to say this was actually my second crack at Hate Story.
I first got the idea for this book—the basic, skeletal idea—around 2007 or 2008. I was looking to film for writing inspiration, as I’ve been a lover of classic movies since I was a teenager. Orson Welles, in particular, is one of my cultural heroes, and a re-watching of Citizen Kane around that time gave me a weird idea: What if you made a new version of Kane, but instead of telling the story of a famous Hearst-like tycoon, it’s about this pitiful, obscure loser that everybody hates?
And then I had a vision that stuck with me: The newsreel funeral that opens the movie, “1941’s biggest, strangest funeral,” turned into a low-attended memorial service that erupts into violence of some kind. (I may have subconsciously been thinking of the funeral scene in Charade, too.) And the reporter—the Thompson equivalent—would be tasked with finding out what the deal was with the funeral riot and what this guy did to make everybody hate him so much. The reporter’s investigation into the dead person’s life story would reveal, as in Kane, that the man was both more and less than he seemed.
From this, I came up with a character named Paul Shoreditch—a dorky, socially inept man whose every attempt to assimilate into mainstream society backfires catastrophically. One character whom the reporter interviews would be a woman of dubious credibility who makes some alarming accusations against Paul. And for the reporter part, I thought of an underemployed young woman who takes the assignment reluctantly. I think I named her Rebecca or Rachel or something.
Out of these ingredients, I wrote a few chapters and scenes under the pretentious tentative title Interred with Their Bones. (It’s part of a couplet from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which I’ve kept for an epigraph.) But for some reason, I just couldn’t make the bloody thing work. It was too cartoonish and extreme, and I didn’t have much confidence in my fiction-writing ability at the time; I was focusing on spoken word and journalism. So Interred just fell into the clutter of my unfinished projects and was forgotten.
Fast-forward to late 2018. I’ve been taking local fiction workshops and classes, learning to love writing stories again. I feel ready to tackle a novel once more. One idea I’ve been playing with in my head (inspired in part by the infamous “Shitty Media Men” list that was passed around in 2017) is a fictional, anonymous website devoted to hating a person—the exact reverse of a fansite, I guess. What if all the people who hate you teamed up to trash you on a public web forum? All your exes, all your school bullies, all the people who find your habits annoying – all ganging up on you virtually? I found the idea funny and terrifying at the same time, and it didn’t seem too implausible in the era of mass social-media mobbing.
That was when Interred popped back into my consciousness. What if I combined the two ideas? The hate website could be about Paul Shoreditch, and the reporter could explore it during her investigation. And it would be the perfect opportunity to satirize an issue that has fascinated me for some time, the disturbing contemporary trend of online shaming – or what some call “cancel culture.”
[A word about “cancel culture.” I try to avoid this phrase these days because it’s become so overused, misused and misunderstood (maybe even by me). Extreme right-wingers like Matt Gaetz use the term when they’re facing just consequences for genuinely bad actions, as if any accountability were an overreaction. On the other hand, left-wingers either say “cancel culture” is a myth or think it means nothing more than boycott – as if every Twitter pile-on were as heroic as the Montgomery bus boycott. I think both interpretations are wrong and dangerous.
I prefer to use the terms “online shaming” or “Twittermobbing.” Or “socially acceptable cyberbullying.” Because when I talk about this issue, I’m referring to the tendency for people to use social media to attack an individual, sometimes en masse, with the intention of ruining the person’s career or reputation. I don’t care so much for privileged celebrities and politicians; the cases that make me livid are ones in which an ordinary person unwittingly gets their 15 minutes of fame because they said or did something dumb. (Or they didn’t, but it gets taken wrong.) We now have the collective power to destroy anyone with the power of Internet mobs, whether the person deserves it or not, and I’m troubled that a lot of otherwise smart, rational people I know seem to think this is a good thing. I’m baffled when people can’t see the difference between Justine Sacco and David Duke. Or between Aziz Ansari and Paul Bernardo. Nuance, distinction and critical thinking seem to leap out the window for many people on this issue.]
So I restarted the book from scratch, aiming for a broad satire of online shaming, although the plot structure remained a loose parody of Kane. And from there, inspiration kept coming. The accusing woman evolved into Kathy McDougal, who runs an online gossip and news website, and who serves as a kind of Cancel Culture Incarnate. And Rebecca or Rachel transformed into a wonderfully rounded, complex protagonist named Jackie Roberts. Jackie sees herself as a progressive and likes to pick fights with people online, but unlike Kathy, she doesn’t mean to hurt anybody. What comes of her exploration of toxic Internet culture changes the way she sees online discourse for good.
Making Jackie an aspiring film critic allowed me to take direct inspiration from classic movies. There are specific references to Kane, of course, and Jackie has dreams and fantasies in which elements from Apocalypse Now, The Jazz Singer, A Clockwork Orange, To Kill a Mockingbird and It Happened One Night comment on recent events. The way I figured it, if Nick Hornby can write about pop music all the time, why shouldn’t I take inspiration from movies?
For many characters and incidents in the story, I borrowed liberally from my own life. An early scene in which Jackie gets lectured at work for swearing, for example, came from a similar, ludicrous incident that had recently happened to me. Ditto for the bullying in Paul’s childhood, which echoes some of my own experiences. Part of the reason I focused so much on this was because I see little difference between aggressive 1980s teen jock bullying and contemporary online shaming. They both come from the same psychological instinct.
I don’t want to get too specific about real-life inspirations for the characters, though I admit there’s a lot of myself in Jackie and Paul, and maybe a little in Paul’s childhood friend Beef. Paul was partly inspired by a boy I knew in middle school, an extremely shy and awkward loner who almost never spoke to anyone unless it was forced out of him. And the universally repulsed reaction to Paul’s looks and manners was somewhat inspired by a certain “cancelled” celebrity I won’t name, one whose perceived “creepy” vibes bias many people against him immediately, regardless of what he does or says.
Writing a novel is a journey, and this one has taken (on and off) roughly 14 years. It’s a long, risky trip that involves a lot of false starts, wrong turns, delayed stopovers and revised routes until you finally reach your destination. From the strange funeral to the final Rosebud revelation, Hate Story has been a rewarding writing experience—and, I hope, is an equally rewarding reading experience.