Ottawa Writers Festival: Stephen Maher’s latest novel aims to connect with social change

Stephen Maher's third novel is called Social Misconduct. Photo: Tim Krochak

Stephen Maher’s third novel started with a dark premise.

“I imagined a young woman in New York. I pictured her getting some sort of alarming news. Her smart phone had been compromised and she faced a grave threat.

It’s the type of premise that Stephen King might consider — “a horror novel with some sort of amorphous nameless supernatural force that has taken over the phone.”

But, in the social media age, nameless enemies track their victims one tweet or text at a time. That’s the gist of Maher’s Social Misconduct (Simon & Schuster), written under his pen name S.J. Maher. He is probably better known as a Michener-award winning journalist who unearthed, with then Ottawa Citizen reporter Glen McGregor, the Robocalls election scandal. These days he is a columnist with Maclean’s magazine. (Full disclosure: Maher and I have been professional colleagues in the past.)

He will be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on May 3.

Maher started thinking about this scenario well before the #MeToo movement exploded into the public consciousness and well before the election meddling scandals of the 2016 U.S. federal election of the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook affair. In that light it seems somewhat prescient.

As a person who has some 52,000 tweets under his own handle @stphnmaher, he knows something about trolls. And as a careful analyst he has figured out a way to write a thriller.

“I have spent a lot of time thinking about novels that connect with readers and why they are successful.

“Even the great literary novels that we think have timeless values are anchored to a changing society. The novel can be a way to understand a changing world.

“If you think of Pride and Prejudice or Catcher in the Rye … if you spend a couple minutes thinking about these books, you see they connect with readers because they helped explain social change.”

His first two novels, Deadline and Salvage, didn’t do that, he said.

“They were more traditional genre stories. This time I thought I should try to write about change and the rise of smart phone use and the threats posed via social media was a good subject.”

Trolls attack men online but they savage women.

Consider the story of the scientist, Katie Bourman, who came up with the idea for the photograph of the black hole. She has been inundated with misogyny.

Maher’s female protagonist, Candace Walker, lands a plum job at a New York social-media marketing company. But her success becomes a nightmare when her phone is hacked by a stalker.

Here too, Maher said, he was careful in his creation.

“I had been thinking about the reaction to the first two books and some of it made me think about the Bechdel test,” which is a measure of the representation of women in fiction by asking whether a novel or a film has a scene in which two women talk to each other about something other than a man.

“I was thinking about that and whether I would like that test applied to my previous novels.”

The central character in each of his first two novels was male. He believes his female characters were important, but faced some criticism that did not agree.

“That got me thinking” and that has influenced his approach to Social Misconduct.

The novel’s narrative moves back and forth in time from happy to terror. It’s also written in the first person.

Maher is channeling female ambition and female fear through his protagonist. To get that right, he said he consulted a dozen “beta” readers, most of whom were female, who assessed the book as it developed.

“I sent them the first half of the manuscript along with a questionnaire. When they read it and filled out questionnaire I would send the second half with another questionnaire.

“I was hoping they would do two things: Let me know how the story, with an unreliable narrator and a mystery plot, was landing. It can be difficult to figure out what a reader is picking up. If you are too subtle it won’t work. If it’s not subtle enough, the story risks being too obvious.”

But it was also a useful way to figure out whether this was a believable female character. He said he also read a lot of fiction and poetry by women while working on his novel.

Maher points to other authors writing main characters of the opposite sex. Patricia Highsmith, the creator of the Tom Ripley character, is one example.

His book was edited by a woman, his agent is a woman, and some of the preliminary reviews and blurbs are from female thriller writers.

He’s even received an email from one female writer who said she couldn’t believe the book had been written by a man.

For Maher, that’s part of the magic of fiction.

“Characters start to take on a life and suddenly there is this person with a certian reality.”

He also said he was aware of the discussions around men writing female characters.

“I remain aware that there are landmines. I am concerned and watchful and I will be interested to see how people respond.”

As a journalist and a novelist, Maher has a sense of the difference between the two.

“When you set out to do research for a novel and start writing it, as compared to journalism, the first question is, ‘Will I be able to convince anyone to read this?’

“For the most part, if you are a working journalist, you know whatever you write will be read by someone.”

He employed some journalistic techniques to help create the appropriate settings for the novel in New York City, Scranton, Pennsylvania and Clayton, New York. And he said he did what he could to research social media outfits.

Maher doesn’t have an English Lit degree but he has studied it at the university level including during a recent Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University.

He was in Cambridge, Mass., while working on his book. He even turned it into a screenplay with a class of undergrad students. Their feedback helped him understand things he needed to do in the novel.

This is Maher’s first novel with a larger publisher. Simon & Schuster has the resources to push out a better book, he believes.

His book changed significantly during editing His initial reaction was to say no to suggested changes, then go away for a week or two and think about it and agree. The changes would then get made. Having a major publisher in the game has also led to a distribution deal with Target Books in the U.S.

Maher has started a new novel. He said he recently spent about two months in Mexico and Cuba and has it half-written. But his journalism will have that book on a back-burner until after the October 2019 federal election.

In town: Stephen Maher will be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on May 3 on a panel with Ausma Zehanat Khan. For tickets and information,

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.