Brow Beat

How Did Mystery Writer Twitter Become Convinced This Debut Author Didn’t Exist?

Silhouette of a woman.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Alexey_M/Getty Images Plus.

The creators of Scarlet, a new suspense imprint aimed at a primarily female audience, weren’t planning to release any details about their first book this week. The imprint’s debut novel, An Inconvenient Woman, isn’t out until January, and they hadn’t even announced the title yet, let alone sent out any galleys. But rumors about the book—specifically, that its supposedly female author might secretly be a front for a man—were spreading quickly among mystery writers. One such writer, Lisa Brackmann, tweeted directly at Pegasus Books, Scarlet’s parent company, to get to the bottom of things: “I’m hearing some disturbing things. That the 1st two books from your ‘woman-focused’ Scarlet imprint are not only written by men, but that you are trying to disguise them as women by creating fake bios & online personas for them. Surely this can’t be true?”

Pegasus, which had teamed up with publisher Otto Penzler of the Mysterious Press on the project, decided to try to quell the rumors on Monday by revealing the first book’s title and the author’s name: Stephanie Buelens. “She is indeed a real person with a remarkable story to tell and we are excited to share interviews and event information closer to publication,” it wrote in response to Brackmann’s tweet. Still, even that information wasn’t enough to convince some skeptics (though it perhaps didn’t help that their initial tweet mistakenly identified her as “Stephanie Beulen” instead). Several remarked on Buelens’ apparent lack of social media presence or prior published work.

Writer and journalist Nick Kolakowski wrote, “Closest match is a voiceover artist whose Twitter feed went active May 30 and immediately started Tweeting stuff about crime fiction and Pegasus Books. But the LinkedIn matching the name/face says she’s some kind of French translator? It’s weird.” When Pegasus doubled down, he wrote, “We’ll see.”

Stephanie Buelens is not a work of fiction invented to sell mystery novels. I know this because she has an internet presence that goes back several years, and because I checked with her publisher, and, oh yeah, because she called me on the phone. She is, indeed, a French translator and teacher. She doesn’t have any previously published work because An Inconvenient Woman is her first. She co-wrote it with a friend, an established male writer who, according to Penzler, has published more than 20 books. That author wants to keep his name off the project to preserve his brand because, Penzler said, “he writes a very different kind of book.” As a result, Buelens is the sole author credited.

When we spoke on Tuesday, Buelens insisted that the story is her own and that her co-author’s contribution was mainly helping her with the language. “You can tell that I am French and that I need someone to correct and to put it in a better English,” she said. She’s originally from Belgium, where she’s been living for the past eight months to take care of her father. She moved to Paris when she was 19 and traveled back and forth between there and Los Angeles for years, but retains a strong French accent and has a tendency to scramble idioms. (The ruckus over her identity is “a tempest in a teacup”; her agent and her publisher are “not born from yesterday.”) She also tends to punctuate her sentences with an emphatic voila.

As for her apparent lack of social media presence? “I’m not good in social medias. I don’t know about Tweet-er, I don’t know about Instagram,” she said. She recently created a Facebook account, and while she isn’t sure about the Twitter profile that uses her name and photo, she thinks her publisher may have set it up for her. She is, however, definitely on Yelp for her French tutoring work, which is how I first got in touch with her and why she was so eager to return my initial call—she thought I might be a potential client. Though she’s not in L.A. anymore, she continues to teach French from Belgium over Skype, and her pupils have included Teen Wolf actress Holland Roden, who tweeted her praises earlier this year.

Why were so many mystery writers and others ready to believe—and publicly speculate—that Buelens’ identity was the work of a conspiracy theory without first doing the detective work to confirm their suspicions? It’s possible they were primed for controversy because of Penzler’s involvement in Scarlet: He has been a vocal defender of Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor in the Central Park Five case, after the Mystery Writers of America announced, then withdrew, one of its “Grand Master” awards for her. (When I asked Penzler about it, he would say only that Fairstein has nothing to do with the new imprint.)

The funny thing is Brackmann wasn’t entirely off-base with her initial accusation, because Scarlet is planning to release a book by a male author under a female pseudonym next year—it’s just not Buelens’. Scarlet’s second release, in March, will be You Will Never Know, written by a male author working under the name Sophia Prentiss. Like Buelens’ co-author, the man behind Sophia Prentiss is apparently a well-established author who wants to distance his new work from his past work; it’s actually not all that unusual for men to adopt female pseudonyms when writing crime fiction. Penzler told me he thinks the outrage over men writing for a female-aimed imprint is “silly,” and that the type of book matters more than the author’s gender. He also said that Scarlet originally had plans to include Swedish crime writer Camilla Läckberg among its initial releases but lost the book to Knopf, which is why it pushed Prentiss’ book from February to March—to leave more time to promote Buelens’. He calls the controversy over Buelens’ identity “a nuisance more than anything” by forcing Pegasus to announce the book before it was ready.

Buelens herself laughed when I told her there are people out there who aren’t sure she’s a real person, but didn’t seem offended that some are suggesting she might be a front for the male author of An Inconvenient Woman, which seems too convoluted of a plan to her to be real. “I smirk a little bit at the situation. It wouldn’t be possible. I’m not sure whether to take it seriously or not,” she said, noting that she had only heard about the controversy on Monday and hadn’t yet had a chance to talk to her publisher about what to do about it. “Does it really matter? Do I have to make like a big intervention? I don’t feel threatened, voila. I didn’t do anything wrong. I can tell you that it took me more than a year and a half to put that on paper. ”

She says she has always leaned more toward comedy, but she decided that to make money and reach a wider audience, she was better off writing mystery or suspense like Gone Girl or Girl on the Train. Though she couldn’t give me any specifics about the plot of her debut novel, she says it borrows details from her own life and her work as a French teacher, and that it would be impossible for someone else to mimic that perspective. In the meantime, she is hopeful that the mystery will at least get people interested in the book by the time it comes out: “If it creates buzz, OK, be my guest.”