When I first moved to Manhattan, a neighbor approached me in the corridor of my apartment building.
“Are you Peter Maass, the writer?”
Though I have heard this question many times over the years, I still don’t know the correct response. Yes, I am; no, I am not. Both are accurate. Unfortunately, I offered my neighbor a reply that raised more questions than it answered.
“Yes, I am, but there are two of us.”
He looked at me oddly and adopted one of those don’t-mess-with-me expressions that New Yorkers are born with. If an opportunity for amity had existed between us, it seemed to have vanished. He slipped into the elevator, I slipped into my apartment, and I imagine he rolled his eyes to the ceiling and thought, “Great, another nut case in the building.”
If only he knew the truth.
I am a writer–a very good writer, according to my mother. I worked for the Washington Post for nearly a decade, and I have written a book about my experiences covering the war in Bosnia. It was published last year and got positive reviews. It even won a couple of awards. So when people ask whether I am Peter Maass, the writer, I should feel good, I should feel triumphant, I should feel like a master of the literary universe receiving the adulation he so rightly deserves, and I should reply in a voice of elegant humility, “Yes, I am.”
But I don’t. I can’t.
My problem is this: Although I am Peter Maass, the writer, I am not Peter Maas, the writer. Peter Maas–one “s,” not two–has a career’s worth of books under his belt, and he’s famous. Serpico famous. Valachi Papers famous. This has created a great deal of confusion. I’ve received letters intended for him, phone calls intended for him, compliments intended for him, a publishing solicitation intended for him, even a job offer intended for him (which I turned down).
I have never met the guy.
Until recently, I enjoyed the confusion. There’s something flattering about people thinking I was capable of writing a best seller about a New York cop when I was a teen-ager in Los Angeles, or that I could write one book after another in my 20s, while at the same time reporting one newspaper story after another. I had a great laugh when I was in North Korea a few years ago and someone congratulated me on my phenomenal output. In North Korea!
Circumstances have changed. I now have my own literary oeuvre. This entitles me to certain privileges, such as employing foreign words in my writings (see previous sentence) and living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Also, I should be able to revel in praise rather than worry about it. But in my case, praise from a stranger is like a glass of water served at a restaurant in Bombay: You drink it warily, if at all, fearing it may be tainted. Even if the water tastes pure and delicious, you cannot enjoy it as much as you should. There’s nothing more pleasant than being congratulated for your literary skills, but there’s nothing less pleasant than realizing the congratulations are intended for a guy who writes about the mob.
I had hoped that my book would end the confusion, that I would emerge as the one-and-only Peter Maass (or Maas), though I suspected this was unlikely. At the least, I hoped the confusion would turn to my favor. Shortly before my book was published, I wrote a piece about my identity crisis suggesting that if an admirer who thought I was Peter Maas asked for my signature, I would scribble away and confide that my “newest” opus was far better than “my” previous ones. If thousands of Maas’ fans bought my book by mistake, I would not complain.
Y et I miscalculated. No sooner did my book start getting some attention than Peter Maas released a book that turned into a best seller. It’s about Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, a mobster who turned state’s evidence against John Gotti. From what I hear about the book–and I hear quite a bit–it’s not bad, and that’s unfortunate, at least for me.
I went to the Washington, D.C., public library recently to do a reading. There was a sign at the entrance announcing the event, and my name was spelled “Peter Maas.” I thought little of it until a beefy audience member walked out shortly after I started talking about Bosnia. I am pretty sure he wanted to hear about Sammy the Bull. It’s not that I can’t drive people away from my readings, but it usually takes more than 35 seconds.
Ignominy has many forms. Once, after I signed a pile of books at a bookstore, a clerk told me not to leave because there were more copies in back. He returned with a stack of books by Peter Maas. I was tempted to sign them, and nobody would have been the wiser, but something held me back. Integrity? Honesty? No–try jealousy. Signed books sell much better than unsigned ones.
I was in Los Angeles not long ago to attend a book festival. A number of people lined up for my book signing, and I was very pleased until some of them pulled out copies of his books. It was a bit embarrassing, especially as my father was sitting next to me at the time.
Could it get worse?
After a lull, a middle-aged couple approached me, and the husband had my book. My book. I introduced him to my father, and I explained how amusing it was that some people thought I was Peter Maas and wanted me to sign his books. A distraught look emerged on the husband’s face and his wife stared coldly at him. “I told you!” she sneered.
There was an awkward silence. I quickly wrote a personal inscription in the book–“Best regards from the real Peter Maass”–and he smiled and thanked me. I would like to think my inscription soothed the pain for him, cheered him up, and naturally this was my intention. It was only later, of course, that I realized my inscription made it impossible for him to get a refund.