Recently I’ve been following, with a sense of dismay, the news coverage of Charles Pellegrino and what may — or may not — be the myth behind the man. Pellegrino is a well-known author of both fiction and nonfiction books, many of them centered on scientific topics. HIs recent book, Last Train from Hiroshima< has become mired in controversy because a source quoted in the book (who claimed to be aboard one of the bombers) turned out to be a fraud. Since then, the book has been examined with a fine-tooth comb by critics searching for errors and fabrications. And now Charles Pellegrino himself has been scrutinized, and questions raised about whether he was truthful about his own scientific credentials.
I’m watching the whole sorry spectacle with great sadness, because I am a fan of Pellegrino’s. I have been ever since I read a novel of his called Dust, an apocalyptic story about how the world could end if all insect species died. Although there were novelistic exaggerations, he made me suspend my disbelief and I was totally swept up in the story. I loved the fact he made scientists the heroes, not the villains, and every page was an homage to scientific principles. Ever since, I’ve followed his work, and enjoyed his books on archaeology and his commentary on Jim Cameron’s TV show, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.”
I hope there’s a logical explanation for the discrepancies in Pellegrino’s biography. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. But there have been too many authors who have padded their resumes or life stories, and I’m getting that sinking feeling that Pellegrino may be one of them.
I can understand how it happens to a writer. It starts when you pitch your first book, and maybe you tell the publisher a little white lie about your background, to make the story more sellable. Publisher buys the book, and suddenly that lie is part of your official bio. Then you go on book tour and the media interviews start, and you fudge a little bit more. Instead of being a PhD candidate, suddenly you say you’ve actually got the PhD. Or you claim that you were a principal investigator on a research project when really, you were just one of the grad students. Or, to make your own rather boring life more dramatic, you start to elaborate. The mother who got occasionally tipsy transforms into an abusive drunk. Or your little run-in with the police as a teenager becomes a harrowing weekend in jail. Writers are good at imagining drama on the page, so why not insert a little drama in your own bio?
Sometimes, you’re the unwitting victim of unreliable reporting. I remember a conversation I had with LaVyrle Spencer years ago, when she laughed about the rumors circulating among her readers that she was raising llamas. She had no idea how the rumor started, and it was most certainly untrue. But it became “common knowledge” that she was a llama farmer.
Then there was the time I was a guest (along with about 10 other romance authors and romance cover models) on the Sally Jesse Raphael show. Sally turned to me and said something along the lines of, “I understand you’re a graduate of Stanford medical school and you’re a cardiac pathologist and a mother of three.” None of that was true. But there I was on live national TV, and was I going to waste time correcting everything in the sentence by answering, “No, Sally, I graduated from UC San Francisco and I’m a specialist in internal medicine and the mother of two, and where the hell did you get your information?” So all I got out was, “I graduated from UCSF.” But I can see how the audience would conclude that I really must be a cardiac pathologist and the mother of three.
Novelists are held up to far less scrutiny than nonfiction authors. Everyone knows we just make up our stories. But if your professional background is precisely what makes your stories marketable — a former spy who writes spy novels, or a doctor who writes medical thrillers — then you damn well better be truthful about it.