by Dennis Loy Johnson

February 27, 2003 — After getting tipped to the Princetonian story about allegations against Ung Lee that he plagiarized the work of Seth Shafer, MobyLives editor Dennis Loy Johnson contacted Shafer via e–mail and he consented to an interview. Subsequent e–mail requests to Princetonian reporter Gabe Pell, and his editor Austin Starkweather, that they reveal how they came upon the story, and who may have tipped them, were refused. MobyLives was originally tipped to the story by a friend of Shafer's, who also denied being the Princetonian's tipster. Shafer, 28, lives in Austin, Texas.

MobyLives: Do you know how the reporter for the Princeton paper learned of the plagiarism? If he was tipped, do you know who tipped him and why? Was it you?

Seth Shafer: I'm not exactly certain, as far as the initial tipping off. It most definitely wasn't me, as I had no clue at all, until the student reporter, Gabe Pell, called me, completely out of the blue. We spoke a bit, and apparently people at Princeton were initially alerted to the plagiarism because of another work that was recently published, and its eerie similarity to work in Ung Lee's thesis. Gabe and his editor at the paper then started doing Google searches on exact phrases from work in the thesis, which is how he discovered that my story Main Strength was involved. But I have no idea as far as exactly what other work was plagiarized, or who exactly it was at Princeton that initially discovered it. It wasn't solely my story, though, that prompted the investigation.

Johnson: Was more than one story (of yours) plagiarized?

Shafer: Yep, see above.

MobyLives: Do you know Ung Lee?

Never heard of him nor met him. When Gabe first called me, he asked me that exact question, and I thought at first he said "Ang Lee". Which would be funny, too, in all sorts of ways.

MobyLives: Have you heard from Lee or anyone else involved with this at either Princeton or SUNY Stony Brook, or any of Lee's other award–givers?

Shafer: No, I haven't heard a peep from anyone, other than the reporter. Which is a little surprising, if they're truly serious about investigating the matter. Then again, it is sort of an unusual case, as the evidence is pretty damning, given how little effort was put into hiding the original work that was "borrowed", so I'm not sure what they would need to corroborate with me.

MobyLives: Do you have any affiliation with either school?

Shafer: Other than rooting for Princeton in the NCAA basketball tournament as the perennial underdogs, no affiliation whatsoever with either school, in any fashion.

MobyLives: Do you plan to do anything about this? Regardless, how do you feel about it all?

Shafer: I guess I find it surreal and amusing, more than anything. I try to keep an even keel about things, so I don't see myself firing off emails or phone calls, demanding that the situation be rectified, that I be compensated for my work, etc. In a backwards fashion, it is flattering, doubly so, that he would pick my story to rip off in the first place, and that it would go on to win further awards and acclaim, despite his mangling the title and a few paragraphs here and there. As an unknown, essentially unpublished writer, there are worse things that could happen to you, I suppose.

MobyLives: Forgive me for not being more familiar with your work, but would you mind filling me in on who you are a bit more -- such as, what do you do for a living if not full-time writing, and can you tell me a bit more about your publishing history?

Shafer: I finished up an MFA from the Univ. of Texas in 1999, but really haven't published much of anything. I had a story published on the online version of Zoetrope, and the story on Fictionline, and a few poems published here and there, but that's about it. I usually write sort of unusual stories, and after grad school I tried submitting them, tried getting an agent, the whole nine yards, but had little success. Seemed better to just keep writing, keep plugging away, and not worry about all that stuff, and let whatever happens, happen. But yeah, I do the normal day job gig, working as an editor at an online business publication, and write fiction when I can carve out time here and there.


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.