Curse of the Byline Doppelgängers

As The New York Times’s Julian Barnes (“Not the British Author”) and a pair of Alexandra Petris (Washington Post and New York Times) explain, it’s not always easy sharing a name in journalism

After a British author named Julian Barnes published his breakout novel Flaubert’s Parrot in 1984, a high schooler in York, Maine, also named Julian Barnes, realized his identity would never be entirely his own again. He was in English class. “A friend of mine, as a joke, handed over a review of Flaubert’s Parrot,” recalled the American Barnes, now a national security reporter at The New York Times. “He had cut out a picture of me and pasted it on the author photo.” The young Barnes already harbored journalistic ambitions and was dismayed that the novelist, who would go on to receive four Booker Prize nominations, had started out as a journalist. “I’d never heard of him before that moment this guy made a joke,” he told The Fine Print. “I wouldn’t have remembered, except for the fact that it comes up every month.”

While a writer’s ego shrinks to fit their most recent published work, their byline grows to encompass all the glories of a word-churning career. When one writer encounters another with the same name, there’s often a sense of usurpation. That’s my name, grumbles the dyspeptic scribe, what right does anybody else have to it? But there are some writers who have had to make peace with being permanently upstaged by their byline doppelgängers. For them, tracking the career of their “double-walker” (as the German word translates) begins to feel like peering into a parallel universe where they’ve lived a different life, made different choices, and landed on a different perch. It’s an amusing, if occasionally galling, exercise until that alternate reality begins to intrude on everyday life in the form of naive questions and confusion. The endless explanations that they haven’t achieved that thing you’re congratulating them on or that they are, actually, the less famous doppelgänger can inspire glimmers of maniacal obsession.

Julian E. Barnes (“I’ve had to use my middle initial throughout my life because of him”) has gone on to become one of the most accomplished national security correspondents in America. After a stint as president of The Harvard Crimson, he covered night cops and education at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before putting in three years at The New York Times. He jumped onto the national security beat after 9/11 at U.S. News & World Report, where his coverage of the Iraq War won an Overseas Press Club Award. From there, he moved to cover the Pentagon for the Los Angeles Times before completing an eight-year stint at The Wall Street Journal, where he covered the Pentagon and then international security and NATO in Brussels. He returned to The New York Times in 2018, where he’s reported on, among many, many other stories, alleged wannabe spies, an attempted coup in Montenegro, and the C.I.A. losing dozens of informants.

Despite that cavalcade of accomplishments, he’s never been able to get out from under the novelist’s shadow, especially since the British Barnes finally won the Booker Prize in 2011 for The Sense of an Ending. “I’m obsessed with him,” the American Barnes said. “I used to have a whole shelf near my desk of his books, but it got me a little annoyed. So right now, actually, I look over, and I’ve allowed it to diminish.” Barnes may be a Barnes completist, but he doesn’t love all the work equally. “I have to say that I’m one of the people who likes the early stuff better,” he said. “Like The Sense of an Ending: Stop with the writing about death. Enough with the death. I don’t want the death.”

“His journalism from Letters from London, I love,” Barnes admitted. “That’s the worst part: He’s such a good journalist. I wish he wasn’t good at that! You should totally read his piece on Lloyd’s of London. You won’t have the hang-ups that I do because you can just appreciate it. You won’t be jealous of the whole thing.” That jealousy was most acute when the pieces in that collection were living their first lives in The New Yorker. “That was the early ’90s, and I was working in Little Rock, Arkansas, at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette,” he remembered. “People would kind of sidle up to me and say, ‘Julian, did you write a story in The New Yorker? You couldn’t — you didn’t do that, did you?’”

This lifetime of misidentification hasn’t stopped the American Barnes from making similar mistakes. “When I joined this time at The New York Times, four years ago,” he said, “Alexandra Petri was also in my onboarding orientation class.” He recalled that he first assumed she was The Washington Post satirist. “I was frantically Googling, like, ‘Oh, my God, why would she go work here? She’s got the best job ever.’ And then I’m like, ‘Oh, she’s actually got the same problem I do.’”

The Times news reporter Alexandra E. Petri (note the middle initial) has been aware of her byline doppelgänger since shortly after college. “A professor might have sent me something in a Facebook message, congratulating me on an article in The Post,” she said. “I didn’t think anything of it at the time, and I was overseas for a number of years after finishing school.” She didn’t start seriously thinking about the other Petri until she began looking for a job in journalism. “That’s when I started to realize that there was another Alexandra Petri and people loved her, and she was really famous,” she said. “When I applied for jobs, people would be so stoked. And then I’d be like, ‘Well, actually, funny story.’ And then the line would go blank. And I was like, ‘Well, this is off to a good start.’”

Things got only worse after she landed a writing post at National Geographic, which required her to relocate to D.C., where the Post Petri loomed large in the Beltway zeitgeist. “I would give my I.D. to a bartender, and they’d be like, ‘Oh, my God, I love your work!’ And I was like, ‘ugh.’” Colleagues encouraged her to reach out to the Post Petri, which is how they ended up meeting for drinks in April 2016 at an Abraham Lincoln-themed bar near the White House. The similarities were striking. Their birthdays were one year and one day apart. “I just remember the whole night it being really weird to sit with someone who had my name and a birthday near mine,” said the Times Petri. “I was like, ‘Okay, this is bizarre.’” But the differences were stark too. “I remember her being super funny,” she said. “We could probably not be more different — not to say I’m not super funny. I think I’m pretty funny. I mean, you’re laughing a lot,” she told The Fine Print, “but she’s from D.C., and I think her dad worked in politics, and she went to Harvard. I went to Penn State, and my dad’s a plumber. I’m from Brooklyn. We lived very different lives.”

The Post Petri noted other differences. “She recently ran a marathon,” she said. “I’m so grateful that she created ambiguity surrounding whether I would actually run a marathon.” And she pointed out their starkest dissimilarity. “She’s a Petri, ‘pet-TREE,’ which is the way everyone thinks it’s pronounced,” Post Petri said. “I’m a Petri, ‘PEA-try,’ which is the way no one thinks it’s pronounced.” The mnemonic she graciously provides is that her name sounds “like a vegetable that’s making an effort.”

The kinds of misaddressed mail they each receive tends to be different, too. The Post Petri received inquiries from travel editors back when the Times Petri worked at National Geographic. “This editor at Travel + Leisure was like, ‘Hey, if you ever want to write something.’ And I’m like, ‘Wow, I would love to.’ So I sent them this pitch where I’m like, ‘I would like to go to Las Vegas and cover a celebrity impersonator convention.’ And they did write back being like, ‘This sounds a little different than what you usually do.’ And I’m like, ‘No, it doesn’t. This is extremely my vibe.’ And so I got permission to go, but then they canceled the convention at the last minute.” What lands in the Times Petri’s inbox has not been so fortuitous. “I don’t know that I’ve gotten many pitches,” she said. “I’ve definitely gotten some of her hate mail, which I don’t open and do not share with her. It’s usually from men.”

Sharing a name with a novelist has only come in handy once for the American Barnes. “I was the Faculty of Arts and Sciences reporter for The Harvard Crimson, and I was trying to confirm that Henry Louis Gates Jr. was going to take the tenure offer from Harvard,” Barnes recalled. “I called down to the Duke University English Department. I will not say who I was calling, but I called this professor’s office and said, ‘Hi, I’m calling for Professor blah-blah-blah, this is Julian Barnes.’ And they said, ‘Oh, just one minute.’ And I thought, ‘I’m just going to stay quiet on this thing.’ And then the guy comes on and starts talking to me. I’m like, ‘Wait! I’m a different Julian Barnes, but don’t hang up.’” It worked out; Barnes got the scoop on Gates. “For one scoop in my career, it has been useful,” he lamented, “but it has no use in national security reporting.”

The confusion has actually been something of an occupational hazard. “In 2004 or 2005,” Barnes said, “I was trying to go on a trip with the Air Force Chief of Staff, and someone was like, ‘He’s written all this stuff against the war. You can’t let him on this trip. He’s anti-war.’ I’m like, ‘What? I’m striving to be an objective journalist.’” In 2003, the British Barnes had published a column in The Guardian arguing, “I don’t think this war, as conceived and justified, was worth a child’s finger.” It took the American Barnes a moment to realize what had happened and explain it to the Air Force official. “Oh, no. That’s the famous one,” he recalled saying. “No, I’m Julian E. Barnes. He’s Julian Patrick Barnes.”

The pair of Petris hit it off well enough over drinks that, according to the Post Petri, they talked about moving in together. “She was looking for a roommate, and we were like, ‘This would be really funny,’” she said. “But then I think it’s also a felony to open mail that isn’t for you, and that just seems like a situation where we would just be constantly committing felonies, and we didn’t want to set each other up for that.” The Times Petri couldn’t recall that idea but didn’t deny that it seemed like something she’d have considered. “I’m not going to say it’s not true. It very well could be true,” she said. “It sounds like it would have been really funny.”

The Petris are eager to welcome, or press-gang, other Alexandra Petris into journalism. “I think there’s a third one of us that’s a field hockey player,” said the Times Petri. “We’ve got to get her into a newsroom.” The Post Petri harbors grander ambitions. “We’re hoping eventually everyone in media will see that this is a name that’s really well suited to the job, and we’ll just have one for every possible middle initial, at least 26, maybe some doubles,” she said. “We want one at every publication. We will not rest until our demands are met.” Taking it a step further, she added, “Let’s have everyone in media be named Alexandra Petri.”

There has not been such camaraderie among Julian Barneses. The American Barnes rushed to secure @julianbarnes on Twitter not long after it launched. His bio includes the disclaimer, “Not the British Author,” while the novelist has never entered that fray. “I may have won Twitter,” the American Barnes said, “but he won Google, and that’s more important. I am Google-proof.” There are some corners where the reporter is held in higher regard. “There’s a small niche of people who are close to my heart,” the American Barnes said, “the national security wonks who have not heard of Flaubert’s Parrot.” But he also feels his name has closed some doors to him. “Have you met a journalist who doesn’t occasionally think, ‘Oh, I could write a novel’?” he asked. “Like everybody, I occasionally have that thought, and then I’m like, ‘Ah, but I couldn’t call myself Julian Barnes, because he already took it.’” He’s taken measures to protect his progeny from such humiliations. “I made sure that my son did not have a name that anybody else had. He was not going to have the same thing I did,” he said. “And he’s very mad at me because I spelled his name really wacky.”

Casting about for means of redress, Barnes has considered showing up to the novelist’s readings. He’s not sure whether he’d go to protest or to get his books signed. He hoped that this article would finally give him some closure, or at least a semblance of balance. “What I really want to know, and what your task is, is to say, ‘has it ever’ — what if it never…?” he let the question trail off. “It’s going to be totally devastating when I read your piece, and it turns out he has never gotten classified documents emailed to him, never gotten some invitation to go do an embed on an aircraft carrier, like nothing, no impact. Because it comes up every month. When he’s got something out, then it comes up all the time.”

Publicists at the British Barnes’s publishers in both the U.K. and the U.S., as well as a representative at his literary agency, declined interview requests on the novelist’s behalf. As Joe Pickering of Vintage Books told The Fine Print, this interview was “not one for Mr. Barnes.”