Frey Forgoes Oprah for Hell’s Angels
By | April 28, 2008
Who needs Oprah to promote your book when you have friends in the art world, a narrative dripping with sex and violence, and firsthand knowledge that ordinary readers care little about the publishing world’s efforts to shame a former darling?
Memoirist James Frey has a novel coming out next month, and it’s a safe bet that Ms. Winfrey won’t be selecting it for her book club. After all, two years ago she publicly excoriated Mr. Frey for having fabricated details of his book “A Million Little Pieces,” after her praise for his saga of drug addiction helped propel the book to best-seller-dom.
Readers didn’t seem to mind the details Mr. Frey had fudged, though. When Random House offered refunds to readers who had purchased the book before the falsifications came to light, only 1,536 people requested their money back. “A Million Little Pieces” remains among the books most frequently borrowed from libraries. Mr. Frey was able to find a new agent and sell his novel, “Bright Shiny Morning,” to HarperCollins.
Mr. Frey’s plans to promote the novel disclose something of what he has been up to in the years since the Oprah flap, and how comfortable he is in the zone of celebrity and spectacle. He is relying largely on connections outside the publishing world, such as friends at Sotheby’s auction house, where a dinner in honor of him is being held, and the artists Richard Prince and Terry Richardson, who have contributed to a limited-edition “companion volume” to Mr. Frey’s novel.
“Despite the fact that he writes books, he’s much more a part of the art world than the literary world,” Mr. Frey’s friend John McWhinnie said of him. With the money from his two memoirs (the second was “My Friend Leonard”), Mr. Frey has purchased works by, among others, Mr. Prince, Matthew Barney, Damien Hirst, Ed Ruscha, and Cecily Brown, Mr. McWhinnie said. (Mr. Frey was unavailable to be interviewed for this article, because, as Mr. McWhinnie put it, he is “in media lockdown” in advance of his novel’s publication, under the terms of his contract with HarperCollins.)
The companion volume to “Bright Shiny Morning” was partly the idea of Mr. McWhinnie, who runs a bookstore and gallery on the Upper East Side, where he sells immaculate first editions of 20th-century books, and mounts solo shows of artists including Mr. Prince and Mr. Richardson, Mr. Barney, Cindy Sherman, Elizabeth Peyton, and Ryan McGinness.
“Bright Shiny Morning,” he explained, tells the loosely intertwined stories of four couples in Los Angeles. Interspersed are dozens of vignettes about L.A., including digressions on immigration, water politics, the porn industry, gang culture, and cars.
Mr. McWhinnie had a vision for a book that would pair a few of these episodes from the novel with photo essays commissioned from Mr. Richardson, who is known for his often louche portraits of celebrities. Mr. McWhinnie selected three vignettes: one about an affair between a politician’s wife and a schoolteacher (an account so torrid, he said, that it was ultimately cut from the American edition of the novel); one about car culture in L.A., and one about gangs. Mr. Frey gave the sections the titles “Wives,” “Wheels,” and “Weapons” — a trinity that is also the title of the book.
Mr. McWhinnie, Mr. Frey, and Mr. Richardson then went out to L.A. and checked in at — where else? — the Chateau Marmont for a week to do the shoot. For the “Wheels” section, Mr. Richardson photographed hot rods and souped-up cars and took shots of L.A.’s freeways from a helicopter. For the “Weapons” section, he recruited Bloods, Cholos, skinheads, and Hell’s Angels.
For “Wives,” Mr. McWhinnie’s idea was for Mr. Richardson to capture quintessential L.A. “MILFs” — an acronym for a phrase, unprintable in a family newspaper, which denotes extremely attractive mothers. Although Mr. Richardson stopped short of depicting actual sex acts, Mr. McWhinnie described the eight photos in this section as “dripping with sexuality.”
Mr. McWhinnie is publishing “Wives, Wheels, Weapons” in both hardcover and softcover, priced at $150 and $75, respectively. He is also publishing a boxed, limited-edition “Wife Girlfriend” edition, so-named for the cover image by Mr. Prince, which is titled “Girlfriend,” and for a special pullout photograph of a “Wife” by Mr. Richardson. The “Wife Girlfriend” edition will be signed by both artists and by Mr. Frey, and will cost in the $30,000–$50,000 range. (Mr. Prince also supplied the cover image for “Bright Shiny Morning.”)
The sections about L.A. history and culture in “Bright Shiny Morning” are “sprinkled with facts that may or may not be accurate,” Mr. McWhinnie said. “The book opens with a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer that nothing in it can be considered true,” he continued. Mr. Frey intentionally mixed true and made-up “facts” — mixing real names of gang members with fake ones, for instance — in order to highlight both the factitiousness of L.A. culture and the ironies in his own authorial past.
To promote the book, Mr. Frey will eschew typical bookstore readings for events at rock venues. He will appear at the Blender Theater in New York, Whisky A Go Go in L.A., and Slim’s in San Francisco. At each venue, he will have music and a light show, with images from “Wives, Wheels, Weapons” projected on a screen while he reads. At the San Francisco and L.A. readings, local heavy metal bands will perform.
Members of the Hell’s Angels will handle security at the events, in what Mr. McWhinnie described as an allusion to the infamous 1969 concert at the Altamont Speedway, in which fighting between members of the crowd and the Angels led to one fan’s being stabbed to death. Presumably Mr. Frey will not attempt to carry the historical echo that far, but who knows? Perhaps he can stage an altercation and use it as grist for his next book