James Frey’s happy ending
His sensational memoir sold more than five million copies. But when he was forced to admit fabricating some of the details, his life fell apart. Now he’s back, with a work of fiction – and it’s already a bestseller. Guy Adams reports
Monday, 26 May 2008
Should James Frey, the American writer who was first endorsed and then publicly disowned by Oprah Winfrey for faking his bestselling memoir A Million Little Pieces, turn his topsy-turvy life story into a Hollywood film, its latest chapter would be the heart-warming, if deeply ironic, happy ending.
The author and former drug addict, whose fall from grace two years ago rocked America’s publishing industry, has miraculously rehabilitated his tattered reputation with a new book in the very literary genre he should have attempted from the start of his career: fiction.
Two weeks after its launch, Frey’s third novel, Bright Shiny Morning, has shot up the sales charts, debuting at number nine in The New York Times bestseller list, despite the onset of the fiercely competitive summer sales season which coincides with today’s Memorial Day holiday.
Having received a series of flattering reviews, the once-besmirched author has emerged from a self-imposed public exile for an international book tour. And to underline his new-found popularity, he’s also popped up in a series of surprisingly sympathetic newspaper, magazine, radio and television interviews.
It’s a far cry from the grisly events that followed the revelation in January 2006 that Frey had fabricated several elements in both A Million Little Pieces, the gut-wrenching “memoir” about his lengthy struggle with alcohol and drugs, and its sequel My Friend Leonard.
The author, who at the time was something of a literary “It” figure, had achieved fame, fortune, and sold more than five million of his book, after Oprah Winfrey chose A Million Little Pieces for her influential monthly book club, inviting him on to her daytime chat show in September 2005 as: “the man who kept Oprah awake at night”.
Fans and critics alike were impressed by Frey’s gritty narrative style, together with the moving tale of his personal journey from promising university graduate with a bright future, to a drink and drug-addled petty criminal and dropout.
Frey was born in 1969 and enjoyed a normal middle-class childhood in Ohio and Michigan. After graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1990s, where he began working as a screenwriter, director and producer.
Things soon went awry, though. At least according to his memoir they did. A Million Little Pieces told how his dream of a career in Hollywood turned into a nightmare after he became addicted to alcohol and crack cocaine, endured a series of run-ins with the police and ended up in a treatment facility. The truth, however, turned out to be a little bit less exotic. After Frey’s first appearance with Oprah, muck-raking internet sites quickly began to investigate key claims in the memoir – and soon discovered that several important biographical details were at odds with the facts.
In particular, it was discovered that Frey’s claim to have spent three months behind bars during the 1980s was false: court records showed that he had spent just a day in jail, and that was following a drink-driving incident.
As the scandal took off, Oprah invited Frey and his publisher, Nan Talese, back on air, ostensibly to discuss another subject. Then she tearfully accused them of flat-out deception. “I feel duped,” she said. “More importantly, I feel you betrayed millions of readers.”
Literary America agreed, and the broadcast media could hardly contain its outrage. Frey and his wife, Maya, were forced into hiding in New York, while his publisher, Random House, decided to establish a legal settlement giving readers who felt cheated the chance to return their books.
Many in the industry thought that Frey would never find work again, and he was abandoned by friends and family, together with Penguin, with whom he had signed a two-book deal, and his literary agent.
But the scandal blew over, and in the event, fewer than 2,000 of the books were returned. Frey, meanwhile, set to work on Bright Shiny Morning, a novel about contemporary Los Angeles. Although the original book contract for the novel was cancelled following the televised accusation by Oprah, HarperCollins later snapped it up – and was rewarded last week when 14,000 copies were sold in hardback.
Critics have been divided by the new book. Flattering reviews, of which there were many, hailed him as a new star of serious fiction, drawing admiring comparisons with the likes of Jack Kerouac, Tom Wolfe and John Steinbeck.
“[James Frey] got a second act. He got another chance,” wrote the influential New York Times critic Janet Maslin. “Look what he did with it. He stepped up to the plate and hit one out of the park. No more lying. No more melodrama, still run-on sentences, still funny punctuation, but so what? He became a furiously good storyteller in his time.”
Lev Grossman, Time magazine’s well-regarded reviewer, was also congratulatory. “The worst bits of Morning are probably worse than anything else you’ll read this year, but Frey is such a relentlessly entertaining storyteller that you just won’t care. Frey has a history of having a little too much fun with facts, among other controlled substances. As a writer of fiction, he may finally have found a job where that’s not a problem.”
The only sour note came from David Ulin, the books editor of The Los Angeles Times, who gave Frey’s new book the proverbial stinker, claiming that it offered “a cheap Hollywood movie” portrayal of Los Angeles. “Bright Shiny Morning is a terrible book,” he wrote. “One of the worst I’ve ever read. But you have to give James Frey credit for one thing: he’s got chutzpah.”
Away from the review pages, though, the book-buying public has embraced Frey’s comeback story. Having become a household word for “liar” – “I was a pariah,” he told this month’s Vanity Fair. “I was under no illusion that I was anything but that” – Frey has been enjoying a brand of celebrity reminiscent of the era before his original downfall.
Also celebrating was Eric Simonoff, the legendary Manhattan literary agent who took on the then down-at-heel Frey last year and was the man who persuaded HarperCollins to invest in Bright Shiny Morning.
“When I took James on as a client, the notion was met with some scepticism by friends in the industry,” he admitted yesterday. “It really had been pretty bad. In fact, I would go so far as to say it was unprecedented.”
“There have been other scandals in literature, but I cannot ever recall someone having received so public a drubbing. Some people felt that he was actually untouchable. But I talked to him, and looked at his writing, and felt strongly that he deserved another chance.”
Even Nan Talese, the superstar publisher at Random House whose reputation was also seriously sullied by the Oprah affair, offered congratulations, and continued to defend A Million Little Pieces when The Independent contacted her.
“James always wanted to be a novelist, and it’s good that he could put this behind him and write the California book he intended,” she said. “The incidents of exaggeration that the Smoking Gun brought to light were not germane to the story, and I hardly remembered them when they came to light.”
With Frey, who is now teetotal and happily married, gearing up for a world tour (the book is due for release in the UK in August), the eyes of literary America will now be on the bidding war for his next novel.
Mr Simonoff has revealed that it will be about “a secular Jew who believes he’s the Messiah”. Although he conceded that HarperCollins will be favourites to clinch the deal, no contract has yet been signed.
Industry experts, meanwhile, are reflecting that the success of Bright Shiny Morning proves that there is, after all, no such thing as bad publicity.
“If you look at the data, there were actually sales spikes for A Million Little Pieces when the scandal was happening,” said Rachel Deahl, of the magazine Publishers Weekly. “So while he may have lost respect in some people’s eyes, he already had plenty of fans. In many ways, the scandal has turned out to be commercially helpful.”
The launch of Bright Shiny Morning also turned out to be an object lesson in constructing a literary PR campaign. “Everyone loves a come-from-behind story, and this is certainly that,” she added. “But he’s very definitely not been doing hardball interviews. He’s not gone on Larry King. What happened two years ago has made him very cagey about talking to the press, so he has taken things slowly.”
Also still taking Frey’s rehabilitation slowly is Oprah Winfrey, whose book club managers would not respond to specific inquiries about Bright Shiny Morning yesterday.
Meanwhile, William Bastone, the investigative journalist who is also the editor of the Smoking Gun, commented that Frey’s rehabilitation and re-found success was a sad indictment of modern American morality.
“Twenty or thirty years ago, if you had been caught pulling a stunt like this you would be ostracised for good,” he said. “But this is now a country where penance ends up being very compressed. Look at Martha Stewart. She went to prison, and it was no more than a bump in the road for her.”
“Still, we have no plans to go through this book with a fine toothcomb. Frey has put a disclaimer in the front of it: he’s said that it’s fiction, so I guess he’s covered himself this time.”