Memoir as fact – or fiction
Thu, Mar 19, 2009
James Frey acquired an unenviable literary infamy when large parts of his bestselling memoir were revealed to be fiction. He talks to Fiona McCann about resurrecting his career
SO THIS IS the US’s most notorious writer? The man who “duped” Oprah, who, in her words, “betrayed millions of readers”? The man whose author pictures on the press release for his new book display him bare-chested and tattooed, proudly hoisting two middle fingers to the world? Can this man drinking iced water in the drawing room of Dublin’s Merrion Hotel, dressed in a buttoned-down shirt, beige pants and spotless white Adidas runners, truly be the bad boy of the American book world?
James Frey in person – quietly spoken, with a hint of a lisp – does not immediately fit my preconceptions of the author of A Million Tiny Pieces , a memoir about his recovery from addiction which was given the Oprah Winfrey imprimatur for inclusion in her lucrative book club. When the news emerged that Frey had exaggerated some events in the book and invented others, the chat-show queen requested an appearance on her show, where she dressed him down in front of millions of viewers. Soon after his public castigation, his literary manager dropped him, and his publishers pulled out of an agreed book deal.
Frey, who by that time had already published the follow-up, My Friend Leonard , and sold millions of books, was suddenly persona non grata. So what did he do? He wrote another book, one he describes as a “love letter” to Los Angeles, called Bright Shiny Morning . And just in case we were in any doubt, the first page elucidates that: “Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable.”
He may appear diffident, initially, almost demure, but Frey is at pains to point out that this opening line is where “I lift my middle fingers to all my detractors and I say ‘come kiss my ass, boy’ ”.
The bad boy is back, with a book he says is “about what the American dream is in the 21st century”, a dream represented by Los Angeles itself, Bright Shiny Morning’s protagonist. Chasing, and in some cases living, this dream are two small-town kids looking for a new start, a homeless drunk with a conscience, the daughter of immigrant Mexicans working her way through college as a maid, and a successful film star with a secret. As characters, they’ve been decried as cliches, although, according to Frey, it all depends on their treatment.
“These are recognisable archetypes of the city, but nobody’s ever told the story of them, nobody’s every really taken them seriously,” he says. “I try to take them seriously, not treat them as cliches but as people who have stories and who have lives, and whose stories mean something.”
Their stories are spliced with the history, geography and vital statistics of the city they inhabit, along with lists of gang names, natural disasters and “fun facts” about LA, not all of which, it turns out, are facts at all.
“Some of them actually are fiction,” admits Frey. “Some of the history is just made up, and some of the statistics are just made up.”
Lies, damn lies indeed, yet observing the rules of one genre or another isn’t something that concerns this writer. “What matters is the story that’s being told,” he says with growing animation. “What matters is ‘Do I entertain a reader? Do I inform them? Do I change them in some way?’ ”
WHATEVER HE IS doing with Bright Shiny Morning has had critics at loggerheads, with reviews either unrestrainedly effusive or excoriating. Which is fine by Frey.
“What I’m not going to be cool with is if somebody reads one of my books and just says, ‘Meh, it’s okay’.” he says. “I want a strong reaction one way or another. If I can invoke great feeling, whether it’s positive or negative, then that’s good. That’s what art should do.”
And Frey is making art, as he sees it; not memoir, not fiction, but literature. “I don’t care about the labels. I write books, I tell stories,” he says. “I aspire to create literature, so, if anything, is a work of literature.”
Though he himself may categorise his output as literature, it has not always been received as such, to Frey’s evident delight. “Most of the writers I love weren’t embraced by the American literary establishment,” he says, naming Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski among them. “They weren’t part of the high-minded literati, and I’m definitely not, and I’m perfectly comfortable living and working outside of it.”
Frey places himself within the tradition of such celebrated writers without a trace of self- consciousness. Undeterred by the fact that he is a rich thirtysomething with a wife, two kids and a “very normal life in New York city”, he clearly revels in the notion of his own notoriety.
“I’m comfortable in that space. If you look at the writers I love, all of them were considered during their lifetimes, while they were working. And I wanted to work within that tradition, so that’s the place I am. I’m happy there.”
It smacks of hubris, and he knows it. “People say I’m cocky,” he admits. “I don’t feel like I’m cocky, I don’t feel like I’m arrogant.” Even though he has just dropped his own name in a sentence with Bukowski, Baudelaire and Joyce? “I don’t say I’m Henry Miller or James Joyce or Norman Mailer,” he clarifies. “I say I’m busting my ass and working really hard to try to achieve what they achieved. We’ll see if I do it. We’ll see. I believe I can.”
No sign of doubt there, but plenty of defiance. “I’ve had a lot of bad times in my life, and I’ve survived them all. I’ve had hideous times personally, I’ve had hideous times professionally, and I’m still here, I’m still standing.”
Frey is clearly proud of how he has not only beaten his addictions and pieced his personal life back together, but taken on the queen of the American small screen and lived to tell more tales. “I’m still working, I’m still doing what I want, how I want, saying what I want, living how I want, you know. I’m still doing it.”
It’s hard not to admire Frey’s audacity, the cheek and chutzpah that kept him writing after being so publicly cast out. “I wasn’t going to give anybody the satisfaction of letting them think that they’d beaten me. I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of letting them think that whatever they had to say about me affected me or stopped me or hurt me. If anything, it was another challenge. It was ‘all right, they think I’m done, it’s time to prove them wrong’.”
It’s a challenge he clearly relishes, and although Frey’s self-championing as a challenger of the system is grating, it’s easy to understand why his ostracisation by the arbiters of bestsellerdom came as a relief.
“I can tell you when all the Oprah stuff was happening, I wasn’t comfortable being placed on this pedestal of ‘Recovery Superman’. I never wanted that,” he says. He has a point. “ A Million Little Pieces was designed to be a gob of spit in the face of the self-help industry. It attacked everything that that industry considers holy. And at a certain point it got co-opted by that and became a part of it, and I was horrified. I wasn’t happy that this work, this book that I considered a work of art, got turned into something it wasn’t. So when the controversy happened, I was happy that, although it was personally difficult to deal with, it placed the book back into the space it belongs in, which is literature, literary art.”
IT’S NOT HARD to imagine how unnerving it must have been to see a work in which he calls himself a criminal repeatedly being embraced by daytime television viewers across the US, yet there is something in Frey that is a little too in love with his banishment from the book clubs of the world.
“I wanted to be a guy who writes books that break boundaries and break rules and go into places that other writers haven’t gone,” he says, reminding me that Time magazine recently referred to him as “America’s most notorious author”. “I saw and I was like, ‘all right, it’s worked out’, ” he says with no small pride.
He may have come out fighting from the Oprah showdown, but he is eager to move beyond it. “I think it was a weird moment in America,” he says. “And I think it will be a part of my life, that chapter, but I don’t think it’s gonna be the only thing.”
Yet if the Oprah incident is truly behind him, how does he explain a passage in Bright Shiny Morning , only included in the paperback edition, where a character goes through a pointedly similar experience? In the pages in question, the character, referred to only in the third person, receives a telephone call from the host of the show in question: “What she told him directly contradicted all of her public statements . . . He taped everything.” It appears to be a blatant reference to his own experiences with Oprah Winfrey, or is Frey back to his old tricks again?
“I’m not going to get into specifics related to me and Oprah that haven’t been made public already,” he says. Frey is suddenly coy, or is this apparent circumspection simply another way of courting controversy? This is, after all, his chance to get a proper dig at the woman who pulled no punches when she had hers. So is he going to tell us the truth behind this particular story? “Not as long as that tape recorder is on.” So I turn it off.
Bright Shiny Morning , by James Frey, is now available in paperback, published by John Murray, £7.99
© 2009 The Irish Times