Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Million Little Pieces: Frey's Interview with Oprah

On Monday, Oprah interviewed James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, and previous guest whom she'd once put on a pedestal (and her book club) and then later shamed and belittled.

Although I don't normally watch Oprah, I recorded this one and sat mesmerized through it, at first just wondering why James Frey would show up here, a third time, after such a humiliating second round, and then coming to a point of not only feeling empathy for him but feeling as if his situation could very well have happened to many of us writers.

For those who might not know, A Million Little Pieces was published under the genre of memoir, a supposed true recounting of a drug addict's road to recovery. After selling millions of copies, The Smoking Gun uncovered evidence that much of the book was fabricated, and eventually James Frey admitted he'd made most of it up.

What many people didn't know was that Frey never intended to write this as an autobiography. When he signed with an agent, they marketed the book to publishers as a novel, but no one would bite. Saying the events were true, however, proved to be the catnip needed to lure bids in.

What the publisher said to the agent and what the agent said to Frey may never be clearly known, but what is clear - and should be to most of us writers - is that Frey wanted his book published and trusted the people around him - professionals in the business. Though he takes responsibility now for marketing the book as truth, I can't help wonder if more blame lies on the shoulders of the the people with authority who convinced him the book was autobiographical enough to sell as memoir, who capitalized on his dream to be published.

In his interview, this is what he said:

From 22 to 31 I was trying to teach myself how to write a book. I didn’t go to graduate school, I didn’t ever have a writing teacher. I just sat in a room alone for years trying to write a book, trying to figure out how to write a book. Trying to figure out if I could do it. What book did I want to write? How did I want to write it? It was a lot of years of work. And then I wrote a book. I wrote a book and I had a chance to publish it. It wasn’t necessarily how I imagined it, but I wanted it published, I wanted it out in the world. And I said yes. 

The books reviews and ratings plummeted after the revelation, which I find interesting because it shows how a label means more than the story. If the book is a good story, should it not be a good story no matter whether it is true or not? Is it entertaining if true, but not if the facts are altered? Is a story only inspirational if the events and people are faithful to history?

I get it that people felt duped. They bought into the idea that this man endured root canal without anesthesia, that he fell in love with another addict that died, that he himself managed to get clean on his own. Readers want drama and triumph, and Frey gave it to them. For some, that wasn't enough.

But, as Frey points out in his interview (humbly, I must add), memoir is a murky genre to begin with. Writers manipulate events all the time to create a more cohesive book that flows better. So much so that since Frey's book was first published, an entirely new genre has popped up: the creative non-fiction.

Would that label have saved Frey's reputation? Who knows. The fact is that the book more closely resembles a novel than non-fiction, and though Frey knew that, the deeper he got into marketing the book, the less he felt he could make that public. But, unlike Greg Mortenson's book Three Cups of Tea, Frey was not raising money for a non-profit organization with his book. Frey was merely selling books - the same thing fiction authors do every day.

What I found fascinating in the interview was Frey's explanation of the writing - of why he wrote the book the way he did.

When I sat down to write the book, I didn’t think of it as a memoir. I didn’t think of it as a novel even... I wrote the book without any respect for what is fact or what is fiction, what category it should be placed in…I was trying to create a work of art…I’m more influenced by artists than writers. When you look at a Picasso self portrait, let’s say, you look at a cubist self portrait that Picasso has made, it doesn’t look anything like Picasso, or if it does, in ways that might only make sense to him. So when I was writing the book, I was thinking about it like that.

I don't want to come across as justifying the actions of Frey or his agent and publisher. I'm just saying, I'm a lot closer to understanding how easily something like this can happen.


  1. I always thought he was treated too harshly. I liked the Picasso analogy; maybe we need a new genre called "abstract memoir" to allow writers to take such liberties.

  2. I thought he was treated harshly as well. We read a book in English class that made fun of memoirs, because the main character changed into a woman half way through. The author was saying that all memoirs are biased, because the authors only put in certain facts of their life.

  3. I've never read the book, but heard all the kerfluffle about it. I also wonder if there was just this absolute need, on his part, to have that book out there no matter what, and those in the know persuaded him to do it this way.

    What saddens me in all this is that it seems story does not, after all, triumph, but the almighty bottom line.

  4. Wish I had seen the interviews.

    I've worked in alcohol recovery for years, so some of what Frey wrote seemed made up. It just didn't match what I had seen too many times over many years. But, that is not to say that there aren't individual experiences that don't fit the general pattern. That does happen.

    It was interesting to read later that some (or much) of the book had been made up. Two sad things: one, that a real voice of someone struggling with addiction wasn't heard instead of a fabricated one and two, what you write about here - the failure of the publishing industry to accept the book on the terms that Frey apparently wrote it. It is a rather complicated situation.

    Thanks for generating the thoughts in your post.
    Family Fountain

  5. After this and your post on Three Cups of Tea, I am never trusting memoirs again.

    But there definitely has to be some creative license in memoirs. Esp with the dialogue because NO ONE can recount their past in perfect detail.

  6. I agree. I did not see the original interview but I did watch the one this week. I was surprised to find myself understanding to some degree how such a thing could happen.

  7. Insightful post, Heidi. Like you, I can certainly understand how easy it was for this to spiral out of control. Your posts always make me want to read the book you are writing about - regardless of genre or labels.

  8. I also sympathized with James Frey (and his family) when I watched his interview with Oprah. It usually is the back-story that brings more truth to a situation.

  9. Lisa - LOL! I wouldn't recommend this book! The backstory to it is interesting, but I strongly disliked the book. :) Probably for the same reason I don't get Picasso - so when he compared his work to a Picasso it totally made sense to me!

    And I wasn't a fan of the overuse of the F-word. Call me a prude, but more than once a sentence seems overkill.

    BUT - many people did like the book, and I think he described it perfectly. And I feel for him.

  10. SHould NOT have been sold as a memoir, AND I bet his sales spiked again after her show. I'd show up for a little humiliation, and then run to the bank and get a new car.
    Ok. I'm lying, I totally wouldn't do that. But it was a good chance for vindication.