Longer listens: James Frey talks about his prison days

Published January 23, 2006 6:50PM (EST)

Whether or not you buy the argument pushed by James Frey, his publisher and Oprah that there is a special standard for truth in memoir -- that the mere facts of history are inconsequential and that what really matters is correspondence to a deeper, more essential truth that can be recognized by its resonance with readers or, perhaps more to the point, by its success in the marketplace -- it is worth noting that Frey invented stories about his life not just in the pages of "A Million Little Pieces," but also in numerous interviews. It's a fair question whether the memoir standard still covers Frey when, for instance, he tells Steve Bertrand of Barnes and Noble's "Meet the Writers" that he was in jail "a bunch of times," including a stay of three months. During the interview (11:38, Windows Media), Frey also offers Bertrand a laughably generic description of prison life, claims to have ploughed through what amounts to about 5,000 pages of the classics of Western literature during his three-month stint, and throws an offhanded insult at the novels of Proust: "There's nothing to do there [in jail]," says Frey. "I mean, you can go out in the yard and walk around or shoot hoops or lift weights. I didn't really want to do anything so I spent most of my time reading books. In certain ways it was awesome, because I read a lot of the sort of classic pieces of literature that nobody ever has time to read. I read 'Don Quixote.' I read 'War and Peace.' I read 'The Brothers Karamazov.' I read parts of Proust, which I just put down because it was too boring."

The interview, conducted before the Smoking Gun looked into Frey's public record, provides a whirlwind tour of the psyche of a ruthlessly ambitious and deeply insecure writer. There's false humility: "I've had the same car since I was 20. I buy my clothes at K-Mart. I eat at McDonald's and Taco Bell. I have all the same friends I've had for years and years and years." Delusions of grandeur: "I sort of think of myself in a long line of American, male writers -- Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Bukowski, Pat Conroy -- who wrote books about their own lives." Plus a rather telling declaration about genre: "I don't care what the marketing department calls the book. If it's a good book, people are going to read it, and if it's not a good book, they won't. And memoir, nonfiction, fiction, all that is just sort of irrelevant."

Joseph Jesselli of the Smoking Gun mentions Frey's comments to Barnes and Noble and in this interview (14:07, Real Audio) with Bob Rivers of Seattle's KZOK. He also explains how the Smoking Gun's team of three unraveled the story. And in this interview (13:16, mp3) with Andrew Goldberg, another of the three, on the "Paul Harris Show" of KMOX in St. Louis, you can hear a clip of Frey telling the "Today" show's Matt Lauer: "I didn't invent anything. Everything I wrote about happened." Both Rivers and Harris, incidentally, suggest that the revelations about "A Million Little Pieces" are a particularly hard blow for Frey's millions of female fans. (For the record, Salon's own Hillary Frey long ago questioned the book's literary merit and Oprah's wisdom in selecting it for her club.) But if this sycophantic interview (23:41, mp3) by Rick Kleffel of the "Agony Column" is any indication, plenty of men will be feeling hurt as well. Kleffel, perhaps not accidentally, refers to "A Million Little Pieces" as a novel and, in between slobbering over the power of the book's prose, indulges Frey in his dangerously misleading approach to kicking a drug a habit. "I make a joke that I developed my own twelve step program," says Frey. "The first eleven steps mean nothing and the twelfth is: Don't do it. And it's a simple as that."

To judge Frey's writing for yourself (if you haven't already), try the opening passage (3:56, mp3) of "A Million Little Pieces" courtesy of HighBridge Audio.

-- Ira Boudway

By Salon Staff

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