Thursday, November 24, 2011

James Frey on "A Million Little Pieces," Before the Fraud was Revealed

Yes, I fell for the James Frey memoir fraud just as the book published. I did ask him why his teeth looked so good, considering the four front ones had been knocked out and allegedly capped. I think the Oprah hoopla was much ado about nothing, though I do like to keep my fiction and nonfiction very separate. I really liked Frey, and would consider interviewing him again--but on a novel, this time.

The Denver Post
May 4, 2003

By Dylan Foley

In 1993, James Frey woke up on an airplane with his nose broken, his front four teeth gone and a hole in his cheek. Coming down from a crack cocaine high, he had no idea how he had lost his teeth or where the plane was going.

Frey's new memoir, "A Million Little Pieces" (Nan A. Talese, 384 pages, $22.95), chronicles his addiction to drugs and alcohol, and time he spent as a 23-year-old drug addict at Hazelden, the famed Minnesota drug rehab program. Frey's stripped-down writing provides a harsh view of his life and battles to become sober while fighting against the traditional drug rehab and 12-step programs.

Frey's writing about pain sings when he undergoes a root canal with only two tennis balls to squeeze on. He takes the reader on a horrific tour of his craving for drugs and his desire to destroy himself. It is a brutal, beautifully written memoir.

The press around Frey and his debut memoir may also be a case study on how literary bad boys can be created in the media. Two months before the book's April publication date, the New York Observer, a Manhattan weekly, published a gigantic profile on Frey, portraying him as a foul-mouthed Maileresque brawler, attacking other writers in his age group, including Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace. In the article, Frey boasted that he wants to be the best writer of his generation.

Though praising his book, the Observer piece was a hatchet job on Frey, more concerned with his tattoos and the quality of the furniture in his Manhattan apartment than the new memoir. "The Observer article has gotten my book a lot of attention," said Frey, initially wary of a writer on assignment from The Denver Post, as they spoke at a Manhattan coffee shop. "Turn off your tape recorder and I'll tell you what I think of it."

On the record, Frey was perplexed and angered by the Observer article. Though they met for a four-hour interview, the Observer writer focused on five minutes of Frey's comments on other writers' books. "The piece seemed to be about me bashing other writers," said Frey. "That happened because the journalist was in my apartment and went through this big pile of books I have, asking me what I thought of certain writers. I gave my honest impressions. He didn't include the books that I thought were great." Frey said his favorite writers include Pat Conroy, Charles Bukowski and his friend Bret Easton Ellis.

Frey's memoir takes place over seven weeks, when Frey is put into rehab by his parents. At first, he is hell-bent on escaping, to go out and destroy himself through drugs. He is befriended by colorful inmates - a major West Coast mobster, a federal judge with a bourbon problem and a former champion boxer. He falls in love with a young woman who was prostituted out by her mother.

In contrast to the self-destructive figure in his memoir and the boastful young writer created in the Observer piece, Frey is actually a soft-spoken 33-year-old.

In a particularly harsh scene in the memoir, Frey recounts ripping off his big toenail to deal with "The Fury," the self-destructive rage he felt at himself and the world. "To write the scene, I actually ripped the toenail off again." He paused. "I could show it to you, if you want."

Frey is the son of a successful business executive. The family moved around a lot, living in Ohio, Japan and Los Angeles. His oblivious parents didn't know he was an alcoholic at age 10. He moved on to crack and was a drug dealer at Denison College in Ohio by 18. A fall down an Ohio fire escape wiped out his front teeth and broke his nose, which starts the book.

(Frey's 1992 Ohio mug shot)

Throughout the stay in rehab, The Fury grips him. "There are a lot of things that human beings feel that there aren't necessarily words for, like sadness or anger and rage. I had a very intense desire to destroy other things and myself. I called it The Fury, which was the closest thing that described it."

At Hazelden, Frey battled with the staff and refused to follow traditional 12-step rehab routes. While there, he cobbled together his own Taoist philosophy. "My own 12-step process is pretty simple," said Frey. "The first 11 steps are crap, and the 12th is 'Just don't do it.'A lot of Taoist ideas are about acceptance. You have to accept that it is difficult to resist this, and you have to accept that the resistance will go away. There is a decision - 'Don't do it."'

In the aftermath of the Observer article, Frey wondered why he was mocked for his ambitions. "I don't know why people are so shocked when I say that I am an ambitious writer," said Frey. "I don't know any writers who get into it to be middling writers. When I dream of being a writer, I dream of being one of my heroes, having the type of influence that Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac or Charles Bukowski had. I did not say I am the best. I say I want to be the best, to be remembered for writing books that changed people's lives."

On the negative publicity, Frey has taken some solace from his friend, Ellis, the sometimes lionized, often attacked novelist who wrote "Less Than Zero" and "American Psycho." Ellis told Frey not to pay too much attention to the publicity.

``All that matters," said Frey, ``is what the readers think when they read my book."

(A MILLION LITTLE PIECES By James Frey, Nan A. Talese, 384 pages, $22.95)

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