Into the literary Frey

By David Larsen

James Frey. Photo / Supplied
James Frey. Photo / Supplied

I still believe he's a very talented writer and suspect we haven't heard the last of James Frey."

True words, as it turned out. "True words" being the kind Frey once claimed to write, which is why Kassie Evashevski, Frey's literary agent, who made this comment in 2006, did so while announcing her decision to drop him as a client.

It had emerged that Frey's bestselling memoir of drug addiction and recovery, A Million Little Pieces, was at least somewhat fictional. Oprah Winfrey had invited him and his publisher on to her show, then demanded they apologise for lying about the book's veracity. The publisher subsequently offered a refund to anyone who had bought the book under the impression it was a true story.

So Frey went off into the wilderness and pondered on his transgressions and the terrible damage he had done to his reputation. He emerged years later, a quieter, gentler writer, and from that time forth wrote only quiet, gentle short stories, which attracted a small but discerning readership. He insisted his story collections be clearly labelled "fiction".

Sorry, am I meant to be telling the truth? I've just been talking to James Frey, and it's possible I've forgotten how journalism is meant to work. Let's try again: what Frey really did during his time in the wilderness is write an inoffensive, completely uncontroversial little thing called The Final Testament Of The Holy Bible.

"I can do whatever I want now. I really don't have to give a toss." Frey does not say "give a toss"; this is as close to what he does say as I can go in print. "If anything, that whole thing with Oprah was really liberating. I can say whatever I want, and call it whatever I want, and I don't have to play by anybody's rules. I've been kicked out of a club that I didn't ever really want to be a part of."

Not that he has a beef with Oprah. "I mean she thought I lied to her and in some ways I did lie to her. I went along with it. Yeah, it's a memoir, woo-hoo. When you sell five million copies of a book it moves beyond being a conversation about what's a memoir and what isn't, it's now about a whole lot of other stuff. But she felt the way she felt, and she felt like she needed to tell me how she felt, and that's fine."

Not that he ever cared about playing by the rules. As far as he's concerned the rules of writing exist only so people like him can break them.

"Most of the writers I love, when their first books appeared nobody had seen anything like 'em. Nobody wrote the way they wrote, nobody told stories the way they told stories. Poetry was never the same after Rimbaud. When Hemingway's work first started appearing, the idea that you could take short declarative sentences, essentially journalistic writing, and tell narrative stories with them was revolutionary. Henry Miller's use of profanity, and the abandon with which he wrote. Kerouac's lyricism and run-on sentences. Before they came along, nobody had even conceived of trying to do things like that."

Miller's semi-autobiographical novel, Tropic of Cancer, first set Frey's mind on fire with the idea of being a writer. He was 22. "I knew I needed to do what he did. Sort of reinvent how to write. In certain ways I think I did it more radically."

He spent nine years figuring out the process. "I'd write five pages, eight pages, 10 pages and it wouldn't be right, so I would just abandon it and start over. You hear writers say, you know if I could only write what's in my head it would be great. Well, that's what I needed to learn. I write what's in my head. It's pretty direct."

The result was A Million Little Pieces, which does not use standard grammar, only sometimes uses punctuation, and abandons paragraph indentations.

In the early stages of this process he had the experience that led to his new book. As he explains in the preface, the manager of a clothing store where he was working asked him what he would write if he could write anything at all.

"I said The Great Book of Life. He laughed at that ... and said it's already been done, writer boy, and it's called the Bible. I smiled and thought to myself, yes, you're right. About five seconds later I thought, why not do it again, the Old and New exist, write the Final. The idea never left me. In 2009, I started putting the words down."

The Final Testament Of The Holy Bible tells the story of the true Jewish messiah, the figure of prophecy who really is what Christians say Jesus was. We follow his life through the testimony of 13 people who knew him, from his early adulthood as a computer-gaming New York drifter through his miraculous transformation into a charismatic cult leader, and eventually matyrdom. He is sexually omnivorous, says God has no interest in humans and has a remarkable ability to make his followers feel better about themselves.

He isn't concerned about offending people. "If you've read the book, I would be surprised if you thought I went out of my way to offend people. Because that was not my intention. Did I know some of what I was writing would offend? Yes. But is that a reason to not do it? No."

He has no particular faith of his own - "I don't have the answers, man, if there's something else beyond this, then I'll know it when I die" - this was simply the book he felt he needed to write.

"I knew this book was next. I've known since I wrote A Million Little Pieces what the books would be. I've known since 2002 that this would be the fourth book I write."

His next one, also long in the pipeline, will be about the Oklahoma City truck bomber, Timothy McVeigh. Meanwhile, he is working on an HBO drama series about the porn industry and runs a company called Full Fathom Five, developing commercial young adult fiction projects, such as the novel I Am Number Four, recently filmed by Dreamworks.

When I suggest to Frey that naming the company for Shakespeare's song about people drowning might not have been terribly auspicious, he laughs, and reminds me it's also the name of a Jackson Pollock painting.

"I picked it because it sounds cool, but also because I'm applying an art world idea to the production of literature, and it's a phrase that exists in both worlds. The company's based on applying the system of an artist's studio, which has been in existence for 500 years, to the production of books. The company's booming, man, it's going great. We have deals for 15 books and we have 55 more being written. We've got a lot of stuff going on. The system works."

* The Final Testament of the Holy Bible ($39.99) is out now.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n1 at 29 Jul 2014 09:14:35 Processing Time: 997ms