Best-Selling Memoir Draws Scrutiny
Police reports and other public records published online on Sunday have raised substantial questions about the truth of numerous incidents depicted in James Frey's best-selling memoir, "A Million Little Pieces."
The book, originally published in 2003 by the Nan A. Talese imprint of Doubleday, soared to the top of the best-seller lists in the fall after it was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her television book club. Ms. Winfrey's enthusiastic endorsement helped the book to sell more than two million copies last year, making it the second-highest-selling book of 2005, behind only "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." "A Million Little Pieces" currently tops the New York Times paperback best-seller list; Mr. Frey's second book, "My Friend Leonard," is on the paper's hardcover best-seller list.
Mr. Frey has repeatedly stated that his book is true. But a lengthy article posted Sunday by The Smoking Gun Web site (www.thesmokinggun.com) quotes Mr. Frey as saying that events "were embellished in the book for obvious dramatic reasons." In particular, it quotes him as saying he did not spend nearly three months in jail after leaving an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center in the mid-1990's, as he contends in his book, but rather only a few days, at most. In "My Friend Leonard," Mr. Frey writes that his girlfriend, Lilly, whom he'd met in rehab, called him distraught just before the end of his sentence. Upon his release he races to her side, only to discover that she has committed suicide.
In "A Million Little Pieces" Mr. Frey says that the three-month sentence stemmed from a 1992 arrest on felony charges, including fighting with police officers and hitting an officer with his car, that could have landed him in jail for up to eight years. But the Smoking Gun article and supporting documents state that Mr. Frey was held for a few hours after an arrest on a drunken-driving charge and that he eventually paid a small fine, but otherwise spent no significant amount of time in jail.
The Smoking Gun article, which did not carry a byline, stated of Mr. Frey: "The 36-year-old author, these documents and interviews show, wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms and status as an outlaw 'wanted in three states.' "
Yesterday, Mr. Frey did not respond to a telephone message left at his home in Manhattan. Officials at Random House, Doubleday's parent, would not comment on the Smoking Gun article but issued a statement saying, "We stand in support of our author, James Frey, and his book which has touched the lives of millions of readers."
Ms. Winfrey and her representatives at Harpo Productions also did not return calls yesterday. Ms. Winfrey's promotion of Mr. Frey's book was among the most enthusiastic she has ever given to an author. When Ms. Winfrey announced her choice - the first work of nonfiction she had selected - she called the book "a gut-wrenching memoir that is raw and it's so real."
Ms. Winfrey is scheduled to announce her next pick for her book club on Monday.
But given the response from viewers yesterday on Internet message boards devoted to Mr. Frey's book, Ms. Winfrey might find herself having to address questions about its truth. On Ms. Winfrey's site, some readers expressed dismay that they had been lied to. But on Mr. Frey's own site, bigjimindustries.com, one fan who identified herself as Julie wrote: "Even if his story is fake, he opened up the eyes of so many people. How about if we all focus on that instead of accusing him of being a liar?"
Mr. Frey's agent, Kassie Evashevski of Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, did not respond to requests for comment. A lawyer representing Mr. Frey, who wrote a letter to The Smoking Gun threatening legal action if it published a defamatory story about the author, did not return a phone call seeking comment. Also declining to respond to telephone messages were Sean McDonald, Mr. Frey's editor, who now works for Penguin's Riverhead imprint, and a spokesman for Penguin, which announced last week it had signed a contract to publish two additional books by Mr. Frey, including a novel.
The discrepancies and Mr. Frey's reported admissions of falsifying details of his life raise questions about the publishing industry's increasing reliance on nonfiction memoirs as a fast track to the best-seller list. It is not at all uncommon to see new books marketed as nonfiction containing notes to readers saying the author has altered the time sequence of events, created composite characters, changed names or otherwise made up details of a memoir. "A Million Little Pieces," however, contains no such disclaimer.
And the questions about Mr. Frey came at almost the same time as new revelations about the identity of JT Leroy, a writer whose supposedly autobiographical novels draw on a lifetime of prostitution and homelessness.
Since its publication in April 2003, "A Million Little Pieces" has attracted attention for its graphic descriptions of Mr. Frey's harrowing withdrawal from substance abuse and for its remarkable story of his redemption and sobriety. But aspects of the story, including the author's claim that he underwent root canal surgery without anesthesia, have drawn repeated questions at book readings, from fans of Ms. Winfrey's book club and from journalists.
In an interview with The New York Times last month, Mr. Frey said that he had provided extensive documentation of his account of events in "A Million Little Pieces" to lawyers at Random House Inc., the parent of Doubleday and Anchor Books, which published the paperback edition, and to lawyers at Harpo, the production company owned by Ms. Winfrey. But he declined to allow a reporter at The Times to view those materials or to ask his publisher or Ms. Winfrey to share them. Random House also refused to allow a reporter to review the materials or to discuss them.
In an interview with The Times last month, Mr. Frey said that he originally envisioned "A Million Little Pieces" not as a memoir but as a novel. "We were in discussions after we sold it as to whether to publish it as fiction or as nonfiction," he said. "And a lot of those issues had to do with following in a legacy of American writers." Mr. Frey noted that writers like Hemingway, Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac had written very autobiographical books that were published as fiction.
But when Doubleday decided to publish the book as nonfiction, Mr. Frey said, he did not have to change anything. "It was written exactly as it was published," he said.