Tracking the Fallout of (Another) Literary Fraud
By MOTOKO RICH
One day after the author of “Love and Consequences” confessed that she had made up the memoir about her supposed life as a foster child in gang-infested South-Central Los Angeles, the focus turned to her publisher and the news organizations that helped publicize what appeared to be a searing autobiography.
Geoffrey Kloske, publisher of Riverhead Books, the unit of Penguin Group USA that released the book, by Margaret Seltzer, under a pseudonym, Margaret B. Jones, said on Tuesday that there was nothing else that he or Sarah McGrath, the book’s editor, could have done to prevent the author from lying.
“In hindsight we can second-guess all day things we could have looked for or found,” Mr. Kloske said. “The fact is that the author went to extraordinary lengths: she provided people who acted as her foster siblings. There was a professor who vouched for her work, and a writer who had written about her that seemed to corroborate her story.” He added that Ms. Seltzer had signed a contract in which she had legally promised to tell the truth. “The one thing we wish,” Mr. Kloske said, “is that the author had told us the truth.”
Riverhead has recalled nearly 19,000 copies of the book and is offering refunds to book buyers.
Ms. McGrath, who never met Ms. Seltzer during three years spent editing the book, said Ms. Seltzer, who lives in Eugene, Ore., had provided what she said were photographs of her foster siblings, a letter from a gang leader corroborating her story and had introduced her agent, Faye Bender, to a person who claimed to be a foster sister.
Ms. McGrath said she also trusted Ms. Seltzer because she had come through “a respected literary agent” who had in turn been referred to the author by a writer whom Ms. Bender had worked with previously.
Despite editing the book in the aftermath of the scandal surrounding James Frey, author of a best-selling memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” who admitted making up or exaggerating details in his account of drug addiction and recovery, Ms. McGrath said she did not independently check parts of Ms. Seltzer’s story or perform any kind of background check. She said she relied on Ms. Seltzer to tell the truth.
“In the post-James Frey world, we all are more careful,” Ms. McGrath said. “I had numerous conversations with her about the need to be honest and the need to stick to the facts.”
Ms. Bender, Ms. Seltzer’s agent, said that the author had been using a false persona for years and that friends and colleagues — including Ms. Bender — believed she had grown up in foster care in the gangland of Los Angeles.
“There was no reason to doubt her, ever,” Ms. Bender said. Similarly, reporters who interviewed Ms. Seltzer were also taken in by her story. Tom Ashbrook, the host of “On Point,” a program on public radio, ran an interview with Ms. Seltzer (as Margaret B. Jones) in which she recounted her fake life. Mimi Read, a freelance reporter, wrote a profile of Ms. Seltzer that appeared on Thursday in the House & Home section of The New York Times and did not question the memoirist’s story.
“The way I look at it is that it’s just like when you get in a car and drive to the store — you assume that the other drivers on the road aren’t psychopaths on a suicide mission,” said Ms. Read, who was never told Ms. Seltzer’s real name by the publisher or by Ms. Seltzer. “She seemed to be who she said she was. Nothing in her home or conversation or happenstance led me to believe otherwise.”
Ms. Read said that she did contact Ms. Seltzer’s fiancé and also asked her to provide information about Uncle Madd Ronald, who Ms. Seltzer claimed was her gang leader and was now in prison. Ms. Seltzer provided a prison name and prison identification number, and a copy editor confirmed that the prison existed.
Ms. Read said she wished she had been more skeptical and done further fact-checking. “Of course I wish I could do it differently,” she said. “I think a lot of other people were fooled before me.”
Tom de Kay, editor of the House & Home section, said he asked Ms. Read to track down other people from Ms. Seltzer’s past to corroborate her story. Because Ms. Seltzer told Ms. Read that her foster siblings were dead, in prison or no longer in touch, it was difficult for Ms. Read to find people to interview.
Mr. de Kay said that ultimately, “I was to some degree trusting that the vetting process of a reputable book publisher was going to catch this level of duplicity.” But, he added: “Do I wish in retrospect that we had called L.A. child services and tried to run down the history of this person? I certainly do.”
In a publishing landscape that has been rocked by scandals like Mr. Frey’s fabrications and the hoax perpetrated by Laura Albert, the woman who posed as the novelist J T LeRoy, a supposed addict and son of a West Virginia prostitute, other publishers and agents said their business still operated on trust.
“It is not an industry capable of checking every last detail,” said Ira Silverberg, an agent who represented J T LeRoy (without knowing he was actually Ms. Albert) and Ishmael Beah, author of the best-selling memoir “A Long Way Gone,” who was recently accused by Australian journalists of distorting his service as a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war during the 1990s, a charge that he and his publishers have repeatedly denied. “So to present yourself as something you are not betrays all the trust.”
Nan A. Talese, who published Mr. Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” said the combination of these recent episodes could start to change the business’s practices. “I think what editors are going to have to do is point to the things that happened recently and say to their authors, ‘If there is anything in your book that can be discovered to be untrue, you better let us know right now, and we’ll deal with it before we publish it,’ ” Ms. Talese said. But she added: “I don’t think there is any way you can fact-check every single book. It would be very insulting and divisive in the author-editor relationship.”
Sarah Crichton, publisher of her own imprint at Farrar, Straus & Giroux and the editor of “A Long Way Gone,” said she did some background checking on Mr. Beah. “I come out of journalism and so I certainly wanted to make sure the historical record was accurate,” said Ms. Crichton, a former editor at Newsweek. “But I will confess that I did the checking that I did also in part just to protect us, because I knew that we were going to be publishing into a changed landscape.”