‘I would say hello but I can’t imagine Oprah and I would have much to talk about’
HEIDI STASESON TALKS TO JAMES FREY ABOUT HOW HE FEELS ABOUT A CERTAIN TALK SHOW HOST, LIFE AS A PARIAH, AND HIS NEW NOVEL
It’s been 2 lA years since James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, published as a memoir, was denounced as a liar by the queen of daytime television, Oprah Winfrey. The scandal over Frey’s book not only ruined his reputation among readers (the book had by then sold more than 3.5 million copies) but called into question the integrity of the entire book publishing industry. Frey has just released a novel, Bright Shiny Morning, with a new publisher.
Q: How important will Oprah's opinion about this new book be to you? Do you think she might ever trust you again?
A: Um, you know, I don’t really even think about it. If she reads it, cool; if she doesn’t, cool. I don’t expect ever to be back on her show. Q: What if you saw her walking down the street, what would you say to her?
A: I would say hello and be as polite as I needed to be but I can’t imagine that we would have much to talk about. I wish Miss Winfrey the best in everything she does.
Q: After A Million Little Pieces, you lost your agent, were abandoned by friends and peers, shunned by the publishing industry, and cast out as a not-to-be-trusted pariah. How has this life experience changed you?
A: I mean it was an unpleasant experience. I can think of a lot of things in life that would be much worse.
Q: Like what?
A: I mean nobody died; I didn’t lose anybody in my life. My family is okay, my wife and child are great. I’m not a soldier fighting in a war, I’m not sick. There are many, many, many things involved in life that are a much bigger deal than anything I had to deal with. How did it change me as a person? It definitely humbled me; it definitely made me realize how fortunate I am in a lot of ways to have a family who was there, and friends who were there.
Q: Evgenia Peretz [in Vanity Fair/ talked about how it was humiliating to the point where you actually felt driven to go back to the bottle for a while. Is that true?
A: It was hard, sure. I have a history of addiction. Sometimes when you feel things you might want to drink. But I never did. I was never, I felt, in any danger. It was a sh—y situation but you get through it like any other sh—y situation. I mean at no point was I, like, in the corner, huddled up crying. It was a bad couple of months. And there were some really, really hard moments, but you get through them.
Q: You just plowed into the book and didn’t [succumb]?
A: I mean I wrote a movie before I wrote the book. I didn’t start the book until October of 2006.
Q: Was that the Hells Angels movie by [director] Tony Scott?
A: Yes. I don’t know when it’s even getting made or if it’s getting made. I had been hired to write it in 2005 and after everything happened Tony was like, “Well, I still want you to write it. Let’s get to work.” And so I did. I wrote the movie.
Q: You have a fascination with gang life and bikers and tough guys—they’re all in this new book. Did that research from Scott’s movie help you with this book?
A: The bikers in Bright Shiny Morning are absolutely not Hells Angels. I got an interesting education in biker culture writing the Hells Angels movie. I had a lot of fun hanging around with some of the members of the club.
Q: Why are you interested in Hells Angels?
A: They’re rebels. They do what they want, when they want. They don’t care about what people think about them.
Q: Kind of like you. Didn’t you hang out with the Top Dog of the club?
A: I met Sonny Barger on a number of occasions and he’s a really cool, funny, very, very smart guy. It was a real honour to get to hang out with him. Sonny’s had a really interesting life. He’s an American hero to millions of people. He’s 69, maybe 70. He’s the founder of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels.
Q: But they’re tough guys and you portray a lot of tough dudes in your novels, including even yourself in A Million Little Pieces.
A: I’m nowhere near as tough as any Hells Angel on the planet.
Q: Let me see your [right wrist] tattoo?
A: Those are my daughter’s initials.
Q: How many tattoos do you have?
A: Ten, 15—I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about my tattoos.
Q: While labelled as fiction, your novel is strewn with factoids about Los Angeles. It seems more akin to the non-literary fiction style of contemporary American pros like Joan Didion or the Mailers of the world. Were you going for something like that here?
A: Mailer wrote books that were I think revolutionary in how they sort of blurred the lines between what is fiction and what is nonfiction. In the book, the novel, the first sentence says, “Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable.” Some of it might be; some of it might not be. But nothing should be considered anything but fiction. And I mean, yeah, it’s a very deliberate blurring of the line. I knew I was doing it, and I knew it would be a complicated thing for me to do because of my previous history. But that’s even more reason to do it.
Q: Explain that a bit further.
AI mean theoretically, because it’s a novel, it’s all fiction. I use non-fictional elements in a fictional book but they should still be considered fiction.
Q: You have more freedom now to do what you want because of this label. Shouldn’t that have happened the first time around? It just seems so easy.
A: I can’t discuss that. You know, there were mistakes made with how the first two books [A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard] were published. Many of the mistakes were mine. There are no mistakes in this book. It’s very clearly labelled.
Q: You have a knack for character development and rich descriptives—everything from the way [characters] Dylan and Maddie named their moped “The Agent,” “because it functions as their real estate agent, shuttling them from one appointment to another”; to the bum who loves his Chablis—all these incongruous types. How does that come to you? Do you do research on that?
A: No, my research was that I lived in L.A. for eight years and then I just wanted to write about a sort of diverse group of people in a massively diverse city. You can’t tell the story of that city with a single character, I don’t believe. So I tried to choose characters that sort of represented different aspects of the city’s culture. As far as character development, I just sit down and try to write about a person. I try to invent a complete person. But I don’t do a lot of prep work; I don’t frankly even read the stuff I write after I write it. I try to be very, very careful and meticulous and deliberate the first time I write something, and then I move forward. I don’t selfedit as I go along. And then when I’m done with the book, I usually only rewrite or look at what the editor asks me to look at. And frankly, in my free time, I’d rather read other people’s books than my own.
Q: Like who?
A: I love this guy named Charlie Huston. I love Norman Mailer, Don Delillo, Bukowski, Henry Miller, Brett Easton Ellis.
Q: I hear that Mailer is somewhat of a mentor and a hero to you.
A: I would say a bit of both. I was privileged to get to spend a little bit of time with Norman about a year before he passed away. He was very generous and cool to me. He said, “You know, don’t worry about what people say to you; don’t worry about what people say about you or write about you. Worry about your work. The books are what matter. Nothing else does.” It helped me focus. He talked about having to go through controversies in his own life, and his own career, and how if you just worry about words on the page you get through it. It was reassuring that a guy who was as great a writer as Norman was willing to sit down with me and talk with me and give me advice.
Q: How did you get to meet him?
A: We had a mutual friend who put us together—a rare book dealer. That was at the end of 2006.1 was maybe a month or two into [Bright Shiny Morning]. I spoke to him on more than one occasion but we had a single lunch at his apartment in Brooklyn Heights. We spent most of an afternoon together. It was amazing.
Q: So how about your book tour, how many stops?
A: Maybe eight or 10. One Canadian stop in Toronto. There might be another tour later but right now my wife’s having a child in the middle of June. I’m very restricted in terms of how long I can tour.
Q: You don’t really say too much about your wife, Maya. How was she a support to you in that rough time? How long had you been together from the making of A Million Little Pieces to the fallout?
A: I don’t talk about Maya and I rarely talk about [my three-year-old daughter] Maren, very deliberately. I try to keep that part of my life to myself, but we had been together for a number of years before A Million Little Pieces was published, and certainly before the controversy.
Q: How was that for [Maya], having to deal with you telling her about your past?
A: The situation was difficult for all of us. She was very cool and very supportive.
Q: How do you now feel about A Million Little Pieces? Do you love it? Or is it your nemesis—is there part of you that hates looking at this cover?
A: Both. And neither. It’s just a book I wrote. I’m proud of the book I wrote. I just try to write a good book. I try to make a reader feel something, entertain a reader. Those are the only goals. When I wrote A Million Little Pieces I wrote the best book I could at the time. I’m happy that a lot of people have got-
ten something out of it. That’s really what means the most to me. I made some mistakes in how I publicized it, in how I marketed it— some real mistakes. But I’m still proud of what I wrote.
Q: Are you expecting a rash of naysayers to fact check the new book despite its label?
A: Of course. It’s already happening. The book’s going to get picked apart. We knew that.
Q: You’ve heard the comments recently on the media gossip site Gawker, I’m sure.
A: Actually I haven’t.
Q: Basically they’re already trying to have ago at you—even before the book’s been released. Is it just water off your back?
‘My life now is different in a lot of ways—it’s much more guarded. The number of people I trust is much smaller.1
A: I’m a human being and I feel things. Sometimes comments made about me hurt me, but at the same time there’s nothing I can do about them. You accept them. You accept the good and you accept the bad. It doesn’t mean I’m going to let them affect what I do or how I do it. I have no interest in fighting anybody, and I’m perfectly comfortable with my position as sort of an outsider. I’m not begging to be part of anything. I’m going to write my books and hopefully people read them and hopefully people enjoy them. That’s what matters.
Q: How did you research the facts about LA?
A: I had some L.A. history books, there are a number of sites online that have L.A. history on them. And when I couldn’t find a fact I wanted I just made it up.
Q: You appear to be having fun when you list the “fun facts” about L.A. It’s almost a whimsical distraction from the fictional vignettes. Can we play a game where I list various facts from the book and you tell me if they are fact or fiction?
A: I’ll try if I remember.
Q: Okay. The non-profit hospital for the marginalized in L.A.? Does it exist?
A: I have no idea.
Q: The “Talk and Tequila” singles event?
A: I have no idea. Completely made up.
Q: “It is illegal in Pasadena for a male boss to be alone in a room with a female secretary.”
A: I think that’s actually accurate but I’m not sure; it might be fake.
Q: “Every year, at 8p.m. on the second Saturday of July, hundreds of people gather along a
section of the Los Angeles rail track to drop their pants and moon passing passenger trains?”
A: I actually think that’s true. I’m pretty sure—but don’t hold me to it.
Q: Your new character, Amberton Parker, is a flamboyant, vain, closeted, metrosexual superstar who goes to the spa and likes to wax. Do you like grooming, personal pampering or going to the gym?
A: I don’t really care about any of those things. With that character I just tried to tell a story about an extreme person who had extreme privilege and extreme wealth, and how those things can change someone, how those things can corrupt.
Q: Your publicist was really insistent that you have a groomer here for this interview. [Frey sent her away.] So that’s not you?
A: No, I couldn’t give a s-t. You can see I don’t wear fancy clothes; I don’t have a fancy haircut; I don’t wear any jewellery or a watch. None of that stuff means anything to me.
Q: What would you say to somebody who might have been a friend, someone who abandoned you after the scandal, yet now tried to come back in light of a successful new book?
A: I would say, “thank you.” I have no inter-
est in being judgmental or being angry. My life is different in a lot of ways—one thing is it’s much more guarded. The number of people I trust is much smaller. I don’t want to go through my life fighting people or harbouring resentments or dealing with anger. I accept what people did and I understand in many ways why things happened the way they happened. I’m not going through my life right now mad at a bunch of people because of A Million Little Pieces or My Friend Leonard. Mistakes were made and many, many, many of those mistakes were made by me. I understand that.
Q: What about this art gallery you just opened?
A: That’s just me and a couple of buddies, Andy Spade and a guy named Bill Powersjust for fun.
Q: Is that actor David Spade’s brother and purse princess Kate Spade’s husband?
A: Yes. There’s an art organization that provides art for children’s hospitals and they had this office space and they were only using half of it, so they asked if we wanted to use the other half. So we said sure and we have a little gallery in half this space. That’s why we call it Half Gallery—it’s just to put up artists who we know or like and it’s just for fun. I don’t consider myself an art dealer or a gallerist.
I have to go back to this Vanity Fair article about what went down [in 2006]. A: I can’t discuss it at all. Q: Did Vanity Fair go against your terms by talking about it?
A: I never spoke to them about it.
Q: Apparently Oprah stated to Vanity Fair that she never told you, after [your appearance on her] show, “I know it was rough but it’s just business. ” In its June issue she tells Vanity Fair:
“Once again the truth is not being served here. ” I think it’s important that you address that.
A: I’m just not going to comment on Oprah or anything Oprah said. I don’t do that with anyone. I didn’t do it for Vanity Fair either.
Q: Tell me about your book tour. You’re doing something in LA. at the infamous Whisky a Go Go with music?
A: For the tour overall I’m just trying to do something different, to present my readers with a different kind of experience. So in L.A. I’m going to be playing with an awesome heavy metal band called Black Tide. We’re going to do the event together—they’ll play and I’ll read—not at the same time. And [photographer] Terry Richardson and [artist] Richard Prince and I—they’re both friends of mine—decided to do a book together. So we did sort of a scaled-down version of Bright Shiny Morning that has pictures and art that Terry and Richard created. It’s a limited edition. There are five that come with actual photographs. Richard and Terry are guys whose work is collected by art collectors. To buy the actual work it’s going to be expensive—there’ll be a hardback edition of the book that’s $150 and a paperback that’s $75-
Q: So your one Canadian date, which is June 3 in Toronto—is there going to be a rock band there too?
A: I don’t think so.
Q: Why does Canada have to miss out on the rock experience?
A: The only two places getting the rock experience are San Francisco and L.A.—I knew I had access to bands there. I don’t know any bands in Canada. I could try to get one for you if you want. Or if you know of any metal bands or rock bands that want to do it, tell them to give me a call. Tell them to go through Facebook.
Q: There’s a theme that repeats itself in your writing which is about deliverance and redemption. Do you look at this new book as your own shot at redemption?
A: I’m not pinning so much on one thing. I hope it’s another chapter in a longer story.
Q: A successful one?
A: I hope so. We’ll see. I hope I write a lot more books and I hope I have more opportunities to release the books. The past is the past.
Q: So what do you hope this book will dohow do you want it to go down in the annals of contemporary literature?
A: I hope people think of it as a great book about a great city. I hope it’s read in 50 years. Obviously I don’t know if it will be, but I hope it is. I tried to write a book that was unlike anything anyone else had ever written in how it was conceived and how it was built and executed, in the scope of it, in the vastness of it. And we’ll see if people think it works or not.