A Favor From a Fabricator

By Martha Sherrill
Tuesday, January 17, 2006

I have some sympathy for James Frey, the author accused of fabricating parts of his bestselling memoir, "A Million Little Pieces." I planned to write a memoir once, too. Six years ago I sold a book proposal for one to a major publishing house. It was going to be about my father, a flamboyant California bachelor with an endless string of girlfriends, and what it was like to be a girl growing up in his unconventional world.

I'm still paying back the nice advance I received for that book. I reached a point where I realized that writing a memoir would hurt too many people, that I could only tell the story faithfully if I were freed from the rules of nonfiction, the first of which is: Tell the truth. Eventually I sold another book proposal, for a novel based loosely on my own story.

Where I went from nonfiction to fiction, James Frey took the opposite tack. He started off writing a novel based on his life as an addict. As he told Larry King this week, it was only after shopping that book around to various publishers and not finding any takers that he switched to a memoir.

It must be tough to have people question a story that's mostly true.

Or partly true. Or true quite often, except in "certain cases" where things were, as Frey puts it, "toned up" or "toned down." He says he stands 100 percent by "the essential truth" of his memoir, which is kind of like standing 100 percent by a bucket with a dozen holes in it.

But, as I was saying, I have sympathy for Frey. Some have suggested that since he has these fictional tendencies, maybe he should have stuck with novel writing. Then he wouldn't have all these people calling him a liar. What they don't realize is we novelists are also hounded by a truth squad, albeit a truth squad of a very different sort.

When readers learn a work of nonfiction is partly fictional, they get angry. But when they hear a work of fiction is autobiographical -- i.e. that it has nonfictional elements -- they get excited. Very excited. They ask endless questions, demanding to know which parts of the novel are "real."

My book isn't even out yet. But I've already started hearing from people who assume it's all thinly disguised fact. They sort of wink at me, like they're on to my ruse.

"Did you really smoke dope with your dad?" my friend Ann asked me the other day. I had given her an advance copy.

Frey and I are in the same predicament. We both look slippery. He insists he's not fabricating and people don't believe him. I insist I am -- and nobody believes me. When I stand by the essential untruth of my novel, the world scoffs. They think my bucket is full of holes.

Here's where Frey and I part company. He and other nonfiction authors who embellish their life stories with fiction get to have it both ways. By calling their work nonfiction (which, strictly speaking, it isn't), they get to astound people twice. When Frey book's came out, his story was so packed with stunning events and details that it caused a sensation.

And now that some of those details turn out to be fabricated, it's a sensation all over again.

Oprah Winfrey said that when she and her staff first read the memoir, it made them cry. And when she found out it wasn't all true, the news caused her to call Larry King on-air. The fictionalized memoir appears to be a publicist's dream.

In the end, I wouldn't want to be in Frey's shoes. But I do think there's a way he may be helping novelists everywhere. Once they're over their shock and sense of betrayal, Frey's readers might come to realize the fictional bits were some of the best moments in his book -- that without those thrilling embellishments it would have been just another true story.

And maybe next time they go to the bookstore, they'll decide to try the real thing: an honest-to-God novel.

Martha Sherrill's novel, "The Ruins of California," will be published this month.

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