Book World: 'Bright Shiny Morning'
Tuesday, May 20, 2008; 3:00 PM
" Bright Shiny Morning is both a capsule history of Los Angeles and a fictional census of hundreds of its current citizens. The novel alternates between brief milestones in L.A. history, moving chronologically from its founding in 1781 to the year 2000, and countless episodes set in the present (and related in the present tense, which gives them a nervy energy). Some current Angelenos get only a few lines: Allison, an aspiring model, 'moved to Los Angeles at 18 to become a Playboy Bunny. Now 19, she works in porn.' Some get a paragraph or two, and others a few pages. We get the extended stories of only four representative characters, endlessly interrupted but never intersecting, which gives the novel just enough cohesion to keep it from looking like a kaleidoscopic collage."
Frey's previous book, A Million Little Pieces, a best-selling memoir of his struggles with substance abuse, stirred up controversy in the publishing world two years ago when he admitted having fabricated parts of it. Bright Shiny Morning, his novel, is set in diverse, gritty Los Angeles.
A transcript follows.
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James Frey: Hi, this is James Frey. I'm happy to be here today with you and the Washington Post. Thanks to the Post for having me and you for checking this out. Hope you have fun, have a good day.
Los Angeles, Calif.: Good morning and thanks for taking my question. I'm a native Angeleno, but also interested in New York City. I'm wondering how you would compare the two cities since you lived in LA and now live in New York. What would you say are the advantages and disadvantages of each? Do you prefer one over the other?
James Frey: I love both cities. They are totally different. Everything is centralized in NY, nothing in LA. The weather stinks in NY, great in LA. One is much faster than the other. I could live or be happy in either.
W. Orange, N.J.: Bright Shiny Morning = Edgar Lee Masters + John Dos Passos + Nathanael West. Fair enough?
James Frey: I'll certainly take it. Thank you very much.
Washington, D.C.: I am so looking forward to reading your book. I truly enjoyed "A Million Little Pieces" and "My Friend Leonard." I am sure a lot of thought and editing goes into the process, but it seems so "stream of consciousness." How much of it actually is your stream of consciousness and how much is a "writing style?"
James Frey: Thank you.
The books are written very deliberately. Sometimes it comes easily, sometimes not. Either way, I try to be very careful about the words and the punctuation, or lack thereof. I also never really read my own writing, so I try to make it perfect the first time through.
Memphis, Tenn.: James, how are you enjoying your reading tour so far?
James Frey: I'm having a ball on my tour. The events in NY, LA and SF were awesome. It's great to be out there again, I feel very lucky to be doing it.
New York, N.Y.: Why would anyone want to read anything this fraud has to write? I only wish he left our good city and crawled under the rock from where he came.
James Frey: I hope we meet someday so I can shake your hand and give you a big hug.
Arlington, Va.: Your blog is pretty interesting and random! Can you tell us about what role blogging plays in your writing life? And where did the name "Big Jim Industries" come from?
James Frey: Blogging and writing books are totally different. I'm very careful with one, not so much with the other. And I do my blog with a friend. We each put up posts. To do a blog right, it's too much to do while I'm also writing books, so I have help. Mostly I just want people who come to my site to be entertained.
Washington, D.C.: The 1998 movie you wrote, Kissing A Fool, was lambasted by critics. How did that experience affect you? Any plans to do more screenplays?
James Frey: It helped me develop pretty thick skin. I may write more movies. Depends on if something cool or interesting comes along. I like writing movies, so I hope something does.
Colorado: I read A Million Little Pieces. Although the punctuation, or lack thereof, drove me crazy, I enjoyed the story and probably would have read it even if it had been published as a novel because it transported me into a world I know little about. However, it ticked me off that you misled people by calling it non-fiction so I returned it to the store.
I hope Bright Shiny Morning has as much edge to it. I'm headed to Barnes and Noble to read the first few pages to see if it's a page turner like MLP.
James Frey: I understand your anger. I've tried to apologize and acknowledge my mistakes. I hope, though, that you dig the new book, and thanks for giving it a chance.
Washington, D.C.: I know you suffered many slings and arrows regarding your last book, but I just wanted to say that "A Million Little Pieces" was one of my favorite reads in recent years. True or not, it was a great piece of American literature. Thank you.
James Frey: Thank you, thank you, thank you. That is really all I ever wanted, was for all of my books to be considered literature.
New York, New York: How do you view your public persona vs. personal persona?
How much do you think about your readers when you write?
James Frey: I think about my readers when I write. I sort of place myself in their position. I read every day. I love books that entertain me, inform me in some way, take risks. As I write I try to write books that I would want to read.
Reader reaction is the most important thing to me. Readers buy the books and support me. I want them to have a good experience.
Freising, Germany: These days, when a person from abroad thinks about Los Angeles, they probably think first about Tinsel Town, and about how many Americans and foreigners are drawn to Los Angeles by the prospect of Hollywood stardom. But has this always been the case? Was there actually a time when Hollywood wasn't the biggest draw in Los Angeles?
James Frey: Hollywood has been a draw since the inception of the film business, sometime around 1910. There is however, massive immigration to LA that has nothing to do with entertainment. One of the things I wanted to do with BSM was open up the idea of LA. Give a broader view of it. It's a massive, diverse, incredible city. Very little of the population is actually involved in entertainment in any way
Newtown, Pa.: I am reading your new book and again am loving every page as I did with your other two books. You are a truly gifted writer and I already can't wait for your next book. Have you started writing another book yet?
James Frey: Thank you.
I have started a new book. I have the story and have written about the first ten pages of it. Will be about a man in NY who believes he speaks to God, and believes he is the Messiah. Hopefully the reader won't be sure, that there will be a case that is he is, and a case that he is just mentally ill. Hoping to finish it next year sometime.
Memphis, Tenn.: How do you manage to write at home? Obviously, there have to be distractions so I'm assuming you must lock yourself up in a room with your computer and some music. And who could keep the door closed when there is a cute little girl wandering around the apartment?
James Frey: I have an office down the street where I work in the morning. When I'm at home, I enjoy the interruptions. A friend of mine, who is also a writer, told me a funny, and true, phrase a while back:
All writers love three things: money, praise and interruptions.
I also feel really lucky to get to see my daughter as much as I do.
New York, N.Y.: It is said that you are connected to the art world. Do you see writing like a visual art?
James Frey: Many of my friends are artists, or art dealers, or art-writers. Art definitely influences what I do in that I always try to look forward, and write in new fresh ways, and also in that my books, the actual text of the books, is laid out in a very specific visual way: no paragraph indentations, chapters that start at either the top or the middle of the page, long stretches of simple dialogue contrasted with pages of dense prose. It's important to me how it looks.
Huntington Beach, Calif.: Where was the photo of the jacket cover taken?
James Frey: I believe it was taken, in the early 90's, at the top of Runyon Canyon, which is in Hollywood.
Tennessee: Having read both AMLP and MFL, and I'm currently reading Bright Shiny Morning, I am curious as to how writing this variety of books challenged you. Was Bright Shiny Morning easier or more difficult to write?
I admire you for continuing on your path as an author. All of your books are brilliant!
James Frey: It was great to write. In many ways it was like writing AMLP. It was just me and the computer. No one cared, no one was waiting to see it, there was no agent, no publisher. It was just me, alone in a room, trying to write the best book I could write, hoping that everything else would work itself out.
Roxborough Park, Colo.: James, while waiting for my copy of the book to arrive I have been reading as many reviews and articles as I can get my hands on. Read an article in Vanity Fair about your meeting with Norman Mailer prior to his death. What was the most significant thing you took away from that day?
James Frey: It was a great honor meeting Mr. Mailer, who is one of my idols. I'll always remember and cherish the time I spent with him. The most important I walked away with was the will to keep writing, and to focus on what was important, which is the books. The books, ultimately, are what matter.
New York, N.Y.: If you weren't a writer what would you be?
James Frey: I have absolutely no idea. I'm not really qualified to do anything else. If I had to something else right now, I'd probably try to become a teacher, which is what my brother does.
New Haven, Conn.: I see - the first line in your book was written for New York - not for me.
Seriously, why the disclaimer? A nod to the Oprah-concocted "controversy"
James Frey: Yeah, it was a nod to the controversy in certain ways. It was also a nod to what I did in the book, which was mix and match fact and fiction, play with how they can be used, what the rules are for using them.
Washington, D.C.: The picture of you the Post has for this chat makes you look like General Zod. That is all I have to say. Good luck with the book.
washingtonpost.com: I think that is the author photo provided by the publisher. However, in Googling Zod I learned he is running for president: Zod2008.com
James Frey: Awesome. I love General Zod.
Orange County, Calif.: James,
I love A Million Little Pieces, My Friend Leonard, and your writing style. My older sister is an addict, and your books brought us even closer together. You were able to make people who have never had to deal with substance abuse see through the eyes of someone struggling to overcome the battles that they live with daily. Regardless of controversy surrounding A Million Little Pieces, I recommend you to everyone.
I admire your courage to continue doing what you love most, and not let people bring you down or put you out.
Keep on truckin'!
James Frey: Thank you. That is one of the things I always wanted to do with that book. My best to you and your sister.
Washington, D.C.: After the memoir fiasco, was it hard to find someone to publish your books? Do you think it should have been?
James Frey: I was worried about it. Absolutely. One of the interesting things about what happened was that no one in Europe cared very much. All of my publishing contracts over there remained intact. I was though, concerned that the book would not get published here. While I was writing BSM, I tried to just push that out of mind and focus on the book. I believed that I could write, and tell stories, and believed that if I did it well enough, the book would find a home. I was very fortunate that it did, and feel honored to be published by Harper/Collins.
New York, N.Y.: Do you start writing your books with the first sentence or in the middle?
James Frey: I start with the first sentence and keep going until the last sentence.
Alexandria, Va.: What do you think of this assertion about your book from the L.A. Times website:
"East Coasters love it because they think it's about Los Angeles; West Coasters don't, because they know it doesn't really reflect L.A. at all."
James Frey: The LA Times had a very specific, and not very favorable, opinion of the book. I respect every critic's right to their opinion. From my perspective, I wrote the book from the POV of a person who lived in LA for eight years and loves the city.
Washington D.C.: Mr. Frey, scandal or not I still think you are a brilliant writer. I understood your situation much more clearly when I read the piece in Vanity Fair. I immediately thought of Tim O'Brien, who so often blurs the lines between fact and fiction. Toni Morrison has also been known to speak to the many complexities of truth and memory. Do these writers influence your work? Who else?
washingtonpost.com: James Frey's Morning After (Vanity Fair, June 2008 issue)
James Frey: I love Morrison and O'Brien. The Things They Carried is a book that has been very influential on me. I also love Henry Miller, Hemingway, Baudelaire, Rimbuad, Kerouac, Bukowski, Norman Mailer, Bret Easton Ellis. And Richard Prince, the visual artist, has been very influential on me.
Arlington, Va.: Hi James, I just want to say, Oprah sucks! I'm excited to read your new book - plan to get to it at the beach this weekend - because I bought it the day it came out, but am currently in the middle of reading something else.
Anyway, I have hopes for its greatness and your success, you're an excellent and inspirational writer. Thanks!
James Frey: I hope you have a great weekend at the beach, and I hope you dig the book. Thanks for the support, I truly appreciate it.
Washington D.C.: Are you a funny guy? It seems like you could be a funny guy..
James Frey: Some of my friends think I'm funny. My wife thinks I'm a dork. I think there are some sections of BSM that are funny. I may, at some point, try to write a big broad comedic book. Have an idea, it would revolve around four guys from Cleveland, which is where I'm from, who travel across the country. Guess we'll see.
Manchester, U.K.: Loved your first two books and am really looking forward to reading the Bright Shiny Morning when it is released here in the UK (where, incidentally, nobody really cared about the Oprah thing). Any plans to come over and promote the book here when it eventually comes out?
Also, were you at all surprised by the extent of the Oprah backlash? Us Brits just watched in disbelief at the whole thing.
James Frey: I'll be in the UK for a couple weeks in early August. Actually coming up to Manchester. I was surprised. It was an incredibly difficult time for me and my family. One of things that really helped was the reaction from Europe, the UK. My publishers and readers over there were incredibly supportive. Eventually, we left the US and went to France for a couple months just to get away from it.
Hope to meet you.
Philadelphia, Pa.: I look forward to reading your book. Yet, if you are presenting a wider view of Los Angeles than just the entertainment world, how much of a wider view are you presenting, since the description mentions modeling and the porn industry, which perhaps are sidelines to the entertainment world? I know you can not present the story of everyone in Los Angeles, but what about the city do you want the reader to learn?
James Frey: The book takes on LA in many many ways. Sections involving modeling and porn are very small, maybe 20 pages out of 500. I tried to write a book that was structured, and built, in a new way, that presented huge amounts of information, and multiple narratives, in a very easy and accessible way.
Harrisburg, Pa.: How do your develop your characters? Do you know people who are like them, or do you research people of that character, or what do you do?
James Frey: I try to write about universal issues, ideas, things that everyone feels in some way. I try to write about love and loss, pain, family, friends, God, ambition, the desire for a better life in some way. I believe if I can tap into these feelings, that the characters will form themselves in the stories.
Minneapolis, Minn.: Did you feel any pressure, after the AMLP debacle, to write a novel that wasn't written from an autobiographical perspective?
To me, AMLP and MFL were reminiscent of Henry Miller's autobiographical style, where plot lines were based in fact and situations were embellished, either for dramatic effect or his own satisfaction. I always read his books thinking he wrote situations the way -he- experienced them, and that's what I love about his work; the style of your first two books seems similar to me.
Was it hard to move away from the autobiographical narrative format?
James Frey: I had always planned on writing BSM. The book had actually been sold before it was written, and the contract for it was cancelled after the controversy. I basically just kept going on the same path I had been on, had planned on walking.
I love Henry Miller. I moved to Paris in my early twenties because he and Hemingway had lit me up. The first time I read Tropic of Cancer was a profound experience for me. I absolutely consider my first two books to be in his Tradition.
New York, N.Y.: You must have many ideas for books. How do you choose or know which to write about?
James Frey: I have a few books in my head, or at least I feel like I do. I just write what feels right for me. For the next book, there may be some influence from Harper/Collins, if they decide they want to publish me again, which I am hoping is this case, but it will also be a book I had planned to write for several years. After the next book, we'll see what I write. Depends on what I'm interested in, what I decide I want to do. I know at some point I'm going write a big historical novel that sweeps across most of the 20th Century, I'm going to write a PI book, and I want to write a book about the Hamptons. Beyond that, we'll see.
Memphis, Tenn.: So, you write without an outline? That must be difficult. How do you reach a point where you can stop thinking and typing and put the story "to rest" for the day?
James Frey: I like writing without an outline. Gives me freedom as I move along. Also makes it more interesting for me. With BSM, I tried to make the book surprising, to make it so a reader would not be able to anticipate what was coming next. I know when I was writing I didn't usually know.
I set quotas every day. For this book it was two pages a day. When I got it my day was done. Sometimes it took two hours, sometimes it took ten.
New York, N.Y.: Is there anything you don't like about your own writing?
James Frey: Aside from when I do it in public, I don't really ever read it.
Oklahoma City, Okla.: Good for you! I was happy to read Janet Maslin's glowing review of your new book. For what it's worth, "A Million Little Pieces" meant a great deal to a recovering addict I know -- you've helped others, and now I think it is fitting that you enjoy some well-deserved honors. Well done.
James Frey: I was really surprised, and honored, by Maslin's review. I couldn't believe it when I read it, and the second I read it I cried for a minute or so.
Glad AMLP helped your friend. I hope they're doing well.
"Facts" in BSM: James,
First, I loved BSM. I read it in three nights. I also learned quite a bit about Los Angeles from the snippets at the start of each section. Where did you do your research for those?
Also, have you encountered any editorial rebuff to your grammatical structure?
BSM is excellent and I did not read MLP, but I read the piece in VF and agree that it probably was made to read more autobiographical by your editors.
James Frey: I got them online, from history books, from a variety of sources. Some of them are entirely fictional.
Before AMLP was published, definitely got some rebuff from editors. Now people just accept that I write the way I write. My editor at Harper/Collins, whose name is Tim Duggan, was very respectful of my style, of my quirks, of my system. Editing this book was fun.
James Frey: Thank you very very much for coming. Thank you for your interest. Thank you for your support. Hope everyone has a great day.
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