James Frey’s third book, “Bright Shiny Morning,” like his first two books, is a work of fiction. Unlike those first two, he’s admitting he made this one up.
He says so on the first page, with one line of type taking up the entire page: “Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable.”
“It was sort of an acknowledgment of the past, and it was also a way to be really clear — this is fiction. Don’t take anything in it literally or too seriously,” Frey told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Tuesday in New York. “I hope you read it and enjoy it.”
It has been two years since Frey’s life as a celebrity writer with a best-selling — and supposedly true — memoir came crashing down in a literary scandal that rocked the publishing industry. His first book, “A Million Little Pieces,” was such a compelling tale of the downward spiral of his alcoholism and drug addiction followed by his ultimate redemption that Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club.
Written in 2003, “A Million Little Pieces” was so successful that Frey got a contract for a sequel, “My Friend Leonard,” which also became a best-seller. But some details of the book came under question, and in 2006, The Smoking Gun Web site published documents showing Frey had almost totally fabricated a car crash and arrest that was a central element. The Web site called his book “A Million Little Lies.”
Frey defended himself at first, both on TODAY and to Larry King on CNN, saying that while he might have embellished some small details, the essential story was true. Then Oprah called him out on her show, telling him, “I feel duped.”
‘Some big mistakes’
Frey winced as he and Vieira watched a video of the Oprah show interview. “Sure, it made me uncomfortable,” he admitted. “It was a really difficult time for me. I’ve made some big mistakes. I’ve tried to move on from them, learn from them, but it was definitely uncomfortable.”
His editor at Doubleday, which published “A Million Little Pieces,” would later say that Oprah ambushed Frey by telling him he was coming in to talk about one subject, then hitting him with her accusations. The publisher was ultimately sued in a class action by readers who claimed they were victims of fraud. Doubleday lost the suit, but to date has paid out less than $30,000 to fewer than 2,000 readers who asked for compensation.
Frey refused to blame Winfrey — or anyone else, for that matter. “It’s Miss Winfrey’s show and it’s her right to do whatever she wants on the show,” he said. “She wanted to have a conversation with me. We had the conversation and I went home. I made some big mistakes with my first two books, and I’ve tried to learn from them and move on.”
Praised by The New York Times, Frey’s “Bright Shiny Morning” is the result of that learning process. It’s a novel about Los Angeles, peopled by 100 characters and revolving around several main characters.
“I’ve always tried to write about universal themes, like love and hope and dreams,” Frey said. “This is a book about dreams, about the American Dream, and sometimes they come true and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they come true and don’t go so well, and you have to get over it. I think it’s a book about universal themes and I hope people will connect to it.”
One aspect of the American Dream is that people get second chances, and Frey acknowledged how lucky he’s been to find a new agent and a new publisher after being dumped by his previous ones. But he said the final judgment on his future is for the public to determine, not him.
Asked by Vieira whether he deserved a second chance, Frey replied, “I don’t think it’s for me to say whether I deserve one or not. Readers and consumers will decide that.” He added: “Frankly, I’m lucky to be here at all. It’s been a hard career at times for me.”
He seemed uncomfortable speaking about the controversy and his disgrace, preferring to concentrate on his new book. But Frey admitted that getting buried in hate mail and reviled in the media was anything but easy.
“It was a rough year. I had a really bad year at work,” he said. “Thankfully, I have an incredibly supportive family and a lot of great friends who stayed with me and helped me get through it. People had strong opinions about the book and I accepted them. And I tried to apologize when I could and I’ve tried to move on. I’m really proud of this book. I hope readers of the previous books will give it a chance and enjoy it.”