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Writing a memoir in a post-Frey world

Memoirists face the readers’ ultimate question: ‘Why should I believe you?’
/ Source: The Associated Press

Danielle Trussoni, author of “Falling Through the Earth,” expects to hear this question while promoting her memoir this spring: “Why should I believe your story? Why should I believe anything that’s written in any memoir?”

“It’s just my luck to be touring at this time,” Trussoni, whose book relates her father’s experiences as a “tunnel rat” in the Vietnam War, says with a laugh, referring to James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” and the revelations that parts of his addiction memoir were fabricated.

Fairly or not, the discrediting of “A Million Little Pieces” has burdened all memoirists, especially those like Trussoni, first-time authors with dramatic stories to tell. Although authors and publishers insist that the overwhelming majority of memoirs are written with honest intent, such books are now more likely to be presumed untrue.

“My dad is very ill right now [with cancer], and I was talking the other day with a social worker from the hospice,” says Trussoni, whose father spent the war crawling through tunnels, searching for enemy guerrillas. “And when I told her about what I was writing, she said, ‘Oh, I know what memoirs mean. You just make it all up.’ It’s shocking that people who aren’t in the literary community have such a reaction now.”

‘I invite the public to check my facts’Terri Jentz, author of “Strange Piece of Paradise,” knows she has written just the kind of story people are likely to pick apart. She recounts a bike trip from 30 years ago, when she and a friend camped out in rural Oregon, only to be attacked by an ax-wielding man, and, miraculously, survive. No arrests were made and Jentz’s book chronicles her efforts to find the killer.

“All I can say is that I invite the public to check my facts,” says Jentz, who conducted numerous interviews and relied on extensive documentation for her book, coming out in May from Farrar, Straus & Giroux with a print run of 150,000 copies.

The ax attack made national news at the time and was even mentioned in a poem by Robert Pinsky, “An Explanation of America.” Noting that Frey had acknowledged making up details because he thought his book would improve, Jentz hopes to convince readers that you don’t need to lie, but you do need to work. She recalls Frey saying that he had changed the details of a girl’s suicide. In his book, she hung herself. In real life, Frey said, she slashed her wrists.

“I would have explored why she chose to slash her wrists, as opposed to some other method,” says Jentz, who notes that through her research she came upon numerous disturbing facts for her book. “I would used that inquiry to uncover a deeper truth.”

John Sterling, president and publisher of Henry Holt, which is releasing Trussoni’s book, anticipates a period when the public will be “uncertain how to read a memoir.” He says that “many of these kinds of stories have enormous emotional impact, and if one wonders whether the stories are true, we don’t know if they’ll have as much impact.”

Trussoni, Jentz and other memoirists say their publishers have been supportive and have not asked for additional information. Bruce Tracy, editorial director of Villard, says one of his authors, Janice Erlbaum, did everything short of “offering X-rays” for her memoir, “Girlbomb,” about growing up “halfway homeless” in New York City.

“I told her not to worry about it,” Tracy says. “She’s been incredibly upfront all along and I have no reason not to believe her.”

Too good not to be trueAnother debuting memoirist, Beryl Singleton Bissell, has written “The Scent of God,” published by Counterpoint and, apparently, too good to be fake. Bissell’s book tells of her entering a New Jersey monastery at age 18, only to fall in love with an Italian priest, Vittorio Bosca, and marry him after a decade-long affair.

“When I first started writing my memoir, I talked with a number of other writers who advised me that because my story was so extraordinary, that unless I wrote it as a memoir, people were not going to believe it,” she says. “It’s too far-fetched for fiction.”

Most memoirs include some kind of disclaimer, usually one resembling the statement in Trussoni’s book: “I have reproduced these stories as accurately as possible. In order to spare the feelings of acquaintances, I have changed the names and physical characteristics or minor characters. The names of major characters have not been changed.”

Bissell’s book has no disclaimer. The author says all names and places have been retained, including the Monastery of Saint Clare, in Bordentown, N.J. “She was a member of our community,” says Sister Natalie, a former abbess of the Saint Clare monastery. “And Beryl was here and interviewed us about the contents of her book. She seemed to be very interested in making sure she got things right.”

Jentz’s note acknowledges minor “liberties” — conversations edited for clarity, names and identifying characteristics altered to protect privacy — but otherwise reads more like an anti-disclaimer: “I have written a completely factual book,” she states. “This is not a novelized nonfiction account. Although it is allowable in memoir to imagine beyond what one actually remembers. ... I have not done so here.”

Janice Erlbaum, whose memoir comes out in March, offers a thorough and conversational disclaimer. In “Girlbomb,” Erlbaum writes of being on her own in New York City beginning at age 15, leading a life of sex, drugs and violence. While Frey has said that he sensationalized his life, Erlbaum’s note suggests she did the opposite.

“This is a work of narrative nonfiction,” Erlbaum writes. “Names and identifying details have been changed, and some major characters are composites. Dialogue has been re-created, and certain events are presented out of order. I had to leave out a lot of the good stuff. Sorry.”