The truth will set you free. But the lies will make you a millionaire.

A lot of people have asked me over the last two weeks what I think of author James Frey’s revelations that he made up sizable parts of what he claimed was his memoir, “A Million Little Pieces.” They’re asking me in part because I’m both a novelist (fiction) and a columnist (nonfiction), and in part because they want to know what sorts of things a person can make up, claim really happened, and then put in a book and make a mint.
Frey did make a fortune. “A Million Little Pieces” was the second best-selling title in 2005, outselling every book but “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” (a book that is all true except for that hogwash about the mistreatment young Mr. Potter endured at the hands of the Dursleys. I know the Dursleys, and I can assure you that J.K. Rowling sensationalized Harry’s relationship with the family to sell books).
Moreover, Frey is only part of a larger trend: The blurring between fact and fiction, and the license that some writers feel they may take with their stories.
So, here’s my advice.
Do not fabricate anything that should leave a paper trail. Reporters can easily check whether you actually flew the space shuttle or played center for the Boston Celtics. It is much more difficult for us to determine whether you slept with Mick Jagger.
If you want to claim responsibility for criminal actions, don’t even hint you were busted. It’s one thing to imply that your glass of Chardonnay every night before dinner eventually transformed you into a writhing crack addict with nary a shred of self-respect; it’s another to suggest that your alleged crack addiction led you to sell your 2005 BMW to an undercover police officer for a crack pipe and two rocks.
Avoid tales that will have obvious witnesses — or, at least, witnesses who spend most of their lives sober. It’s easy to bring down the memoirist who claims she once lectured at Yale. Or was an official “American Idol.” And while there might be witnesses if you slept with an aging but still (apparently) charismatic rock star, your word is going to be as good as theirs.
I hope that helps.
Now, I know some people don’t see what Frey did as a major crime. It probably isn’t. Certainly it’s not up there with, say, actually selling crack cocaine to elementary school children.
But I also believe that he violated the trust of his editors, his readers, and (yes) Oprah Winfrey.
When something is called a memoir, we presume it’s true. Or at least as true as memory allows a writer. It might not be as accurate as a copiously researched history of the First World War, but if a writer says he knew Winston Churchill, we believe him.
My columns are nonfiction, and two weeks ago, I wrote about a wonderful woman named Wanda Goodyear who passed away in Lincoln on New Year’s Day. Imagine if you were to discover that the woman never existed. I just made her up and eulogized her to wring a tear or two from your eyes and fill my weekly 675 words.
I’d be pretty snarky. And you’d feel pretty used.
Or view it the other way: Imagine if I tried to pass off parts of my novels as “real.” Or “based on a true story.” I can’t tell you how many movie producers have asked me over the years whether one of my books was based on a true story. OK, I can. A lot.
Some folks, I know, argue that it doesn’t matter if memoirists embellish their stories if they are getting at great universal truths. I don’t agree. The goal is to get at those great universal truths either with fiction so authentic and precise that we suspend our disbelief and are genuinely moved, or with a real story. One that really happened.
It’s a little more difficult, of course. But honesty usually is.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press, January 22, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “The truth will set you free. But the lies will make you a millionaire.

  1. Sarah Linton says:

    Dear Chris: I met you in a retail store in Burlington before Christmas and subsequently helped you pick out a jacket for your daughter, based on the mere fact that I am the mother of three girls the same age as yours. Mixed in the conversation of whether or not prints are better then the more traditional “color” scheme, I asked you if you had read this book-A Million Little Pieces” yet, and I raved about how great it was, blah blah blah. Later that same day I went and picked up your newest novel that you told me about-“Before you Know Kindness”. I had just finished both of Frey’s books in a matter of a week, (I am a engrossed reader) and needed something a little more mellow to counter act the powerful “memoirs” I had just read. I have been happily reading your newest book (which I have read them all) and am VERY much enjoying it-the perspective of Willow and Charlotte on their lives-their actions and most importantly-the value of honesty-is done with incredible skill and respect. So, needless to say, when I started to read your column in Sunday’s BFP I was shocked, because I had no idea about this “Smoking gun” blog about Frey’s book etc. I had to investigate (god love Google!) and was really deflated when I read the smokinggun article. Here, I had talked up this book to an incredible author like yourself, like I was some kind of literary critic extrodinare…and the book isn’t the whole truth-so here is my two cents-is what Frey did wrong, in my opinion? Yes. Has embelishment and dishonesty to gain popularity something new? Unfortunatly, no. Did I enjoy the two books by Frey? yes. Did I beleive them through and through? No. Do I think that maybe he wrote them as he percieved the events to have happened? Maybe.
    Most importantly though, what struck me in your article on Sunday, was this-honesty while always the more difficult road-no matter how old you are-is always the best policy. I did not get to the “coming clean” (by Charlotte and Catherine)portion of Before You Know Kindness until last night-and I was very pleased with your message there-that fiction or not, the message of honesty being the envelope to set someone free is a very powerful point and done very well on your part.
    Again, thank you for reading this, and thank you for continuing to write. Also, I hope your daughter liked the color jacket etc-
    Sarah Linton
    Burlington Vermont

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