Controversial novelist James Frey talks to Decca Aitkenhead about truth, fiction and his new book The Final Testament of the Holy Bible.
James Frey sprawls on his back along the couch, knees bent with one tucked over the other, his laptop propped between midriff and thighs. He hits a key and the computer bursts into noisy punk music—the Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant—so loud that I can hardly hear him when he nods towards the TV and says: “Oh, and that would normally be on as well.”
Typing with two fingers, he mouths each sentence aloud before committing it to the page, looking for all the world like a semiliterate teen with attention-deficit issues posting idle nonsense on Facebook.
“So this,” he says, “is how I write a book.”
I doubt if many bestsellers have been produced like this—but that’s not what the blurb for his new novel means when it says: “James Frey is not like other writers.” It is, of course, referring to the frenzy of scandal that engulfed Frey after his first book appeared in 2003, making him both a literary rock star and a pariah.
Published as a memoir of the author’s addiction to, and recovery from, crack cocaine and crystal meth, A Million Little Pieces, was at first fêted as an inspirational work of blistering honesty, confirmed by a swooning endorsement from no less than Oprah Winfrey.
Then all hell broke loose in 2006 when it turned out that Frey had made parts of it up. Lawsuits were filed by readers declaring themselves cheated, refunds were issued, Frey was dropped by his publisher and agent and had to flee to France for a while to escape the mayhem.
In due course he returned to New York, where he lives with his wife and two young children, and published a novel in 2008 that was broadly well received. So you might have thought that the waves of scandal would be subsiding by now—and there is certainly no ambiguity about the status of his new book, which is published as a novel and purports to be nothing more or less.
It’s not about me
But the novel is called The Final Testament of the Holy Bible and is all about the second coming of Christ, who returns to Earth as a promiscuous bisexual drug user who performs euthanasia, approves of abortion, impregnates a prostitute and preaches a gospel in which there is no afterlife, no holy judgment and no supernatural deity, only love. As if that wasn’t provocative enough, it will be released in the United States on Good Friday.
The book turns out to be nothing like as self-consciously contrived as it might sound and is infinitely more enjoyable—a gently humorous, surprisingly plausible, rather charming read. Getting its author to talk about its meaning, however, is anything but straightforward.
Everything about Frey (41) is a studied disavowal of a conventional author promoting his work. He seldom smiles, let alone laughs, and will often answer questions with a monosyllabic yes or no, which can make him seem quite hostile—but then he will suddenly elaborate on a theme, talking very slowly in a languid, almost lisping drawl disconcertingly at odds with his intense burning stare. It’s just that what he says can sometimes be deliberately tricky to pin down.
At first he tells me he doesn’t believe in God—but then says he does sometimes—so I ask if he’d like the version he describes in the book to exist.
“Well,” he drawls, “there are plenty of people on Earth who think they’re the Messiah”—which is true, but not terribly illuminating.
“People read the book and think it’s 100% what I believe. But if you were interviewing a guy who wrote a book about a serial killer you would probably not ask him if he really dreams about cutting people up, would you? It’s just the work.
“See,” he goes on, “the thing about my books is I don’t want to say, ‘This is what I did, this is what I was trying to do’, because ultimately I very much believe it’s not my job to tell readers what the point is or what the message is. When I go to an art gallery and stand in front of a painting, I don’t want someone telling me what I should be seeing or thinking; I want to feel whatever I feel, see whatever I see and figure out what I figure out. And the reader should be able to read the book and think for themselves.”
‘I don’t like people fucking with me’
He first had the idea of writing a bible more than 15 years ago. “In America we hear this shit all the time—the end of days is coming, the Messiah is coming—so I’ve always thought, well what would people do if the Messiah did show up? What would that person be like?”
If the book causes offence, he insists that this is entirely incidental and not his intention. “It’s just not a concern.”
Would he be concerned if the novel failed to cause any offence at all?
“Nah,” he shrugs. “Nah, I’d be kind of happy. ‘Cos I don’t like protesters outside my door and I don’t like people fucking with me and I don’t like getting hassled. I’ve had that my whole career and it’s not that fun.”
Critics might wonder why he has written a book more or less guaranteed to provoke exactly that response. His British publisher believes that it’s certainly what Frey is expecting and has said: “He anticipates death threats, book burnings and bannings.”
But Frey’s solution is nothing if not inventive for, while the book is being published in the conventional way across Europe, he has refused to release it through a publisher in the US. Instead, he is self-publishing 10 000 copies that will go on sale for $50, and another limited edition of 1 000 copies for $150. The rest will be sold exclusively online, to be downloaded on to digital readers.
” ‘Cos I want to control it,” he says simply. “It gives me total control. I wanted to make the book the way I wanted. When it comes to my work, if I’m going to get blasted for something then I’m going to get blasted ‘cos it’s my own fault. I think as an artist or a writer it’s okay to want to control your own work. I spent two years writing this book. Nobody wrote it for me. Why should I not be allowed to control it? You expect me to be willing to place myself within institutions or systems, or adhere to rules that are arbitrary. But I won’t do it.”
Breaking the rules was always, he says, a big part of his attraction to drugs - as well as his refusal to engage with AA’s 12 Steps programme.
“I always wanted to be the outlaw. And that’s to a certain extent how I’ve lived. When I got sent to rehab I refused to adhere by the rules; I’m sober for 18 years exactly the way I said I’d do it. I will not allow people to impose rules on me that don’t make sense to me. And I live and work very much outside the literary world and the literary system. What they think and what they believe and what their rules are mean nothing to me.”
In that case, why work with European publishers?
“They are respectful of the author as an artist. I have long-standing, stable relationships with publishers who respect what I do and understand that I don’t play by the rules and work in ways that don’t fit into the system and won’t blink in the face of controversy and don’t run away from it. In America that’s not always the case. I think big commercial publishers in the United States don’t want to deal with controversy or firestorm or trouble.”
I had heard, I tell him, that in actual fact no American publisher would go near this book. For once the studied indifference slips and Frey looks stung.
“That is just bullshit. I don’t know who told you that, but it’s their idea of who I am and what I do and they don’t have any idea what I do. It’s pure fiction. It’s pure invention.”
It’s easy to see why his construction of truth in A Million Little Pieces made so little sense to middle America, for it is closer to the register of conceptual art than of daytime TV and a more incongruous readership than Oprah’s audience would be quite hard to imagine. To what extent the culture clash, and ensuing controversy, were a random accident or inevitability is, however, not so clear.
He once said: “I’ve been in conflict with everything for my whole life. That’s the rule, not the exception. Conflict with myself, over ideas of how to live and think, what to think, what to believe. I have to have it. I’m at my best and most comfortable when there is a fight” - so I ask if he thinks that subconsciously he may have willed the whole affair on himself. My guess is that his answer takes us as close to the truth as we’re likely to get.
“This is what I’ll say. Leading up to when the controversy blew up, I started seeing a therapist, ‘cos after the Oprah [endorsement] the book became something I didn’t want it to be - it became this piece of pure non-fiction thought of as a self-help book. So I started seeing this therapist and saying: ‘Man, this is not what I wanted to do, this is not what I wanted to be, I’m having people come up and ask if they can touch me or hug me, if I can save their relative or their spouse. This was supposed to be like a shocking work of art’.
“And then it all blew up and I remember the first time I went in there to see the therapist after it all blew up and he was like, ‘Well, you got what you wished for, how does it feel?’
“So I would say the book ended up being what I wanted it to be. I just never expected it to happen that way.”—