Friday, January 13, 2006

The 'Frey' frenzy

Today National Public Radio's Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane was debating the issue of whether memoirs should be true because of the recent debacle involving James Fray's "memoir" A Million Little Pieces and how some of it had been proven by The Smoking to be utter fabrication. At one point, one of her guest's, Carlo Romano, nonfiction reviewer at The Philadelphia Inquirer stated that Frey's manuscript had been circulated as a novel and turned down by 17 houses until it made its way to the Nan A. Talese imprint at Random House. Apparently, editors at the Talese imprint suggested the book would be better positioned as a memoir. The debate really struck a chord with me because of my own situation with A Son Called Gabrielso I called into the show (she takes live calls) and gave my opinion as a writer.

Basically, when my book was accepted by my publisher they asked me how much of the plot was true because, being set in conservative Northern Ireland and involving the issue of a young boy's struggles with his sexuality, they were chomping at the bit to publish it as 'memoir'. They said, given its Irish setting and the fact that it deals in part with an Irish Catholic boy struggling with homosexuality against the background of 'The Troubles,' the publicist would be able to easily get me tons and tons of media if it were positioned as nonfiction. The downside was, that if I kept it as a novel, it would not attract the attention of the media caught up in the intrigues of a presidential campaign (2004) and that it was nigh to impossible to get radio and TV for fiction, never mind it was an Irish piece of fiction coming out in the US.

In effect, it was boiling down to a 'dollars versus truth' decision. Did I want to take a very good chance that I would earn a lot of money and garner a lot of attention for a memoir entitled 'A Son Called Damian', or was I content to let my first book go out as a novel and risk it getting lost in the roar of the 2004 presidential election campaign? I have never hidden the fact that many scenes in the novel replicate my experiences, but the family is not my family nor is the book's plotline concerning Brendan based on fact. (In the end, I did get a fair amount of publicity and am not complaining.)

It was very tempting at the time to consider pulling a paragraph here and there and re-editing it as a memoir, but I decided I had to be true to myself and to the character I'd created. The truth was I had never intended my book to be a memoir as I understand a memoir to be. As I was writing it, I knew it was falling into a sort of gray area that many books end up in, namely that much of the story had a basis in real life, but there are also many dollops of fiction added to the mix. In fact, I thought about this very same issue a great deal when I was visiting Northern Ireland last year when I stood at the fresh grave of the boy (in my mind he was a boy, though of course he died an adult) who had once seduced me. He'd been 11, I only 7, and it turns out he was also simultaneously interfering with my much younger sister. (He had had a very sad life, went off to live in England, returned to live with a woman--yes, he was heterosexual--and then drank himself to death.) As I stood there looking at the brightly colored flowers and notes from people who'd loved him, my childhood came back in a torrent of recollections; I hadn't seen him since I was eleven, though he has always been at the fringes of my reminiscences about growing up in rural Ireland. (And, in case you are curious as to what I was feeling, I felt neither anger or sorrow for him as I stood at the gravesite on that bleak January day that Ireland seems to excel at producing. I just felt what was reality, that an obscure life had come to an end, that his demons whatever they were had obviously controlled his life and prevented him from reaching his potential, or maybe the life he'd lived was his true potential--sometimes, in our zeal to see that all humans have great potential, we fail to recognize that some do not.)

I'm fairly certain Frey had a similar decision to make about his book and, in his case, must have decided to subordinate his conscience and thus was happy enough to gussy it up and send it out as a memoir. My opinion is that a memoir should be factual, though times and names may be changed on occasions for legal or to suit the flow of the narrative, and there should be no exaggeration or embellishment. I think it's a shame that the lure of the dollar outweighs all else in some cases, that people are quite willing to subordinate their reputations in order to earn millions or win tremendous fame. Also sad is the attitude of a lot of Americans who stated they don't care whether he told the truth or not. We seem to be living in a culture that's sliding if not in actual decline, that what is base, false or stupid is lauded, and we haven't truly realized that collectively yet. We're living in a culture where the truly dumb is celebrated, where education and critical thinking is no longer aspired to by the masses.

One point came up in the interview that struck me as would a slap in the face. It was a comparison between Frey and Judge Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court nominee, and it was very much on point. The issue revolved around Alito's failure to remember the facts surrounding his membership of a very exclusionary and conservative alumni association (Concerned Alumni of Princeton) during his years at Princeton. Apparently, Romano, who was at Princeton a few years after Alito, stated that this association was not of the kind one drifted into, and thus membership of which one could not forget or dismiss as of no consequence. He stated one had to take active steps to join and thus one could not, by that circumstance alone, forget one's membership. This actuality, combined with the fact that Alito boasted about it in the eighties during a job application for a position in the Regan administration, would seem to indicate he has put his personal ambition and desire to be a member of the US Supreme Court above the need to tell the absolute truth. If this is true, is he not indeed a symbol of what is wrong in society today? And should he become a Justice of the Supreme Court, does this not make his judgments forever defective and nonbinding--regardless as to whether they are conservative or liberal leaning--because they would be fruit of a 'poisoned tree,' a legal principle the judge would well be familiar with from his law school days....unless, of course, he's forgotten.

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Sinéad said...

Damien, I applaud your integrity as a writer and the decision to immerse yourself in your character, at the risk of less profile for your book.
Every writer borrows extensively from their own experience and utilises (and sometimes exploits) memory for the benefit of their narrative. Without getting in to a philosophical debate, perhaps the real truths of your book could only have been expressed in fiction.

I've got your book next on my pile to read (after Rick Moody's The Diviners which I have to read for work) and I look forward to it immensely.

Today I am trying to write an outline for the book I've wanted to write for a long time. I feel 1% excitement and 99% fear. Fear and self-censorship have been holding me back to date so I will no doubt be stopping back for some sage-like advice.

Damian McNicholl said...

Thanks for the comment, Sinead. I agree every writer does borrow extensively from their own experience.

Good luck as you embark on the outline. Fear is good because it will drive you to create a great work after you overcome the hurdle of its holding you back initially. And the 1% of excitement will quickly mushroom during the writing and discovery process.