Most of us writing nonfiction face the challenge of seeking truth by way of recollection.
Oh, my. Oprah’s brought James Frey back for his Day of Reckoning.
This afternoon, I caught the last 30 minutes of Frey’s second appearance on the American confessional icon's talk show. Memoir’s newest bad boy projected the image of a man who became a better man because he’s admitted to millions of viewers that he lied. He probably wouldn’t have made the admission, or returned for his DOR had it not been for the Internet site The Smoking Gun.
Either way, sales are booming. As I write this column, his controversial book is ranked #5 at amazon.com. His second, the one that picks up where the first left off, is ranked #16. Lying is profitable. So what else is new?
I haven’t read Frey’s book. Didn’t want to. I have loved two substance abusers in my lifetime, serious substance abusers. Both of them died young. Both of them left a trail of sad memories and grief because all who loved them hoped against hope that addiction could be overcome.
I figured if James Frey did happen to be straight while he was doing the book thing, it wouldn’t last long. Forgive me if I have little faith. Being burned on a regular basis tends to make a skeptic of those of us who have wiped up actual vomit, cleaned up bloody wounds from fights, and dealt with a drunk or a druggie when he was going through withdrawal.
I do, however, understand the challenges in finding truth by probing memory and recalling painful events. When I wrote my own memoir about our troubled move to Jacksonville and the bog that formed when our 12-year-old had an illness doctors couldn’t figure out, the quest for truth kept me anxious for the (roughly) 16-month period it took to finish the manuscript. A sub-theme in my book involved the death of my youngest brother when he was a baby.
I recall one afternoon in particular. I remembered parts of the day my brother had died, but I couldn’t remember a lot of the details. The only person who could help me was my mother. My surviving brother was younger than I was when the events occurred. I put off asking Mom about it day after day. I knew this would cause her great sadness, to recall losing a son. But finally I had to ask her questions. She might be over seventy years old, but she’s still very sharp. She answered all my questions, and her responses awakened images long forgotten in my mind. For some reason, as we talked, I could envision the window on the back door she and my dad came through the night the youngest member of our family died suddenly. Before I hung up, my mother and I were lost in a sea of very painful memories, but I had the facts much straighter than before I phoned her.
I checked other information by referring to my personal journal, to the notebook I kept once our daughter’s illness got into full swing, to the daily agenda I’ve kept in my office for over 20 years, to the radiology reports and lab results. I reviewed real estate documents, school records, every scrap of paper I could find from that time in our lives. The documents I used fill two large boxes in my supply closet. I interviewed both my daughters, quizzing them at length. I wrote and phoned our daughter’s doctors. I checked every single statement I made. In the interest of truth.
Over a period of a year, my publisher read and questioned some of what I wrote. We re-drafted about six times, if memory serves me properly. He’s a small press owner, but he happens to believe in accuracy.
Compared to Doubleday, my publisher’s resources are minuscule. But he took the time, a lot of it actually, to be sure that the book we hoped to sell to readers was as accurate as a human being could make it. After all, he was categorizing the book as nonfiction because I told him it was true.
I felt good about the book when it was completed. I had great hopes that it would help someone going through the same ordeal. I had great hopes, and still do, that if even one person is spared an emergency surgery because of the information in my book, then I did a good thing.
When you journey through a dark period in your life, if you survive it, you come to fully understand the meaning of the word redemption in a very personal way. I’ve received a number of emails from readers who’ve thanked me for writing the book.
My book will probably never be #5, or even #16 on amazon.com. I have no plans to sit on the dais with Oprah. To be able to do that, I’d have to change my whole attitude and method of writing.
To be able to do that, I’d have to be published through a press that could buy end-caps in book stores, a press that could schmooze bookstore owners and send a fleet of publicists forth to woo media, a press that could purchase co-op advertising, and do all the other things that make a bestseller zoom its way to the nightstands in millions of bedrooms. At the very least, I’d have to sensationalize some of the bitterest parts of my life.
It’s sad how some writers and publishers just don’t care about integrity. It’s all about the bottom line.
It’s inspiring how some writers and publishers do care. As for profits, small presses and their authors just hope for a bottom line, period.