Biographies can make for great fiction

By Karl Terry

Most people who write a lot in their jobs — reporters, college professors, teachers and especially columnists, probably harbor the fantasy of writing a book someday. It was revealed recently that the dream could be easier than some of us thought.

Earlier this month on the Web site The Smoking Gun it was revealed that James Frey’s best-selling book “A Million Little Pieces” about the author’s drug, alcohol and crime-filled life, may have been largely made up, at least regarding details of his criminal record. According to Smoking Gun, most of the people in his past (at least the ones in the book) who could vouch for the stories, are dead or have disappeared.
I haven’t read the book, but I’ve read some of the coverage surrounding the flap and this episode, along with the New York Times’ Jason Blair episode, make me question my choice of vocations. Are all editors so lazy or gullible?

The most amazing thing about this case is that he duped the creator of the world’s largest and most popular book club. Oprah Winfrey’s book club evidently rose to Frey’s bait complete with tears from the celebrity, recommendation and author interviews that combined to propel the book to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.

One of the first things that came to mind after hearing about the controversy was the opening quote of the Steve Martin movie “The Jerk,” paraphrased, “I was born the son of a poor black sharecropper. I never dreamed I was adopted.” The movie goes on with Martin narrating his own life story, which is rags to riches to rags. The comedy comes in the telling of the tales, which are obviously whoppers.

Frey evidently figured out how to tell a whopper, but there’s no comedy in it for anyone.

Back to my dream of telling my own life story in a book. Obviously book editors must be a pushover where facts are concerned, so I’m exploring the black sharecropper angle myself. My problem is not going to be with the editors though. Family and friends already accuse me of revisionist history where details of my childhood are concerned.

Recently, I wrote a column about flying a kite over the street one dark night and friends and family all had the details, season, participants and outcome different. A column about our annual Thanksgiving football game in Portales brought out one friend who remembered it as being called the Goober Bowl, not the Turkey Bowl. Another friend remembered a football game played on a winter wheat field, not the junior high field.

Obviously Frey didn’t have a buddy or sister reading his first draft or he would have tossed the thing out in frustration before he ever submitted it. Actually Smoking Gun claims he first submitted it as fiction, then after a few rejections he rewrote it, casting himself in the dark leading role.

I try hard to stay as accurate as possible in the tales I spin weekly in this column’s space. But memory is fleeting for us all. It’s the telling of the tale that’s more important than the details in most cases.

Staying true to my readers and my family are the most important things in my life. I think my great-grandfather, the first and only one-armed, deaf man, with 14 wives to be governor of Texas, would have been proud of me.

Karl Terry is managing editor for the Portales News-Tribune. He can be contacted at 356-4483, ext. 33. His e-mail address is:
karl_terry@link.freedom.com