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My James Frey Moment: Learning To Lie And Get Away With It

06/28/2010 07:53 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Writers are notorious liars, so when I say that the idea to write a novel about a fake memoirist who attempts to scam the publishing industry began near the start of my career, I won't expect anyone to entirely believe me. Particularly since the story of how I became a novelist has a lot to do with the story of how I learned to lie and get away with it. But the way I remember it, the groundwork for my novel The Thieves of Manhattan was laid when I was a budding journalist who had not yet made more than $30 for any story. It happened like this:
I had already been fired three times in my teens, and I wasn't about to take any more chances. I slipped into the office after hours and quickly worked my way to the editor's desk. My typewritten manuscript was still there--right where it had been after I had handed it to my editor earlier that day. The copyeditor wouldn't key in the text until morning, and I was fairly certain that no one had seen me enter the building. I snatched the manuscript, about five double-spaced pages, folded it twice, then jammed it into the front pocket of my jeans. Then, I hurried out of the office, found the nearest dumpster, tossed it in, and headed home.

Probably, I should have refused the assignment, said that I just wasn't the right person for the gig, should have suggested that they instead hire the tall, strapping war photographer and journalist who had traveled solo through Cambodia when he was a teenager. But I was just starting out in journalism, and I wanted to branch out from panning William F. Buckley books and David Bowie records, and start doing something more substantial, something worthy of my idols Woodward and Bernstein; my favorite movie was All The President's Men, and I couldn't imagine Robert Redford entering Jason Robards's office and telling him he was too scared to meet Deep Throat in a parking lot after dark.

I'm not sure what the statute of limitations is on prevarication, so I'll leave the specifics of the story assignment vague. Ditto for the name of the publication and the city in which I committed my offense. Suffice it to say that I had been asked to perform research in a dangerous neighborhood, and to interview individuals who I had good reason to believe might kick my ass if I approached them. As I saw it back then, I had two choices--1) turn down the assignment and risk getting fired from my lowly editorial position or 2) make the whole thing up. I suppose I could have actually researched the story as it had been assigned, but for some reason, that seemed to be the least viable option. So, I invented an entire story and decided that I would pass it off as nonfiction. Everything--from the characters to the makes of their vehicles to the conversations they had to the brands of the cigarettes they smoked--was made up from the comfort of my room on my trusty Adler Satellite III typewriter.

I handed the article to my editor shortly before my deadline, and she placed it on a pile beside her computer, saying she would read it the following day. I headed home, but when I got there, I was consumed with both guilt and fear--guilt for having invented my story; fear at the possibility that I would be found out. That night, I returned to the office after hours to destroy all evidence of my crime.

* * * * *

As of the night that I snuck into the office to retrieve my fake article then dispose of it, I had already been fired from three editorial jobs, all of them before I had even attained legal drinking age. And, unlike the present circumstance, all involved offenses that were not, to my mind, cause for dismissal.

I was first canned circa 1982.

For two years, I had worked as a child actor on a public radio show called Audio Jam. Once a week, I rode the el downtown to the LaSalle Street studios of WBEZ Radio where I performed the role of a news anchor discussing such topics as roller-skating, dieting fads, and interplanetary travel. But once my voice had started to change, an adult at the station suggested I join a teen news program that originated from Oakland, for which I would write, produce, and edit two-to-three minute reports.

The first report went smoothly enough; I interviewed a young railroad enthusiast from Wisconsin about his passion for trains, edited the interview down to three minutes, mixed in some choo-choo and chugga-chugga sound effects, and sent the reel off to California. The folks out west seemed to like my contribution well enough. For my troubles, they sent me my first real check ($30) and gave me a new assignment--a story about high school army recruitment. I phoned a Chicago-area recruitment office and asked if one of their recruiters could come down to the studio for an interview. The recruiter was a friendly old cuss with a smooth, country drawl. "Adam, mah friend," he said, "Ah'd be glad ta." I scheduled the interview and informed the West Coast bureau that I'd meet the deadline, but shortly thereafter, I received a call from a short-tempered army Public Relations representative named Nancy--even now I remember her name and also how she barked at me, telling me that I had not gone through proper channels, that she was canceling the interview, and that if I ever tried to interview anyone without her permission, she would send the whole power of the American armed forces against me. The recruiter called me back to tell me the bad news ("Adam, mah friend, ah'm sorry"). Shaken by Nancy's fury, I called my California editor and informed him that Nancy had apparently put a contract out on me. But he had already heard from Nancy too, and he was even less amused than I had been. He told me that I had one chance to make amends--my next topic was graduating high school seniors' outlook on the job market.

But by now, the Chicago radio station, which was undergoing budget and staff cuts and was planning a move from its comparatively luxurious Chicago Loop surroundings to an old army barracks on the South Side of the city, wasn't interested in the projects I was developing for Oakland. I was no longer allowed to sign out any of the station's professional tape recorders, and had to make do with a $20 Panasonic from my folks' house. And, when I wanted to edit the interviews at the radio station, I was only allowed to use the station's oldest and most brittle tape, which ripped practically every time I touched it. I cobbled together a three-minute piece, and sent it off to California, only to receive a call from my editor--the sound quality was unprofessional, the tape kept breaking, sayonara--fired before I was old enough to drive.

I did, however, receive a $10 kill fee for my troubles.

I didn't have much time to dwell on the injustices of being fired for relying on the lousy equipment with which the Chicago station had provided me, for, not long after, I was fired again, this time from a job as a stringer at a neighborhood paper. An eager high school journalist, I had already clocked hours as an intern for Chicago Magazine, researching the 1982 mayoral election, catching glimpses of Studs Terkel shuffling down the hall in checkered jackets and red socks, and getting blown off by my supervisor who was fond of wearing rumpled, white, Tony Manero suits.

I cold-called the managing editor of the Lerner Newspapers, which published my neighborhood paper, the Nortown News. I expressed my eagerness to work over the summer as a stringer for ridiculously low wages ($5 an article). I was asked to cover high school sports and community meetings. My first story concerned a meeting about gang activity in Lincoln Square; the meeting was held at Treffpunkt, a restaurant/bierstube, to which I brought a pad of paper, my $20 Panasonic, and my mom. The speaker was a former gang member who now headed up an organization called BUILD. Clearly, it was an acronym, but I don't remember what the letters stood for.

The kid with his mom and his Panasonic were relegated to a seat in the back of the joint, where acoustics were poor. I scribbled notes and ran my tape recorder, and after I came home, worked for hours transcribing tape and trying to make sense of my scrawl. When I turned in my article the following day, I had most facts straight save for one in which the BUILD spokesperson spoke of a neighborhood that sounded on the tape like "Rivuhsudd." Riverside, I thought, and typed it in, only to be informed by the editor that Riverside was a Chicago suburb, not a neighborhood, and what my source had actually been saying was "Ravenswood." I apologized for my mistake and asked the editor what my next assignment would be. There wouldn't be one, she said--the Lerner Newspapers would not continue to employ writers who had made "errors in fact."

My third firing happened during senior year high school, and though it wasn't technically a real job, it came at a period in my life when stakes seemed to be higher than real life anyway. I was an editor on the high school newspaper, run by an exacting English and journalism teacher with whom I was fairly convinced that I enjoyed a productive, adversarial relationship. Occasionally, the man would grimace at my penchant for headlines with double-entendres (An article about "In A Blue Funk," a clinic for unwed mothers, received the header "Clinic To Help Young Mother Funkers"; a survey of local hamburger stands was titled "Great Stuff Between The Buns"). But I was given a fair amount of leeway, and the man even agreed to write my college recommendations.

During the year, the editors of our paper were given an additional responsibility of running a new, experimental cable news station; each week, two editors would assign stories and sit in a studio and anchor a program, mostly an enumeration of extracurricular activities and sporting events ("The Pun Club will be meeting after school today in Beardsley Cafeteria"). Occasionally, to keep from going mad, some staff wags would write fake news scripts and circulate them. In the one I wrote, I proposed including more controversial events, i.e. "the junior varsity football team will be beating up freshmen and stuffing them into lockers after school tomorrow"; "the German Club will be roasting Jews today at 5:00 PM." My advisor got a hold of my fake script. I was called into his office the following morning, and immediately relieved of my duties for my offensive, antisemitic slur; the advisor also returned my college recommendations to me; he could no longer write them with a clear conscience, he said. And I had been fired for the third time of my life.

Looking back at the three times I was fired as a teenager, each incident seems trivial--my cumulative lost salary for all three gigs would have amounted to little more than a hundred bucks. And yet, I still remember the fear and trauma associated with each incident--shuddering in my parents' basement as Nancy the army PR rep threatened to send the troops out for me, feeling such shame at having made an "error in fact" on my one bylined article in The Nortown News, having to avoid the piercing gaze of my high school newspaper and cable TV program advisor every time I passed him in the hall. As a teenager, I already knew the helpless, empty feeling of being fired, and never wanted to experience it again.

* * * * *


I arrived at the editorial office the next day and innocently asked my editor how she had liked my article, the one that I had chucked into the dumpster the night before. Her voice had an unflinching anger in it, one that could not be contradicted. She told me that she hadn't read my article because the copy I had given her was missing and she couldn't find it anywhere. She asked if I had an extra. No, I said, I hadn't had a chance to make one. Well, that was a shame, I added blithely, I guessed they wouldn't be able to run the piece. No, she said, the piece had to run, the space had already been slotted, and it had to be finished by that night; if I didn't have an extra copy, I'd have to rewrite one using my "notes." Or else, I wouldn't get any future assignments.

Here was my opportunity to confess--to say that I had never had any notes, that I had invented the article, that I had crept back in the office, and just thrown it out. Or, here was my chance for redemption--to head out and interview the people I had never interviewed, to write from research and experience what I had made up.

But fear and cowardice again prevailed. I said that I would head back to my place to find the article and that I would bring it back by the evening. And once again, I found myself making everything up--the setting, the characters, the dialogue, finishing it, handing it in, passing it off as fact. Other than the byline, I don't think there was a single true word in it.

The article, as it turned out, ran verbatim. I kept waiting for someone to question me about it, but nobody did. At the next week's editorial meeting, I was actually complimented on my bravery for interviewing thugs, my attention to detail, and my dedication to research. Of the hooligans I supposedly interviewed for my article, I was told that I had effectively "captured their white trash milieu." And for the following week, I was even given another assignment, one that thankfully wouldn't require me to make too much up.

At the time of my brief foray into fakery, I was barely in my twenties. I had conducted interviews with a cheap Panasonic and brittle tape, and gotten fired. I called "Ravenswood" "Riverside" and got canned for that too. I made a dumb crack about the high school German club in a script that was never intended for broadcast or publication, and I got fired again.

But when I did nothing but lie, violated every rule of journalism, acted in direct opposition to everything my heroes Woodward and Bernstein had seemed to stand for, I didn't get fired at all. In fact, I had found my calling; I had always suspected that I might have a career writing fiction, and that maybe one day I might write a book about lying and getting away with it.

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