Larry King's interview with James Frey was gripping television. For the most part, King put pretty good questions to Frey--you could tell that the fabrications in Frey's memoir bothered King, and at one point he actually said something like, "I wrote a memoir, and I didn't make anything up."
In the second half of the hour, King did throw Frey a few softballs, and the shtick of bringing Frey's mother on was pretty craven all around. Could anyone possibly believe her when she said that, even as she sat in the audience of Oprah Winfrey's show, she didn't know why she was there?
Frey didn't have much of a defense of his behavior. He never admitted to making anything up, instead repeatedly referring to the fabrications as being "in dispute" or "the disputed material." Again and again, he said that he stands by the "essential truth" of the book.
My impression? James Frey is a fundamentally dishonest man, and I would bet my right arm that the book is filled with many more fabrications than just the ones that The Smoking Gun was able to prove.
Throughout the interview, Frey equivocated, fudged, hemmed and hawed, changed the subject, refused to give a direct answer to questions, and attempted to blur the nature of his fictions, suggesting repeatedly that they were limited to changing names in order to protect the privacy of people mentioned in the book. But his physical mannerisms gave him away: he licked his lips, his eyes darted back and forth, and every time he said something you could tell he really didn't believe, he prefaced his answer with "ums" and "I means."
But perhaps it's best just to let Frey speak for himself. Below, a sampling of the show, with some occasional italics added to denote remarks that struck me as egregious b.s. and some asides from yours truly.
After an introductory report, Larry King asked: "What's your side, James?"
JF: Um, I mean, my side is that I wrote a memoir. I never expected the book to come under the kind of scrutiny that it has. A memoir--the word literally means my "story." A memoir is a subjective retelling of events.
LK: But they're supposed to be factual events.
JF: Yeah, a memoir is in the genre of non-fiction. I don't think it's necessarily appropriate to say (unintelligible) to anyone. You know, the book is 432 pages long. The total page count of disputed events is 18, which is less than five percent of the total book. That falls comfortably within the realm of what's appropriate for a memoir.
(RB: According to whom? I missed the panel where they decided that seven percent lies was too much, but five percent--well, that's okay.)
LK: ...why embellish anything?
JF: Um...I've acknowledged that there were embellishments in the book. I've changed things. In certain cases, things were toned up. In certain cases things were toned down...
(RB: "Toned up"? Is that kind of like a liar's way of saying, "made up"?)
JF: ...That names were changed. That identifying characteristics were changed. You know, there's a great debate about memoir, and about what should be most properly served, the story or some form of journalistic truth. Memoirs don't generally come under the type of scrutiny that mine has.
(RB: I like that: "some form of journalistic truth"... I'll have to use that the next time I'm caught fibbing. As in, "What do you want from me? Some form of journalistic truth?")
LK: People read a memoir expecting it to be the true story....
JF: It's an individual's perception of what happened in their own life. This is my recollection of my life.
(RB: Frey says he spent three months in jail for hitting a police officer with a car. Didn't happen. That's an interesting "recollection.")
JF: ...a lot of the events took place while I was under the influence of drugs and alcohol. You know, I still stand by my book. I still stand by the fact that it's my story, and that it's a truthful retelling of the story. ...I've acknowledged changing things.
LK: Did you tell Oprah that?
JF: Um, I don't remember specifically what I told Oprah....
LK: ...there's a story around that you originally shopped the book as fiction....
JF: Um, we originally shopped the book as a novel. It was turned down by a number of publishers as a novel or as a non-fiction book. Um, when [Doubleday editor] Nan Talese purchased the book, I'm not sure what they knew what they were going to publish it as. ...They thought the best thing to do was to publish it as a memoir.
LK: Why did you shop it as a novel if it wasn't?
(RB: Good question!)
JF: I mean, I think of the book as working in a long tradition of what American writers have done in the past, people like Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Kerouac and Charles Bukowski.
LK: But they all said fiction.
JF: Yeah! They did. And at the time of their books being published, the genre of memoir didn't really exist.
(RB: That is too funny.)
LK: (asks whether it's true that Frey hit a cop with a car.)
JF: ...again, we're dealing with a very subjective memory....
LK: ...was [the book] fact-checked?
JF: Um...I don't know how specifically it was fact-checked. When you're changing names and changing identities to protect people, the publisher usually considers that good enough. I can't necessarily speak specifically for what their policies are.
(RB: I can. There's no way Frey doesn't know whether his book was fact-checked or not. The answer is no. Believe me, if it were, he'd remember. Of course, as the old saying goes, some stories are too good to check.)
Asked if he would do anything differently, Frey said no, and added, "I take responsibility for my life.... That's what I've always done, and I would be a liar if I didn't."
Even generously interpreted, nothing in Frey's interview with Larry King could be described as "taking responsibility." Draw your own conclusions.