The series of scandals featuring so-called memoir writers who actually made up their "true stories," (and, in the case of J.T. Leroy, made up the writer himself) speaks to the importance of having editors level-headed enough to ask the tough questions. Because writers tend to live in a kind of dreamy reverie where the impossible seems not only possible, but, according to them, may have already happened.
I myself recently had a telling experience while publishing my book Sharp Teeth. Initially it was going to be an "autobiographical memoir." The galleys were all done and some early editions had already been sent out when my editor, Jennifer Barth, called, catching me at home.
"Toby. We have an issue."
Her tone put a funny feeling in my gut. "What's that, Jennifer?"
"The fact checkers have been combing through your book and we can't confirm a lot of the stuff you say occurred."
I tried to sound nonchalant, but I have to say I sort of knew what was coming, "Really? Like what?"
"Toby, did you ever actually work as a dog catcher?"
"A dog catcher? Like in the book? Well..." this was a critical moment for me. And for some stupid, stupid reason, I went for the honesty angle, "Not technically."
"Mmm-hmm," I could tell this wasn't quite what she wanted to hear, but I thought that if that was all she had, we could still sort something out. After all, I have walked a lot of dogs in my day and even chased a few down when they got off leash, so maybe there was some wiggle room.
But no, she had more, "And what about your house burning down in L.A. Did it really burn down?"
"Toby, did you ever live in L.A?" I sensed a tiny bit of exasperation in her voice.
"Um, depends what you mean by 'live,' Jennifer."
She let out one of those long sighs. My editor is a great woman who has that sort of personality where you just don't want to let her down. And, honestly, I felt like, in some way, I had let her down.
"There's one other thing, Toby."
I winced. This was the one I had been waiting for.
"It turns out there is no scientific evidence that werewolves exist."
"It's okay, Jennifer, technically we're okay there. Because I never call them werewolves, Jennifer. I call them lycanthropes or big dogs or a whole host of things. But of course I never call them werewolves. Because that would be ridiculous. Werewolves are mythical beasts, I mean, they don't even exist anymore."
I kept arguing my case. I said that my wolves were, in fact, not very different than the wolves Misha Defonseca described in her best selling memoir, the ones she lived with while hiding from the Nazis (this was, of course, months before Defonseca's memoir was revealed to be a complete fabrication.)
I'm not quite sure when Jennifer hung up the phone.
In the end, of course, HarperCollins wimped out and published Sharp Teeth as "fiction," which probably cost it a few hundred thousand in sales. So I know, first hand, exactly why people feel the pressure to describe their fantasies as true. After all, who knows how well those little Harry Potter books might have done if J.K. Rowling had been allowed to call it an autobiography? And maybe she could have even gotten the kid who played J.T. LeRoy to pretend to be the "real" Harry Potter.
But in the end, I suppose it was all for the best, at least that's what the lawyers at HarperCollins tell me.