[This interview with James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, took place on August 1st 2008 at the Covent Garden Hotel. James Frey was promoting his novel Bright Shiny Morning. The interview was commissioned by Waterstones’ Books Quarterly Magazine, and appeared there in shortened form. Here is the full thing.]
Whether or not his books will endure, it seems to me that, right now, James Frey is one of the most significant writers out there – significant because he exists at the flashpoints of contemporary culture: privacy and celebrity, tradition and technology, conviction and disbelief, truth and fiction. Because of this, it’s not surprising he gets burnt. Most famously, he was first lauded and then publicly execrated by Oprah Winfrey. His first book, the intense recovery memoir A Million Little Pieces, became a massive bestseller after its selection for Oprah’s Book Club. In 2006, James Frey was forced to admit that certain incidents within the book had been embellished. New editions come with a painfully carefully worded note in which Frey says, ‘I sincerely apologize to those readers who have been disappointed by my actions.’ When he visited to London to promote his hugely ambitious and entertaining new novel Bright Shiny Morning, he was more combative, less cowed. Publicity photos tend to make Frey look like James Caan in The Godfather Part II, curly-haired, sweet-faced, capable of fast brutality. And in person, Frey is definitely a guy kind of guy, but more obviously vulnerable than you might expect. Maybe this isn’t surprising. He’s been through the fire. In many ways, he’s still going through it. If you’re looking for a comparison, Norman Mailer, whom he mentions often, is probably the best one. Frey’s speech is very close to his writing – or maybe that should be the other way round.
TL: Can you tell me what the first idea for the book [Bright Shiny Morning] was – what the germ of it was, and how it developed from there?
JF: I lived in Los Angeles for a long time, and I wanted to write a big book about it. There’ve been plenty of books written about other great cities of the world, Paris or Rome or London, New York, Tokyo, Moscow. Nobody’s ever written sort of a big, ambitious, literary novel about L.A. The books that are written about L.A. are about crime or Hollywood, and that’s about it. And I wanted to sort of do a different take on it. You know, be the first, or at least the first – in my opinion – to attempt it.
TL: One character in the book, an artist, gives a speech about how he feels Los Angeles is the cultural capital of the world. It’s a big aria of praise. And he also ends by saying the books and art are going to move from New York to L.A. Was that one of the reasons for writing Bright Shiny Morning, or were you trying to prove that?
JF: That wasn’t really a reason. I believe that. It just depends how you define culture. But it’s pretty undeniable that if you define culture as popular culture, L.A.’s the cultural capital of the world. Nothing else is even close. I think, you know, the art world moves every fifty to seventy years. And it’s gonna move somewhere, you know. For a while a lot of people thought it would move to London, and it has in certain ways, but it’s more split now – so that it’s sort of London and New York. At some point it’ll move away from both those places – and I think L.A. is the most natural place for it to go. London and New York are too expensive. There’s a lot of money here to buy art, but there’s so much money that artists can’t afford to live here. So I think it’ll shift out west. You know the natural progression of everything in America has been to the West. And I think at some point it’ll all go there.
TL: You wanted to get in as much of L.A. in as possible.
JF: I tried to pack the book with information. There’s a pretty complete history of the city. There’s huge amounts of statistical and demographic information. I sort of picked the four primary narratives because they were stories I hadn’t really seen told, and they were also sort of archetypes of L.A. You know, a Mexican immigrant, a homeless guy, American immigrants and a movie star. You know, those are all, all very archetypal characters.
TL: Did you start thinking, ‘This is an archetype I want to do’ or did you start with Old Man Joe sitting on the beach?
JF: No, I had a list of like ten I thought that I could to use. I knew there would be multiple narratives. I didn’t know there would be three or five. And I had this list of about ten. And right before I started writing the book I looked at the list and narrowed it down. Some of the people who were on the list ended up in the book in other ways, you know, as smaller pieces. But I just thought, those four, you know, they’re located in different geographic areas, sort of, different cultures. They’re all representative of a different race or sexual orientation, and they just felt like the best ones to do.
TL: There’s a sense with some of the writing – for example, there’s a section about the women who work in the porn industry – where you’ll say ‘And some of them enjoy this a lot, and this a fantastic way of them getting their kicks, but others are totally degraded by it’. Do you feel a need to be even-handed because someone’s going to come back at you about these things?
TL: Could you write this novel and not have a major black character?
JF: Yeah, I don’t care what people come at me with. You know, people have come at me with everything you could imagine. I could care less about that.
TL: But did it need to represent a diversity, and because of that were there certain things… Like, if you’d done L.A. and not had a movie star, or anyone connected to the movies, would that have been a perverse thing to do?
JF: I just think I was trying to write a book that was representative of the city, and you have to include Hollywood in there. I mean, it looms over the place in a very large way. In reality it’s a very small piece of the economy, and a very small part of the population actually works in that business, but in a figurative way it sort of hovers over everything. I didn’t go into writing the book worrying about what anyone would say about anything. You know, I could care less. I went into the book trying to write the best book I could. Trying to write the book about L.A. that I had in my head.
TL: Did you start this after My Friend Leonard, or was this something you had the idea for a while ago?
JF: I always wanted to write a book about L.A. And I knew this was gonna be the next book. I started writing it in October of ’06 and August of ’07.
TL: And there were a lot of things going on at the same time. I mean, was it quite distracting or had the shit blown over by then?
JF: A lot of it had blown over. But I had originally sold the book in America to a different publisher, the contract was cancelled, and so I was sort of out on my own. You know, my foreign publishers, through the controversies related to my other books, were very supportive – John Murray and all the other Europeans were incredibly supportive. But in America it was sort of a disaster. And so, once a lot of the stuff had blown over, it was still going on a bit, but it was time to write another book. It was time to get back to work. I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing things and not allowing things outside of myself to distract me or bother me or affect me in any way.
TL: So, do you have a silent room where you go off and you’re completely isolated or can you work on the kitchen table?
JF: I can work anywhere. I mean, I could go get my computer and work here. Writing’s not precious to me. It’s not a thing that requires specific environment. You know, it’s my job. Just like anybody with a job, you have to do your job when you don’t feel like it, regardless of how good or bad the conditions are, regardless of how good or bad you might feel on any particular day. You know, it’s my job. I have bills, I have a family.
TL: They must be pretty big bills.
JF: I had some big bills in ’06. I had a lot of lawyers bills.
TL: Apart from that. I saw you on a little clip talking about ‘First thought, best thought’ as a basis for what you do.
JF: Yeah, I mean, when I write I write once. I don’t self-edit. I don’t read my books, you know. Whatever I feel I trust, and so I write it. And the first time I write it I try to be as precise as I can. I don’t ever self-edit. And when the books are finished, I tend not to edit them. The first book was heavily edited, but the second two have not been. This is very very close to the book that came out of my printer.
TL: But when you do that, aren’t you more worried about the moment, because you’re not a writer that’s going to go back seven or eight times to it, so you have to feel the pressure. ‘I have to get this scene I’ve been looking forward to right this time.’
JF:I don’t feel any pressure, you know. I don’t feel pressure. I have a great amount of confidence and faith in my abilities to write. There are other areas of my life where I’m not as confident, and have not as much faith, but when it comes down to writing and working, I don’t worry about it, you know. I trust myself to get it right. And I work on the sentence until I feel it’s right. But once it’s there I just keep going.
TL: The things you do with sentences are very interesting. Sometimes it’s what would conventionally be two sentences in one, or three. It does come across as very spoken. Do you expect…? How do you expect it to work on the reader? Do you really want to be the voice in their head?
JF: I try to make the voice in my head come out onto the page. I try to make it much more conversational than other writing. I speak everything, so if something sounds right I write it. It’s more about sound and the rhythm of speech than, you know, written language. There’s something, I think, that gets lost when we write something – something gets lost in the translation. So I speak everything out, and it’s more important how it sounds. And applying that to more formal aspects of writing. I don’t speak with proper grammar. I don’t speak with dialogue attribution. I don’t speak with quotation. I don’t care about any of that stuff, you know? It’s about rhythm, and it’s about what’s in their [the character’s] head, and what feels more natural. And it’s about speed. I want things to move. We live in a world that’s very fast, where we get bombarded with huge amounts of information very quickly, and I have tried to tailor my voice to the times, which I think, writers, over the course of history – many have always done. I’m sort amazed that other writers who seem to be working now don’t try to do the same thing.
TL: And you were working on screenplays before A Million Little Pieces? Could you tell me a bit about those, and also whether that affected how you used narratives?
JF: I mean, I was just a sort of journeyman screenwriter in L.A. You know, I would take whatever job I could get. I mean, it’s definitely affected how I write because it was the first place where I stopped using – You know when you write a movie, you have dialogue attribution very similar to what I use in the book. It’s just a name and what they say. Oftentimes, I don’t bother with the names – in the book. But when you write a movie you learn to be economical, you learn to be spare. That sort of translated over. A good movie script reads very quickly. Those things have carried over, but I think the style I write with, the voice I use, is just something I’ve developed over time. There’s a variety of ways that I arrived at it. Part the influence of writing movies, part my own belief that things should have a rhythm to them and the best rhythm is a spoken rhythm, an audible rhythm, part of it was this desire to write for the times, part of it was this desire to write in a way that was devoid of influence – that was totally new, totally different, totally singular.
TL: It seems to me that there are two traditions that are meeting in what you do. One is the Beat thing, which brings the importance of the breath and the voice to it – with Ginsberg’s idea about lines. But then you’ve also got a kind of Hemingway line which is the sparsity, and that’s something Kerouac and Ginsberg definitely weren’t about. Kerouac will pile up seven adjectives one after the other. It’s the energy that you seem to generate which is so impressive. The line that you’re using, the rhythm, is not ornate, most of the time. You do have this idea of starkness. But do you really think that you’re not coming from a very American tradition of writing – or two traditions?
JF: Yeah. To say that you can’t see echoes of the past in what I do would be absurd. There are echoes of Hemingway there, there are echoes of Henry Miller, there are echoes of Kerouac and Ginsberg, of Bukowski, of Norman Mailer – for sure. Everything that has preceded me has affected me. You know, and Hemingway and Kerouac are sort of the titans of twentieth century American literature. And put Mailer in there with them. But I’m still trying to write in a way that’s different from what they did, and is more suitable to the culture that exists now. You know, like, you can read Kerouac and see where it comes from Thomas Wolfe, you can read Hemingway and see where – in certain ways – it comes from Celine and from Baudelaire, and you can read me and see how certain writers before me have affected how I think. But I still think, even taking those very different schools of American literature and somehow fusing them, makes it something completely different and completely fresh. You know, like, there was abstract art before Abstract Expressionism, and you can see where it came from, but when it came it was still something radically different than anything else.
TL: Well, partly that was scale, wasn’t it? The canvas looking more like a cinema screen than something you’d see in the Louvre – although, obviously, there are some pretty big paintings there. But is there a sense in which you feel to overreach in order to get where you’re going? Did you need to write the biggest book you possibly could about L.A.?
JF: No, I think this book coulda been bigger. I could have stretched it out to seven or eight hundred pages.
TL: But I mean you didn’t take the ten plot-lines that you had… You selected.
JF: No, I… Yeah, I… Because I think at a certain point it becomes too much. You have to have a specific type of story to tell, to write a seven or eight hundred page book. I don’t write with an outline. I don’t often know what I’m going to do as I’m writing. And I do everything by feel and by instinct. And as I was moving, as I started writing, probably when I was at about page hundred, hundred and twenty five, I had an idea this book would be around five hundred pages. It’s just cause it felt like that was the amount of time I’d need to tell this story, to spread out the narratives and to get everything else I wanted in there. I think I’ll write bigger books, in the future, or longer books, and I think I’ll write shorter books. It just depends on what the story is.
TL: Is there one that you have in mind? Is there another big subject?
JF: There’s a book I want to write… You know, it’s a story about two people that moves across most of the history of the twentieth century in America. Who know? I think that will probably be the biggest, longest book I ever write. I might write a book about Timothy McVeigh that I think would be a big monster. We’ll see. I know that the next book I write is gonna be real short – a hundred and fifty pages. And the one after that will probably be really short. The three books that have come so far are, like, four fifty, four hundred and five hundred pages long. I’m ready for a little one.
TL: Do you think there’s anything not in the book that you wish you’d included? Something afterwards that you thought, ‘That’s so L.A.’
JF: I’m sure there are things I could have put in there that I didn’t and that maybe I should have. But a. I haven’t read the book and b. –
(TL: It’s good. You should.)
JF: – it felt complete when I was finished with it. It felt like what I wanted it to be.
TL: Can we talk about the four main stories? Because each of them seems to peak in a different way, climaxing towards the end, but – the Amberton character is obviously very charismatic within his world but also within the novel itself. And you’re [the reader is] reading that in a slightly different way, perhaps, to the way you’re reading some of the more downbeat stories, where you’re checking in with the character but they’re not doing anything that’s leading anywhere quite so obviously. He’s on such a clear trajectory. Were you aware of trying to balance these things, throughout the book, so that the reader was kept waiting for certain things? I mean, was there a lot of rearranging stuff?
JF: There wasn’t a lot of rearranging. I mean, one thing I tried to do in the book was to never make a reader be able to guess what would come next – which story would come next. There’s no specific order to the story – they’re actually way out of order. It was an order which made sense to me as I wrote it. You know, which story will come next? What will happen in that story? Will it be – the history had a specific, followable structure – but will it be one of these, you know, strange small stories or will it be some sort of weird statistical information. I didn’t – I wanted the book to be very unexpected and I didn’t want people to be able to anticipate what was coming. And so, when I was writing it, sure – there was trying to find a balance between the different stories’ rhythms working with each other and moving towards something, and moving there more quickly the further you got, the deeper you got, into the book. There’s some kind of balancing act there, but, you know, again it’s just something I figure out as I go along. It’s what I feel as I write it. What I’m telling myself I need to do at the time. I think the Amberton character is ridiculous, hilarious, absurd, vile.
TL: He’s a very famous action-hero kind of actor who is closeted. And you said these are archtypes, and there’s also types out there. I mean, how much legal stuff was there on that character?
JF: None. I mean it’s not based on anyone. It’s based on rumours I’ve heard about ten people, you know. It’s definitely not specifically based on any single person. And frankly, even if it was that person isn’t going to sue me because then they’re going to get their personal life dug into. I mean, it was just supposed to be more, like, the story of the rumours that exist about a whole bunch of different people.
TL: But a lot of, for me, anyway… The way I read it is, you feel you’ve got some sort of privileged access into people’s lives – a kind of exclusivity, behind the gates, that you’re not going to get if you go on a Hollywood tour, but also into another character, Old Man Joe’s washroom. You know, this is his property. Maybe you can use it, but you [the reader] don’t go into it in the same way. And one of the pleasures of the book is the diversity of those spaces that you go into. But are they – I felt in a way that Old Man Joe was your voice coming through, at points.
JF: Maybe. There are certain parts at the end of it that are definitely coming straight from me. The one thing about the Old Man Joe is that I’ve lived in Venice. I’ve lived right near where that story is set. And I knew a bunch of the homeless guys that lived around my neighbourhood. I knew a guy who lived in a bathroom. I knew another guy – he drank rosé, not chablis. You know, it’s sort of cobbled together. It might be closest to what my voice is or who I am.
TL: I’m thinking specifically… His sort of, the climax of his story basically comes in a church, where he sits in a church and asks the question of evil – a quite operatic way, almost. He’s singing on this very high level. His question is ‘Why is this happening?’ And that seems to me, because you’ve covered so many stories, and in a lot of them bad things happen to good people, that seems to be the central question of the book. Which is a religious question.
JF: I think it’s a central question in our lives. I mean, I’ve written about that question in each of my other two books, too. The next book I’m writing is entirely about it. You know, that’s a question that every one of us deals with all the time. ‘Why are we here? Is that something more than what we know? Why do these things happen?’ If anything, certain events in my life recently have made those questions even more important to me. I think that scene specifically is something that’s vert much coming straight from me. And at the same time I’ve tried to make that scene referential to literary history. In a way it’s mimicking a scene from The Brothers Karamazov. In a way it’s mimicking a scene from The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy. I think it’s a central… It’s something, in my opinion any great writer… any writer who wants to be great has to go there. Has to take on the God question. Has to take on the why question. And so I do it a lot.
TL: But in A Million Little Pieces one of the things that maybe I was expecting, not having followed the history of it, but reading it and knowing that Oprah had picked the book, was that the trajectory you might expect was that you would accept the premise of the Twelve Steps, and so that you’d have to go for some kind of supernatural help that was going to be outside you, but the book firmly rejects that, and yet was accepted by America en masse – which is a very Christian and god-fearing nation…
JF: Terrifyingly so.
TL: And Old Man Joe walks out having basically said, ‘No, I refuse to accept you.’ If you reject God why do you still have an argument with God?
JF: I don’t have an argument with God, I have an argument with myself about whether there is a God or not – and if there is what role does that thing or being, whatever have in my life. I think it’s a big question. Why are we here? How did we get here? What happens next – if anything? It’s something I think about a lot. I think that when you…
TL: But you’re not attracted to anything other than Christianity?
JF: I’m attracted to all… In my own personal life the thing that’s influenced me the most by far is Eastern thought, is Daoism and Buddhism. But I still think about other things. And I think, living in America, we’re so bombarded with God all the time that in certain ways I’m making statements against that bombardment, you know? I think it’s crazy. I mean, I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in anything. But I still think about it. And I still write about it.
TL: And you say your next book is going to be…
JF: My next book, like, tentatively, is titled The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. I’m trying to write the third book of the Bible, about the coming of the Messiah.
TL: [Laughs.] Right. Good on you.
JF: And my vision of what the Messiah would be like if he were walking the streets on New York right now. I don’t believe he would be the Messiah of Fundamentalist America.
TL: Do you think that it’s not just a case of ‘great writer has to step up to deal with this question’, but it’s a central thing about America?
JF: It’s about America, it’s about great writer, it’s about me – it’s about doing things that are interesting that nobody’s done, um. It’s a central question of the world, you know. I don’t know what’s a greater influence in the world, right now, religion or money. But those two things are certainly the ideas or the institutions that have the most influence on how we all live and how the world is. And I think I write about one of them more than the other. But I think, if you’re going to write about being in this world, you can’t avoid it.
TL: Bright Shiny Morning does cover a lot of ground, in terms of money. Where you’ve got people panhandling for change and settling lawsuits for $20 million – and it’s different money. It’s a different thing. But you also – you kind of show how people progress, but although you’ve said the book’s about the American Dream – people in the past seemed to progress by hard work, like the guy [in the book] who sets up the golf course. And that seems to be a story of a particular generation achieving not great wealth, but achieving their dream through labour. And then the generation you’re dealing with either seems to luck out and maybe end up marrying someone who’s better off.
JF: There are stories in that book where it’s about hard work. There’s a story about a couple with kids on Compton, and who get scholarships to school and become a doctor and a teacher. And that’s entirely because of – it’s possible in America. You know, frankly, the story of Esperanza’s family coming literally over the boarder with nothing and building this life where the daughter has any opportunity she wants to. There’s that whole section where she’s trying to figure out what she wants to be. She can be anything she wants. One of the beautiful and terrible things about America is you can go there and still be whatever you want, if you bust your ass and you have some luck. It’s [the book] about a lot of stuff. Not everyone who works hard makes their dream come true. You need luck and hard work and being in the right place at the right time but I still very much believe it’s possible. That’s why there’s more immigration into the United States than there is any country in the world, still, even though we’re more hated than we’ve ever been. I very much believe you can still go there and do anything. And L.A.’s the city that most exemplifies that, to me, at this point.
TL: But isn’t one of your ways of portraying the city, you look at lot at the way people move round it – at the traffic, the fact that the trains were got rid of by the car-lobby. And you make it seem a very difficult city not just to progress it, but to get from A to B – and more and more so. It’s not getting better every day.
JF: I’m just trying to write about it in the way that I think it is. Like I said, you can’t go to L.A. with the promise that everything’s going to happen. There’s a chance that it will and there’s a chance that it won’t. There’s a chance that things will go your way and a chance – a greater chance – that they won’t. Shit’s hard. It’s hard to make dreams come true. It’s hard to fulfil aspirations. And it’s hard to get from one place to another, whether it’s literal or figurative. I think it would be bullshit for me to do it in another way. For me to make all the endings happy, and make everybody get what they want, or to allow nobody to get what they want. The way America works, and the way L.A. works, is a very small percentage of people get what they want out of life, and a much greater percentage try very very hard and they don’t. That’s just the way it is.
TL: There’s a long section with just one-liners about where people come from, their age when they got there, and what they’re doing, and their age now. You use a lot of lists in the book. How do you think they work for the reader? How much do they invest in each?
JF: I hope a lot. Some of the lists have different intentions. Some of them are meant to part of the narrative, some of them are meant to tell stories, some of them are just sources of information, some of them are meant to be funny, some sad, some boring, some of them – frankly, the one of the Army veterans is supposed to be unreadable. In the original draft of the book it was about twice as long as it was. And we tried to pare it down so it was at a length that it might be possible to read it, but it’s still basically unreadable. Lists are just effective tools for a lot of things. You know, I didn’t go into it saying, ‘I’m going to write a book with a ton of lists,’ you know? I didn’t make a list of lists. But as I was writing the book, it ended up just becoming part of it.
TL: Because A Million Little Pieces ends with a list, of casualties…
JF: I mean, it ends with a list of what happened to everybody. There are lists like that in here [Bright Shiny Morning] and there are a lot of lists that aren’t like that, you know.
TL: I guess you’re not going to have much truck with being called a ‘post-modern’ writer?
JF: People call me all sorts of things. I don’t even care what they call me. I try to write books that are different from other books being written now, or ever. And I try to write books that are different from the books I’ve already written. I think one of the thing I really try to do is reinvent how a novel can be written. You know, I’ve never seen a novel constructed like this. It was very deliberately constructed in a very radical way – in a way that was, in my opinion, very different from anything I’ve ever seen anybody done. I don’t care what people call me.
TL: But you’re coming into a context. Are you aware of trying to change that? If someone comes up to you at a reading, and they’re a twenty year old writer, and they say they’ve really been influenced by you, what would your reaction to that be?
JF: I’d be like ‘Cool. Good. That’s what I’m trying to do.’ I’m trying to influence the next generation or two generations or three generations behind me. That’s a big ambition of mine.
TL: And what would you like them to take from what you do?
JF: That you don’t have to follow anybody’s rules. That you don’t have to follow anybody’s conventions. That you can do whatever the fuck you want however the fuck you wanna do it. That you can invent new ways of writing. That you can invent new ways of constructing novels. That you can use different devices in whatever way you want, as long as it’s effective. That’s what ever great writer, I believe, has done over the course of time – is they’ve figured out new ways of telling the same stories. The best stories are universal stories that have been told for as long as humanity has existed it’s just figuring out new ways to do it, with language, with structure. And so I’m always trying to do that. Or taking old ways and turning them on their ass.
TL: So you don’t think that, say, life in a place in L.A., which is a unique urban geography, alters the way people are? In other words, it’s a completely different thing to living in Victorian London or Rome under the Caesars. Is it not going to structurally change what people are, and so the stories will change too?
JF: It is a completely different thing, but it also isn’t. In Caesars’ Rome or Victorian London people were still grappling with the same issues. How do I make money? How do I provide for my family? How do I give my children a better life than I had? What’s love? What’s friendship? What’s family? What’s God? Those issues are all still the same, and they always will be the same, it’s just the frameworks are different. We live in a world that’s much faster, much more sophisticated, in many ways, which is much more technologically advanced than the other worlds, but at their base we’re all still struggling with the same issues for which there aren’t any answers and never will be. Or whatever answers there are are very individual answers, that each of us has to come to on our own.
TL: One paragraphs sticks out from the novel. I think it’s in a chapter that’s really about fame. ‘No-one goes through it and comes out the same. No-one goes through it and comes out unscathed. No-one goes through it and comes out with their innocence. No-one goes through it and comes out with their trust.’ Is that almost a motto? You’ve been through that now.
JF: That was definitely written from my heart, you know. That was definitely written from experience. You don’t go through those things and come out the same. Your life changes. My life changed in many ways, good and bad, and just different. That whole chapter is about the toll scandal takes on people, or frankly what people will do to create it. My own professional controversies and scandals have been really difficult, they’ve been difficult to deal with and endure. I’m definitely different than I was three years ago, in certain ways.
TL: You’ve [spoken] about the great novel, the great writer and America. Do you feel that because of what’s happened to you, that you are on a level – that you are someone that has a national voice, and that would make you write in a different way than you would if you were writing and you thought maybe only your friends would read this?
JF: I don’t think I write any differently. I think I have much greater chance of having people read it. The three books I’ve written, I’ve wanted to write for a long time. And the books that are coming next are the books I’ve been thinking about for years. Four years ago I could have written a list of the books I wanted to write, and it’s the same list. It’s just longer now. There are more tacked on at the end. My own controversy, it’s been a good thing for me and a bad and difficult thing for me.
TL: Your way of talking about it seems to be that you can ride it. You’re tough enough to deal with it.
JF: I can. I have.
TL: But this was a first novel but also a comeback, wasn’t it? You needed to prove something to people. Which, when you were sitting at your desk, that must have been on your mind. This has to be something that establishes me as a fiction writer.
JF: That would have been on my mind anyway. And in certain ways it didn’t even matter to me. You know, a book’s a book. And at some point the lines that still sort of laughably exist are gonna disappear, you know.
TL: Which lines?
JF: You know, what’s a memoir, what’s an autobiography. The idea that newspapers are perfect fact. That’s all bullshit, you know? Mailer said for a very long time there’s no difference between fact and fiction, there’s just perspective. You know, Kerouac was breaking these lines down. Hemingway. Fitzgerald. Henry Miller. Celine. Baudelaire. People have been hammering away at these lines for a long time, and they’re falling apart more and more. So, I didn’t approach the writing of this book because it says it’s a novel on the side of it any differently than I approached writing my first two books. They’re just books. They’re stories. They are in my opinion… Their intentions were literary and artistic. And so to me it doesn’t matter what anybody plugs on the side of it, or what a publisher decides to call it. To me it’s a work of art.
TL: I’d agree with what you’re saying. So, in a way, was what happened with A Million Little Pieces what you wanted? Wasn’t that a demonstration of that?
TL: Playing it out for people.
JF: Yeah. I never expected it to happen on that scale. And in many ways I actually thought it would happen the opposite – where it would be published as a novel and people would ask ‘Well, what in it’s true?’ Instead of being published as a memoir and having them all ask ‘Well, what in it’s not?’ But it’s interesting to see books in America, at least, now, like, you don’t see a memoir published in America now without some big fat fucking disclaimer in it. Where people are all… And to me it’s sort of laughable. They’re all saying, ‘Well, I didn’t do what James Frey did. Here’s my disclaimer.’ And my point of view is, ‘Well, if you weren’t fucking doing what James Frey did, you wouldn’t have that dumb disclaimer. You’re all doing the same shit I am, you’re just pretending you’re not.’ And that’s because in order to tell stories effectively, and in order to write books that are interesting and mean something, you fuck with shit. I don’t feel about bad about what I did. I don’t apologize for it. I wrote a book. And did the controveries affect this? Yeah, of course they did. But in a lot of ways they affected them in good ways for me, personally. It was a lot more fun to write this book the way I wrote it than it would have been otherwise, you know. It was fun. I didn’t have an agent. I didn’t have a publisher. Nobody gave a fuck over there. People weren’t calling. It was sort of the same process as it was when I wrote A Million Little Pieces. It was just me, in a room, by myself. And more than proving anything to anybody else – every time a writer – I mean, you must feel this – every time a writer sits down to write it’s mostly about proving it to yourself. It’s mostly about ‘How good am I? How good can this be?’ That’s the first standard. And I always think if I can meet that one I’ll be okay. Otherwise. And to me, I’m holding myself – and I may sound pompous or arrogant or whatever – but I’m holding myself to some historical standard. Is this as good as something Mailer would have written? Or Kerouac? Or Hemingway? Or Miller? Or any of them? That’s the standard I hold myself to.
TL: American writers are quite famous for their three by five cards, up above their desks. And you’ve got a tattoo [FTBITTTD, i.e., Fuck The Bullshit, It’s Time To Throw Down].
JF: I’ve got a lot of tattoos.
TL: Do you have anything like that in your room? Like Hemingway, ‘What a writer needs is an automatic built-in bullshit detector.’
JF: There were times when I used to. Now, I have a big picture of a pitbull in front of my desk.
TL: Pitbulls play quite a part in Bright Shiny Morning. They’re the most popular dog in L.A. – I learn, if that’s true.
JF: They are. I have a pitbull that’s … There are pitbulls that are working dogs. I have a picture of this pitbull working. And that’s right in front of me.
TL: Those writers, they’re all male. Is there something about this that’s a fight? Is this an aggressive thing?
JF: Maybe. I mean, it’s…
TL: You want to take them on. And you’re not taking on women writers. Though there must be ones that you admire.
JF: I don’t come out of their tradition. I can’t hold myself the standard against Toni Morrison or Joyce Carol Oates. You know, those people aren’t playing the same game I’m playing. I think they’re great writers, they’re just not who I think about.
TL: So is the game partly sport? Is the game partly combat? Is there a points system?
JF: Sure. I guess. It’s always funny to me when people in publishing will say ‘Writing’s not a competition.’ And I’ll be like, ‘Well, why the fuck do we have bestseller lists? Every week you make it a competition.’ For me, at this point, it’s not sport with anybody around me, it’s sport with the other people. I mean, it’s sport with myself. Can I do it? Can I rise to the level of these people who I admire, and whose books meant and still mean so much to me?
TL: Which are the particular books?
JF: I mean, there are a million books. A Season in Hell. Paris Spleen. Journey to the End of the Night. Tropic of Cancer. Tropic of Capricorn. Tender is the Night is just a fucking great book. Dharma Bums, On the Road, Executioner’s Song, Armies of the Night. I love Bret Ellis’ American Psycho. I wanna write books as good as those books.
TL: Good, we can stop now.
TL: Thank you.
JF: My pleasure.