Rumpus Original – An Interview with James Frey

By

I’m writing books. They’re still a mix of fact and fiction and will continue to be. I think it’s an interesting place to work, especially now. What someone calls my books is irrelevant to me. I consider them works of art and rules and categories and labels mean nothing.”

James Frey on the things he wishes he hadn’t said, getting older and getting wiser, writing, being lucky, and making art, by Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott: OK. Let’s talk about Bright Shiny Morning. What was the genesis of that?

James Frey: I always wanted to write a book about LA, a big ambitious book. Nobody had ever really done it with LA- treating the city seriously as a major economic and cultural power, as the embodiment of 21st century America.

SE: It’s a monster of a city.

Frey: Yeah, in good ways, and bad. Dreams can come true there in ways impossible anywhere else, and they can get destroyed as well.

SE: The book is sprawling, kind of like the city itself.

Frey. By design. The city has no center, no single unifying place. The city grew and was built unconventionally, as was the book.

SE: The city operates as the spine of the narrative.

Frey: It’s a huge place, literally and metaphorically. Its beauty and horror. Its unconventional history. Its draw and allure. Its diversity and segregation.

SE: What was the process like. You have these four characters. Did you only work on one character each day?

Frey: It was fun. The most fun to write of the three books. I started at the beginning and just went. No outline, no idea of what was coming next until I did it. I knew the three protagonists, and had an idea of the structure, but nothing else. Coming after all the bullshit related to A Million Little Pieces, nobody was expecting anything from me. No publisher, no agent, no one. Just me and the book. It was great.

SE: Sounds peaceful. You were able to get back to that place of no expectations.

Frey: Yeah, in a way. Mostly just fun. Made me really love writing again. I love the process of being alone in a room. Being a writer now is about so much more than writing. There’s publishing, touring, marketing, web presence. All this other shit. It all disappeared for me and I was happy to keep writing. I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to do this. Live this life. I did it before I was published and would do it if I still wasn’t.

SE: So tell me about the year. Has it been a year already since Bright Shiny Morning came out?

Dont miss The Rumpus interview with Malcolm Gladwell

Don't miss The Rumpus interview with Malcolm Gladwell

Frey: It’s been about seven months.

SE: You did a big tour.

Frey: Did a big tour, a fun tour with bands and a multimedia show and other writers I admire, you among them. Had some huge crowds, a small riot in LA, and some empty houses. The book’s reception was polarized, which I love. And it sold, which was very nice.

SE: Emotionally, that sounds like a roller coaster.

Frey: Compared to other things in my life, not really. I really was thrilled just to have another book out and be able to keep doing this.

SE: Can I ask about the other book you once told me about? The carpenter.

Frey: Yeah. I’m about to start it. I just finished an outline. First time I’ve outlined a book.

SE: You know you’re going to throw half that outline away though.

Frey: Ha. Probably. But it was good to do it. It helped me focus.

SE: Now this is a book about a man, a carpenter.

Frey: It’s the third book of the Bible, called The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. My idea of what the Messiah would be like if he were walking the streets of New York today. What would he believe? What would he preach? How would he live? With who?

SE: I remember you saying he would perform gay marriages.

Frey: Absolutely.

SE: And he would live with a prostitute.

Frey: Love is love. It doesn’t matter how or who you love. I don’t believe the messiah would condemn gay men and women. It addresses the supernatural aspects of religion, how we need to think of religion given the technology available to us. We know have the power of God in many ways: the atomic bomb, the ability to create life in a test tube, cloning, artificial intelligence.

SE: What’s Judas like today?

Frey: A human. Same as he was two thousand years ago. A selfish man
who thinks of himself before the good of humanity, who values money more than love.

SE: I want to touch on something.

Frey: Okay.

SE: The first time I saw you read someone asked about a comment you had made about McSweeney’s.

Frey: Yeah.

SE: And you basically said you regretted making that comment.

Frey: I regretted making a comment about Dave Eggers. I’ve never said anything about McSweeneys except that I admire what it is, and I think it’s great that they keep people interested in literature.

SE: In those first interviews it’s so easy to say something stupid or to get taken out of context.

Frey: Yeah. It was a rude, unnecessary remark. Simple as that. If I ever met Eggers, I would apologize for having made it. I’ve mellowed since then, learned a bit.

SE: Back on the A Million Little Pieces stuff. Didn’t Nan Talese defend you recently, or did I hear that wrong?

Frey: She’s defended me all the way through. She’s been great, incredibly cool and supportive.

SE: I don’t think I paid as close attention as a lot of people, but at the time it seemed like a pile on, a free for all, and quickly degenerated into something worse. I was worried about you.

Frey: It wasn’t fun. But I’ve been through worse. And I felt so much of it was ridiculous. And thanks for worrying.

SE: I remember reading something in the New York Times that just seemed gratuitous.

Frey: The Times was absurd. They’ve made up more shit about me than I’ve made up about myself. One week there were three editorials about me. Cheney had just shot someone, Palestine and Israel had resumed fighting, and we were in Iraq. That was absurd.

SE: So we’ve switched places now. My new book is a memoir, half memoir, half true-crime.

Frey: Your new book is cool and that is all that matters.

SE: It’s scary because I know it’s a lot easier to attack someone writing non-fiction.

Frey: If a book is cool, and entertaining, and moving, then get your middle finger ready and raise it often. Fuck’em all.

SE: It seems like that initial fallout is over, and now you’re writing novels, and you’re leaving New York.

Frey: I’m writing books. They’re still a mix of fact and fiction and will continue to be. I think it’s an interesting place to work, especially now. What someone calls my books is irrelevant to me. I consider them works of art and rules and categories and labels mean nothing.

SE: You don’t do many interviews anymore.

Frey: No, I don’t. And will do less in the future. The next book I may do none.

SE: Well, when you want to interview someone for The Rumpus just let me know.

Frey: Cool. Thanks.

SE: It’s more fun sometimes being on this end, I’m finding. I’m loving editing this magazine.

Frey: Good.

SE: I don’t know why I didn’t do it before.

Frey: You were busy writing books and chasing women.

SE: Now I’m just chasing women.

Frey: A great thing to do.

SE: I’m scraped clean for a little while on writing. I need to recharge.

Frey: Yeah. I know the feeling. And yeah, we’re leaving New York.

***

see also: What Is The Rumpus

see also: The Best of NOT 2008

see also: Post Young, a new blog by Jerry Stahl

see also: Q&A with David Carr, author of Night of the Gun

see also: The Shorty Q&A with Mary Roach

return to the rumpus


Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries and the novel Happy Baby. He is the founding editor of The Rumpus. His feature film debut, About Cherry, was distributed by IFC. His second movie, based on his novel Happy Baby, is forthcoming. More from this author →