Interview: James Frey, author

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THERE is something touching about the way forget-me-nots thrive in dank, dirty ditches, clambering valiantly out of stagnant pools: fragile, beautiful, but tenacious in the face of all that mud and slurry and rotting vegetation.

For some reason, the image is conjured up reading American writer James Frey. His controversial new novel – when has he written anything else? – The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, confronts readers with all the ugliness of life: hatred and bigotry and violence and death and worse: impotence in the face of it all.

Yet there is something that moves you, some little, lovely, tenacious thing that stops it all tipping into despair and tells you the struggle is worth it because living is worth it.

"I am essentially optimistic," says Frey. "Being alive is incredible. Life is extraordinary and beautiful. It can be hard and sad and terrifying, but it's all we've got."

Frey's first work, A Million Little Pieces, a raw, harrowing tale of addiction and recovery, was an international bestseller before Oprah Winfrey championed it, bringing it to an even bigger audience.

It was billed as memoir, then journalists found details in Frey's story didn't entirely add up.

Now, you might think accusing a storyteller of embellishing the truth is a bit like accusing a pianist of messing up a melody with some fancy chords, but Oprah, for one, was furious. She felt betrayed. Frey was publicly dropped by his publisher and agent and, for a while, looked finished.

But he came back from literary scandal with a new book, Bright Shiny Morning, in which his V-sign of an opening line was: "Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable."

It doesn't take long to realise the scale of Frey's defiance. The Final Testament, to be published on Good Friday, describes the return of the Messiah, now a secular Jew called Ben Zion, who is a free-loving, bisexual commune dweller. Fair to say it's not Frey's contribution to world ecumenical harmony.

He emerges from the lift in his boutique hotel lobby, a compact figure, polite, unsmiling, hard to read. He's a tough guy whose uncompromising edge is smoothed away by a hint of something that might once have been nervousness, maybe even shyness, before he learned to suppress it.

But these are not words usually identified with Frey so it's hard to define that quality. Something emotional. Something interesting. I suspect it's the quality that made him both an addict and a writer.

Where are we doing the interview? Anywhere you want, he says. His mellow, American neutrality throws me. I glance round the small, dark lobby uncertainly, but then he says let's go to the restaurant next door for breakfast, where he orders fruit salad, and leaves all the chunks of kiwi in a pile, and a side order of a sausage.

To the conventionally religious, Ben Zion, for all his kindness and gentleness, might be a blasphemous, disrespectful creation. Religion, in Frey's novel, is divisive and destructive.

Yet something bubbles under the surface that reads almost like a yearning for God. Frey says he thinks a lot about God, has dealt with the concept in all his books. The impetus to write this particular story came many years ago when he was an art student.

He worked in a Chicago clothing store where the manager used to call him "writer boy".

"One day he said something like, 'If you could write any book in the world, what would you write, writer boy?' I was half laughing and I said, 'The great book of life.'

"He was like, 'Already been done. It's called the Bible. Too late.' And literally in the middle of him saying that, I thought, 'Yeah, somebody did it, Maybe I could try it again.'"

There's something very Frey about tampering with the Bible. He's not a man to undersell himself. People will be offended. Does he care? No. But that's not his intention.

He would never write, or not write, a book to either stir up or avoid controversy. But he admits he likes dividing opinion.

"I don't want to walk in the middle. I want people to read what I write and feel strongly about it. If, at some point, whatever I am doing is failing to elicit a response, whether it's very positive or very negative, then I am going to stop doing it."

In his very first interview, he said he wanted to be the most influential, most controversial writer in the world. Didn't he feel uneasy saying that out loud?

"No, because that was it. That was it. Why should I not say that?" He never wanted to be a guy who wrote a book and got written up in the local paper.

Ben Zion doesn't actually believe in God, which is a bit tricky since the Bible's original Messiah is God's son. It seems contradictory to write about a Messiah with miraculous powers when there's no source for those powers, but Ben says this life is all there is. That's pretty much Frey's position too, though he doesn't like to be classified.

"My beliefs are fluid, sort of. Sometimes I really want to believe in God. I really admire, in a lot of ways, people who have faith. I think it must be a beautiful thing to believe.

"It probably makes life easier. But I don't. I have tried. I haven't felt it. And if I do believe in anything, it's not a God in the sky who knows everything and watches over us with a check book on how we're behaving."

He wanted to show the Messiah in the era of the genetic code and quantum mechanics and astrophysics. But those things haven't solved life's mysteries, have they?

"No," he agrees. Does he like the fact that God is still a possibility? "Yeah, it would be awesome to have God and heaven. That would be the shit."

Some critics have labelled him banal. One, for example, scoffs at lines like: "God is what you feel when there's love in your heart." But Frey's "testimonies", like the original books of the Bible, are told by different characters and they're not all members of Mensa.

(Frey says his lines aloud before writing them down because he thinks speech the purest form of communication.) It's true that there's excessive repetition at times, and one of the least intellectually satisfying notions is the unconvincing idea that because the Messiah loves everyone, he has sex with them. Good controversy, though.

And yet ... there's something not remotely cynical about Frey despite the furore. There's a quality to his writing that frequently leaves you with a lump in your throat because he writes like a man who knows what life really is: the mud slurry and the forget-me-nots, and in that knowledge has become almost fearless in grabbing hold of life.

The testimonies may be expressed by halting, inarticulate characters, like Ben Zion's lover MariaAngeles, a young, black, single mother who works as a prostitute to feed her habit and her daughter, but the rawness of the language simply emphasises the passion.

"I wish I could tell my beautiful three-year-old girl ... that the world is f***ed up, that pain and suffering are everywhere, that people hate each other and hurt each other for no good reason, that we live and then we die and when we die that's it, we gone, just f***ing gone," MariaAngeles says in an emotional outburst.

And when she watches her mother die of cancer, she describes her as "just flesh lying there, breathing. You ever sat by the bed of someone dying you know what it's like. There ain't nothing you can do." And that's it, isn't it? That is the truth you eventually face in life? "Yeah," says Frey.

When you understand the real things to fear in life, you don't fear the stupid stuff – like critics – and you are not too scared to reach for what you want while you can. "I mean professionally, what's the worst that can happen?" he says. "Well, it's probably already happened."

THERE is something you must understand about Frey. I don't think you like rules very much. No, he doesn't, he agrees. Interesting to be so anti-authority when he had a comfortable, middle-class background. Is 'middle class' used in the same way in America?

"Yeah. My dad was an attorney, a barrister as you would call it." He always had a lot of anger towards his parents but didn't understand why. The only explanation he ever got was that he screamed for the first couple of years of his life with undiagnosed ear problems. But he loves his parents.

"They only ever had my best interests at heart." So how did Frey end up ... "a troublemaker?" he finishes for me. An addict.

"I don't know."

He adds: "It's that thing like, you know when you're a kid; who do you like? The sheriff or the outlaw? I was for the outlaw. You like Al Capone? I always liked Al Capone. Don't know why. Don't question it. I always liked the outcasts, the guys who got in trouble, the guys who said f*** the system instead of let me in, who made their own rules instead of following everybody else's."

When he went into rehab, he rejected the 12-step AA programme because you had to believe in a higher power and he didn't. Isn't it interesting how upset people get when you reject their hierarchy or orthodoxy or club?

"They hate you," he agrees. Anyway, staff insisted AA was the only way to get sober. Frey refused to conform.

"Part of it was just that I couldn't live with having rules imposed on me in that way. Why do I have to follow those 12 steps? Because that's the way it is. Why? It doesn't make sense to me. It's not your place to question rules. Well I don't like 'em."

He did it his way and has been sober for 18 years. Is it a struggle? "I don't really think about it." He looks up at the restaurant bar.

"There's a couple of hundred bottles of liquor up there and I haven't thought about them once. At the worst times in my life, I've thought, 'God, it would be great to get f***ed up right now,' but I didn't. It's not going to do anything good for me. There's no positive going to come of it."

Did the fallout from A Million Little Pieces damage him as a person? "Yeah, for sure." Did it make him feel angry or humiliated?

"Both in certain ways." But it also freed him. "I have never wanted to be part of the system, one of the guys. I've never wanted to go to an award show and say, 'Hey!' The people I admired always worked outside of the system or changed the system."

People like Jack Kerouac. Henry Miller. "You can't do anything radical if you're existing within whatever the system is. How I live, how I'm sober, how I write – I am not going to let people dictate the terms of it just because they think they should. F*** them."

Actually, Frey had tried to sell A Million Little Pieces as a novel. The publisher wanted to market it as memoir. Frey didn't care. Most of it was true and he thought it stupid to categorise stories anyway. He just wanted it published.

"Most memoirs are full of shit. You could pull all of them apart. I don't think mine is any different. I didn't even think of it as a memoir. It was more in line with what Henry Miller did. Is Tropic of Cancer a memoir? The character's name is Henry Miller. It's about his life ..." But does A Million Little Pieces have an essential truth? "Yes," he says without hesitation. It has his truth.

The sun is streaming in the windows of the restaurant behind Frey's back. If we went for a walk right now, he says, he might say London is beautiful today when we came back. But I might say London is shitty today. "For each of us, that would be our truth, our reality."

He aims to write books that will be read in 50 years' time. Will he succeed? "I don't know. We'll see. I think I've got as good a shot as anybody else at this point. Anybody my age, anywhere in the world, I think I've got as fair a shot as any of them."

He sounds defiant rather than boastful. He has enough readers around the world to ignore the literary establishment.

"They almost expect it of me. Most of the people who read and support my work, they don't want me to be a fancy boy. You know what I mean? I'm not one. I'm not going to pretend to be one. At no point am I going to say, 'I was wrong about everything guys. Can I be part of the club?'"

The kiwi sits in a mound at the bottom of his bowl. "I don't want to be part of the club."

PEOPLE think Frey arrogant. "They don't know me," he says. He seems too deeply sensitive to me for real arrogance. One of his big themes is that we should confront life, not death.

Does he? "I try to live as big and bold and interesting a life as I can." You know Bob Dylan? he asks suddenly. There's this song Up To Me ... but maybe it won't make any sense to me.

He quotes a chunk and it's about doing your own thing rather than listening to other people who make "the heart inside you die". It ends: "But I was just too stubborn, to ever be governed, by enforced insanity. Someone had to reach for the rising star. I guess it was up to me."

It might, he says, sound corny. "But that's how I think about my life. I am going to do what I want to do, write what I want to write, say what I want to say." What is there to fear?

"Whatever hardships there have been in my life I still live in a very privileged position. Fear is not knowing where your next meal is coming from. Fear is seeing a child get hurt.

"Fear is watching someone you love waste away. Fear is knowing you are going to die yourself. But there's no fear in what I do. I write books. Someone writes bad shit about it, I'm not bothered."

In his books, there's a strong sense that love is redemptive. In rehab – against the rules – he fell in love with a girl called Lilly but she died. How did that affect him?

"I don't know that there's anything we confront as humans – apart from our own death – that's harder than someone in your life dying. It never really ... you get scarred by the trauma, wounded. Sometimes the wounds heal, sometimes they don't."

But Frey is married now, to Maya, with a boy and a girl. Has that changed him? "Love is the greatest thing we know in life. Romantic love, or love for your children or your parents or friends or family.

I've talked about all the shit in my career but the worst days are made better when your kid runs over and shouts, 'Dadd...yyy!' and gives you a big hug. The worst days are made better when your spouse comes over and says, 'It's going to be all right. I love you.'"

Then he says something strange. "At some point, I am just going to quit. I won't make a big deal of it, won't tell anyone but friends and family." Like Marvin Hagler, the world champion boxer who just quietly disappeared into retirement.

"I am tired," Frey admits. Writing is emotional work. "Whatever shit happened in my life and my career, a lot of shit has gone right and a lot of dreams have come true. This is the tail end of my professional life. I'd rather leave when I can run the fastest, hit the hardest, than leave when I'm done, when I don't have it any more."

But he's so ambitious. "At some point it won't matter to me any more."

He has another novel in mind first but when he does stop, what will he do? "I'll just have a lot more free time. I would read books and hang out with my kids all the time. I'd learn to cook and go for walks every day. I'd just fade away. And if my books are good enough, they won't."

We walk back to his hotel in the sunshine. I say goodbye and Frey gives me one of those slightly diffident hugs tough guys give you when they're not so tough really. Earlier, he quoted John Lennon and Dylan – that song about watching the wheels go round and round – and I wonder if Frey could really be happy just watching them turn. He'll find out when he's ready.

"At the end of this life, if there are going to be regrets, they are going to be my regrets, not anybody else's," he says.

The Final Testament of the Holy Bible is published by John Murray, 16.99

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 17 April, 2011