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Is Minnesota memoir a million fabrications?

Bestselling author James Frey's credibility scrutinized
A brutal addiction memoir by James Frey, set mostly in Minnesota and anointed by Oprah Winfrey, has become one of the biggest publishing success stories in years. But Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" took a major credibility hit this week when the Smoking Gun website published a lengthy investigation that challenged Frey's account of his drug addiction, criminal past and subsequent rehabilitation at a Minnesota clinic.

"A Million Little Lies: James Frey's Fiction Addiction," said that events throughout the book were "wholly fabricated or wildly embellished."

Similar discrepancies were pointed out in a 2003 Star Tribune story. Frey responded then by saying, "I've never denied I've altered small details."

Frey's bare-fisted, sparsely punctuated 2003 memoir had been a minor success until Oprah Winfrey selected it last fall for her television book club. Since then, it has sold 2 million copies and soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, becoming the second-highest selling book of 2005, behind "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." It is No. 1 on the Times' bestselling paperback chart, and Frey's sequel, "My Friend Leonard," is the No. 1 hardcover bestseller.

"Pieces," along with several others marketed as memoirs, raises questions among both readers and critics about the limits of authorial license in works of nonfiction.

Winfrey, who selected it as the first nonfiction book she'd ever offered her book-club members, called it "a gut-wrenching memoir that's so raw and so real."

Maybe not so real. Offering up police reports, court records, interviews with police and an interview with the author himself, the Smoking Gun article said Frey either burnished or totally concocted "details of his purported criminal career, jail terms and status as an outlaw 'wanted in three states.' "

Among the article's revelations: that Frey did not spend three months in jail after his felony arrest for fighting with police officers. Instead, he was held for a few hours on a drunken-driving charge and spent only a few days in jail.

No surprise locally

Twin Cities public relations executive Jon Austin said he was hardly surprised when he read about the Smoking Gun findings this week in USA Today.

"I remembered that there were problems about the veracity of his story when the book came out," said Austin, a former spokesman for Northwest Airlines.

In July 2003, shortly after the book was published, Austin told the Star Tribune that "no way, no how, nowhere" would Frey have been allowed to board a commercial jet covered in blood and vomit, with a hole in his cheek and four front teeth missing, as the author claimed in the first paragraph of "Pieces."

Joining Austin in his skepticism at the time were other Twin Cities professionals. A Minneapolis police captain said Frey's description of the Minneapolis bus station and of a search through nearby crack houses to locate his girlfriend didn't ring true. The president of the Minnesota Dental Association called Frey's account of visiting a dentist near the Minnesota clinic, which he acknowledged was Hazelden, to have two root canals and four teeth capped without anesthesia "absolutely false."

At the time, Frey brushed aside questions about his book's accuracy. "I wrote what was true to me," he told the Star Tribune. "If people want to pick apart the facts, they can."

Although the Smoking Gun website claims Frey admitted in an interview that he embellished details for dramatic reasons, the author posted a heated denial of the latest accusations on his website, calling them "the latest attempt to discredit me." Though Frey hasn't talked to reporters this week, he is scheduled to appear tonight on CNN's "Larry King Live."

Memoirs as profit centers?

The discrepancies and Frey's reported admissions of falsifying details of his life raise questions about the publishing industry's increasing reliance on nonfiction memoirs as a fast track to the bestseller list. The debate over fictionalizing in memoirs has raged recently about other books, from Augusten Burroughs' bestselling "Running with Scissors" to Minnesota writer Nicole Lea Helget's "The Summer of Ordinary Ways."

Many books marketed as nonfiction contain notes to readers saying that the author has altered the time sequence of events, created composite characters, changed names or otherwise made up details of a memoir. "A Million Little Pieces," however, contains no such disclaimer.

Nan Talese, whose Nan A. Talese Doubleday imprint first acquired the book, told the Star Tribune in 2003 that the lack of the disclaimer was "a total slip- up."

However, the "slip-up" was never corrected, through numerous hardcover printings of the book, or in the just-released paperback version.

Although Doubleday issued a statement supporting Frey, Talese has issued no comment. Winfrey has made no public comment about the revelations, though her website continues to carry a number of links to Frey.

Lorri Rice, 49, of Minneapolis just finished reading the memoir. Though she found it "gripping, raw and compelling," she was troubled by news of the embellishments.

"I don't care so much about the surrounding details: I care about the core truth," Rice said in an interview Tuesday. "When I think about how it's sold as a memoir, it bothers me more. We learn from each other, and in order to learn from each other we have to tell the truth."

The Smoking Gun (www.thesmokinggun.com), founded in 1997, made its reputation posting celebrity mug shots, police reports, corporate memos and other legal documents relating to the rich and famous. It began investigating Frey after it failed in its attempt to get a mug shot from his arrest to post on its website.

If there is any repercussion from the revelations, it may be even more sales for "Pieces," which topped Amazon.com's bestseller list Tuesday.

Staff writer Claude Peck, the New York Times and Associated Press contributed to this report. Deborah Caulfield Rybak • 612-673-4996

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