Puzzling truth

Memoirists still stuck between fiction and hard facts

After James Frey’s novel, the memoir-publishing business and writers aren’t sure how to put things back together.

After James Frey’s novel, the memoir-publishing business and writers aren’t sure how to put things back together.

I spent about seven years in Africa: covered many civil wars; saw Nelson Mandela elected with a minimum of fuss and violence; was “party” to (as in involved but not complicit with) the violent deaths of friends and acquaintances, including the suicide of a Pulitzer Prize-winning South African photographer.

So you’d think I wouldn’t have a problem getting a memoir published, right? Memoirs sell like cheap wine at Trader Joe’s in the United States, so it should be as easy as Two Buck Chuck.

Well, I’ve shopped the book idea to a number of houses, but didn’t get a single bite.

Even though I had one-on-one interviews with two mass murderers, Mobutu of Zaire and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe—and they hadn’t spoken with a Western journalist for at least 20 years—there was zero interest.

The crazy success of best-selling “memoirist” James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and resulting discovery of it being largely fiction, has changed the game for memoir publishing.

Now, what’s an aspiring writer to do: make it up or tell the straight truth? And what’s a would-be publisher to do: turn his or her eyes away from the fudged reality or do a little fact-checking before publication?

Judith Gurewich, founder of Other Press in New York City, which specializes in memoir and nonfiction, says the approach to publishing a memoir varies.

“Well, it depends of course on the source, and the already-established credibility of the source,” Gurewich explained, in a charmingly thick Belgian accent, from her home in Cambridge, Mass.

“For example, in the case of Michael Greenberg’s latest memoir work, Beg, Borrow, Steal, we were not that concerned, because many of the essays had been published before in respectable publications, and they had already been fact-checked very thoroughly,” she said.

But, in the case of Impossible Motherhood, a true story about a Puerto Rican woman who had had 15 abortions in 15 years, Gurewich said they had their lawyer meticulously confirm medical charts, dates, names and historical facts.

Beg, Borrow, Steal scribe Greenberg says memoir authors of yesteryear have ruined it for future writers. “Memoir writing has been dragged through the mud by its practitioners,” he said.

Greenberg’s particularly sensitive to the issue, because he made his name with Hurry Down Sunshine, a memoir about his daughter and her diagnosis with severe bipolar disorder.

For him, telling the truth in a memoir was a huge responsibility, he explained, because he had “come to realize that writing about someone you know intimately in our society is like ‘soul theft.’” And, according to Greenberg, “Memoirs have replaced people’s appetite for fiction,” which is something that doesn’t help this whole matter of truthfulness.

Hopefully, I’ll get my memoir on Africa published without having to rearrange the pieces.