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start of a long humiliation for lirey. who went from being one of the most sought-after authors in America to being a pariah abandoned by his agent and many friends too. In a bid to stop the controversy. I'ircy's publishers offered to reimburse anyone who'd bought .‘I Million Little Pieces and wanted their money back. Very few did. This public flogging seemed strange to me. In a publishing world where novels ‘written’ by celebrities who proudly claim never to have even read a book (hello. Katie Price) are considered fair play. also 'memoirs‘ and ‘autobiographies' by sports stars who couldn‘t possibly have time to write what they put their name to. this attitude to ‘truth’ is pure hypocrisy. Why is absolute truth valued so highly anyway‘.’ How do we know when we’ve found it. and what use is it'.’ Surely the wider point with l‘rey‘s book was that he‘d recovered from a life of substance abuse and was inspiring others to do the same.
WHY IS ABSOLUTE TRUTH VALUED SO HIGHLY ANYWAY? WHAT USE IS IT?
l‘rey survived despite the controversy. and has now resurfaced as a novelist with a new fiction (that is. book of lies) called Brig/it Shiny Morning. This has become a huge bestseller. embraced by many of those critics who wanted lirey chucked on the stake for previous crimes. Since then he has embarked on a lengthy world tour which now brings him to (ilasgow. Some believe this switch to fiction is strange. Suspicious even. given the circumstances. But it’s not surprising that l‘rey should be a good novelist. because writing autobiography is similar to writing fiction. whether or not you admit to gilding the truth. (And we all do it.) The moment you take events out of the real world and put them to paper. you're fictionalising. By selecting some words. rejecting others. abbreviating the truth and trying to make it interesting. you‘re lying. As l‘rey said when defending A Million Little Pieces. ‘I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow. to have dramatic arcs. to have the tension that all great stories require.‘ All useful skills for a professional spinner of lies.
When I began writing my biography of the
(E OPRAH WINFREY SiiOiii"ARPU‘PR’GDUCTi0NS
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(ilaswegian novelist and artist Alasdair (iray in 2005 this obsession with truth fascinated and worried me. Wasn‘t it my duty to keep exactly to ‘the truth‘. whatever that was'.’ What was I supposed to do if the truth wasn't obvious in a particular situation‘.’ Biographies I'd read so far seemed to be written in a voice that couldn‘t be disputed. and something about that seemed unbelievable. But then I read Jonathan (‘oe‘s masterful biography of the I‘)(i()s avant-garde writer BS Johnson. Like (1 l’iery lz'le/iliunt. At first I wasn‘t sure why this book was so gripping. I didn't warm to Johnson himself - — he came across as arrogant. deluded and self—important. I didn‘t know any of his work and the excerpts from it didn‘t instantly appeal to me. Yet I happily read 450 pages about him. Why'.’ I realised after finishing it for the first time. He clearly had a deep understanding of what drove the man and knew his work intricately. but crucially (‘oe was telling his story of Johnson. as he saw it.
l‘rom then on. writing my (iray book was easier. My challenge. I believed. was to write a convincing. entertaining portrait of the artist as an old man for future generations. and to tell the truth as I saw it. revealing as much about myself. my own vulnerability. my world. as Alasdair‘s. Not to pretend that I had all the answers. ()nly liars did that. I thought. Yes. try to get right exactly where Alasdair was on lst March [990 (on a flight to Berlin. incidentally. writing a poem) but never forget that such dry details don‘t tell the whole story. The greatest parts of the Johnson biography were the bits where (‘oe intruded to explain conflicts between his interviewees. or that the truth wasn't clear but this is what he thought and why. Because one person's truth is another person's lie.
Memories are unreliable. Interviewees disagree on even basic facts. It‘s the biographer‘s job to jump into that mess and make sense of it. also to turn a life into a story worth reading. Since his Johnson book. Jonathan (‘oe has returned to telling lies as a novelist. Since my (iray book. so have I. James l‘rey‘s next novel is a proposed 3rd Testament in which Jesus performs gay marriages. So. no controversy there then.
James Frey appears at Mitchell Library, Glasgow, Mon 9 Mar; Rodge Glass and Jonathan Coe appear together at Mitchell Library, Glasgow, Sun 8 Mar.
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The Story of B S Johnson
AYE WRITE! HIGHLIGHTS
From novelists and poets to philosophers and broadcasters, there's somthing for everyone
Alan Bennett Everyone's favourite northern talking head chats about The Uncommon Reader which specolates on the daring books HRH might flick thrOLigh. Fri 6 Mar, 6pm.
IL 7\4‘6 M ”‘6 W Cub.“ 7‘ Willy Haley on Muriel Spark The man who co? edited the 700 Best Scottish Books Of All Time for this very organ offers some enthus‘iastii; inSIght into the work of the late but still great Dame. Sat 7 Mar, 7.30pm.
Jackie Kay, Denise Mina 8. Val McDermid As part of the Homecoming celebrations. this true of top Scottish authors (two crime scribes and a poet) have penned a short story each. Hear the evrdence. Sun 8 Mar, 5.30pm.
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Alasdair Gray Returning to his playwright roots. the Glasgow icon hosts an evening of his own works. one of which features the man himself playing Auld Nick in his Faust adaptation. Sun 8 Mar, 7. 30pm.
Joan Bakewell The recently installed ‘champion of older people' has her debut novel but now, a bumper wartime romance called All the Nice Girls. Mon 9 Mar. 6pm.
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Benjamin Zephaniah The Rasta performance poet. novelist and playwright throws himself into two events. quute probably featuring his recent tomes. We Are Britain! and the Chambers Primary Rhyming Dictionary. Tue IO Mar, 7.30pm, 7. 30pm.
Graham Swift The Booker winner has taken the foot off the fictional gas to publish Making an Elephant. a memoir about his fighter-pilot dad, the books that have inspired him and his love of the guitar. Wed 11 Mar, 6pm.
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Hodge Glass 8: Ewan Morrison Two of our finest authors chat abOut their work - .3 a”: . and offer advice to students of the University of
i ' a . . m J4.“ m Strathclyde Writing School. Sat 14 Mar, 11am.
I All events are at Mitchell Library, Glasgow.
5-19 Mar 200’) THE LIST 15