Tuesday, January 31, 2006

If you burn long enough, your brain will get Frey'd

What really troubles me about the whole James Frey thing is that we are not faulting his story. No one is saying his book isn't good enough - what we appear to be saying is that his life isn't good enough. Sorry James, if you'd only have gone to jail, we'd find you worthy. Your road to recovery wasn't ugly enough, rock bottom for you wasn't low enough...

Or is it that Frey told himself those things, and decided that simply puking his brains out and waking up with a snot encrusted face a couple hundred times wasn't dramatic enough, so he created the hollywood version of an addict just for his literary audience? Probably both.

Where is the story in all of this? If the story is good, if it touched people the way it originally touched Oprah, then the story stands on its own. I don't care about the author - his life isn't important to the story, to the message... is it?

I know that Stetson Kennedy has changed the world. If what he wrote about doing so doesn't match what really happened, I don't care. He - changed - the - world. That's a hell of a lot more than you or I have done.

Did James Frey change the world? I don't know, but I'd bet that his story about overcoming addiction has changed someone's world, and since it's the story that deserves the credit, not Frey's self-destructive life, then I don't see how whether he embellished the truth to tell that story matters.

And that is probably the last thing I'm going to say here on this topic. Sorry to have bored you.

Mark Pettus,
Tuesday, January 31, 2006


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Monday, January 30, 2006

Stetson Kennedy - Update

An update on Stetson Kennedy.

Tonight's program, An Evening With Stetson Kennedy, focused not on Kennedy's books, but on his life. After listening to Peggy Bulger, Director of the American Folklife Center of The Library of Congress talk to Kennedy about his early years working as a writer for the WPA, collecting oral histories and ethnicity studies, and after watching radio legend Bob Edwards talk with Stetson about how he had escaped to France hoping to stop the nightmares he was having about being killed by the Klan, only to discover that French policemen wore white rain coats with capes that closely resembled Klan robes - after seeing pictures of Kennedy in the 1930s interviewing African-American singers, and in the 1940s with Langston Hughes - it was hard to see the relevance of finding fault with the way he wrote his story. His life far outweighs his books, and I can't help but question the motivations of those who would seek to diminish the man or his work at this late date. I suspect the sudden fame heaped upon The Smoking Gun has inspired others to seek fame at the expense of those more famous, without regard for their achievements.

Kamele Oupa Seane, the Director of the Intercultural Center for Peace at the University of North Florida read a letter tonight from Arch-bishop Desmond Tutu, in which Tutu accepted an invitation to serve on the board of the Stetson Kennedy Foundation. In the only comments all night that referenced Kennedy's books, or the new controversy, Seane said this, "Stetson, the world owes you a great debt, and we don't care how you wrote your book."

I agree.

Mark Pettus,
Monday, January 30, 2006


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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Liar, Liar, books on fire...

I met Stetson Kennedy a couple of weeks ago when we both had breakfast at the same coffee shop. He's a local legend, and his home (Beluthahatchee, which was made famous by Woody Guthrie) is now a historic park. Like most ninety year olds, Stetson is showing his age, but he was both spry and affable that morning, and I liked him.

Stetson is famous for once infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, and then writing a series of newspaper articles, followed by a book, about his experiences. The Klan is not the powerful invisible empire it once was, but in the late 1940s, it was still a secret and dangerous organization, and Kennedy exposed their secrets. In return, the Klan put a bounty on his head (and body) of $1000 per pound.

Two writers, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, made Kennedy the hero of a chapter on the Klan in their book, Freakonomics. The chapter focused on the concept of information asymmetry, and how the Klan's power was enhanced by their secrecy, but when Kennedy exposed their secrets and held them up to ridicule, he diminshed their power. Now Dubner and Levitt have attacked Stetson Kennedy in their latest column in the New York Times Magazine. The column, titled Hoodwinked, offers evidence that Kennedy embellished his stories, and that he wrote the book in a first person narrative, apparently taking credit for actions that were not his, but rather the actions of his infomants and fellow civil rights activists. More information is available at their site, Freakonomics.com.

In the aftermath of the James Frey - A Million Little Pieces incident, I expect we will se a lot of this fact checking, but I'm not sure that's a good thing. In this case, Kennedy wrote his book in a style reminiscent of Mickey Spillane, and the book's hero, the first person narrator, is larger than life. It reads like a 1940s detective novel, because that's what it is - except it isn't a novel - it's a memoir, or an expose, or what? Creative non-fiction? I don't know the label it was marketed under, and I don't know if that label meant then what it means now, or if the meaning is universal. Whatever the meaning, the reality is that at a time when few white men dared to cross the path of the KKK, Kennedy did it, and put his own life at risk. Kennedy says he compiled information from many sources and recast it as a first person account. He says he did it to add dramatic appeal, and to protect the identity of an informant (he credits the informant at the beginning of the book, and says the informant risked his life to help with the book).

If his book reads more like an action movie than like the day to day hum-drum of working against the morons who were the original Boys in the Hoods, I can't fault him or his publisher. I'm not alone. People like Studs Terkel, Hodding Carter, and Morris Dees (director of the Southern Poverty Law Center) say that Kennedy's contribution and courage outweigh any fault they could find with the way he chose to tell the story.

This is America, and no matter how many times we see Myth-Busters prove it won't work, we still want our hero to shoot the gas tank on the bad guy's car and make it blow up. We don't hold Hollywood writers, producers, and directors up to ridicule when they play fast and loose with the facts, why do we hold book writers to a higher standard?

I can tell you that my stories are fiction. They are not fact, and any similarity to real events is just that - a similarity - not a recitation of the actual event. In some cases, the facts wouldn't be believable, in others, they wouldn't be interesting. I mould the facts into something readable, something I hope will capture your imagination and immerse you into my world: the world of my mind, where my thoughts and my characters intermingle with the reality of my life and my experiences. It is not my goal to recount for you what happened, rather, it is my goal to tell you the truth - about how these people act, about how they think, how they speak, and how they feel. In the real world, girls in prom dresses sometimes fart. If I said my prom date farted as we slow danced to The Way We Were, it would be the truth, but it wouldn't be a fact. If I pretended that girls in prom dresses were immune to farting, that would be a lie.

When my story is inconsistent with the facts, remember that I write fiction, and please remember that you're the one who ordered the broccoli with cheese sauce. Let's both just act like nothing happened and quickly waltz our way to the far side of the gym. Just this once we'll both pretend we didn't smell anything.

Mark Pettus,
Sunday, January 29, 2006


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Monday, January 09, 2006

So many books, so little time.

I don't have much to tell you right now. The holidays are a tough time to be reporting local news. The last few weeks have been pretty quiet. After school let out, there weren't even any choral concerts or gingerbread houses to write about, so I've been beating the streets pretty hard looking for subject matter.

I do want to tell you about the books I've been reading. First, 'Tis by Frank McCourt. Outstanding book. A lesson in writing in first person without becoming self-indulgent. McCourt has lived through interesting times and is a fascinating man. His Irish origins give him an exotic and original take on America, but his fears and insecurities are part of the universal human experience. Kim Murphy, my new sister-in-law, who is terminally cute, turned me onto McCourt when she bought his latest, Teacher Man. (Kim found her way into my good graces at Thanksgiving, when I found out she had decided to read Transit Gloria before Teacher Man. She read TG in one day, then spent the entire holiday weekend talking about the story with me.) McCourt won the Pulitzer for his first book, Angela's Ashes. (My other sister-in-law's name is Angela, and is a beauty in her own right. I wonder if there is some serendipity at work between me and McCourt... how much does the Pulitzer pay?)

Second, I finally finished Terry Goodkind's Blood of the Fold. I have been hard on Goodkind in the past because the quality of his writing has not kept pace with his storytelling. A great story deserves better than to be slowed down by an extra three sentences in every descriptive paragraph. "You are so nice. I am fond of you. I like you. I think you are swell." You get the picture. I think he may have figured it out. The final 200 pages of Blood clipped along as well as anything by Robert Jordan or Frank Herbert.

I just started Blue Latitudes; Going where Capt. Cook has gone before by Tony Horowitz. It promises to be as engaging as his masterpiece, Confederates in the Attic; Dispatches from the unfinished Civil War. Think you want to be a journalist, or write creative non-fiction? Read Confederates in the Attic.

I also just received the first of a series of books I've promised to review: Kosher for the Clueless but Curious, by Shimon Apisdorf. I admit to agreeing to review this little book mainly because I am one of the Clueless. Reading Kinky Friedman is as close as I came to knowing anything about Jewish customs when I was in Texas, and I'm genuinely curious. Two pages in, and I've already learned something. I'd tell you what I learned, but I'm not sure that would be kosher.

I received Anne Rice's Christ the Lord - Out of Egypt for Christmas, and put it under the copy of Hush by my blog-buddy Anne Frasier, which I gave myself for Christmas, and which will be promoted to nightstand reader after I put the paper to bed on Friday. I also have a copy of James Ritchie's Over on the Lonesome Side I've been meaning to read. Anyone who frequents Absolute Write will recognize Ritchie as one of most prolific posters from the AW Forums. I disagree with James about almost everything, and I don't normally read westerns, but he puts in so much time trying to help other writers that I felt like I owed him one, even if this one is an out-of-print hardcover that I bought used. If I could just have an extra four hours a day, I could read at least two more books a week (not two more of Goodkind's 800 pagers, but J.A. Konrath has sure been nice to me, and his books can't be more than 100,000 words each). So many books, so little time.

Mark Pettus,
Monday, January 09, 2006


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