"I make the rules...": James Frey, Interviewed
James Frey's new novel Bright Shiny Morning goes on sale today. This Thursday, May 15 at 7:30 pm, Vroman's and Book Soup present James Frey at the Whisky A Go-Go, with special guests Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Black Tide and pictures by Terry Richardson. It is free and open to the public. In anticipation of this event, Mr. Frey was good enough to sit down and answer a few questions.
How long did it take you to write Bright Shiny Morning?
It took about ten months. From October of 2006 until August of 2007.
Were you living in LA during that time?
No. I was living in New York City, and Amagansett, New York. I was in LA twice for about two weeks during the writing process.
The novel follows four intertwining stories (as well as numerous other smaller stories). Which of the four main story lines came to you first? Was there ever a time when you thought you might follow only one story for the novel or did you always have an idea that there were multiple story lines throughout?
I originally had six or seven narratives that I was thinking about, but decided that anything more than four would be too much, and would be too diluted. I chose the four that I did because I thought they were all different from each other, but were also very representative of Los Angeles as a city. Some of the others got folded into smaller pieces, or smaller stories, and some of them were discarded. I always envisioned the book as having multiple protagonists, as using multiple narratives.
I don’t know if you’ve read it or not, but Bright Shiny Morning reminded me of John Dos Passos’ The 42nd Parallel in the way that it shifts between different narratives and includes sections meant to show a snapshot of life in the city. What books, if any, influenced this one? What were you reading when you wrote it?
I know Dos Passos’ work. The influence from it, if there is any, was to try and break rules in how I structured the book, as he did, and to try to tell a vast story in an unconventional, but highly accessible way, which he also did. Ultimately, though, I tried to write a book that was unlike anything that has preceded it, that is devoid of any real influence, and that’s singular in its composition and voice, but also immediately recognizable as my work. I have tried to do this with each of my books. I want to tell stories in new, fresh ways. I want my writing to reflect the age in which we live, which is fast, contains vast amounts of information, and uses new ways to present the information. I always read while I write, but for pleasure, not inspiration or influence.
At what point did those historical facts start coming into the narrative? How did the decision to include some “fake facts” come about? It reminded me a little bit of the Museum of Jurassic Technology (which is, of course, in Los Angeles), which plays with conventional notions of the museum. Is this playing with fact and fiction the result of what happened with A Million Little Pieces?
In certain ways, the main character of the book is the city of LA itself, and in order to give a thorough treatment of it, I had always planned to include a history of the city in the book, and incorporate as much statistical and demographic information as I could without bogging down the narratives. Because the book is fiction, I felt like I had the liberty to present the history, and the statistics and demographics, in any way I saw fit. The decision was made during the writing process. I don’t remember with which fact, or supposed fact, but there came a point where I couldn’t find what I wanted, or needed, so I just created it. It is definitely a reaction to what happened with my other books. I feel liked doing it is a statement which I want to make it, which is that I make the rules about what is or is not appropriate in my work, and whatever rules people expect me to follow mean nothing to me.
This is a popular narrative form for stories about Los Angeles. I’m thinking of movies like Crash, Magnolia, and even the film version of Short Cuts. What is it about Los Angeles (as opposed to New York or Chicago) that seems to inspire this multi-narrative form?
I think it has something to do with the vast spread of LA. It’s a not a centralized city, and centralized, or single narrative stories, aren’t always appropriate for it. There is, however, one significant, important, and very deliberate difference between the narratives you listed, and the ones in my book. I’m not going into it, though. Would rather let people figure it out.
I know you’re not big on revising, but I’m wondering how much of this was laid out in your head and how much was spontaneous? How much outlining did you do and how much did you just charge ahead?
There was no outline. I had a list of things I wanted to write about, and when I got stuck somewhere, I’d look at the list and figure out what to use. Beyond that list, everything was in my head, written by instinct, by feel. I want the book to be unexpected, to feel unexpected. I never want the reader to know what’s coming next, which narrative, or whether it will be a narrative or something else. I never knew while I was writing what was going to come next.
You live in New York now, and from this book, I would guess that you don’t like Los Angeles. Much of the book focuses on how so many people come here chasing their dreams, and most of them end up as waiters, gardeners, sex workers, or corpses. Yet I see in various interviews that you “love Los Angeles.” If that’s so, why focus on these specific stories? I’m not trying to deny the ugly or painful aspects of LA, but I am curious why these stories.
I absolutely love LA. I think it’s a great great place, absolutely singular and unique. I think of this book as love letter to the city. Maybe not a fawning love letter, or one that’s been sprayed with perfume, but definitely a love letter. It’s the type you write to someone you love, but who’s faults you recognize, and whose faults you cherish. LA is a beautiful place and ugly place, an exciting place and a place filled with despair. There is no city on earth where more people comes to chase and realize their dreams, whether that dream is fame and fortune, or a green card and a job. The reality is that most of those dreams never come true.
You once wrote “all writing is a form of autobiography.” Do you still believe that’s true and if so, how does the autobiographical aspect come out in this novel?
I lived in LA for eight years. I would have never written the book, or conceived of it, without having had the experiences I had while I was there. I also tended to write about what I knew in LA: the places, neighborhoods, the types of people. The Venice narrative, in particular, is set in my old neighborhood. Like I said above, I love Los Angeles. This is my tribute to it, in all of its glory and all of its ugliness.
What do you miss about living in LA? What don’t you miss?
I miss the sun, the beach, the ocean. I miss the pace of life, which is slower and mellower. I miss hamburger joints on every corner, humongous grocery stores, the dread of the 405. I miss seeing the mountains in the distance. I miss my friends.
It’s a complete cliché, but I don’t miss the traffic.
Describe your ideal day in Los Angeles. What would you do? Where would you go?
Wake up put on shorts walk down to the beach have coffee. Maybe go for a swim, maybe just sit and watch the waves. In-and-Out burger for lunch, go to a bookstore get a good book, sit on the porch of my old house and read for a couple. Either sushi or Mexican for dinner, definitely eat outside. Go to sleep with the sound of crashing waves.
Have you considered writing a memoir about the aftermath of A Million Little Pieces?
I’ll never publish anything classified as a memoir again. If I do it, I’ll call it Memoir, make sure it’s factually and sourcebly accurate, and publish it as fiction.
What should we expect from the event on the 15th at the Whisky?
Some good words, some cool pictures, and some heavy metal music that absolutely fucking rocks.
James Frey's new book, Bright Shiny Morning is on sale now. If you can't make it to the event and would like a signed copy, you can get one at Vroman's website.