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Oprah Winfrey Defends Memoir's Author in On-Air Call

January 12, 2006|Scott Martelle and Scott Collins | Times Staff Writers

Oprah Winfrey came to the defense Wednesday night of embattled author James Frey, whose bestselling memoir has come under fire, saying it was incumbent upon publishers to more accurately market their books.

"Although some of the facts have been questioned ... that underlying message of the redemption of James Frey still resonates with me, and I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read the book," Winfrey said in a surprise on-air call to CNN's "Larry King Live," on which Frey was a guest. "Whether car wheels rolled up on a curb ... is irrelevant to me."

Frey's televised appearance was the first time he or Winfrey has spoken publicly about the controversy over "A Million Little Pieces," which began last weekend with a report by the Smoking Gun website that called into question the veracity of key moments, particularly altercations with the police, in Frey's purported retelling of his past drug abuse and rehabilitation.

"I am disappointed by this controversy," said Winfrey, who selected Frey's memoir for her readers' club in October. "I rely on the publishers to define the category that a book falls within and also the authenticity of the work," Winfrey said in an apparent rebuke of how the book was marketed.

Frey, who is also a screenwriter, defended his work as a "truthful" but "subjective recollection of my life," and said the "essential truth" of the work should not be eroded by challenges to the veracity of some of the events he described. Frey said his embellishments, which he did not address directly, were far outweighed by the basic truth of his experiences.

Frey urged readers to look beyond the fabrications to what he said was an honest evocation of the anguish in an addict's life. But he acknowledged that the questions raised over his embellishments led to inevitable questions about the other more private events in a book set mainly during his time in rehab.

"That's something I'm going to have to deal with," Frey said.

The controversy hasn't hurt sales. "A Million Little Pieces" remained a top seller at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com on Wednesday, and led all 12 bestseller lists monitored by industry website Publisher's Marketplace. There are 3.5 million copies of the book in print.

Frey, dressed in an open-collar blue shirt and joined by his mother for part of the interview, said he was surprised by the inquiry into his accounts of committing crimes and run-ins with police, saying that Smoking Gun had targeted only a few pages of a 400-plus-page book. Bill Bastone, who wrote the Smoking Gun article, said Monday that the website had only tried to verify events for which there would be a public record -- the legal encounters -- and did not try to substantiate other portions of the book.

On Wednesday, Frey's self-perception seemed to have changed. When King asked whether Frey was a "bad guy" when he was abusing drugs, Frey responded: "I don't think I was a bad guy. I think I was a flawed person." But when he appeared on Winfrey's show Oct. 26, Frey painted his past much more starkly: "I was a bad guy."

Like other celebrities in a public relations crisis, Frey sought to make his case directly to fans Wednesday night and succeeded in assuaging reader Judy Penner, a member of a Pasadena book club that will discuss "A Million Little Pieces" later this month. After questions were raised about Frey's work, Penner said she was "upset.... I don't know what to think."

But after watching Frey explain himself on CNN, she said she felt more comfortable with the book and with its underlying message of redemption.

"I wanted to believe him, and I do believe him about the rehab part and the addiction part," Penner said. "I got a lot out of that book. It struck a chord with me, and I'm not even an addict."

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