Sunday Lifestyle

James Frey on why books are like movies, and authors are like producers

- Scott R. Garceau - The Philippine Star

Author James Frey likes to say “badass” a lot. The streets of Manila, for instance, are “badass.” (“You could film an awesome chase scene here!”) Philip K. Dick and William Gibson and Neal Stephenson are “badass sci-fi writers.” The ancient cultures he researched for his latest novel, Endgame, are “badass.”

James Frey is kind of badass himself. He’s fearless about pursuing his goals. He started publishing company Full Fathom Five to create books that were more than just books. And he has a habit of swearing a lot, because, he says, “people love it if I swear.”

Frey, the author of the memoir/novel A Million Little Pieces and The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, is in the Philippines for book signings, ensconced in the Writer’s Bar at Raffles Makati, just as one of the biggest publishing events in history is set in motion: Endgame, the sci-fi young adult novel he wrote with Nils Johnson-Shelton, is being launched simultaneously in 165 countries and 34 languages. Part of a trilogy, it’s an ambitious tale of 12 teens from ancient lineages who are selected to solve a complex puzzle that will save the earth from annihilation — a cataclysmic event set up in the opening chapters as “Endgame.”

If it sounds a little like The Hunger Games, or The 39 Clues, or a host of other teen-starring dystopian literary series, consider this knockout hook: the lucky reader who unlocks the puzzle embedded in Endgame could go home with a stack of actual gold worth half a million US dollars. Who says reading can’t be rewarding?

Sitting over coffee, and repeatedly ingesting what looks like Nicorette gum, Frey is an open book. He’s no stranger to controversy, nitpicking media, and haters. You could say he thrives on it. His first book was a novel that somehow got published as a memoir; A Million Little Pieces gained the teary admiration of Oprah back in 2003, until it was learned that parts of it were invented. “That book was 85 percent true,” Frey now says, answering the one question we are allotted to discuss the book. “I mean, show me a memoir that’s not half full of shit, and I’ll show you a memoir that’s not readable.”

He followed it up with My Friend Leonard, another pseudo-memoir, and the novels Bright Shiny Morning and The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, while also starting a publishing house called Full Fathom Five that spun the highly successful I Am Number Four series. Suddenly, YA sci-fi was huge; Frey had somehow ridden the publishing curve again, just as he had during the memoir craze. His latest entry into multiversion publishing — Endgame is not just a book, but an actual puzzle for readers to solve with links to websites that hold clues, and also a video game created by Google, and who knows, maybe even a movie — shows he’s not content to just play the literary game: he wants to smash the board and add new levels. At the same time, he considers himself very lucky, and the fact that he’s halfway around the world, promoting “shit I wrote,” seems surreal to him. He just can’t believe all this has happened, though he admits a lot of it was through sheer perseverance. And though he somehow always courts controversy, he’s also a very likable guy, with a healthy connection to his fans and the things that got him here.

PHILIPPINE STAR: Endgame features 12 teens from around the world with special powers. Do you think this generation of kids is special in some way?

JAMES FREY: Not any more than anybody else. They’re different in that they’re being raised with these things (holds up his cell phone), which I think changes how we live and think and play and read. In the same way when cars were invented and changed how people got around, these things change radically how we communicate.

Kids are reading as much, if not more, than they ever have, which is kind of awesome. Part of the idea with Endgame was to make a 21st-century book, to make the first book that uses all of the technology at our disposal. I mean, if you’re reading the digital book, you’re just reading and clicking links, and it’s taking you to social media pages, websites, YouTube videos, Google Earth locations. The idea is we can build a bigger, better story if we use all of the technology we have at our disposal.

This takes book reading to new levels?

It was the largest simultaneous publication of a book ever. We were running social media feeds a year before it came out, we had a YouTube channel with five hours of video before it came out, Google launching their video game platform with the book, Fox making movies.

Is this the first book to offer such a huge contest prize?

As far as I know. I was inspired by a book I read as a kid called Masquerade (by Kit Williams). I saw it when I was 10, in 1981. It was a pretty simple children’s book with 16 pages of text and pictures, and it had a puzzle with it; and if you could solve the puzzle, the author had buried somewhere in England a solid gold, jewel-encrusted hare. And I became sort of obsessed with this book. I loved it because it was more than a book. I knew in my mind the gold wasn’t buried in my schoolyard in Cleveland, but I still wondered. I just thought it was badass. I wanted to do something like it.

Who’s providing the prize money?

I did. It’s my money. I put up the prize money, $500,000 in gold coins, it’s in a bulletproof cage secured in the floor of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

Is there a deadline for this challenge?

We think it will take a year, we can track the progress of everybody doing it, and it’s slightly behind the pace we thought it’d be. So maybe it’ll take a year and two months.

People ask for hints all the time. I mean, it’s half a million bucks! I don’t know where the key is hidden — the book is about a hunt for a key; we hid a real key; solve the puzzle, it leads you to that key. We’ll know when somebody’s solved it, we’ll reach out to them and fly them to Las Vegas and hand them the key, they will open the case and walk out with half a million in gold.

At that point, you’ll have sold how many millions of books?

I don’t know, but a lot.

How did you work on Endgame with writing partner Nils Johnson-Shelton (author of Otherworld Chronicles)?

I came up with the idea and mythology and wrote a 30-page outline. Then I wrote a 50-page document that was the whole plan — how we’re going to do the book. I handed him the outline, he wrote the first draft of the book; as he wrote it I would give notes and suggestions; once the first draft was done, I did all the revisions and all the other drafts. That’s how we did the second book, too.

For YA projects, do you run stuff by your kids?

Usually not. My oldest daughter, we run things by her. We’re doing this project now, I’m gonna try and recreate the Spice Girls? Make a girl band, but character-based. Something like The Monkees. I mean, The Monkees was a TV show before it was a band. I’m like, we should redo that. Today with YouTube, it’s possible.

First you have to have a band that makes hits. How do you do that?

I call up a music producer and say, “You want to make this shit happen?” I mean, it’s just making calls. It’s corny, but half the battle is just trying. I mean, if I call somebody and they tell me to f**k off, I don’t care. I just call somebody else. You just keep trying.

Do you think you have a good sense of what’s coming next in publishing?

Yeah, I think my instincts are pretty sound.

So what’s the future of publishing? Is it going to be more books like Endgame that are beyond the pages? It’s all going to be about games and tie-ins and movies?
Absolutely. One hundred percent. I mean, when I first started pitching Google to do this, I knew this guy there who invented Google Earth, and he said “I want to do this, and the reason I want to do this is because what you just pitched me is inevitable.”

It must feel like a lifeline for the publishing world, to find a way forward. It seems like you’re making the right calls.

Yeah, the only question is am I too early.

The publishers aren’t ready?

No, it’s more, are consumers and readers ready for it? One of the complications of Endgame is it’s so complex. It’s not just a book. It’s a whole lot easier to pitch somebody with “Hey, it’s an awesome book, and you should read it.”

Are you guys such super geniuses that you were able to create this awesome puzzle that hardly anyone can solve?

I hired people who are super geniuses to write the puzzle. Three M.I.T. PhDs wrote it. So in the original draft there’s a placeholder puzzle, one that’s real, but just there to show people smarter than me how I wanted the puzzle to function within the text of the book.

But you needed something much denser?

Something that would withstand real pressure. We had to make a puzzle that was language-proof and culture-proof.

 Do you think it’s necessary for books to evolve in this direction? I mean, you just picked up books as a kid, you didn’t care about the packaging; a good story was a good story.

Yeah, it’s gonna evolve. To me, it’s not even a question of is one better; it is what it is. You can either ignore it — I mean, when I hear writers talk about, “I don’t like the digital age,” it’s like, shut the f**k up. Inevitably, the digital age is going to take over. I mean, I don’t know the future, I’m trying to figure it out. In 50 years, I’m not sure how many physical books will still be read. Or even in 15 years.

A Million Little Pieces: What lessons did you learn about publishing and marketing from that whole experience?

To not trust other people to tell me what to do. And to do what I want to do. The thing with that book is I submitted it to the publisher as a novel. They wanted to publish it as a memoir. I said, okay. What do you want me to do? I went out and did what they wanted me to do.

They actually said that?

Absolutely. I mean, some of the stuff I changed, some they wanted me to change, and they said “Go out and say it’s true; everybody does it.” And I did it.

In a lot of ways, it played out perfectly; in a lot of ways it was a nightmare. It was not written as a self-help book, it was written in the vein of Henry Miller — you know, here’s my middle finger, and here is me expressing myself as bluntly as I possibly can. And I always imagined the book would be this offensive, divisive work of art. And the book survived all the shit. It’s still very widely read and published.

And it freed me from ever having to listen to anybody.

What have you heard about the Philippines?

I come to a place and I ask where to go. A friend in Connecticut has been here, and I asked “What do I do?” He said “If you want to leave the Philippines having had an authentic Filipino experience, here is your day: Ride a jeepney to a cockfight, and then have lechon. You do that and you’ll walk away and have some understanding of the culture.”

And maybe some karaoke.

Yeah. Maybe a little karaoke.

* * *

James Frey will be signing copies of Endgame today at 2 p.m., National Book Store, Glorietta 1. Registration for the event starts at 10 a.m.












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