US publishing rocked by 'fake author' scandal

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Just as the American publishing industry was recovering from the storm over the memoirist James Frey and the alleged distortions in his book A Million Little Pieces, a fresh controversy has broken in the form of a writer known simply as Nasdijj, and his popular works about his supposedly troubled life as a Native American.

It appears that the author may not be an Indian, according to a number of scholars and experts on Native American culture. The alternative newspaper LA Weekly argued in its latest issue that Nasdijj raised the possibility that he was in fact a writer of gay erotica called Timothy Barrus.

The man claiming to be Nasdijj was keeping his silence yesterday. But his publisher, Ballantine Books, said it was "looking carefully at these allegations" and added: "If in fact they are true, we would be very distressed to have published memoirs that may be deliberately inaccurate."

This latest revelation adds to the turmoil among publishers and editors, accused of turning a blind eye to writers who may have defrauded readers by embellishing or faking their life stories. Questions have also been raised about the cult novelist and alleged Hollywood insider J T Leroy, with some doubters saying he may in fact be a composite of several writers.

In a dramatic turn-about, Oprah Winfrey, who sent sales of A Million Little Pieces sky-rocketing late last year when she recommended it on her television show, invited its writer, Frey, back on air on Thursday and tearfully accused him of flat-out deception.

"I feel duped," Winfrey told Frey on the live programme. "More importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers." Frey is accused of grossly inflating details of his story about recovery from addiction. They include claims that he spent 87 days in prison when he was apparently held by police for only a few hours, and that he underwent dentistry without anaesthetic.

Frey acknowledged that he had stretched the truth but still said he considered his book to be a memoir rather than fiction.

Also onOprah was Nan Talese, the veteran editor at Doubleday, which published Frey's book. She said she only learnt about the inaccuracies when they were highlighted by The Smoking Gun website. Meanwhile, Riverhead Publishing, an imprint of Penguin Books, said it was reviewing a two-book contract it signed with Frey. If they prove to be founded, the allegations surrounding the so-called Nasdijj appear to be more serious still. Andrew Stuart, the literary agent for the writer until 2004, did not dismiss them when contacted by journalists. He said the LA Weekly article appeared "well researched and highly persuasive ... I will be curious to see if Nasdijj produces evidence to the contrary."

An online blog attributed to Nasdijj and his wife, Tina Giovanni, yesterday carried a diatribe against government, publishers and Oprah. "The real scandal is that publishing publishes absolute shit and that publishers make a fortune from it and can't recognise the problem," it said. Nasdijj surfaced in 1999 in an article in Esquire magazine about his adoptive son, Tommy Nothing Fancy, a Navajo Indian, and his alleged death from fetal alcohol syndrome. It launched a career of memoir writing by Nasdijj. He wrote a full memoir in 2000 for Houghton Mifflin, The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams, followed by two books for Ballantine - Geronimo's Bones and The Boy and the Dog are Sleeping, which won a PEN award.

Nasdijj claimed he was born to a violent white cowboy and alcoholic Native American mother on a reservation in 1950. Allegedly, he was shunted between migrant camps after his mother died and as a child was "hungry, raped, beaten, whipped, and forced at every opportunity to work in the fields".

Among those raising the red flag is Sherman Alexie, the popular writer of American Indian novels. "When I first read his work, I almost thought it was some kind of parody by a famous white writer, because he takes so many things from me and other writers," she says.