Writer of unreliable memoir plays safe with LA novel

James Frey, the American writer who was first embraced and then publicly lambasted by Oprah Winfrey for his not-so-truthful drugs and prison memoir, A Million Little Pieces, is embarking on a literary genre where he would probably have been most comfortable from the start – novelistic fiction.

Yesterday, the publicity for the forthcoming book, called Bright Shiny Morning, kicked off with a complimentary item in the New York Post's Page Six gossip column. "It's going to be a really cool, interesting, edgy book," Frey was quoted as saying.

The novel is coming out in May, and for now both the author and his publishers at Harper Collins are staying tight-lipped about its contents except to say it is set in a fictional version of Los Angeles, where Frey lived in the run-up to the publication of A Million Little Pieces and its sequel, My Friend Leonard.

Frey became both rich and famous thanks to an endorsement from Oprah, who chose A Million Little Pieces for her highly influential monthly book club in September 2005 and invited him on to her daytime chat show. Nobody questioned the power of his writing, but once the book became a bestseller, various muckraking websites began to look into its veracity and found key claims to be at variance with the documentary record.

In particular, his claim to have spent 87 days behind bars in the 1980s turned out to be completely false – he was detained for just a few hours.

Oprah brought him back on to the show, ostensibly to talk about something else, and then gave him a public dressing down – a verbal assault Frey's then-publisher, Nan Talese, later denounced as "mean and self-serving".

Sources close to Frey have since explained that he never wanted to write a memoir but was cajoled into it because memoirs were, at the time, regarded as much more marketable than debut novels. A legal settlement gave readers the option to return their books and claim a refund if they felt cheated, but fewer than 2,000 of them did so – eating into less than 1 per cent of a legal fund set up by Frey's publisher.

The broadcast media, by contrast, could barely contain its outrage – condemning Frey far more forthrightly than the Bush administration, whose justification and conduct of the war in Iraq was facing a barrage of congressional criticism at the same time. As the television satirist Jon Stewart adeptly put it, tongue firmly in cheek: "James Frey misled us into a book we had no business getting into."

The focus of A Million Little Pieces was on an alcohol and drug addiction rehab facility called Hazelden, which was based on his experience. After the Oprah endorsement, the book sold close to five million copies and remained on The New York Times bestseller list for 44 weeks. The New Yorker magazine praised the book as "a frenzied, electrifying description of the experience [of rehab]".

The media brouhaha over the fabrications became so intense that Frey decamped to France for a while, writing a screenplay about the Hells Angels motorcycle gang for the expatriate British director Tony Scott, before returning to the United States and settling in New York's TriBeCa neighbourhood.

In some ways, the scandal served him very well – giving him a name he can now trade on, thanks also to his writing abilities. His publicist during the scandal, Kassie Evashevski, chose to part ways with him because of what she called issues of trust. But she also said: "I still believe he's a very talented writer and suspect that we haven't heard the last of James Frey."

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