Meet the New Staggering Genius

At 33, James Frey has a humble ambition: He wants to be the greatest literary writer of his generation. And

At 33, James Frey has a humble ambition: He wants to be the greatest literary writer of his generation. And like the guy in the film Memento, he’s got a cryptic note tattooed on his left arm should he forget: “F.T.B.S.I.T.T.T.D.”

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“It means ‘FUCK THE BULLSHIT IT’S TIME TO THROW DOWN,’” explained Mr. Frey, a fledgling filmmaker turned author whose first book, A Million Little Pieces, will be published in April by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. Film director Gus Van Sant has compared Mr. Frey to “a young-guard Eggers”–which means Dave Eggers had better be prepared to, you know, throw down.

“The Eggers book pissed me off,” said Mr. Frey, referring to the best-selling and critically beloved A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, published in 2000. He was sitting in a black leather Eames chair in his 1,800-square-foot Tribeca loft on a recent afternoon, dressed in a pale blue T-shirt and green medical scrub pants. “Because a book that I thought was mediocre was being hailed as the best book written by the best writer of my generation,” he said. “Fuck that. And fuck him and fuck anybody that says that. I don’t give a fuck what they think of me. I’m going to try to write the best book of my generation and I’m going to try to be the best writer.”

Mr. Frey has thinning, curly hair, a slightly doughy build and a Southern California drawl. “And maybe I’ll fall flat on my fucking face,” he conceded, “but I’ll fall flat on my fucking face trying to do it.”

Mr. Frey (pronounced “fry”) wasn’t drunk when he said all this. In fact, he’s a recovering crackhead, glue-sniffer, gas-huffer and alcoholic whose forthcoming memoir begins with the writer having fallen, well, flat on his fucking face–in this case, off a fire escape. After a two-week crack bender (the culmination of a three-year addiction), Mr. Frey is scraped off the pavement by some friends and sent by plane to his clueless parents, who then deliver the ravaged carcass of their son to the famous Minnesota rehab clinic, Hazelden. Thus begins A Million Little Pieces, the gripping raw story of a then 23-year-old Mr. Frey, who cobbles his life back together while angrily rejecting the 12-step program in favor of his own style of Taoism.

Seven years after those incidents, Mr. Frey wrote about it. It took him 10 months and, after selling it last year, he moved to New York from Los Angeles in August.

The book is a relentless, halogen-lit confessional littered with self-loathing addicts, tortured souls, weeping and wailing and smoking and fighting and lots and lots of stomach bile. There is a cast of tragic misfits: a Las Vegas mobster, a former boxing champion, a black Southern judge and a wisp of a crackhead-prostitute named Lilly, Mr. Frey’s love interest.

A Million Little Pieces does read a bit like Charles Bukowski, had the Beat boozer been a suburban rich kid kicking the rock in Hazelden. Kirkus called it “startling, at times pretentious in its self-regard, but ultimately breathtaking.” Doubleday is printing 50,000 copies, a confident print run for a first work. It’s not the sort of book one associates with the genteel Nan Talese. “It’s not a Nan book,” said Sean McDonald, the editor who acquired the manuscript for $50,000. “The grittiness is different. The way he writes is different. [Ian] McEwan isn’t the first person that comes to mind when comparing him to someone.”

Ms. Talese, who publishes best-selling authors like Mr. McEwan and Pat Conroy, was skeptical of a “drug book.” But she was won over after reading the first chapter.

“I thought, ‘Oh well, this will take a few seconds,’” Ms. Talese said. “It was the same reaction when we brought it to the acquisition committee.”

The book opens with Mr. Frey waking up on the floor of an airplane with four front teeth missing, a hole in his face, his nose broken and his eyes swollen shut—and itching for booze. Mr. Conroy called it “the War and Peace of addiction.”

Mr. Frey said he originally shopped the book as a work of fiction, but Ms. Talese and Co. declined to publish it as such. He said he hoped Ms. Talese’s imprint would deflect the characterization of his book as part of the sentimental recovery genre. “That imprint lends a lot of credibility to what otherwise might be considered a recovery memoir. Nan’s not in the business of publishing that bullshit,” he said.

Early on, he turned down the services of one agent who wanted to sell him as a recovery guru. The agent, he said, “went ballistic over it, called and said, ‘We’re going to turn you into an industry.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘You know who Deepak Chopra is?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ ‘You’re going to be the Deepak Chopra of recovery. We’re going to start a whole line of self-help books with your name on it. We’re going to publish your own version of the Tao. We’re going to send you out on speaking tours. We’re going to build a religion around you.’ I was like, ‘You must be fucking kidding me!’ I very much admired the enthusiasm, but it was bizarre.”

Despite his literary self-regard, Mr. Frey agreed to be interviewed for an ABC-TV John Stossel special about addiction, set to air in March.

“I guess I’m the poster boy for unconventional addiction thought,” said Mr. Frey. “They were trying to lead me into saying certain things. They kept trying to get me to swear. Stossel was like, ‘I heard you swear a lot. I heard you’re feisty. Why won’t you swear for me?’ Because my mom and my wife asked me not to. ‘Well forget about them, I need you to swear!’ So I was like, ‘O.K., fuck you!’

“I’m terrified of what they’re going to do to me now,” he said, sucking on a plastic nicotine inhaler, his last vice since quitting cigarettes a year ago. “They’re going to cut me up.”

Mr. Frey likes to think of himself as coming from the old Norman Mailer “I Can Kick Your Ass” school of writers.

“My wife calls me a savage,” he said. “Because I eat with my hands. Because my best friends are my dogs. And I like pit bulls. And N.W.A. And I love boxing. I think boxing is beautiful. The purity of fighting is a beautiful thing.

“Writers aren’t like that anymore,” he said. “They’re all these guys who have fucking masters’ degrees and are so ‘sophisticated’ and ‘educated’ and … well, I’m not a guy with a master’s degree. I think I’m sophisticated. I can write big fat books. But I’m not an effete little guy.”

As he spoke, his Swiss mountain dog, Preacher, began humping his pit bull, Bella. Mr. Frey got up and pulled them apart.

“My favorite boxer is Vernon Forrest,” he said, referring to the welterweight champion. “He’s fast as fuck and he hits real hard. That’s his skill. And he doesn’t get hit that much.”

Mr. Frey’s agent, Kassie Evashevski of Brillstein-Grey, likes to call her client “authentic.” But while Mr. Frey did go to jail for three months in Ohio in 1994 for assaulting a police officer, he doesn’t exactly come from the wrong side of 8 Mile. He grew up in an upper-class suburb in Michigan. His father was the vice president of Herman Miller, the publicly traded furniture company, and later headed the international division of Whirlpool.

Mr. Frey attended Denison University in Ohio, where he dealt drugs, and did some heroic partying while majoring in English and film.

“He didn’t get into Harvard, so he said, ‘Fuck Yale’–even though he got in there–‘I’m going to go have some fucking fun,’” said Mark Hyatt, a former college friend and Mr. Frey’s onetime business partner in a production company in Los Angeles. The way Mr. Frey partied, said Mr. Hyatt, “he made everybody else look like they were Christian Scientists.”

Mr. Frey, however, said he never actually applied to Yale. Or Harvard. While his friend’s faulty recall may have been a harmless mistake, it’s also telling: Mr. Frey’s closest friends still describe him as somewhat mysterious. For one, few people knew the extent to which he was addicted to drugs—least of all his parents. In his book, Mr. Frey describes his childhood as one long drug haze: starting at 10, when he first got drunk while his parents “were out at the symphony or at some charity function,” continuing through high school, when he was doing “coke and acid and crystal meth,” and all the way through college, where “I was in Heaven. I blacked out every night, always had a bloody nose from snorting coke all the time.” When his parents sent him to crack-free Europe after school, he started freebasing cocaine.

To this day, Mr. Frey is known by three different names, depending on what period of his life someone met him. After his father moved to Brazil to become head of the Latin American division of Whirlpool, Mr. Frey “enlisted himself in the soccer program as ‘Jaime Frey from Brazil,’” said his father, Robert Frey. “They called him Jimmy in high school, Jaime in college and James in California.”

“I still think he hides a lot,” said Kevin Kendrick, an actor and friend in L.A. “He plays ‘Mystery Guy.’”

When Mr. Frey moved to Los Angeles to work in film, he became known among his friends for throwing huge parties revolving around boxing matches on TV.

“He’d invite homeless people he’d met,” said Mr. Hyatt. “He enjoyed mixing them up with actors and agents and watching them all drink, even though he never did. All these entertainment people who weren’t even fans of boxing were over at his house getting drunk and–he’s not pushing it on people, but he’s very at ease with the fact that he doesn’t drink and other people do.”

Until last year, Mr. Frey lived in Venice, Calif., writing, producing and directing films. He sold his first screenplay, Curious, in 1997, which got made into Kissing a Fool, starring David Schwimmer. In 2001, Mr. Frey married a 30-year-old advertising executive named Maya. She works on the Time Warner Cable account for Shepardson, Stern & Kaminsky.

They seem to live well. Hanging on one wall of the loft were two Picassos, two Matisses, a Dalí and a watercolor by Henry Miller. Mr. Frey said he maxed out a number of credit cards buying them over the years, in Chicago, Paris and L.A. (He said he paid off the credit cards “a long, long, long time ago.”) At one point, two Latina housekeepers were folding Mr. Frey’s white bed linens. He said it was a one-time indulgence.

While he was in L.A., Mr. Frey acquired a number of tattoos, his own personal footnotes. “I’ve seen you glance at this one,” he said, displaying a row of letters on the inside of his left wrist: S.P.C.D.H.C. “Simplicity, Patience, Compassion, Discipline, Honesty, Courage,” he said. “Words to live by. When I see that, it reminds me that these things embody the person I want to be.”

He pulled back his shirt to reveal others. “That’s a symbol of birth and rebirth,” he said, pointing to a small phoenix. “That is a Taoist symbol of life. I have my wife’s initials on my chest. I very deliberately scar myself so that I remember these things. However twisted my logic may be, by scarring myself, I’m making a commitment to myself. I’m committed to the things on my wrist.”

Mr. Frey keeps a few other messages to himself on the wall in front of the iMac where he writes. They read like Nike ad copy: “BE BOLD.” “Life is hard. Be harder.” “Bare Your Soul.” “A page a day. Anything less is unacceptable you punk-ass-bitch-motherfucker. Anything less is unacceptable.”

Mr. Frey didn’t like being compared to Mr. Eggers or David Foster Wallace. It miffed him–though he’d convinced himself it was ultimately a good thing.

“I think my approach to telling a story couldn’t be more different than theirs is,” he said. “I think they’re full of bells and whistles and tricks and being cute and being ironic and being all this shit. To be honest, I don’t understand it. It’s not how I think or how I feel. I think [Mr. Van Sant] thinks of those guys as sort of being the leading writers of my age. Eggers and I are exactly the same age. If there’s a guy out there who is ‘The Guy’ of my generation, it’s Eggers. In that sense, I was honored by the comparison.” (He also said Mr. Van Sant has expressed interest in directing a film version of his memoir.)

Mr. Frey’s work isn’t really generational per se. He’s not especially funny–sardonic, maybe, but not in an ironic way. He doesn’t allude to, say, Gilligan’s Island or MTV. In fact, his story seems to exist in a vacuum, without allusion to current events or historical context. That’s partly because the book takes place in rural Minnesota. But it’s also a self-conscious style.

“All that matters is what the feelings are and what the events are,” he explained over lunch one afternoon at the Socrates diner in Tribeca. “It’s not about all this trickery. When I think about writing, I have a very simple formula: Where was I? Who was I with? What happened? And how did it make me feel? Those are the only important things. It doesn’t matter if I can write a sentence that’s a page long or if I have 30 pages of footnotes in the back or people chuckle at the introduction page. I want to move people and have them understand what I felt, what I went through and what I felt other people were feeling and going through.”

While he’s read Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith–he had about 300 books haphazardly stacked against a wall in his loft–he is stridently uninterested in being among them. “I don’t give a fuck what Jonathan Safran whatever-his-name does or what David Foster Wallace does. I don’t give a fuck what any of these people do. I don’t hang out with them, I’m not friends with them, I’m not part of the literati. I think of myself as outside of this publishing culture.”

But Mr. Frey does appear to share one thing with Mr. Eggers: an acute sensitivity to criticism. “ Kirkus called me pretentious. Am I pretentious in my self-regard because I’m serious about what I do? Because I’m moving against the trend of irony? I don’t know. I hope I’m a bullet in the heart of that bullshit.”

Meet the New Staggering Genius