The excerpt below is taken from the transcript for a recent interview between James Frey, the author of A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard and his editor at Riverhead, Sean McDonald. The interview was moderated by mediabistro.com Education Director, Carmen Scheidel. The full transcript can be found here (AG only).
Scheidel: This year James Frey and Sean McDonald published My Friend Leonard, the follow up to A Million Little Pieces and it focuses on Freyís friendship with a charismatic, emotionally generous Las Vegas mobster named Leonard whom Frey met at Hazelden. The friendship spilled into the outside world as both men made their way to recovery. Leonard regularly turned up in Freyís life with wads of cash, offers of slightly illegal employment, a sense of humor, lavish dinners, and a pick-up in a white Mercedes Benz. Frey eventually worked for Leonard delivering mysterious packages from city to city and Leonard maintained a constant almost God-like monitoring of Freyís every move, declaring Frey his son and providing real support at times of extreme loss. In the end, the book reveals the complexities of their relationship and life in the shadow of an addiction. So please welcome James Frey and Sean McDonald.
I thought we would start by talking about the writing process and the publication process. I know that you started writing A Million Little Pieces, or you had been thinking about it for years, and then in 1996 started to write the manuscript, decided it wasnít capturing what you actually felt about what was happening so you decided to delete it and start over. What happened then?
Frey: I didnít delete it. I wrote about the first 40 or 50 pages of it and I just decided I didnít wanna keep going. So I just stopped. And then three or four years later I decided I wanted to start going again so I took a second mortgage out on a house I had and I gave myself 16 months to write and sell the book and I wrote the rest of it in about a year and we sold it a few months later.
Scheidel: And so is this where Sean comes into the discussion. How did the actual sale of the book unfold? Were you working with an agent andÖ
Frey: Yeah, I had an agent. I knew agents from working in the film industry in L.A. It was relatively easy to contact them. The agent sent the book to 18 publishers, 17 said, 'No.' Sean was the last one we were waiting for, Nan A. Talese was actually the people I had hoped would publish it. I thought it was sort of a very cool imprint in Random House and they printed a bunch of writers I liked and the books were always beautiful and you know one day we got the call from Sean and he said, 'Iím gonna have Nan read it, but Iím not optimistic.' And then two weeks later he called back and said, 'Itís a go.' So I was very fucking happy.
Scheidel: And so Sean, what made you feel so pessimistic?
McDonald: I donít know if it was pessimistic. It was just a feeling that it was a challenge. The manuscript at that point was maybe 600-700 pages about kicking crack, which was not really high on anyoneís list. James, I donít think you mentioned, it was just after 9/11 and we were all in kind of a different headspace than we are now. It also stands out on Nanís list. Nan publishes amazing writers but not necessarily people youíd think of immediately next to James. Ian McEwen, Thomas Cahill, Margaret Atwood. And I think James sits very nicely next to them, but it wasnít obvious.
Scheidel: So can you tell us how you started to work up a manuscript? How you started to shape, I guess what condition was the manuscript in? Was it polished? Was it rough? Was it, you know, how long did the editorial process happen take?
McDonald: It was polished but it was long.
Scheidel: So it was a matter of cutting andÖ
McDonald: Yeah it was a matter of cutting and itís a hard book to cut from because the way James wrote it, itís sort of one continuous take and so you canít just really go chop at a scene and have a line break and, you know, not so suddenly switch from one mood to the next. So we did a lot of work and we went back and forth a lot. I flew out to L.A. at some point to work with James. He lived in L.A. then. I donít know, am I answering you?
Scheidel: I think thereís this belief that publishers are less willing to take risks nowadays. I mean, most people will say that. And this is a manuscript that in its polished form seems risky. Itís about a difficult topic. Itís literary. Itís sad and challenging. And do you think itís because it was unique? Because the voice was strong? What were the risks involved?
Frey: They didnít pay me enough money to have any risk. Like Sean said, we had planned it with my agent, I got married on September 1st, 2001 and the plan was for my wife and I to go off on our honeymoon at which point theyíd send the book to publishers and hopefully by the time I got back everything would be done, but I wouldnít have to worry about it. But the book arrived on the desks of the publishers on September 10th. September 11th happened and you know, obviously nobodyís in the mood to read a book. And certainly nobodyís in the mood to read that book. So after hearing the 17 'no's, I didnít get paid a fortune for that thing at all. So as far as Iím concerned, the book couldíve sold two thousand copies and been fine. I think the risk was more to their image than anything else.
Scheidel: Sean, can you tell us a little bit more about what struck you in the memoir? What was it about it that made you believe in it?
McDonald: Well, I think itís pretty clearly the voice of the writer. I think you feel instantly that youíre in the hands of someone whoís trying to do something different and doing something different successfully. It is wildly unusual in the way itís put together. And yet you never feel like youíre just reading experimentation for experimentation's sake, which to me is what Iím always looking for. It's writers who are turning things upside down and doing things unusually but still work as a book and I think it unquestionably does that.
Scheidel: And how did your relationship evolve when you were working on A Million Little Pieces as you were getting to know one another both personally and professionally in the effort towards publishing this book?
Frey: It's always been a really easy relationship between the two of us. You know, I think Seanís really smart. I think heís really good at his job. I trust his judgments. The first time I got pages back I think was a big deal because, at that point, Iím gonna see what he wants me to do and Iím gonna see how much I hate it. And I didnít hate it that much. And the big issue with A Million Little Pieces is that the original manuscript was 550 single-spaced pages. It was a long ass book. And you know Sean and Nan both said, 'Nobodyís gonna wanna read this much of that. We have to shorten it.' And I think Sean was very sort of gentle in doing it. You know we didnít ever shorten it by 50 pages at a pass. Weíd go through and take 10 out and we did that 15 times. And after a while, after like four or five of those passes, I would start getting notes and a lot of times thereíd be long letters. Heíd send me a long letter telling me what he wanted me to do. Itíd be a five-page letter. And every letter Iíve ever gotten from him related to editing a book always ends with, please do it because I know Iím right. And I tend to read those things and Iím like, heís fucking wrong. So I donít talk to him for like four or five days till I calm down and then Iím like, alright, Iíll do it, give me a little while. But I mean I started to trust him more when I would see like, there would be lines in A Million Little Pieces and thereíd be a red note next to it that says, this is just plain silly. And I would read it again and Iíd be like, you know what, heís right. Itís dumb. And I think it was just time and I think he didnít try to change what the book was. He knew what he was buying and he respected that and we just made it a better book by taking a lot of junk and fat out.
Scheidel: What were some of the sections that got cut? Were there whole scenes?
Frey: A lot of times Iíd say something in three paragraphs and I couldíve made the point effectively in two and the third would just be a paragraph of angry ranting. So weíd just cut it out. There were a couple of sort of minor stories, lines that were sort of shaved or removed entirely. There wasnít anything that was that important that was cut away. To Seanís credit, I think he did a very subtle job of doing it. Because I would usually just cut the shit heíd say. Thereíd be big red marks or 'Xís' through paragraphs so Iíd just cut it away, turn, send it back. The second book was actually much much easier to edit. He saw a lot of it as it was being written. He never commented as it was being written which I requested, because I just donít wanna hear it. And I donít want any comment to change what Iím doing while Iím writing it. But once we got it back, I think it was a really clean manuscript. We cut about 20 pages out of the middle of it and added about five pages to the end of it. And thatís all we did. Other than that, it is what it is.
Frey: But one thing also about the working relationship thatťI donít know if other editors and writers are this wayťbut weíre friends. We do a lot of stuff outside of publishing and writing and we talk about shit that has nothing to do with work and for me that has been a very important part of it because I trust a friend whoís giving me good advice, as opposed to a boss whoís giving me an order.
To view the full transcript, click here. (AvantGuild only.)