Portrait by Terry Richardson
I’m sitting in a conference room at the VICE Brooklyn office across from James Frey. We’re talking, and I’m still not sure exactly how or why this meeting happened, but I’m listening closely. The main topic of our discussion is his new novel, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, which is about the emergence of a radical new Messiah in modern-day New York City. For the first ten minutes or so, his constant chewing of Nicorette distracts me. I get over it quickly, but by my count he goes through at least five pieces in 45 minutes. I can’t figure out whether he is scared about something or the world’s biggest nicotine fiend, and after spending some more time with him I think he might be both.
Besides his new book, James and I also touch on a random assortment of topics: his plan to bypass the publishing industry (at least in America), whether he perpetuates the controversy that seems to follow his every move, why he is wearing an outlandish fur coat, his struggles with religion, his admiration for William T. Vollmann, the art world, and other miscellaneous crap. Afterward I’m still not sure how I feel about him, but I am positive that he is a completely different guy from the one who is written about in accusatory magazine and newspaper articles—either that or he is very bored and very talented at adopting different personae and getting people to write about them. Before he leaves we discuss how he could contribute to Vice in some fashion, and he agrees to give us an exclusive excerpt from The Final Testament (which you can find directly following this article on page 114) and grants me one of the very few interviews he will be giving anytime soon. One thing we didn’t touch on was Oprah and the shit storm that ensued after she invited James on her show to publicly recant her endorsement of his debut, A Million Little Pieces. Later he tells me that he hopes his next novel will finally prompt people to focus on other things, but after reading it I get the feeling that the aftermath of The Final Testament will be far less pleasant than any type of fallout he’s experienced thus far.
The week after our meeting I receive a galley of The Final Testament and finish it in two days. It chronicles the life of Ben Zion Avrohom, a 32-year-old scruffy guy who lives in a disgusting apartment inside a Bronx housing project. Brought up in a strict Jewish household, Ben is estranged from his family after his father passes away and his siblings and mother convert to Christianity. Early in the book, Ben is the victim of what under any other circumstances would be a fatal accident. It happens while he’s working as a security guard at a skyscraper construction site; a one-ton plate-glass window falls from a crane and flattens him. Onlookers stare in disbelief as foot-long shards of glass protrude from his body and his cracked skull oozes what appears to be brain fluid. He is taken to the hospital in an act of pity, but the doctors discover he still has a faint pulse. Hours of extreme surgery do nothing to stop the profuse and seemingly endless bleeding. He flatlines and is resuscitated several times but somehow, inexplicably, survives and seems to be healing at a superhuman rate even though he remains in a semivegetative state. Finally, Ben awakes and slowly discovers that he has been bestowed with preternatural abilities—he can recite the entirety of every major holy book and scripture from memory and doesn’t seem to require much food, water, or sleep. From there his powers develop through a series of frequent and violent seizures that he claims allow him to speak with God (apparently similar to the afflictions suffered by Beethoven and Dostoyevsky). He wanders New York City, meeting long-lost relatives, performing miracles on random strangers, living with criminals and drug addicts in subterranean tunnels, sticking his penis inside men and women, using drugs, proclaiming that the end of the world is near, and preaching that humans should do whatever makes them happy as long as they’re not hurting anyone. Like the Gospels, the story is split into sections that are named after and narrated by individuals who have been irrevocably changed by Ben in some way. Ben’s dialogue appears in red ink throughout, mimicking red-letter editions of the Good Book that began to pop up in the early 1900s.
Befitting the book’s provocative content—or perhaps partially because of it—James is sidestepping the publishing industry altogether, at least for the US edition. Only 11,000 limited-edition (1,000 of which will be signed) copies will be published through Gagosian Gallery, an international force of art and commerce that is taking a chance on an experiment conceived by an author who has attracted some of the most negative attention of anyone who has ever constructed a sentence. What’s more, a few of James’s most creative buddies (Richard Prince and Terry Richardson among them) will be creating single-edition illuminated manuscripts inspired by the story. For the rest of us, there will be a digital version of the book, which will be available directly from James through Amazon and other online booksellers beginning April 22 (which also happens to be Good Friday, for all you heathens out there).
I feel the same way about The Final Testament as I do about its author—unsure but intrigued—and I keep thinking about it. Portions of it are trashy and ridiculous, almost like a comic book, but other sections are as believable as a book about a Christlike figure who eats out of dumpsters and fucks crackhead strippers can be. Overall I think it was a good read that will be unilaterally despised by critics and religious folks alike. Odds are the book will provoke extreme reactions of some sort, perhaps even some James may not be fully prepared for. But for now let’s hope for the best.
Vice: Your new book is about someone recognized as a contemporary Messiah by a significant number of people—one who advocates having sex with whomever you want, drug use, and the rejection of traditional religious beliefs. Are you worried that someone might try to kill you in the near future?
James Frey: I hope not, because I don’t want to die. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Some people who have read the book don’t find it offensive or think anybody will be bothered by it, but others have said, “How long till you leave America?” Part of the fun of releasing a book is seeing what happens and if anyone reads it—to see if people care and how they react. I definitely don’t want to get shot, though. It wasn’t designed to make people want to shoot me.
What was your ultimate goal?
I tried to write a valid religious document, a book about what I think it might be like if the Messiah came back to earth or Christ returned. One of the most important things that gets forgotten about the Bible is that Christ was a radical. He wasn’t part of acceptable society and didn’t believe in anything that it held dear; he was a radical preacher with a radical message deemed dangerous enough that he was strung up on a cross and killed. I think that if the Messiah were to arrive today, if Christ were to return, he would be that same type of radical.
So if you set out to create a religious document, does that mean you conducted a lot of research?
Yeah. I consulted an Orthodox rabbi, a Pentecostal preacher, a Catholic priest, a trauma surgeon, a criminal-defense attorney, and a mental-health advocate. I wanted the book to be right. I know how I feel about God and faith and religion, but I didn’t know the mechanics of it. I didn’t know a lot about the Messiah or messianic theory. There are very specific requirements within Judaism to be considered the Messiah and under which he will or will not appear, and I needed to know all that stuff. I wanted it to be a plausible story and wanted to be sure that if religious figures were reading the book objectively—although they might not agree with what it says—it would hold up in terms of its religious components.
Did writing it cause you to have any revelations of faith or view religion in new ways? Belief in a higher power is an integral component of Alcoholics Anonymous, the rejection of which was the central theme of A Million Little Pieces. I’m wondering whether the two are connected somehow.
A lot of people will think this book was written to offend people, but it wasn’t. I have profound respect for religion in many ways—I have none for it in other ways. I admire people who devote their lives to their beliefs. This book is really about me trying to work out my own feelings. I’ve struggled with the idea of God and religion and faith almost my whole life. Do I believe, do I not, what do I believe in, and how do I reconcile living in the 21st century, an era with nuclear weapons and genetic engineering and one in which we know being gay is not a decision somebody makes? It was really interesting for me to talk to the rabbi and minister and priest about how they reconcile it. In many ways I wish I were like them in terms of faith, but I’m not.
Were you brought up with any type of religion?
I was baptized Catholic and confirmed Episcopalian. My parents took us to church every Sunday when I was a kid. My grandparents on both sides were very religious. In a lot of ways, this book is me writing about a God I could believe in—it might be someone like this.
I was brought up Catholic, but I guess I could be classified as atheistic, or at least agnostic. At the same time, when horrible things happen I find myself doing something that could be called praying. Does this happen to you?
Yeah, many times. When your life is completely out of control you want some way to control it or find something that can control it. I’ve never really talked about this, but my wife and I had a son who died a couple years ago. I sat in the hospital and watched him die. When that was happening, I would get on my knees every day and beg God for help—literally beg and plead and cry and say, “Help me.” I would say, “Take me and let my son have a life. I don’t need a life. Take my life and give it to him.” While that was happening I went to churches of different denominations around New York. I went to a mosque and a synagogue, I went to all these places, and everywhere I got down on my knees and begged for help. I begged for something, for relief, for a sign, for whatever. I didn’t get anything. I didn’t feel anything. It didn’t change anything. And I don’t know if that’s because I’m a bad guy in God’s eyes or there isn’t a God or I did it the wrong way or I had needed to do it beforehand to get the help I needed then. I don’t know the answers to any of it. I could give a dozen other examples; that’s just the most extreme. But I’ve never been able to believe, and I guess I’ve never gotten a sign.
While reading the book I had an inkling that you may know someone who believed he or she was the Second Coming. Did a particular person inspire Ben’s character?
No. I did meet a dude once in LA, maybe ten or 12 years ago, who claimed to have been institutionalized at Bellevue for having a Messiah complex. I met him at a barbecue, and he was drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette and hanging around. It was weird to try to reconcile the guy in front of me with this person he was talking about—how for a year of his life he truly believed he was Christ returned, that he was the Messiah, and the grandiosity and delusion involved with that. There are people all over the world who believe they’re the Messiah. I didn’t want to be specifically clouded by that, but I did bring issues of mental health into the book. I want the reader to judge, to believe what they want. I’m not going to tell them what I think or my intentions. The book is what it is, and you can take whatever you want from it.
Another reason this book stands to garner a lot of attention is the method by which you’re publishing it. Did the content of the book dictate your decision to sidestep the publishing industry in the traditional sense?
I tried to write a radical book that wasn’t like anything anyone had done before, and I’m trying to release it in a way that no one else has. I’ve had problems in my career before when I’ve written controversial material—dealing with the corporate entities behind it and how they disavow it or step away once the controversy reaches a certain point. I decided I wasn’t even going to contemplate doing that this time: I would release the book in some way that would protect it and protect me. I think literary culture in the United States has become this place with lots of rules and conventions, where you have to go to the right schools and appear in the right magazines. If you don’t follow those rules, you’re ostracized. I think it’s stupid and ridiculous and sort of sad. I wanted to become a writer to break rules and get in trouble and do things that push boundaries and explore new places.
A lot of my friends are artists—they make paintings or photographs or multimedia pieces or whatever. I think what I do is like their work, but I use words instead. So I thought an art gallery would be a more appropriate place to publish this book. One good thing about working with a gallery is that they already publish art catalogues and really beautiful art books. I wanted it to be a beautiful object. I think it’s the future of publishing. Right now we’re in the middle of the greatest revolution in publishing since the invention of the printing press. We have the internet and digital devices like the Kindle and the iPad. I don’t need a publisher to release my books on those things. I arrived at this point when I decided to release a limited number of beautiful books and at the same time anyone who wants to can read it digitally. It also gives me total control over what I do. The book is going to look the way I want, the number we print is going to be the number I want, we’re going to release it the way I want, and we’re going to sell it to whoever I want and not have to worry about other people backing out or getting scared.
It’s also giving you a chance to work with artists who are your friends.
I wanted to acknowledge the past of publishing, so I got in touch with five of my artist friends—Richard Prince, Ed Ruscha, Terry Richardson, Dan Colen, and Richard Phillips—and I’m collaborating with them on these illuminated manuscripts, like old medieval Bibles, for which they will make art that is a reaction to what they’ve read in my book. They’re going to be beautiful, astounding, one-of-a-kind objects. It was humbling to get to work with those dudes, and it was awesome. That they have this religious connotation is a complete nod to the past of publishing. For a thousand years, the only books that existed were illuminated manuscripts.
People would never have printed books if it weren’t for those manuscripts, so it’s all connected.
And it’s fun. No one has ever done anything like it. It might be a complete failure, but it’s awesome to try it and see. It’s a whole lot more exciting than releasing a book like everybody else does.
Did you first shop The Final Testament to other publishers or outlets?
If you had, do you think they would have tried to change the book in any way?
I don’t know. We had to show the book to my previous publisher because it was a contractual obligation. They offered to buy it but I declined, not because I don’t like them or didn’t have a good time working with them, I just didn’t want to do it that way. I think there might have been problems. Publishers could have been really enthusiastic on first read, but I know from experience what it’s like when lawsuits start coming in and protesters are standing at the door. Publishers like books a whole lot less then. I decided that if it happens this time, I’ll deal with it myself. I’ve learned in my career that there are very few people in my life I can rely on, so if there’s going to be a fight I don’t want to go into it with people who I know aren’t willing to fight.
Will you follow suit with international editions? Your work has been received with less contention in Europe and other places, so I’m wondering if you’re planning on a more traditional release for other territories.
With my other publishers all over the world, I’m just releasing it the way I normally release books. Outside of America I haven’t had a problem with publishers abandoning me or getting scared of what I do. My English publisher often sends me all the hate mail he gets about me, and usually we just howl with laughter. He loves it. They’re the people [John Murray] who published Byron and Darwin, you know? They literally have a history of working with writers who cause problems. My French publisher thinks it’s hilarious. Before I do an event in France I’ll ask them, “Do you want me to behave or not?” He usually says [speaks in a French accent], “No, James, don’t behave tonight.” The American edition is a big experiment that plays off issues specific to America and religion, and American publishing, and America and money, and American law.
What other types of publicity are you doing for the book?
I’m not doing much, man. I did an interview with an art magazine, I’m doing this with you, and beyond that there aren’t big plans. In a lot of ways I’m free from having to do a dog-and-pony show because I only have 10,000 books to sell. My other books have sold significantly higher numbers than that. We’re going to wait and see what comes. At one point we thought about sending copies to politicians and religious leaders to get them mad and yelling, but we decided not to do that. I think the best thing I can do with the book is just let it come out and see.
Did you work with an editor this time around?
No. A Million Little Pieces was very heavily edited, and My Friend Leonard was to a certain extent. If anything, the way those books were edited contributed to the problems I experienced. After the controversy and that situation, I said I’d never let my books be edited that way again. What was printed and sold commercially for my last book, Bright Shiny Morning, was pretty close to what came off my computer, the first draft. The Final Testament that was printed is very, very close to what came off my computer. Unedited, not fucked with. My wife is the first person to read my work. The first three books I wrote, she came in and was like, “Hey, yeah, that’s OK.” With this one, she was like, “It’s really good.” That made me happy. My agent looked at it and gave me some notes, but beyond that we just copyedited it. And part of that gets back to how my friends who are artists work. When an artist makes a painting, he doesn’t have a team of people who come in to edit it. It’s the purest, most accurate expression of what I wanted it to be when I was thinking of it.
Speaking of the way artists work, people like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons oversee tons of assistants who execute their ideas. Last year there was quite the brouhaha over your new publishing venture, Full Fathom Five.
My factory? [smiles coyly]
Yeah, your slave-labor fiction factory that New York magazine so kindly wrote about. Was the way that the aforementioned artists work the impetus for this model?
Sure! I didn’t go to writing school. I went to art school for a year, and I’m much more interested in how artists work—the idea that you can systematize things and create new ways to work. The idea of an art studio has existed for 500 years. Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael all had one; contemporary versions of them are Warhol’s Factory or Jeff Koons’s sculpture operation or Damien Hirst’s art-making operation. A single person has ideas and they work with a whole bunch of other people to execute those ideas. I just said, “Why don’t I do the same thing for books?” I come up with the ideas for books, I have young writers—or not even young, other writers—who write them for me. So using the studio model, I’m the head of the studio and the people I work with are the craftsmen. We’re working to make a product we can sell. The difference between the fine-art model and mine is that I’m not trying to create fine art. We’re not trying to write Ulysses, we’re not trying to write Infinite Jest. We’re doing commercial material. I like commercial fiction, I like books that are entertaining, and I like books that are fun; I liked Harry Potter. Everything I do in some way comes out of the art world. The idea of what you can do with a book and what it’s called… the classifications of fact and fiction and memoir and autobiography are all idiotic. Something’s a book, and everything else is irrelevant. What’s relevant is when someone picks it up and reads it and how it makes them feel, or if it makes them think or if it was worth their time. All the other stuff is just bullshit.
Is there any contradiction here? You’re about to release this book that you want to be taken seriously and that, whether it was your intention or not, is bound to be incendiary on many levels. But at the same time you’re unabashedly pursuing commercial fiction and stories using a collaborative business model.
I don’t think there’s anything contradictory about it. Can Takashi Murakami make these unbelievable paintings that hang in galleries and sell for $5 million apiece and are truly magnificent works of art, and at the same time make editions of Louis Vuitton bags that sell in stores all over the world? Is one less valid than the other? I don’t think so. We’re seeing the distinctions between art and fashion and commerce break down and change, and I’m bringing books into it—their production. Warhol literally called his studio the Factory. Did the fact that it was unabashedly commercial make his work any less valid? I don’t think so. If anything, I think it made it more valid because he was at least acknowledging that art and commerce are interconnected in a very important way. To me, commerce and literature, or commerce and the production of books, are linked. The whole idea behind a book is to sell it, as many copies as you can, and I don’t have any problem saying that that’s the goal of part of what I do—to sell books, to entertain people, to let them have fun.
Part of the New York article focused on you recruiting MFA students during a lecture. Being that you never enrolled in an MFA program, what are your thoughts on this type of education?
It’s a myth that we parse through MFA programs. If anything, we’ve found that MFA writers are more problematic to work with than not because they’re taught that they [speaks in a high-pitched voice] “have to do things in a special way,” and frankly they’re taught that they are special—and they’re not. I’d much rather have a guy or a woman who’s learned how to write by sitting in a room for five years than someone who went to the hallowed halls of a lovely and very expensive institution to learn it. A lot of MFAs have this sense of entitlement that they don’t have to work hard or that their degree makes them better than they are, and if anything they’re sort of a hassle. What do I look for? I look for somebody who wants the work and who is good and hungry and wants to tell stories and make money. If they have those qualifications, I don’t care if they have ten degrees or no degree. But I have been profoundly amused by the people who work for MFA programs talking about [lapses back into a high-pitched voice] “exploitation,” and they don’t acknowledge that they charge people 40, 50, 60 thousand dollars a year and saddle them with huge amounts of debt to learn something they don’t need to go to school for.
The whole concept is a luxury.
Right. I think that a lot of people who teach at MFA programs and who graduate from MFA programs need a hard lesson in what the real world is like.
Outside of being commercially viable, are there parameters for what kind of books Full Fathom Five is seeking?
We do everything you can imagine. Every crackpot thing you can dream of. We’re doing books for three-year-olds and we’re doing adult thrillers and we’re doing romance novels.
What are the children’s books like?
I’m doing a book with my daughter’s kindergarten class called A Friend Is. I asked every kid in the kindergarten, “What is a friend?” They each gave me three answers, and then they made art—drawings and paintings and stuff—and we’re collecting and curating their answers and art for the book. We’re doing a book for little girls about a ballerina superhero. Totally weird, but it’s fun and it’s cool and if kids dig it, then, good.
You started out as a screenwriter and a producer in LA. Does your experience inform how you select books for Full Fathom Five? Are you looking for stuff that’s easily adaptable into films?
I have a weird skill set. What I do now is a sort of fusion of all these things that I’ve experienced and all that I know how to do, and figuring out how to apply it all to cool work. But yeah, we produce movies, books, and TV shows, and I try to write serious books and make art. The beauty of the world is that I can try to do it all, and if something doesn’t work, who cares?
When you first get a pitch from a writer—
We take very few pitches. Ninety-five percent of the pitches are generated by me.
OK, what about that extra 5 percent? What are you looking for?
You ever hear of the definition of obscenity? What the judge said in the obscenity trial? “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.” It’s sort of like that. Is it an idea that we think we can sell? Is it an idea that is simple and relatable and multipliable and doable? Sometimes people come in with awesome ideas but you just howl with laughter because no one on earth is ever going to be able to do it. And sometimes people come in with ideas that are sort of… “I want a vampire who becomes a zombie who gets abducted by aliens and then falls in love!” And you’re like, “No, man, too much.” When you hear an idea that’s good you just know it.
On the flip side, how do you find the right people to execute your ideas?
At this point we just have a ton of people who want to work with us. The company has been successful. We’ve sold everything we’ve released. At this point it’s not as much a matter of seeking people out as it is filtering those who come to us and deciding whom we want to work with.
When the rights to one of these books get sold and Hollywood begins to adapt it into a screenplay, do you kind of divorce yourself from it at that point? How much do you want to be involved?
I’ll be as involved or not as involved as the studio wants me to be. If they want me to be involved, great. If they want to send me a check and kick my ass out the door, that’s cool too. I don’t know if I’d want me involved either.
Why do you say that?
Sometimes it’s a hassle to have the writer of the book in the room.
Were you pissed when the New York piece about Full Fathom Five came out?
It didn’t matter much. It was good for business—100 or so writers applied to work with us the next week, and we got tons of calls from publishing companies and movie studios. I can’t control what a magazine is going to write. I can’t control what their standards are, and I can’t control whether they’re going to follow the supposed “rules of journalism.” They’re going to write what they want, and a day or two after I read it I don’t even think about it.
Unless someone like me brings it up.
Yeah, unless someone brings it up, but I’d rather have Vice make up stuff about me.
It’d be a lot more interesting.
I’m giving Vice the freedom to make up whatever you want. You can make up whatever you want.
OK, but if we do I don’t think anyone will believe it.
Watch an extended version of this interview on VBS Meets… James Frey this month. He even crank-called his lawyer for us!