James Frey’s latest book, The Last Testament of the Holy Bible, is out April 22. He talks to Newsweek about Jesus, Oprah and the pornography business.
Your book follows a modern-day Messiah in New York. How did you choose this as your subject?
I’ve always wondered what it would be like if the Messiah, or Christ Returned, were actually alive and living in our society; who would that person be, how we would identify them, how would they live and what would they believe in, how would society react to them? I decided to try and tell my idea of that story.
In a recent interview you said your books are “still a mix of fact and fiction and will continue to be.” What parts of this latest work are fact, or drawn from fact?
It's a book. It's a story. The point of what I do is that it doesn't really matter what a book or a story is as long it moves you, informs you, challenges you, entertains you, or changes you.
British writer John Niven has a novel, The Second Coming, that sounds very similar to yours, coming out around the same time. Have you read his? What do you make of this coincidence?
I have not read it, and I don’t really make anything of it.
You’re publishing this work in the U.S. digitally and in partnership with Gagosian. Why not go through a standard publishing house here?
I wanted to make a really beautiful book. Something readers would be excited to own as an object. Something that doesn’t really fit into the categories of either a paperback or a hardback, and that could be sold as a book, not as something labeled and shelved in a specific place in a bookstore.
The art world has really embraced you, while you still have your detractors in publishing. How are artists different from publishing/media types?
There are no categories in contemporary art. There are no rules. Artists are given the freedom to make and create whatever they please and call it whatever they please. I identify with that system, or lack of system, much more than I do the landscape of contemporary publishing.
“I do read reviews, and I believe being criticized is part of my job. I don’t fear it or avoid it.”
Roland Phillips told The Guardian that traditional U.S. publishers have “a much more charged relationship with religion,” saying you anticipate death threats, book burnings, and bannings. Why do you think Christianity, especially evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity, has taken the character it has in modern American life?
America was first colonized by Puritans. Most of our earliest immigrants, and many since, have come here in order to practice their religious beliefs as they please. Our culture has always been, and will most likely always be, profoundly influenced by religion. I don’t think religion is any more or less influential than it has been at any point in our history.
Are you religious? What, if anything, do you believe in?
My beliefs are fluid. Sometimes I believe in God, sometimes I don’t, sometimes I wish I did, and sometimes I don’t know. I think about it quite a bit, and don’t pretend to have any answers.
What do you make of Pastor Terry Jones, the guy in Florida who burned the Koran?
I respect every individual’s right to believe in anything and worship in any way that helps them or makes their life better. I don’t think it’s productive or respectful to burn or destroy books of any kind, for any reason.
How will you react if there’s no outcry to your book—no burnings, etc.?
I’d actually be really happy.
You founded Full Fathom Five last year, which develops projects that have potential as book series, films, TV, etc. Authors are paid little up front and sign up for a far more collaborative process than in traditional publishing, where, for example, film producers can have input on the content of their book. So on the one hand, you’ve created a system where authors have less control over their works. And on the other, with The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, you’re taking much more control over the content and distribution of your own work. How would your life have been different if you had signed up as a Full Fathom Five author before you hit it big?
I wrote films for several years before I ever wrote a book. It taught me how to write on schedule, how to collaborate with other people, how to be a professional writer. I never had any sort of creative control while I was doing it. We do the same the thing at Full Fathom Five, except we do it with books instead of screenplays. It would be my hope that all of our writers go on to have successful careers, and write their own books after they’ve stopped working with us.
With Full Fathom Five, you are now very much in business with Hollywood, a place and an industry you’ve examined unsparingly and at length. Is it horrible? Do you spend much time out there? What’s the worst part?
I love Los Angeles, and love working out there. My next project is TV series for HBO about the pornography business, which is being produced by Mark Wahlberg and Steve Levinson. Making movies and TV shows is fun, nothing bad about it all.
What is your writing process like?
I wrote most of the book at night, between the hours of 6 p.m. and 2 a.m. I usually work for between six and eight hours a day. Sometimes at an office, sometimes at home. I listen to music, occasionally the TV is on. I like having noise of some kind, and have found it helps me concentrate. I also talk through my sentences, say them over and over until they sound right, at which point I type them into the machine.
How do you handle criticism? Do you read your reviews?
I do read reviews, and I believe being criticized is part of my job. I don’t fear it or avoid it. I respect the critic’s right to their opinion. And I respect that it is the critic’s job to express it. I like good reviews and the bad ones usually hurt a little bit. They don’t, however, affect how I work or what I write in any way whatsoever.
Are you in touch with Oprah? Any chance you’ll go back on her show during her final season?
l last spoke to Oprah about two years ago.
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.