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A nod from Winfrey lifts author

Times Staff Writer

Probably the biggest news of his career and James Frey couldn’t tell his mother. It was 1:15 on an early September afternoon and Frey was sitting in his tiny home office in Amagansett, N.Y., ear glued to the phone, talking to Oprah Winfrey.

Thirteen years previous, Frey was in an Ohio jail serving time for assault and convalescing from the spiraling addiction to alcohol and crack that nearly killed him. “I wasn’t a writer, just a troubled kid,” he said in a grainy voice tinged with hard living. But sobriety ushered in a writer’s drive and sensibility, and Frey’s gritty memoir “A Million Little Pieces” came to life in 2003 as a statement as well as a story.

“It’s a gob of spit in the face of victimization culture,” Frey said. “I hadn’t ever read a book or seen movies or television that got addiction right. A lot of times people try to blame other people for their problems or try to romanticize addiction. I don’t believe that most addicts are victims of anything but themselves.”

The book was a runaway success, and Frey began receiving about 200 fan letters a day. But there’s a bestseller and then there’s an Oprah’s Book Club bestseller. “Oprah can take a book from being successful to being extremely successful,” said Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. “A mention from her is every author’s dream. She’s hugely powerful.”

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Frey knew this. His mother, Lynn, an Oprah fan for years, kept him up to date with the talk show queen’s suggested readings. He also knew that Oprah had suspended her book club in 2002, only to revive it last year for classics only. So when he answered the phone and a woman introduced herself as a producer from the Oprah show, the whole thing smelled of a prank. He went along anyhow, agreeing to make an appearance to discuss addiction. Then Oprah herself picked up the phone and popped the question: Would he be interested in being part of the Oprah’s Book Club?

Frey was “shocked and thrilled” and agreed immediately. He told his wife that afternoon but a confidentiality contract banned him from telling anybody else, including his mother, until Oprah made the official announcement. (Lynn Frey “coincidentally” received an invitation to the taping, which aired on Sept. 22, and screamed from the audience, “That’s my son!” when Oprah made the reveal.) In the meantime, the book’s publisher, Anchor Books, ordered 600,000 additional copies to bolster its reserves. It would need those and more: Within a day of being selected, “A Million Little Pieces” rocketed to No. 1 on Amazon.com, and four days after the announcement, bookstores had sold roughly 85,000 copies.

Although he “gets nervous in front of big crowds” and says that “writers are very solitary people, and I enjoy being alone for hours each day,” Frey is fervently enthusiastic about his association with Oprah. He repeats words like “awesome” and “amazing” and considers it “my duty to make Oprah feel proud for having chosen me, to participate happily, willingly and joyfully in everything related to being part of this.”

His unabashed enthusiasm contrasts sharply with the string of qualms that Jonathan Franzen let fly in 2001 when Oprah nominated his novel, “The Corrections,” for inclusion in the club. Although Franzen later apologized and backpedaled, it was clear that he considered the honor a dubious one. Oprah promptly rescinded his welcome.

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That’s unlikely to happen with Frey, who is vocally unafraid of any kind of populist stigma. “I’m not part of the literati at this point,” he said. “I don’t write criticisms, I don’t participate in literati activities. I don’t care about that stuff, frankly. I just think it’s amazing that so many people are going to read my book. I’m happy to have any reader, regardless of their socioeconomic standing, their education or anything else.”

The literary and publishing world is positively giddy about Oprah’s return to contemporary authors; the club is perhaps the only platform that can transform any book into a smash overnight. M.J. Rose, author of “The Halo Effect,” has suggested that the sharp drop-off in fiction book sales after Sept. 11 was related less to the national chaos than to Oprah’s hiatus from recommending authors of today.

“And I’m really excited that Oprah picked something that’s this edgy and dark,” Rose said. “It’s not typical at all of the kinds of books she used to pick.... I’ve talked to three authors in the last 24 hours who all said, ‘This means that any of us could be chosen now.’ ”

Frey is of course busier than ever; he sits in his office at his little desk, shuffling through the thousands of songs on his computer, and typing away. The sequel to his debut, “My Friend Leonard,” was published in June and he’s at work on a detective show pilot and a screenplay about the founder of the Hell’s Angels (both for Fox) and a novel about Los Angeles.

“Los Angeles is just a giant, incredible city unlike any other city in the world,” he said. “Its culture is different and its geography is different. But when anybody writes about it, it’s always crime or Hollywood. There haven’t been any great books about the rest of this giant metropolis.”

Then, three or four times each day, Frey puts his 9-month-old daughter in a stroller and walks with her through the neighborhood. She has no idea about the Oprah hubbub, Frey says. She may be the only one.


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