James Frey’s new novel, Katerina, is his first adult novel in 10 years. He has a new publisher, Scout Press, and a new editor, Alison Callahan, the vice president and executive editor of Scout and Gallery Books, which are imprints of Simon & Schuster. Looking back, Frey has had an interesting if complicated career arc, and, for my money, if there’s an elephant in the room—the controversy that flared up over his admission that he had fabricated parts of his bestselling memoir A Million Little Pieces and the Oprah chastisement that followed—it’s since been removed.
With Katerina, a sexy, intriguing, page-turning love story, Frey is back in the game, again. The narrative moves between 1992 Paris and 2017 Los Angeles, and the middle-age protagonist, Jay, is a successful writer whose life is summed up in an early scene in the novel at a meeting with his agent at—where else?—the Beverly Hills Hotel: “My agent is 35 years old, wears a $5,000 suit and a $50,000 Rolex. He works for a big, fancy agency, and he represents me and my company, which publishes commercial fiction and creates intellectual property for large media companies. I like him... but the idea that I’m a business makes me sick to my fucking stomach.”
When a voice reaches out from the past, Jay is pulled back to his time in Paris as a young man, mesmerized and inspired by Henry Miller’s words in Tropic of Cancer: “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”
When Callahan read the manuscript for Katerina (in four hours) she knew she wanted it for Scout; the imprint launched in 2014 with a focus on the contemporary, the cutting edge. I see where Katerina fits with Scout’s objectives, but I ask Callahan for specifics about the acquisition, and, like the novel, she goes to the excitement of the past: “I walked in a bookstore and bought A Million Little Pieces in hardcover. I didn’t know anything about it; I bought it because of the cover! I was just starting out in publishing in 2003 and $25 dollars was a lot of money, but once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. It was right in my wheelhouse.”
About the storm surrounding A Million Little Pieces that hit later, with the paperback, after she had read the book and become a fan, Callahan says, “I never really cared; I bought all his books. I just loved his writing.”
Callahan’s first personal contact with Frey was in late 2017. She didn’t know him but was publishing A Perfect Universe by Scott O’Connor, a collection of stories set in L.A., and sent the book to Frey’s agent, Eric Simonoff at William Morris Endeavor, asking for a blurb from the author.
The next thing Callahan knew, Frey was on the phone. “It was like stepping off a curb,” she says. “He was so generous and humble and said he would absolutely blurb the book. I shot Eric an email telling him how touched I was and added that if Frey wrote anything else, to please send it to me.”
For Callahan, it was an encounter with an author whose writing she loved and who was a “wonderful” guy. Two months later, in December 2017, she had Frey’s manuscript and she read it that afternoon. Callahan gave the manuscript to her boss, Jennifer Bergstrom, senior v-p and publisher of the Gallery Books Group, that same day (it was a Thursday or Friday, Callahan remembers) “and we were texting about it all weekend.”
Simonoff started representing Frey with Bright Shiny Morning, the L.A. novel that in 2007 went to Jonathan Burnham at HarperCollins in a seven-figure deal. Of their history, Simonoff says that he never read A Million Little Pieces or Frey’s other memoir, My Friend Leonard, but met him at a party after Frey returned from France, where he’d gone for some respite after the Oprah media storm over Pieces.
“We talked and talked, and James asked if I’d read some of his new book,” Simonoff says. “He sent me 150 pages of Bright Shiny Morning and I thought it was great.” He calls Frey’s writing “percussive, rhythmic, funny, sexy, heartbreaking.”
Simonoff tells me that missing his subway stop while reading a manuscript is his test. Katerina passed the test. “I looked up and there I was in East New York,” he says. “Well, you know—you’ve read it. I cried at the end.”
Simonoff tells me that Frey is a friend as well as a client, and that he “selfishly encouraged James to write another book because I like to read them.” He also knew that though Frey had been successfully running his YA publishing company, Full Fathom Five, and was happily settled with his family in Connecticut, something was missing in his creative life.
“I prodded him to get back to writing, and he did,” Simonoff says. “He got a separate laptop, with no internet connection and the writing just poured out of him.”
Frey started in March 2017 and delivered a clean manuscript in less than a year. At the end of 2017, Simonoff sent Katerina out to a small group of editors whom he knew were fans of Frey’s work. All of them responded; the book went to auction and the deal was sealed with Callahan in late January.
“So it was easy,” I say.
Simonoff laughs, saying, “This one was easy; they’re not all easy.”
Callahan knew how much she wanted Katerina, and with Bergstrom feeling as strongly as she did, she “went to the mat for it.” Callahan adds, “Katerina is exactly my taste. I like books that are daring, that make me uncomfortable, that crook a finger saying, ‘Come with me to this dark place’. And the book hits all the evergreen literary themes: art and sex and love and betrayal, but James shines a hot bright spotlight on them. I told Jennifer, ‘If this book were written by Mark Jones, I would feel exactly the same way about it.’” Callahan won the book at auction for over $1 million.
Talking with Frey confirms what I’ve been hearing from Simonoff and Callahan. The 10-year break, he says, was mostly just burnout: “My dreams had come true and I just stepped away.”
Part of Frey’s decision to step away was conscious, he says, and partly, life took over: Full Fathom Five, a happy marriage of 16 years, three kids. But, he says, “about a year and a half ago, I felt depressed, something was missing, which was when Eric told him, ‘Write a book!’ ”
Frey took the advice.“It was different this time, without the yearning there is when you’re starting out. This time was just pure joy.”
Frey cops to the autobiographical elements in the story: “I ran off to Paris at 21 to become a great writer—I read Henry Miller—and it was a dream come true. I love France but now I’ve traded my studded punk rock belt for Ralph Lauren.”
At this stage, Frey says he takes nothing for granted. He’s excited to be publishing again and Callahan says she’s happy to introduce him back into the literary world after his 10-year hiatus. Plans for Katerina include a signing at BookExpo and a beautiful ARC. Foreign sales have been made to John Murray (U.K.); Flammarion (France); Kinneret-Zmora (Israel), TEA (Italy); Eksmo (Russia); and Literatura Random House (Spain). Film rights are with Brad Weston’s Makeready (as production is about to start on an adaptation of A Million Little Pieces).
I ask Callahan whether she cried at the ending, and she says she did. So did Bergstrom, she adds. And you know what? So did I.