Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Question: querying memoir in a post-Frey landscape

Thank you so much for allowing me to participate in the Chum Bucket! I appreciate your comments regarding my memoir.

I have a follow-up question — a possible topic for your blog, as I imagine lots of memoirists will struggle with the same issue.

You’ve stated that because you were unable to find further information about me on the Internet, it might call the veracity of my story in question — a legitimate concern in light of the fraudulent “memoirs” by Frey, Seltzer, et al.

As you’ve surmised, I have indeed changed the names of key participants (which, of course, I’m disclosing at the start of the manuscript). However, even googling their real names won’t turn up much information. The trial initially garnered no media coverage. The press did pick up the story once I turned the tables on my rivals. A bit of digging will still lead to some of these articles, but as the case happened more than ten years ago, much of the content is now archived.

Other than that, I’m about as googleable as Jack Reacher.

However, thanks to the extensive trial record, I can back up each material statement in my book from sworn testimony and supporting documents. But how do I effectively state this in my query (if at all)?

In a broader sense: How should authors of genuine memoirs pitch their work in this post-Frey world, especially if their stories are controversial or sound too outrageous to be true?

Heeding the QueryShark mantra that a query’s sole goal is to garner an agent’s interest, I decided to keep mine short and plot-focused. I figured that if agents are sufficiently intrigued to invest time researching my story, then my query has done its job.

Memoir is a very tricky thing to query as you found out. The first memoir I took on after the Frey debacle was TUNE IN TOKYO by Tim Anderson.  I remember asking him if he had his passport and photos and receipts.  I never doubted Tim's story but I wanted to make sure that if anyone asked, we had backup.

In your case, you need to mention in your query letter that the public record is a bit bare. You need to say there is an extensive trial record (and quote the case by name and court.)

But the real problem with a memoir that has a sparse public record is this: if no one cared enough to write about it when it was happening, why will people care about it now?

In other words: what is the significance of this proposed memoir?

This is the place where most memoirs don't get enough altitude to fly. Significance is not "It happened to me and wrecked my life" or "They done me wrong and I can prove it."

Significance is why a general reader will be compelled to pick up the book and read it.

Some recent non-fiction examples:

COLUMBINE by Dave Cullen--"Everything you thought you knew about Columbine was wrong."

DEVIL IN THE GROVE by Gilbert King--"Drawing on a wealth of never-before-published material, including the FBI's unredacted Groveland case files, as well as unprecedented access to the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund files, King shines new light on this remarkable civil rights crusader, [Thurgood Marshall] setting his rich and driving narrative against the heroic backdrop of a case that U.S. Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson decried as "one of the best examples of one of the worst menaces to American justice."

THE BROTHERS: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and Their Secret World War by Stephen Kinzer--as cogent a narrative as I've ever seen that explains why Third World countries don't much like the United States.

Bottom line for a memoir: you need to tell me there is evidence supporting the story, and where to find it, but more important you need to tell me why the story is important now.

Here's a recent blog post by Wendy Thomas about what makes memoir compelling. I like what she has to say.


NotaWarriorPrincess said...

...or you need to write like God's second cousin Louise.

She sends her love.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Man, the Frey thing was so very strange and interesting, from the library perspective. Some people were in the midst of reading it, you see, when the bubble burst. One lady slid it across the counter with a moue of distaste and said "I was so disappointed."

So then I read it, and wondered why all these grandma ladies wanted to read a book about drug addiction and being a horrible person, and wondered why they felt so betrayed that it was...erm...embellished.