People’s lives are quarries and, somewhere buried deep, lies the truth that needs to be mined before this raw material becomes a memoir. An even deeper quarry is that of history.
Within the painstaking excavation of both, there will be emotions, details and certain accounts that will be dug-up and exposed. And then there will be fragments of imagination and fantasy, clinging to these truths like clumpy, wet soil. It is the job of the writer on this archaeological dig to know and then separate the two.
Building a life or an event into a narrative that is compelling, entertaining and meaningful is the writer’s challenge. Some published lives will meet the bar. Some will not. But what matters more than anything is the honouring of truth. If you’re a biographer or chronicler of history, that requirement becomes an onerous burden and duty of care.
Which is why the case of a book called ‘The Last Train from Hiroshima’ has caused such a stir. Its print run and shipping was halted and copies pulled after it emerged that one of its most significant accounts relied on a dodgy source. Now, author Charles Pellegrino – who says he was unwittingly duped – and the publisher Henry Holt & Company are left with faces redder than beet-root (and I dare not even contemplate the legal shit-storm that going on behind the scenes).
Mr. Pellegrino relied on an account from a source who claimed he was a flight engineer on a plane escorting the aircraft that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Since publication, that source has been exposed as a fraud who did not take part in the mission.
It’s an unfortunate mess, and one in which everyone is asking who is responsible. One of the most unfair charges is that the truth was left at the publisher’s door, and it should have been more thorough with its fact-checking. And all this again rakes up memories of James Frey’s well-documented embellishments in his memoir ‘A Million Little Pieces’ (2006) and Margaret Seltzer’s fabricated account called ‘Love & Consequences’ (2008), suggesting she was raised in the gang-lands of LA…when she was actually reared in the well-heeled suburb of Sherman Oaks. Ouch.
Sadly, this latest case has blighted an important work about the survivors of the atomic bomb, and the publisher must be holding its head in its hands. But it should not be carrying the can, and it’s a bit rich of the media to expect it to do so.
Authors are like journalists – they are professionals who carry with them a burden of responsibility to deliver the truth, and check and then double check both their sources and information. News-desks don’t have the time to comb through every fact of a reporter (even if the dedicated fact-checking departments at The New Yorker and Vanity Fair might disagree). The writer’s skill, competency, judgement and trust is relied on, subject to common sense scrutiny and legal checks for defamation. Likewise, a publishing editor will query the red-flags and holes when spotted but the responsibility of ultimate truth rests on the shoulders of the author. That is why all standard publishing contracts are unequivocal.
It normally states something along the lines of: “The Author warrants to the Publisher that the Work shall be wholly original and that all statements are factual and true and are based and supported by reasonable research for accuracy…”
Maybe Charles Pellegrino’s publisher should have wondered more closely about such an historically important account. The Book of Hindsight will make painful reading right now. But within the narrow scope of this exposed fiction, there can only be one fact: the buck rests with Charles Pellegrino. He mined it. He checked it. He wrote it. He dropped the ball if not the bomb.
It doesn’t help that this story has attracted extra attention because he worked as a consultant on ‘Avatar’ and its director James Cameron was said to be optioning the movie rights to ‘The Last Train of Hiroshima’. What happens on that front remains to be seen but he’s been reported as saying: “All I know is that Charlie would not fabricate, so there must be a reason for the misunderstanding.”
But let’s not turn this into a general malaise of dropped standards within publishing. I’ve already read some media hysteria about “the lines between fact and fiction being blurred”. And that’s a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, to use an English expression. There remains an obsession in publishing for impeccable standards, absolute truth and publication in good faith.
Even though the craft of memoir requires a certain fashioning of text, the fidelity to truth is always paramount. Rare episodes may well slip through the net – just like the odd hoax will embarrass a newspaper or a bad-cop will hurt a force’s integrity. But, as the publisher stressed when asking for matters to be placed into context, “this is the exception not the rule”…and that’s the truth.