Looks like Greg Mortenson, author of the widely-read memoir Three Cups of Tea, has joined James Frey, Herman Rosenblat, and Margaret Seltzer (a.k.a. Margert B. Jones) as a member of the literary liars club. According to a damning 60 Minutes report, “Upon close examination, some of the most touching and harrowing tales in Mortenson's books appear to have been either greatly exaggerated or made up out of whole cloth."
Stories like this always make me sad. Talented memoir writers know how to make the most ordinary, everyday events jump off the page and immerse the reader in those moments. They don’t have to resort to exaggerating the facts or making up events to keep and hold readers’ attention.
Memoir writing is imperfect art as much of the retelling of events comes from an author’s memory. Readers understand that memory is a fickle thing and most people read a memoir understand that they’re getting the author’s take on what happened. Still, memoir writers owe it to their readers to do as much research through journal entries, news reports, court transcripts, and interviews with others who were at events in the book make their book as accurate as possible. If you have to resort to lying, label the book as fiction or one that’s “based on a true story.”
What makes the Mortenson case worse than, say, James Frey’s outright lies is that he used his stories to start a charity that funds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mortenson and his charity are going to lose a lot of credibility so it looks like the real losers are kids in Pakistan and Afghanistan who are helped through his charity.
Hopefully someone with a real story to tell will be able to step forward and help these kids now.
You can watch the 60 Minutes story below.
Update: Montana's attorney general is launching an inquiry the Mortenson's charity.
The scene: A waiting area at a car dealership. I've brought my laptop so I can write while I wait. An older gentleman with a thick book in his hand takes the seat next to me and glances at my computer screen. Old Man: What you writing, your memoirs?
Me: I already wrote my memoir. I'm working on a novel.
Old Man: ~laughs~ "That's a good one!"
The old man slaps me on the knee, stands up, and walks away.
Update: The guy turned out to be really cool. After he come back to the waiting area we ended up talking. Turns out he's an avid readers and got a kick out of meeting a writer. On his way out the door he told everyone else in the waiting room to buy both my books.