CAN YOU TELL LIES in your autobiography? That’s a debate we’ve had on this website a few times, but a case I heard about this morning shines a new light on the topic.
A man called Augusten Burroughs wrote a memoir called Running With Scissors, which recorded his nightmare early life living with guardians in a family in which dog food was eaten, pedophilia was condoned, and an electroshock machine used. The St Martin’s Press book sold well, and the movie rights were picked up by Sony Pictures Entertainment.
But the family sued for US$2 million, claiming that the book was a tissue of defamatory lies.
It was announced by lawyers in Boston this morning that a settlement had been reached. The next editions of the book will feature an author’s note in which the term “a memoir” is replaced by “a book” and will say that the family’s recollection “are different from my own”.
The family claims they have been totally vindicated by these changes.
The author claims that he has been totally vindicated by the fact that the main text of the book remains unchanged.
To me, the root of the problem is in the word “memoir”. It refers to a person’s recollections, and authors such as Burroughs argue that it should not be confused with the word “autobiography”, which implies a factual record of someone’s life.
To my mind, the distinction is more than a little artificial. But making this distinction allows authors to sensationalize their lives and sell fictionalized material to readers as fact. I think readers deserve more respect.
So I repeat my advice to authors I have been mentoring: never claim fiction is fact or vice-versa. The stress ain’t worth it.
EVERY SO OFTEN you meet a person or a group of people who re-set your perspectives on life, reboot your system and change your values.
That happened to me last night. I had the honor of being Master of Ceremonies for a show by a group called Watoto, visiting Hong Kong from Africa. They’re a world-class group of singers and dancers, and their energy was so infectious that they got a highly conservative Hong Kong audience up from their seats and bopping in the aisles.
But you know what was truly incredible about the event last night?
They were all children, aged eight to 12.
They were visiting from Uganda, one of the poorest countries in the world.
They were all HIV-AIDS orphans.
A short time ago, these were children with nothing: no money, no homes, no parents, no hope. That they could be transformed into role models that have rich Hong Kong kids looking on enviously is a stunning lesson in what humanity can achieve.
Who did this miracle? There are no clues at all on their website, but the behind-the-scenes story is this: A self-effacing Canadian missionary couple, Gary and Marilyn Skinner, moved to Africa and persuaded churches around the world to contribute to a rescue program. They’ve accomplished no small feat: although the group who performed last night were just a dozen strong, almost 1600 destitute children have been rescued.
SMALL AND MEDIUM-SIZED publishers are blossoming in Asia, which is great news for writers here. Check out the website of Blacksmith Books -- these guys are on a roll.
I can’t wait to pick up their latest production: Hong Kong On Air by Muhammad Cohen. It’s a novel about a couple working in the TV media during the late 1990s, written by a former TV station staff member. I met the author some years ago, and look forward to seeing how this insightful writer turns his hand to fiction.
Besides, who can resist checking out a book by someone whose very name appears to be culturally impossible?