“I once caught a fish this big…

…to which the teller of the fish story goes on to elaborate how the fish was the size of a VW bus, yet after a five hour struggle he reeled it in without help. In truth, the fish was the size of a sardine and he barely broke a sweat, but who’s going to discount the story?

And that’s the rub. Someone ALWAYS knows the truth and can either remain quiet or “out” you. It depends on the risk of blowback.

Which appears to be the case with NY Times bestseller author Greg Mortenson, who told a whopper of a fish story with his “memoir” Three Cups of Tea. Seems that 60 Minutes decided to check the veracity of his story. Lo and behold…it was a lie. So Mortenson pulled a James Frey. Lovely. And while he has raked in barrels of money to build schools in Afghanistan (which appear to be a bit of a stretch as well), his publisher is having some serious sphincter pucker. They’re probably holding emergency meetings right now, wondering whether to pull the book off the shelves and figuring out what their response will be.

They’ve already issued a few statements to the effect that they’ll be looking into the allegations. And of course, they’re having to fend off the cries of, “Editor, vet thyself!”

Yah, sure. It’s easier said than done. Vetting a story takes a lot of money and time. And unless the publisher has an unlimited budget, it simply can’t be done. How does one track down all the people who were involved in this story? Villagers? Taliban? People need to be realistic about what a publisher can realistically pull off. That’s why contracts stipulate that it’s the author’s responsibility to ensure the story they’re telling is true.

Greg Mortenson knowingly lied. And made a fortune doing it.

I detest liars with every fiber of my being because someone always gets hurt. A publisher produces a book in good faith only to get burned. This hits close to home because we specialize in publishing authors’ personal journeys. Over the years I’ve had some real whopper queries cross my desk and I always reject them because I know I can’t verify the story. They’re simply too fantastical to believe at first blush. Maybe I’m too cynical, but I have a reputation to consider, and I can’t afford to be caught up in something I can’t authenticate because the first thing I’d have to do is recall the books. Pardon my French, but screw that!

Getting caught in a lie is so pathetic – except if you’re a politician, and they do it as a natural course of business and have no shame. Sadly, that lack of shame has leeched over into society. And it’s not just in lying about their stories. People also stretch the truth with their bios. I remember the woman who queried me and listed herself as a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Anyone want to guess how quickly one can find that out? About two seconds. I wrote her a scathing letter telling her that not only did she have the IQ of a camel in order to lie about something so easily verified, but that I would make sure to tell all my agent and editor friends about her as well.

And that’s my opinion of Greg Mortenson – not that he gives a rip. He’s made his millions and will slurk off to some hidey hole where he belongs. Or he’ll brazenly continue the lie like a politician. Who knows? But I feel for his publisher.

Seems good faith is in short supply these days. I don’t welcome or embrace the decay.

Does lying bother you as much as it bothers me?

21 Responses to “I once caught a fish this big…

  1. Marisa Birns says:

    It’s the betrayal that stings. And the misguided belief that no one will detect the lie at some point that boggles the mind.

    I mean, Pulitzer Prize? That made me laugh. Poor woman.

  2. NinjaFingers says:

    If you want to write a tall tale, write fiction.

  3. Digital Dame says:

    It IS infuriating, and destroys the credibility of other books published as ‘memoirs.’ But, these guys have figured out they can make a whole lotta money before anyone is on to them, so they do it. There are no consequences. James Frey has gone on to other scams, and is doing very well. I don’t understand why people support him at this point.

    I have to admit I didn’t read this “Three Cups of Tea” but it’s just not what I’m interested in.

  4. Becky Mushko says:

    So, will “fictional memoir” be the next hot genre?

  5. Harrr! Becky, you’ll be heartened to know that I’ve actually received queries where the authors stated they’d fictionalized their memoirs – and then tried to convince me it was nonfiction. The mind boggles…

  6. Maggie Dana says:

    I wonder where that leaves his co-author, David Oliver Relin who, as far as I can see, actually wrote the book. I don’t think Mortensen has the writing chops, given what I’ve read of his recent letters to schools and libraries about all this.

  7. NinjaFingers says:

    Fictionalized memoirs have always been around. And…man.

    If Relin did not know and can prove it, he may have a solid case against Mortensen for, oh, false representation, dragging his name through the mud. I sort of hope for that outcome…it might teach people who pull this crap a lesson.

    (Even if it’s only ‘make sure your ghostwriter knows you’re full of shit’ :P)

  8. Maggie, Mortenson has tossed David under the bus and is blaming him for everything. He further stuck his foot in more goo by insisting that the tribe doesn’t really understand the concept of time. Gee, patronizing much? He’s stolen millions from good, honest people so he could advance his lifestyle. Hope it was worth ruining his name and reputation, while giving Viking and his co-author a mammoth-sized headache.

  9. NinjaFingers says:

    I saw the no concept of time concept and for *that alone*…no, no. True, in order to accurately measure time you DO rather need a clock or a watch. But…

  10. I’m with you, Ninjie. Mortenson says that he kept asking David about the timeline, but that David said not to worry about it. If that’s not true, it’ll become a case of he said/he said, since there’s probably no proof.

    That said, the buck stops with the author, so I’m not buying that David led him astray, especially since Mortenson ripped off a bundle of money to promote his book.

  11. Maggie Dana says:


    Totally off-topic, but I’d just like to say how stunning the cover is for Kim Kircher’s upcoming book. I can’t take my eyes off it.


  12. kimkircher says:

    This burns. I feel betrayed and mislead. I loved this book and the great work it was doing. I even bought the middle grade version for my step-daughter, wanting her to learn the heroic story for herself. Our culture seems to want our heroes unblemished and neatly wrapped. Perhaps Mortenson’s story would have lacked oomph if he portrayed the actual timeline, rather than compressing it into a well-packaged narrative. But maybe not. If he had been honest with his story, it still would have had staying power, since it’s the education piece that I find so compelling.

  13. I know what you mean, Maggie. I love Kim’s cover, too. The book is even better!

    I hear you, Kim. The story would have still been terrific had he told the real one. Putz.

  14. I love reading stories like this. It probably means I’m a terrible person because I enjoy seeing someone’s lies unravel.

    But it’s so captivating to watch. It’s all so public and horrible and – at the same time there is a bizarre sense of justice, isn’t there? He lied and now he’s been found out and . . . the next stage is ‘will there be any punishment?’

    Recently in Australia, a man who claimed to be a war veteran, and who rose to the position of director of veterans affairs (or something) was exposed as a total fake. People were scratching their heads wondering why it took thirty years for the lie to come to light. And the bizarre thing was he ended up saying it was a relief for it all to be over.

    Sooooo glad I write fiction! My imaginary friends are real to me, but that’s the extent of it!

  15. Lev Raphael says:

    Yes it does both me. Memoir is never 100% accurate and our memories aren’t DVRs, but gross untruths in a memoir bug me. I could never get into the Frey because it seemed so overblown and unbelievable. Later I found out how far from the truth he verged. In my memoir “My Germany” I’ve hewed (hewn?)as closely to the emotional truth of everything as possible, and when it came to recording other people’s experiences I did outside research to verify as best as I could.

  16. NO… lies poison everything they touch. Which begs the question, when will big publishers begin to re-embrace fiction rather than continue down the path of questionable vetting? Of course, Mortenson’s publisher made money, too. Unless they decide to issue refunds to every reader and bookseller that laid down their cash.

    But who decided that memoir was suddenly the way to go, anyway? As a reader, I’ve been just as moved, by the best of fiction as any memoir I’ve ever read.

  17. Richard, publishers produce fiction works all the time, so I’m not sure where you get the idea they don’t. As I mentioned in my post, it’s nearly impossible to vet nonfiction – especially when the story takes place ten thousand miles away. Just because Mortenson is yak bantha doesn’t mean all nonfiction should be painted with the same brush.

    And sure, Viking made serious $$ on his book, but that income stream is now dead, thanks to the actions of one selfish con artist. You’d be amazed to know how many authors are helped by the boon on one book – so yes, this is a hit to the publisher as well.

    As for who decided to make it a memoir – my money is on Mortenson.

  18. Bill Webb says:

    Lynn, not feeling it for the publisher. They shoud have checked their facts like a magazine does. I canlt print anythgin in a newspaper or mag withot proof. And don’t tell me that’s not how it works for books, it should. Just like insurance, its got to be worth it.

  19. Bill, vetting a mag article is far different than vetting an entire book where you have countless scenes and characters to verify.

    How do you propose vetting a story that takes place 10,000 miles away, in obscure little villages? Publishers wouldn’t publish anything if they had to go to those lengths. The author, however, could be facing a juicy lawsuit because he basically broke his contract by lying.

  20. Newspapers have fact checking people – they’re supposed to be the journalists and sub editors etc. Doesn’t stop mistakes getting through, or journalists completely making things up . . .

    Read Diana Cook’s “The 6 Most Impressive Resume Liars” from cracked.com
    which includes the rise and fall of Janet Cooke who won a Pulitzer prize for her feature on Jimmy the cute little heroin addict.

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