Episode 5: Truth and Fact

Time-Stamped Show Notes

[0:00] – ADVERTISEMENT: Visual Quill.

[0:41] – SEGMENT ONE: Sean Prentiss, thee author of Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave begins his story about his attempts to get an interview with Doug Peacock.

  • [1:09] Doug Peacock, a friend of Abbey, was the inspiration for the character George Washington Hayduke in the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang.

[3:30] – INTRO: In this episode of From the Margins, we explore truth and fact. What is truth? How do we write it? How do we retrieve the facts from the “gatekeepers” of truth? Is it ever ethical to bend the facts to get at a larger truth?

  • [4:05] – In this episode of From the Margins, we explore truth and fact through stories that include a solitary season in the desert, an essay about a suicide in Las Vegas, and owls in the Pacific Northwest.
  • [4:20] – From the Margins theme song.

[5:00] SEGMENT TWO: We discuss the art of memoir and taking artistic liberties, using James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire as examples.

  • [5:25] – James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was chosen in Oprah’s Book Club, and later climbed the bestseller charts.
  • [5:45] – Oprah questioned Frey in an interview about factual discrepancies in his book.
  • [6:16] – Frey’s book sparked national debate about the ethics of memoir.
  • [6:35] – Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire received varied degrees of criticism.
  • [7:42] – Abbey spent more than three seasons in the national park, which is mentioned in his foreword, but isn’t made clear in his narrative. The presence of his wife and son are also not mentioned.
  • [7:56] – Sean Prentiss provides commentary of his examinations of the original manuscript of Abbey’s Desert Solitaire to truly understand Abbey’s omissions.
  • [8:28] – “When it comes to craft, what are the reasons a writer might choose to reconstruct the facts for the purposes of the story?”
  • [8:58] –Abbey’s choice to keep his narrative in one season made it a different experience for the reader than splitting the story into three seasons.
  •  [11:44] – Does it make it okay for an author to shift certain facts for the story? Is the story still true, then?

[13:58] SEGMENT THREE: What artistic liberties can an author take when telling someone else’s story? This segment is about John D’Agata’s essay on Levi Presley’s suicide in Las Vegas and what fact-checker Jim Fingal has to say about it.

  • [14:40] – D’Agata’s essay was rejected by Harper’s magazine because of factual inaccuracies, but was then picked up by The Believer magazine and was given to Jim Fingal, an intern, to fact check.
  • [15:05] – Fingal found seven factual inaccuracies in the first sentence alone, and filled 100 pages with notes on the essay’s inaccuracies.
  • [19:47] – D’Agata argues that essays are distinct from journalism; because D’Agata isn’t a journalist, journalistic rules don’t apply to him. But where do we draw the line when changing certain facts goes too far?
  • [22:25] – Devon describes her experience reading Lifespan of a Fact without any prior information about it.
  •  [26:13] – The focus of the essay has shifted toward an intellectual discussion about ethics, and away from a boy’s suicide. Maybe that’s D’Agata’s point: if you get too hung up on the facts, you’ll lose sight of the story. And maybe that’s Fingal’s point, too: if you don’t get the facts straight, you’ll distract the reader from the truth.

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[28:57] SEGMENT FOUR: Girl Friday’s copy chief, Michael Trudeau breaks down the behind-the-scene editing process.

  • [29:47] – Michael Trudeau explains the fact-checking responsibilities of the author and the copyeditor.
  • [32:15] – When we rely on our own memory, that’s when it gets tricky. In memoir, authors draw their stories from a gray area and try to make it as true as they can.

[35:30] – SEGMENT FIVE: What’s the process of collecting facts? William Dietrich, a Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist, tackles the hard job of getting not only the facts, but the truth, as close to right as he can.

  • [36:17] – Dietrich was told to cover the story of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska.
  •  [37:34] – The Exxon Valdez Oil spill was one of the biggest environmental disasters in the world’s history.
  • [38:21] – “One of the duties as a journalist,” Dietrich says, “was to explain what a serious and inexcusable mistake this had been.”
  •  [39:34] – Bill and his reporting team won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the spill.
  • [40:12] – In any story, there are many sides and many potential truths, which was the case for Dietrich’s book, The Final Forest.
  • [40:42] – After the Endangered Species Act was signed, the existence of a certain species of spotted owl was one of the reasons that environmentalists wanted to restrict logging on the Olympic Peninsula. But at the same time, the timber industry was at maximum employment, and putting the trees off-limits would put thousands of people out of work.
  • [41:55] – To tell the truth of a serious issue with a lot at stake, Bill knew he needed to tell many different truths from all sides.
  •  [44:04] – How does a writer that he’s done enough research? Bill’s answer: When you start to hear the same things over and over again.
  • [45:20] – The internet has brought with it a new wave of journalism; anyone can be a reporter.

[48:13] – CLOSING: More information about the guests on this episode can be found on our website at girlfridayproductions.com.

[48:37] – Closing credits.

Key Points

  • Sean Prentiss discusses how Edward Abbey may have shifted the timeline and altered certain details in Desert Solitaire. But we also explore how there may be room for these kinds of changes in the gray area of memoir.
  • Jim Fingal explains the reasons for the factual inaccuracies in John D’Agatas essay, featured in The Lifespan of a Fact. From D’Agata’s perspective, if you get too hung up on the facts, you’ll lose sight of the story. And from Fingal’s fact-checking viewpoint: if you don’t get the facts straight, you’ll distract the reader from the truth.
  • Michael Trudeau explains fact checking as it relates to the editorial process in publishing.
  • Bill Dietrich teaches us that there are many different sides to a story and many potential truths, and it’s a journalist’s responsibility to get the facts straight to tell the larger truth.

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