Cupfuls of Deception
April 26th, 2011

To be fair, who among us has never been a guest at a dinner party and at some point during the evening become convinced he has been kidnapped by the Taliban? It has often happened to me; probably it’s a good thing the host wasn’t passing around an AK-47.

Nonetheless, critics are now taking issue with the book THREE CUPS OF TEA, allegedly written by Greg Mortenson. What is the difference, they ask, between exaggeration and prevarication? And what’s the difference between fiction and nonfiction? Well, let me put it this way: all writers are inclined toward fabrication. I know, because I’m one of them. A liar, that is.

Early on, my English teacher Mrs. Allred tried to set me straight. I had handed in a piece about an ice skater who slides off the rink and into a snow bank, where he spends days desperately struggling against hypothermia. It was a send-up of Jack London’s short story “To Build A Fire,” but Mrs. Allred didn’t see it that way.

“Not quite realistic,” she wrote. And gave me a C.

No matter, I persisted and eventually was able to earn sort of a living from making things up. Most of the time I’ve been able to get away with it, because nowadays fact checking is a lost art. However, every now and then a publisher will ask me to sign a contract. That’s when things get sticky.

A few years ago I wrote a chapter for a book titled AUSTRALIA: TRUE STORIES OF LIFE DOWN UNDER. My chapter deals with Australian cuisine—specifically, that ungodly fusion of English cooking and Aboriginal bush tucker—and as usual, I was letting my imagination run wild. For instance, I wrote that it’s against Australian law to shout, “The barramundi are biting!” in a crowded theater. True? Probably not, but then I’m no longer aiming to get an A from Mrs. Allred. No, I’m writing to entertain, and for money. Not much money, just enough to keep me in pencils and paper and beer.

Presently a contract arrived. In so many words, it asked me to affirm that everything in my “true story” was true. I went ahead and signed it, confident that nobody would be curious enough to research the statutes or to actually shout, “The barramundi are biting!” in a crowded Australian theater. So far, the only negative feedback I’ve gotten has come from Aussie readers who contend this Yank has no idea what he’s talking about. Point taken.

So am I as big a liar as Greg Mortenson? I say no. No, because I don’t fly around the country in a Learjet, I don’t stay in luxury hotels, I don’t pocket $30,000 per speaking fee. I haven’t solicited charitable donations in order to build restaurants down under; I haven’t proposed that Australians can somehow be taught to cook. No, all I got for writing “Fear of Frying” is a onetime payment in the high two figures and a byline. Hey, it’s better than a C from Mrs. Allred.

-Richard Menzies