Publisher Pulls 'Last Train From Hiroshima'
NEAL CONAN, host:
Last month, publisher Henry Holt and Company stopped the presses on "The Last Train from Hiroshima," by Charles Pellegrino. Shortly after the book was published, some readers complained that one of Pellegrino's sources, Joseph Fuoco, was a fraud. Before the controversy broke, Pellegrino was a guest on this program and told us how Fuoco compared the moral effect of dropping the atomic bomb to fire bombing raids that actually killed more people.
(Soundbite of archived broadcast)
Mr. CHARLES PELLEGRINO (Author, "The Last Train from Hiroshima"): Fuoco said something to me that I was not expecting. He said, when he heard 200,000 people died, he said there were plenty of other planes to spread that around when it was only us. He said, and when we heard 70,000 estimated deaths in Hiroshima -and he got tears in his eyes and he said, every one of those souls came back to us and our three planes.
CONAN: It's now agreed that Fuoco made up the story that he was on one of the planes that escorted the Enola Gay and made up other parts of the story that he told to Charles Pellegrino. We've invited Mr. Pellegrino back to discuss that question and others about his book. We've not been able to arrange an interview but he did speak with Motoko Rich, the publishing reporter for The New York Times whose story in today's editions of the newspaper addresses what this later - latest problem book says about the publishing industry.
And we'd like to hear from writers in the audience today and those of you in publishing. Who is responsible for accuracy? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And Motoko Rich of The New York Times joins us on the phone from her home in Brooklyn. Nice of you to be with us today.
Ms. MOTOKO RICH (Correspondent, The New York Times): Thank you for having me.
CONAN: And the story of that man told, well, he's since died and of course -but that was just the beginning. Questions have been raised about other characters in the book. And we say characters because the publisher says it was unable to determine that they, in fact, existed.
Ms. RICH: Well, that's the problem. There were two priests that Pellegrino mentioned in, "The Last Train from Hiroshima" - one who was apparently protecting the other, who had committed suicide. Both of them were allegedly in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing. And when I spoke with Mr. Pellegrino, he told me that he had used pseudonyms for the one who is protecting the priest who had committed suicide because that was, of course, going against the rules of the Catholic Church.
He failed to say in his acknowledgments that he had used a pseudonym. So when some questions were raised about the existence of these priests, of course, people who were starting to do checking could not find any reference to either of them because allegedly these were not their names. He provided some documentation. He told me that the publisher was not convinced. And other historians that I've talked to were not convinced by his claims.
CONAN: And Fuoco's story is important not just because of the emotional impact he describes of a mission that he was never on, but he told Pellegrino a story about the fact that the Hiroshima bomb was in fact a dud.
Ms. RICH: Yes. I mean, he basically reversed 65 years of history when he suggested that there apparently was a - some kind of accident on Tinian Island where the planes were gathering before the bombings. And that it had dramatically depleted the power of the bomb. And this was told fairly matter-of-factly in his book, but it was a fairly striking quote, unquote, scoop, if you will, because it goes against what everyone else had written about the bomb up until then.
And that, I think, is what tipped off a lot of the scientists and the historians and the veterans who got in touch with my colleague, William Broad, who broke the original story that the - that Joe Fuoco was a fraud. They had never heard of this before. And that was one of the elements of the book that seemed to have gone completely unchecked and was moreover relying just on this one source who is now dead.
CONAN: And then there is the question of Mr. Pellegrino's PhD or not.
Ms. RICH: Yes. Well, that is another question which he - interestingly, he alludes to a controversy with his PhD on his own Web site. And he talks very openly; when I interviewed him, he talked quite fervently about the fact that he had received this PhD at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. I believe he said it was in 1981 and that he was stripped of it three years later because of a controversy that had erupted between him and his colleagues over evolutionary theory. He told me it was a very hot and nasty topic at the time.
And then when the publisher tried to verify this, they were not at all satisfied with his responses or what they were hearing from the university. And in fact, last week, the vice chancellor of the university came out with a very strong statement, saying that his claims were quote, defamatory, and that they had never even awarded him a PhD in the first place.
CONAN: And he - the - in conversations has said check with this person, check with that person and...
Ms. RICH: Right.
CONAN: ...that didn't turn out to work for him.
Ms. RICH: No. I mean, he very specifically mentioned someone. He was sort of dropping a lot of names when I was talking to him, but he very specifically, in a follow-up email, suggested I contact a Dr. Eric Stover, who, back in the '80s, was an executive director of the Science and Human Rights Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is now working in human rights at the University of California at Berkeley, where I found him.
And he said that, you know, the name sort of rings a bell, but I looked him up on the Web, I looked at his picture on his Web site, and I just simply don't recognize him, I don't remember him at all. So I thought that was fairly telling that the person that Mr. Pellegrino was telling me would provide a reference for him as having suffered academic persecution couldn't even remember who he was.
CONAN: And we don't mean to pile on Charles Pellegrino.
Ms. RICH: Yeah.
CONAN: He's obviously in the middle of difficulties. But this - he was on this program and, you know, stated facts that - well, at least, some of them are -now he acknowledges were wrong and Fuoco's story, he accepts that he was duped by a source.
Ms. RICH: Yes.
CONAN: Whose responsibility then is it? We've seen this not just in "Last Train from Hiroshima," a book which was - got rave reviews in The Washington Post and The New York Times and - but, obviously, in a whole bunch of other books recently, too.
Ms. RICH: Right. I mean, there have been a slew of, as it turns out, memoirs. Generally speaking, the problems have arisen in these personal histories where people have either embellished or wholly fabricated stories about their lives. And so, perhaps, most notoriously, we have James Frey who embellished some details in "A Million Little Pieces," and then Oprah Winfrey took him to the woodshed on her show. More recently, there was Margaret Seltzer who wrote under the pseudonym of Margaret Jones...
Ms. RICH: ...where she claimed as - sort of, a white woman who had been raised by an African-American foster family in South Central Los Angeles. And it turns out the entire story was not true, that she had made that out of whole cloth. And at the time, of course, it's the author who perhaps suffers the most humiliation in public, but there are always questions raised about, you know, was the publisher or the editors of the book, where they asleep at the switch? Why didn't they notice? Why didn't ask basic questions?
And there is a certain element of which 20/20 is hindsight, and a lot of publishers and editors have said to me over the years, you know, you cannot protect yourself against the liar, and some of these liars are very good at it. And they have persuaded a lot of people, reviewers, people who interviewed them, et cetera. They're very persuasive in the way they present themselves.
On the other hand, what I, sort of, try to explore a little bit in my story, is this question of what kind of checking is the publisher responsible to do. And the publishers say they can't fact-check everything the way magazines are fact-checked, and that's probably true and fair. But on the other hand, they can have some fairly simple questions that might, sort of, pull a thread out.
Ms. RICH: So, for example, this latest book with Mr. Pellegrino, given that what he was doing was apparently revealing something that reversed 65 years of history, you would think that the editor would ask, oh, gosh, nobody else has ever said that about the accident. Moreover, it seems that this news comes from one source. Are you sure about this source? Have you doublechecked with all the other people on the plane?
CONAN: And, indeed, what the publishers told you was the person responsible was more interested in the stories of the double survivors, the Japanese victims, and wasn't quite as much interested in that other part of the story.
Ms. RICH: Right, indeed. And someone - one could say fair enough that was almost a very compelling part of the book. But still, given that the part that was seemly breaking news was the part that ended up being false, it's a surprise that he didn't really asked any questions about that.
CONAN: Let's go get some people - listeners on the call - on the phone, and we're asking people who are writers and people who are in the publishing business, who's responsible for making sure a book is accurate? Michael(ph) is on line with us from Wichita.
MICHAEL (Caller): Yeah. I just wanted to say that - I mean, obviously, a writer should hold themselves to, you know, a high level of credibility. But really if invest - if a publisher is going to invest a lot of money in a book, they should really check these things. And if it's coming out later after it's been published that these things are not true, then obviously there's evidence out there that they could find to show that it's not true.
MICHAEL: And so really, the credibility of the writer should not really come into question when they going to publish something like this, but they should, at least, kind of check to see if they need to search a little further into the history. Thank you. That's all I want to say.
CONAN: Well, thank you very much, Michael. Motoko Rich, is it the Acme Publishing company's responsibility to say this is under our imprimatur, we guarantee the contents within?
Ms. RICH: Well, I think that publishers would say they can't possibly guarantee, because, like I said, before their argument is that they can't protect themselves from someone who lies. On the other hand, like Michael said, if you're going to invest a lot of money - and I don't know what the financial details of their deal with Mr. Pellegrino was on this particular book, but they were clearly hoping for it to do quite well or promoting it quite strenuously, they should check.
I think he's right. There is some responsibility both with the author but also with the publisher to make sure that what they're putting out there, given that publishers are now saying in an era when they're coming under question as to what their role is, that part of what they do, it provides as vetting in editing, we want to know that they do that.
CONAN: They do routinely hire somebody to check your grammar.
CONTEXT: Yes. They have copy editors, and the editors give quite a lot of work to help with narrative structure and making sure that it's a compelling story. I think there is some of that that goes on, and it depends on authors that you talked too. I've heard of a broad race of writers who's saying, wow, I didn't get edited at all, to others who say, you know, thank goodness for my editor, they really helped me rewrite the book. But I don't think there is at a fundamental level, all that much is checking of facts.
CONAN: Let's get Jerry on the line. Jerry is calling us from Fort Myers.
Mr. JERRY GREENFIELD (Author, "Maverick: The Personal War of a Vietnam Cobra Pilot"): Hi. Good afternoon.
Mr. GREENFIELD: I wrote a book several years ago called "Maverick: The Personal War of a Vietnam Cobra Pilot." I wrote it with a friend of mine who did two tours in Vietnam as a gunship pilot. He had been, according to the book and according to the story I was told, a POW - he'd been held for about 30 days in the tiger cage and managed to escape. And the book was actually fairly successful back in the early '90s. A book came out several years later. I believe it was called "Borrowed Valor"...
Mr. GREENFIELD: ...called into questions several stories and several books that had been written about the Vietnam War, mine among them, saying that there was no record that my co-author, who the book was about, had ever actually been a POW.
CONAN: And did you, at the time, do any checking? Did you go to write a letter to the Defense Department or anything like that?
Mr. GREENFIELD: I did not. I believed the story because Denny(ph) had all sorts of documentation of his flights, his logbooks from his helicopter flights, every time he'd taken hits, every time he's been wounded was all recorded. And I had no reason to believe that what he was telling me was not true. However, I found out later that there may have been some cases where people were held as POWs, not long enough to be entered in the official records. So, unfortunately, Denny passed away during a heart surgery several years ago, so I've never really been able to resolve the issue.
CONAN: Well, that's an interesting story, Jerry. Thanks very much. A gray area there.
Mr. GREENFIELD: Mm-hmm.
CONAN: Yeah. Thanks very much. We're talking with Motoko Rich of The New York Times about "The Last Train to Hiroshima," the book pulled by the publisher after questions were raised about accuracy and about the writer's credentials. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Jim(ph), Jim's with us from Spencer in Iowa.
SPENCER (Caller): Well, yeah. I think that the publishers have the ultimate responsibility for accuracy. They've got the most to lose. An author, you know, is doing everything he can - he or she can - to make something fantastic. And when they find the material that they hope to find, they may not go far enough to actually, you know, verify its authenticity. There's all kinds of things out there on the Internet...
SPENCER: ...that could mislead an individual. And, you know, you really don't know. When you find something, you're thinking, well, this looks pretty good, let's go with it. And at that point, you stop your research and move forward. And, you know, people could have ulterior motives. They could be disturbed, who knows?
CONAN: Yeah. Again, people can lie very successfully. Motoko Rich, is it - in the publishing business - that's your job, to cover that - is it the - do people buy books because it's published by Henry Holt and Company, or do people buy a book because it's by an author that they're interested in, or because it's the story they're interested in?
Ms. RICH: That's a good question. I believe that most people buy a book either because they recognize the author or they're persuaded by the author, or because they're interested in the subject, and that most readers are not aware of who publishes the book. That being said, I think there is a feeling out there that a book that is published by a, you know, quote, unquote, reputable publisher has been edited or looked over in some way, and maybe that's more in the case of nonfiction than fiction.
But we're moving into a world in which it's very easy for an author to publish their own book and to produce an object that looks almost exactly like something that is produced by a mainstream publisher that's been in business for 100 years. And what's more, on the digital era, it's almost impossible to tell the difference between an electronic book produced by Henry Holt or Alfred A. Knopf and an electronic book that a person has self-published and uploaded to Amazon themselves.
CONAN: Let's get Ian(ph) on the line, Ian from Bayport in New York.
IAN (Caller) Hi, yeah. I'm a writer, and I'm actually considering becoming a fact checker, because apparently you really don't have to do...
CONAN: Apparently, you don't have to do a lot of work. Go ahead, Ian, I'm sorry.
IAN: It's - that's pretty much what I have to say. I think the impetus is on the writer to either write a nonfiction or fiction book. If it's a fiction book, they should write fiction. And if it's nonfiction, they should tell the truth. And if - on the publisher's side, I think it's really shameful that they're not doing nearly as much checking as they should be, and people are believing this and rewriting of history as it occurring because people are too lazy to do their jobs right.
CONAN: Which raises a question - and thank you very much for the call, Ian. Motoko Rich, if you had - just theoretically, and I'm not sure there's any way to answer this. But if the "Million Little Pieces" book had been advertised as fiction from the start, I suspect it would not have done so well.
Ms. RICH: Well, there is a question about that. I think James Frey has said that he submitted the book originally as fiction based on his life and his publishers had urged him to turn it into nonfiction, or at least his agent or something along the way. I mean, I didn't cover that story at the time, but I believe there was some question of whether the book started life as a novel and then became a memoir along the way, which provides a more gray area, obviously.
CONAN: Does nonfiction tend to send - sell better than fiction?
Ms. RICH: You know, it really depends. I mean, a lot of the biggest, biggest sellers are fiction, for sure. I mean, the biggest names in publishing are all fiction writers: James Patterson, Stephen King, John Grisham. The people who really are selling a million books every time they write a book are the fiction writers. That being said, if you're a first-time author, I think it is much more compelling proposition to market it as a quote, unquote, true story.
CONAN: And we've seen, in the past - well, many years of explosion in the memoir business, this is my life story, it is true.
Ms. RICH: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I do think that in general, if you're selling something, it's more compelling for a reader to pick something up -this is somebody's life story filled with tragedy rather than here's yet another novel by someone you've never heard of. I think it's a harder sell. The publishers will definitely say that. The booksellers will definitely say that, that for fiction, readers like to rely on names they've heard of.
Of course, there are the breakouts. Like this year, one of the biggest sellers - last year, one of the biggest sellers of the year was "The Help," by Kathryn Stockett, which was her first published novel. And that was beating out the competition from the biggest names in the business. But that's a fair - that's rare.
CONAN: Motoko Rich, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Ms. RICH: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Motoko Rich, publishing reporter for The New York Times, with us today on the phone from her home in Brooklyn. We have a link to her article from today's paper at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. We still hope to arrange to talk with Charles Pellegrino about what happened. We invite him to join us on the program again.
This is - tomorrow, Massa cries conspiracy, Palin crosses the border, Obama fires up over health care, and Crist charges illegal back waxing. It's the TMI edition of the Political Junkie. Guest political junkie Matt Bai will be here with us. Join us for that.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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