Frey said he was interested in conceiving commercial ideas that would sell extremely well. He was in the process of hiring writers—he said he’d already been to Princeton and was planning on recruiting from the other New York M.F.A. programs as well. We had probably heard of Jobie Hughes? Hughes was a former Columbia M.F.A. student who had graduated the previous spring. Frey told us that he and Hughes had sold the rights to an alien book they had co-written to Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay. Before he left the classroom, Frey spelled out his e-mail and told us to get in touch if we had a good idea.
“I feel like I need to go take a shower,” one student muttered in the hall after the seminar. But many of us felt an adrenaline rush: Against all odds, Frey was still at it. He was thrilling, condescending, rude, empowering, and haughty. “He didn’t show an ounce of self-doubt,” says Philip Eil, then a first-year nonfiction student. “Not a second of wavering. He was 110 percent that there was no truth, that he would live forever through his books.”
Mostly, though, we talked about his invitation. We were desperate to be published, any way we could. We were spending $45,000 on tuition, some of us without financial aid, and many taking out loans that were lining us up to graduate six figures in debt. A deal like the one Frey was offering could potentially pay off our loans and provide an income for the next decade. Do a little commercial work under a pseudonym, sell the movie rights, and never have to suffer as a writer in New York. We wouldn’t even need day jobs.
Frey suggested that he would be highly involved—he would guide us through the process of writing a commercial novel, which wasn’t exactly a skill highly prioritized at Columbia, and he would connect us to his social network of agents, publishers, and directors. And rumors had indeed been racing all over the program about Hughes: Frey had paid off Hughes’s debt and was promoting him as a rising talent; Hughes was flying to L.A. to meet Spielberg; he had bought his mother’s house and an apartment in the Village; he was a multimillionaire. That’s what we heard, anyway. So why shouldn’t we pitch to James Frey?
“It’s funny to be in a room … ” I paused. He filled the silence. “With big, bad James Frey?”
Out of the nine of us in class that morning, at least five sent him ideas, myself included, and even the one who needed the shower.
Frey encouraged those of us who were interested in working with him to speak with Hughes about his experience. Hughes had been an outsider throughout most of his time at Columbia. He grew up in a small Ohio town of under 1,000—“a welfare kid who came from nothing,” as he often described himself—and had taught himself to write in college by reading Hemingway (he tattooed the initials E.H. to the inside of his left wrist). Hughes’s aggressive, masculine personality matched his writing style. He was sensitive to criticism and received a lot of it.
Hughes told me he first met Frey at an event at the Columbia film department in March 2008 and wrote him a fan letter afterward. He was smitten with A Million Little Pieces and Frey’s use of the RETURN key. Over e-mail, they developed a friendship. The following January, Frey approached him to co-author a young-adult novel—a commercial project he said he didn’t have time to write. “I remember Frey said he liked Hughes because he had been a high-school wrestler,” recalls Sara Davis, another student in the seminar, “so he knew he could take coaching and direction and had discipline.” Frey was also impressed that Hughes had actually finished a novel, called Agony at Dawn, about a twentysomething protagonist aspiring to literary greatness. Whether it was good wasn’t really the point; what mattered was that Hughes had demonstrated the ability to finish it.
When Frey asked him if he would be interested in working together, Hughes had every reason to say yes. He was looking to sell Agony at Dawn, and while he hadn’t enrolled in Columbia to become a genre writer, he figured that a relationship with Frey might deliver him into the arms of Eric Simonoff, Frey’s powerful literary agent.
Frey handed him a one-page write-up of the concept, and Hughes developed the rest of the outlined narrative. Frey’s idea was a series called “The Lorien Legacies,” about nine Loric aliens who were chased from their home planet by evil Mogadorians and are living on Earth in the guise of teenagers. Through early 2009, Hughes told me, he delivered three drafts of the first book, I Am Number Four, to Frey, who revised them and polished the final version. Hughes wrote the novel without any compensation and signed a contract, without consulting a lawyer, that specified that he would receive 30 percent of all revenue that came from the project. The book would be published under a pseudonym, and the contract stipulated that Hughes would not be allowed to speak publicly about the project or confirm his attachment to it. There was a $250,000 penalty Frey could invoke if Hughes violated his confidentiality terms.