Charles Pellegrino and the myth of the author

Recently I’ve been following, with a sense of dismay, the news coverage of Charles Pellegrino and what may — or may not — be the myth behind the man. Pellegrino is a well-known author of both fiction and nonfiction books, many of them centered on scientific topics. HIs recent book, Last Train from Hiroshima< has become mired in controversy because a source quoted in the book (who claimed to be aboard one of the bombers) turned out to be a fraud. Since then, the book has been examined with a fine-tooth comb by critics searching for errors and fabrications. And now Charles Pellegrino himself has been scrutinized, and questions raised about whether he was truthful about his own scientific credentials.

I’m watching the whole sorry spectacle with great sadness, because I am a fan of Pellegrino’s. I have been ever since I read a novel of his called Dust, an apocalyptic story about how the world could end if all insect species died. Although there were novelistic exaggerations, he made me suspend my disbelief and I was totally swept up in the story. I loved the fact he made scientists the heroes, not the villains, and every page was an homage to scientific principles. Ever since, I’ve followed his work, and enjoyed his books on archaeology and his commentary on Jim Cameron’s TV show, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.”

I hope there’s a logical explanation for the discrepancies in Pellegrino’s biography. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. But there have been too many authors who have padded their resumes or life stories, and I’m getting that sinking feeling that Pellegrino may be one of them.

I can understand how it happens to a writer. It starts when you pitch your first book, and maybe you tell the publisher a little white lie about your background, to make the story more sellable. Publisher buys the book, and suddenly that lie is part of your official bio. Then you go on book tour and the media interviews start, and you fudge a little bit more. Instead of being a PhD candidate, suddenly you say you’ve actually got the PhD. Or you claim that you were a principal investigator on a research project when really, you were just one of the grad students. Or, to make your own rather boring life more dramatic, you start to elaborate. The mother who got occasionally tipsy transforms into an abusive drunk. Or your little run-in with the police as a teenager becomes a harrowing weekend in jail. Writers are good at imagining drama on the page, so why not insert a little drama in your own bio?

Sometimes, you’re the unwitting victim of unreliable reporting. I remember a conversation I had with LaVyrle Spencer years ago, when she laughed about the rumors circulating among her readers that she was raising llamas. She had no idea how the rumor started, and it was most certainly untrue. But it became “common knowledge” that she was a llama farmer.

Then there was the time I was a guest (along with about 10 other romance authors and romance cover models) on the Sally Jesse Raphael show. Sally turned to me and said something along the lines of, “I understand you’re a graduate of Stanford medical school and you’re a cardiac pathologist and a mother of three.” None of that was true. But there I was on live national TV, and was I going to waste time correcting everything in the sentence by answering, “No, Sally, I graduated from UC San Francisco and I’m a specialist in internal medicine and the mother of two, and where the hell did you get your information?” So all I got out was, “I graduated from UCSF.” But I can see how the audience would conclude that I really must be a cardiac pathologist and the mother of three.

Novelists are held up to far less scrutiny than nonfiction authors. Everyone knows we just make up our stories. But if your professional background is precisely what makes your stories marketable — a former spy who writes spy novels, or a doctor who writes medical thrillers — then you damn well better be truthful about it.

5 replies
  1. Sandra_Ruttan
    Sandra_Ruttan says:

    For unrelated personal reasons, I’ve been thinking about the importance of authors having control over their personal information. This resonates with me, because when my last book came out, I noticed on the promotional material the publisher sent out it stated I was an expert in child safety.

    Now… I’ve certainly taken a lot of child safety courses. I’ve worked in schools, daycares, preschools and home-based educational systems for children with special needs. I had to take my first aid and keep it current, and I have at times had responsibility for the supervision of up to 60 children.

    But what qualifies me as an expert in child safety? I really don’t know. Yes, I know a lot about regulations and guidelines, yes I’ve trained staff in supervision and the regulations they’re supposed to follow and why, and yeah, my kids will tell you themselves I’m anal about safety… But I don’t think I ever ran around telling people I was an expert, and other than the info from the publisher I don’t have anything else on paper that states I am.

    I think it’s a mistake to make authors the selling point for books. The product isn’t a person, it’s a book. The author matters more if it is a non-fiction book, but not with fiction, and one gets nervous about having a bio that starts to read like fiction.

    Kevin Wignall has a far more shocking story about this type of thing. I guess I only mention my own small story to say that maybe, not everything that’s been said is the fault of the author. Hope people will wait for the dust to settle.

  2. Tess
    Tess says:

    Sandra, thanks for emphasizing the point that it’s not always the author’s fault. Sometimes it’s shoddy journalism, sometimes it’s overenthusiastic publicists, and sometimes it’s rumors of unknown origin. And the author’s the one who ends up having to deal with it.

  3. Kent Lester
    Kent Lester says:

    It’s a small world! I too, have been a long time follower of Pellegrino’s work, mainly due to its similarities to my own fiction work, The Sixth Extinction, and your novel, Gravity.

    While perhaps not the most successful mainstream genre, science-based fiction has a small, but dedicated following. Pellegrino has always approached his fiction work with science in mind. That said, authors can often become victims of their own intransigence. Pellegrino has been involved in several theological firestorms in his home country of New Zealand, which has fueled much of the controversy in some of his works.

    In some respects, Pellegrino has become his own worst enemy, by stretching the truth in some respects and by confronting those who choose to view the world in an emotional sense rather than in the cold, analytical sense of a scientist. He has attacked his enemies emotionally rather than factually in some cases. The fact remains that if you choose to base your worldview on the truth of science, you must be fastidious in upholding truth and accuracy in everything you do.

    Unfortunately, Charles succumbed to the temptation of stretching the truth in some of his non-fiction works, which then opened the door for further criticism.

    While I believe that 90% of the “facts” that Pellegrino relates are true, it’s that pesky 10% that continues to haunt him. In this regard, his association with James Cameron did not overcome his past transgressions. He had an interesting collaborative project called “Bones of the Minotaur” which had promise with Cameron that seems to have died on the vine.

    I’ve experienced the same frustration with my own novel. It is my hope that science based fiction will see a comeback in future years.

  4. lwidmer
    lwidmer says:

    I had a situation once in which I was being interviewed and the journalist was trying to steer the story through my answers. As the camera was rolling, he asked me the same question four ways. In three of those instances, the truthful answer was no. In the fourth, it was yes. He got his angle and I was left feeling like I’d lied when in fact I’d told the truth every time. But I was sure the video editing would reveal a different answer from my intended and stated one. It did. But he got away with it because he’d asked and probed until I gave him a response that fit with his pre-written story script. I did say yes, but not to the question he posed.

    I don’t know Mr. Pelligrino, but I’m like you, Tess. I don’t like making assumptions based on judgments already made on similar assumptions.

  5. Charlie P.
    Charlie P. says:

    Dear Tess: I know this is an old story, but a friend just alerted me to your “bittersweet” post. I am Charles Pellegrino. When the storm broke, about a year and a half ago, my response was to stop looking at what people were writing and to write the next version of the book and to finish the final book in my Titanic trilogy. Meanwhile, reports that any project with James Cameron died on the vine (as reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere) were generated mostly by bloggers, and reported in the press as news (including invented statements attributed to James Cameron)without attributing the sources to blogs. Note that this is the exact behavior that got Jayson Blair in trouble with the N.Y. Times (citing blogs without attribution – which blog stories later turned out to be hoaxes). James Cameron not only remains committed to filming “The Last Train from Hiroshima,” but he fully intends for it to be his “Schindler’s List” and will direct the film on his own dime (for if we do not get down to some basics right here on Earth and survive our nuclear adolescence, we will never survive, as an electronic civilization, to face the sorts of moral issues addressed in “Avatar”). Meanwhile, James Cameron’s historical researchers gave me and my work a clean bill of health, as did my new publisher, Wiley. Indeed, Cameron’s researchers revealed that two of the 509th bomber wing veterans who wrote to James Cameron, the N.Y. Times, and my former publisher – on 509th letterhead – turned out, as revealed by Cameron’s researchers “never to have been in the 509th.” The Los Alamos scientist who wrote to major newspapers and my former publisher calling me a liar and, with one of the fake 509th veterans, denying that there was radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki strong enough to kill people, turned out not to have existed in the first place. Very negative comments quoted against me by Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa (a primary contributor to the new edition’s coverage about the orphans of the atomic bombs) were based on an interview that he in fact never gave.The story that Nakazawa’s orphaned neighbor “Ryuta” never existed was false. There was, as I had indicated in the first and second (the foreign language edition), much more to this story – and Nakazawa has now named the child (who was swept up and exploited by the crime syndicates – a basis for Nakazawa’s 1970s manga, “Pelted by Black Rain”), and he wants future generations to remember the boy by his real name, Tanaka.

    The Joe Fuoco error in my book was 100% my fault. I should have found this sooner – and when irrefutable evidence was presented by the widow of the man who actually flew in the flight engineer’s seat of the escort plane Necessary Evil, I immediately made the correction (Note that until Charles Sweeney made corrections with regard to the mix-ups and last-minute crew changes that for more than two decades had history books reporting the wrong plane dropping the bomb on Nagasaki, no one knew who was really in two of the most important planes, Bock’s Car and the Great Artiste).

    As for the Hiroshima weapon’s misfire, Fuoco was not my only source on something being wrong with the bomb. His story seemed to cross-reference (in hindsight a little too perfectly) Sweeney’s statement that extra polonium enhancers had been added to the “Little Boy” device at the last minute, and with Harold Urey’s statement that the bomb had misfired in some way and was “a dud.” I have discarded every fact or assertion by Fuoco as being suspect (even though he turns out to have indeed been on Tinian, and appears to have flown the firebombing missions of which he spoke). The claim that the Hiroshima bomb went off with the 20kt initially reported by Truman is false. It did misfire for reasons unknown. The U.S. Bombing Survey, the Smithsonian, and the museum near the Trinity test site all list the “Little Boy” yield between 10 and 12.5 kt, with the Nagasaki bomb above 22kt. It did qualify as “a wet powder” bomb and the lesson we should all be taking from this, as a signpost for a future that must be prevented, is to consider what a Model-T dud did.

    Nothing about my background was ever exaggerated. Nor were any people made up and added to my book, or their stories exaggerated. Essentially the whole story of what happened can be accessed by going to my website – where it should be noted that I am one of the editors on the Asahi Shimbun hibakusha project (accessible at the upper right side of my home page) – which is currently posting the world’s largest collection of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivor reports. Read, also, (under “Hiroshima Controversies”) the George Zebrowski article in Free Inquiry, the comments by James Cameron and Steve Leeper (who is, among other things, head of the Hiroshima Museum)and Sadako’s brother, Masahiro Sasaki.

    You may also wish to read the so-called “James Cameron blogspot” all the way through (as evidently no one at the major U.S. news organizatiions did in 2010). The creature that operates that blog is one of the more radical 9/11 deniers who endorsed the 2005 giving of nazi salutes to 9/11 family members as a victory for the First Amendment (while calling simultaneously for the muzzling and destruction of an American author)and stated that he did not care if I or other 9/11 family members got our feelings hurt by nazi salutes (see locked discussion under “9/11 Conspiracies, Pellegrino discussion group). He was the primary blogger quoted by the press in March 2010 (without anyone reading into his background), is an avid supporter of the N.Z. ad hoc tribunals (as an experiment: Google New Zealand, ad hoc committees, holocaust denial problem, etc); and he has claimed that what I was really doing in Ground Zero was covering up the “controlled demolition” of skyscrapers and helping the Bush admistration to frame Bin Laden. The press is now aware of this – which is why, in May 2011, when a false press release was put out in my name, with me supposedly claiming to have stolen pieces of Titanic hull, this person was unable to get a replay of his March 2010 media darling status with another “unmasking” of Pellegrino.

    Some had claimed that I attempted to make my life appear more interesting than it actually is. Seriously, after being crashed in a submersible accident at the Titanic and surfacing from the Titanic into 9/11 to see the world seeming to go turtle and to learn that I had family and friends missing, I’ve no need to exaggerate and make my life seem more interesting and in fact those who know me understand why I wish my life were a little more boring.

    The novel “Bones of the Minotaur” never died on the vine. What happened was the distractions of the Titanic, followed by forensic archaeology at Ground Zero – which left me very depressed. Then some friends said I should come to Isreal and develop my patina fingerprinting methods in “the Jesus family Tomb” – to get away from it all, to something quiet (and look how that worked out). Then, in the 9/11 family room, I met a man who lost his brother in Hiroshima, and who lost his son in the South Tower, and who, with Masahiro Sasaki, was responsible for all the thousands of paper cranes that had come to Ground Zero while I was in there – becoming the only beautiful splashes of color in a gray deathscape.He bore the message: “This must be remembered as another place where people must never die this way again… Come back to Hiroshima.”

    The 3rd edition of “The Last Train from Hiroshima” (the 2nd English edition) is now being finished. This was possible with the help of many Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors (some, perplexed by reports in the American media that they did not exist – Kenshi Hirata’s family was among those who came forth). Many survivors, initially (in 2008), did not trust that an American would write a book on this subject without the requisite chapter justifying the use of the atomic bombs. As Steven Leeper has observed, the controversy, while horrible at first, became an opportunity forcing me to write a better book.

    Further, the final book in my Titanic trilogy will be released in March 2012, as originally scheduled. There will never be a fourth book on this subject. A trilogy should remain just that. After 27 years before Titanic’s mast, I have passed the torch of archaeology and bio-archaeology at the wrecksite to a polymathic explorer in Florida, and to the next generation.

    – Charles Pellegrino

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