May 19, 2024

‘Three Cups of Tea’ Author Defends Book

The report could puncture a hole in the uplifting narrative of “Three Cups of Tea,” which has fed a charity run by Mr. Mortenson, the Central Asia Institute. The institute has built schools, mostly for girls, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The report has also revived a chronic concern in the publishing industry over the accuracy of nonfiction memoirs, which are typically only lightly fact-checked by publishers, if at all.

Viking, the imprint of Penguin Group USA that published “Three Cups of Tea,” declined to comment on the book or answer questions about how it was vetted.

The CBS News report questioned, in particular, a central anecdote of the book that was as dramatic as it was inspirational: in 1993, Mr. Mortenson was retreating after failing to reach the summit of K2, the world’s second highest mountain, when, lost and dehydrated, he stumbled across the small village of Korphe in northeast Pakistan. After the villagers there nursed him back to health, he vowed to return and build a school.

The CBS report, broadcast on “60 Minutes” Sunday night and citing sources, said that Mr. Mortenson had actually visited Korphe nearly one year after his K2 attempt. Mr. Mortenson said on Sunday that he did reach Korphe after his climb in 1993, and that he visited again in 1994.

But he added a disclaimer in an interview with The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, saying that while he stood by the information in the book, “the time about our final days on K2 and ongoing journey to Korphe village and Skardu is a compressed version of events that took place in the fall of 1993.”

Viking has maintained near silence since the report trickled out on Friday, saying on Saturday that it relied on its authors “to tell the truth, and they are contractually obligated to do so.”

For the publisher, the situation with Mr. Mortenson was not as clear cut as it was with another of its authors, Margaret Seltzer, who wrote “Love and Consequences,” a memoir discovered to be fraudulent only days after it was published in 2008. Riverhead Books, the unit of Penguin that published “Love and Consequences,” immediately recalled all 19,000 copies, offered refunds to readers who had bought it and canceled Ms. Seltzer’s book tour.

“Three Cups of Tea” had a modest start when it was released in hardcover in 2006 but took off after it was published in paperback.

Set in the remote mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, it would be a difficult exercise in fact-checking for any publisher.

“It really is the responsibility of the author to write the truth,” said David Black, a literary agent. “If a publisher were to establish a fact-checking department the way a magazine fact checks, given the length of the works and the number of books they are dealing with, it would become very difficult to publish a lot of nonfiction.”

William Zinsser, who is the author of “Writing About Your Life: A Journey Into the Past,” said on Sunday that publishers have had a “slippery” standard for accuracy in memoirs.

“I don’t think they much care whether it’s true or not,” Mr. Zinsser said. “To me, the essence of memoir writing is absolute truth because I think everybody gains that way.”

Mr. Mortenson declined requests for an interview on Sunday, but he released a memo to several news outlets detailing responses to the “60 Minutes” report. He also forwarded a cheerful e-mail to his staff, sent early Sunday morning, telling them that after suffering from “low oxygen” for 18 months, he had recently been found to have a heart ailment and would be undergoing a surgical procedure on Thursday to correct it.

“Don’t let NYC sensational TV mess with Montana, or the tens of thousands of girls and boys we empower through education, our supporters will rally!” he wrote.

Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting.

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