SR Ed.: In honor of the debut of the film “Being Flynn,” the adaptation of Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, we are reposting our 2006 interview with him.
An honest writer will let you get close to him. He can’t help it. He’ll let you see his embarrassments, his poor choices, the ignorance of himself and those closest to him, and, if you read carefully enough, you’ll see yourself and feel the best of all feelings: hope. Nick Flynn is a great writer, an honest writer. His memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (Norton, 2004), won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir, and has been translated into ten languages. He is also the author of two books of poetry, Some Ether (Graywolf, 2000), which won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, and Blind Huber (Graywolf, 2002). I met up with Nick on a surprisingly warm Spring night. He’d just given a reading to a group of undergrads at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. A town so small you could skip a rock across it, a town that closes its bars at 5:00 p.m. on Sundays. – Barney Haney
SR: Recently there has been an uproar over the lie-filled memoirs of James Frey (A Million Little Pieces, an Oprah Book Club selection that has sold more than three million copies) and Tim Barrus, aka Nasdijj, aka Navahoax (The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams—a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrund [Albrand] Award, The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping—winner of the PEN/Beyond Margins Award, and Geronimo’s Bones) What are your thoughts about what these men have done?
Flynn: For awhile there it seemed that everyday something would come up, someone would appear with a memoir who, turned out, in some essential way had fabricated their experiences. If it was labeled fiction this would be a good thing, but it wasn’t. Part of the problem with this, with Frey, with Nasdijj, is that they appropriated other peoples’ pain, claimed it as their own. Seems to me they should have just looked at their own pain, wrestled with what they really went through, rather than fabricating or appropriating someone else’s. Or called it fiction.
But I think the larger thing is, Why does the culture accept it? These guys represent something in the whole culture. We can expose these guys but it’s not going to get rid of the problem. There is something in the culture right now that somehow needs this. And I don’t know what it is. I don’t know why. There’s reality television, there’s Oprah, all this reenactment of these traumatic stories, this telling. And the thing is, they keep telling the same story. That’s how you can tell there’s a problem. The poet Eileen Myles once said, “A liar always tells his story the same way.” And it seems like that’s what’s happening. A lot of it feels, to me, like a crisis of narrative. These stories basically follow the same model, often it’s the redemption narrative—a Christian redemption narrative of sinking low then rising above. This same narrative is repeated over and over, the culture can’t get enough of it for some reason. It’s not a bad story, but it’s crowding out alternative tellings, alternative versions, and this is very limiting, and basically false because it is limiting.
Maybe people believe it because they want to believe it, it plugs into something in our lizard brains that turned the lights on for us. Those books are laughable books, badly written, and yet people just eat them with a spoon. It’s something about the culture. It’s something deeper, you know? It’s the same thing with Bush and the stories and narratives he tells. I think many people in the culture are afraid to think for themselves so they hook onto these found narratives that somehow bring meaning to their lives. Or the illusion of meaning, something to hold onto. They’re afraid to actually engage and create with what’s there in front of them. This isn’t the end of it. People will forget about Frey and in six months there’ll be another Frey, because the culture feels they need it.
SR: Memoirs seem to lend themselves to some embellishments. I’m thinking about dialogue not being word-for-word true, but still retaining closeness to what actually happened. Where do you draw the non-fiction line?
Flynn: We’ve been trained to accept dialogue, when dialogue is, for the most part, completely contrived. Actual dialogue, if you record it and listen to it, has so many more starts and stops and unfinished sentences. Questions are asked and they’re left unanswered. If you want to learn about dialogue, (Harold) Pinter’s amazing. That’s who I tried to study. I didn’t attempt much dialogue in my book. I didn’t know how to do it well, first of all, being a poet. And another thing was I didn’t really trust it, so I just decided to highlight it as an artifice. I presented most of the dialogue as a play, as a way to signal the reader “this is obviously a reconstruction from the best of my recollection.” A couple times it’s clearly a fabrication, but it’s clear to the reader, I would hope, because it’s in play form. I try to signal the reader as much as possible when I am reconstructing something. For example, the part in my book that deals with the first night that my father was homeless. I wasn’t there that first night, but I worked with the homeless for six years, and I worked with my father for three of those years, and there are only a certain very limited number of places one can go if one is homeless—that’s the whole point of that piece: you can go to the library, if you’re together enough; if you have a buck in your pocket you can spend it on a muffin, you can get a coffee and try to make it last as long as you can; and then, once everything closes, you’re out for the night. You go to the library, you go to the coffee shop, and eventually everything closes and you’re outside and eventually you are going to end up on the blowers. When he was living on the streets, when he wasn’t in the shelter, these were the places where he hung out. In the piece he’s representative of someone who is trying to figure out what their options are in that moment. And I think the readers can figure that out too.
SR: Another Bullshit Night In Suck City felt so unsentimental and heartbreakingly honest.
Flynn: I don’t mind being sentimental, though. I’d rather be sentimental than ironic. If I was to err on one side of the spectrum of irony and sentimentality, I would tend to err on the side of sentimentality. If there is such a spectrum. Maybe.
SR: I was amazed by how you could write about such hard times without getting too caught up in the emotional side. I thought, This must be the toughest son of bitch that’s ever lived. And then I picked up Some Ether, which you wrote four years earlier, and found all the emotions that I was expecting to find in ABNISC. How did writing these books in this progression affect the way you wrote them?
Flynn: If you want to recreate an emotional state for a reader it seems clear you cannot merely announce “I felt this.” That’s not going to enact emotion for the reader. So how do you do that? There’s a part in the memoir where we leave the known world and enter into a play with five Santa Clauses in a Dunkin Donuts re-enacting King Lear. It’s a moment in the book, and it was a moment in my life, when I had a psychic breakdown, and through the play I’m trying to re-enact that psychic breakdown, without using those words. Instead, the world becomes surreal, fragmented, nightmarish. If I’d merely said “I had a psychic breakdown,” it wouldn’t allow the reader to participate in it. Now, whether the reader wants to participate in my psychic breakdown or not, that’s not for me to answer. You figure it out as you go along, how one can enact emotion, through objective correlatives, the world outside yourself, however you find it. Often, you aren’t aware of it when you’re writing, hopefully not, hopefully it’s more instinctual. Only later do you realize that the thing you wrote that you thought was a way not to write about what troubled you was actually just a way to circle around the disturbing essence. If you’re lucky when you read it over it’ll be in there and you’ll go, Oh, that’s why that’s there. It’s intuitive. In the beginning of the book (ANBNISC) there’s a man holding a radio tight to his chest like a screaming child. I wasn’t aware at the time, but the radio contains all the emotion of the book. No one else is screaming except the radio, and yet everyone should be. Or that piece I read today that ends with the la-z-boy, every time I read that it breaks me up, I get so moved by it and I have no idea why. It’s that sentence:
But a la-z-boy, my lord, maybe not again in this lifetime. (*excerpt from the piss of god in ANBNISC)
For some reason that line contains great emotion for me, and I don’t know why. But it does, in some weird way. I could have written, “My father, would I ever get to know him?” People would have yawned.
SR: In Blind Huber you stay in the autobiographical sense but you write from the point of view of the blind, 18th century, French, beekeeper Francois Huber, Huber’s lifelong assistant Burnens, and the bees themselves. What inspired you to want to write this book?
Flynn: In retrospect, I realize that it was sort of a mental dodge in order to stop writing the poems I was writing—those post-confessional lyric poems. I decided to go in a different direction rather than keep writing that same poem. It wasn’t conscious, it was offered to me. I somehow ended up talking to a beekeeper at a party in Brooklyn just before I went to Macdowell for the first time, and the way he spoke was so rhapsodic. About bees. He somehow passed his obsession onto me and I ended up with this obsession for six years. Blind Huber came out of it.
I think it’s good, actually, to not know why you’re writing something. To have an idea already mapped out in your head can be really lethal. Writing is an act of discovery, and if you know already where you’re going then why do you have to write it? I think it’s best to have no idea why you’re writing something, to feel uneasy about it, to feel like you’re not doing the right thing. To feel lost.
SR: You worked as an “artistic collaborator” on the documentary film Darwin’s Nightmare, which was written and directed by Hubert Sauper, about a situation taking place in Tanzania, Africa, where Nile Perch are being traded for rifles and ammunition which has lead to a lot of nastiness in that part of the world. How did you find yourself working on this film and what exactly was your role as an artistic collaborator?
Flynn: First of all, no fish are traded for guns, except in a very broad allegorical sense. It is a film about the effects of global capitalism, and fish and guns are part of that system, as are bananas and diamonds, or oil and sneakers. No one directly trades oil for sneakers, but often the damaging effects of both trades are felt in the same region. I befriended Hubert Sauper, the filmmaker, when he was beginning of film. We met early on in 2001 and we just became fast friends. He had gone to Africa once or twice already, and had shot a lot of rough video. I was working on a book about the homeless (ABNISC) and he was working on this film about this political situation in Africa and there was a lot overlap in ideas and structures. We were both trying to figure out how to represent a specific reality, we we’re both wrestling with the problem of representation. It’s a very difficult thing to write about another person’s suffering. There are a lot of pitfalls. So we had a lot of discussions about that. Is this the way to steer it? Or is there another way to present it that actually takes out the judgment and allows people to see it for themselves.
I think that the book and the film are actually very similar in many ways. They leave a lot of questions unanswered. They let characters say things and don’t really interpret what they say. They allow mystery and intuition room to exist. And they both struggle with the tension between aestheticizing a very difficult reality and always being conscious of that. He collaborated with me on my book, I collaborated on his film, it was all part of a larger discussion, like the one we’re having now. I ended up going to Africa twice and being part of the filming.
SR: I read on Sauper’s website that the crew you were traveling around Tanzania with often found itself in trouble. Were you ever in real danger?
Flynn: We might be in real danger right now, for all we know. Here’s the thing—it was written up in the East African newspapers for awhile, a month or so, these articles that we had been kidnapped and that we were supposedly held on this island in Lake Victoria. The headlines were “European and American Journalists Kidnapped.” It wasn’t really like that—we weren’t actually held, but we were threatened. It was a threatening situation. Our papers were taken, there were threats made, and it was potentially a very dangerous place, this island we were filming on. We were there for about a week and one day I just got this feeling that we shouldn’t spend another night. It just felt like something bad could happen very easily. In Iraq, at this time, people were being kidnapped and killed fairly regularly, but it wasn’t like this, it was more a long, implicit threat. Yet it somehow got written up that we’d been kidnapped, though we never used those words, though perhaps it wasn’t so far from the truth. We just wanted our papers back so we could finish filming.
SR: The word on your website is that there is going to be a movie made out of Another Bullshit Night In Suck City. What inside info can you give our readers?
Flynn: The director’s name is Paul Weitz, we’ve had some great conversations about it all. It’s not a reality that he has direct access to—the homelessness thing, but he’s very open. We spent a night recently at the shelter I used to worked in, in the van I used to worked on, and we spent a night driving around Boston, seeing people who were out for the night. He was great. You could see that he was absorbing a lot of the experience. In the end, the film’s going to be his, it’s going to be his version. It’s hard to imagine how one could make it into a movie. I’m excited to see how he does it, really.
SR: Hollywood has a nasty habit of bastardizing books, are you concerned about how your life is going to be depicted on the silver screen?
Flynn: Of course, it’s always a risk, but you have to let go of it, see it as a something removed from the book, something else altogether. Hollywood did a pretty good job with Brokeback Mountain, with Jesus’ Son.
SR: If you could pick any actor to play the role of Nick Flynn who would he be?
Flynn: Living or Dead?
Flynn: Buster Keaton. Is he still alive? There are a lot of talented actors. I might pick someone who is vaguely unknown still, cause then you wouldn’t have anything attached to him. Or you could pick some amazing known actor—you’re going to loose track of them after the first five minutes anyway if they’re doing a good job. Joaquin Phoenix did a great job in Walk the Line—stunning. I thought about him today.
SR: Are you going to have a part in the film?
Flynn: Like Michael Cunningham in The Hours. No one’s asked yet. I’m sure I would be this big, gaping wound in the middle of the film, but maybe that wouldn’t be the worst thing.
SR: Besides the movie, what are you working on right now? Is there another poetry collection or nonfiction book in the makings?
Flynn: The next nonfiction book is about Darwin’s Nightmare and I’m trying to figure out the angle of it, the structure of it. It’s already a great film, so it’s like what do you do? I don’t want it to retell the film, so I’m working on that.
I’m working on a play, called Alice Invents a Little Game And Alice Always Wins. We did a stage reading of it a week ago in New York.
SR: What advice do you have for all those unpublished writers out there?
Flynn: I always think, for me, it’s about figuring out a way to do interesting work, work that interests you. For me, interesting work isn’t just about making money; maybe there’s some sort of redeeming social value, maybe you’re going someplace you haven’t gone before. But you also have to make money. You have to figure out a way to live and pay the rent. Grace Paley said (approximately), “My only advice for a young writer is two words—low overhead.” You also need time. You also need community. Rent is already way too high and it’s harder to have a community around you that’s stable in some ways. People always move around, they need to. But community and time are really important. And to read a lot.
Read a lot, have a low overhead, and have a community of other writers or artists or engaged people around you. Those are the main things.