Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me #7: Nick Flynn

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Nick Flynn wasn’t writing memoir yet in his early twenties—nor anywhere near publishing—when a memoirist’s worst nightmare came true for him. His mother read a fictionalized “story” he’d written in one of his college notebooks, about a woman struggling in ways that she was, too. Shortly after she found the notebook, Flynn’s mother mentioned her son’s story in the suicide note she left behind after fatally shooting herself.

Despite that daunting experience, Flynn went on to courageously explore his relationship with his alcoholic, bank-robbing, homeless father in his 2004 memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (about to be made into a movie with Robert De Niro and Paul Dano), and to then plumb the depths of his own dark instincts in the age of Abu Ghraib on the eve of his daughter’s birth, in last year’s The Ticking Is The Bomb.

In the first book, Flynn manages to portray his seriously damaged father lovingly, despite sharing details of the elder Flynn’s gross negligence as a parent, his glaring audacity, and his apparent inability to care about anyone but himself. Flynn is able to reveal his late mother, too, as both deeply flawed and sympathetic.

In the second memoir, Flynn ups the ante, questioning his own nature while also considering the human inclination toward torture. In his quest to understand both, he travels to Istanbul to interview former Abu Ghraib detainees, all the while weighing his fear of bringing a child into a world where governments sanction waterboarding and other horrors. That and his personal struggles with sobriety and commitment as he juggles two girlfriends.

Flynn and I discussed his approach to writing the memoirs—as well as the advantages of having Protestant parents—over coffee in the West Village.

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The Rumpus: Is your dad still around, living in a nursing home?

Nick Flynn: Yeah. I drove to Boston and saw him last week, just before the last day of the year. I give him a copy of Another Bullshit Night every time I see him, and every time it’s like he’s never seen it before.

Rumpus: He really doesn’t remember? Or it’s too hard for him to acknowledge?

Flynn: I don’t know if it’s Alzheimer’s. It’s probably more like alcohol-induced dementia of some sort—wet brain. But his short-term memory is shot. Yet he still remembers all the stories from his life that he likes to tell, which is kind of consistent with Alzheimer’s, although the progression is not.

Rumpus: Did you have any sense that you were betraying your father in any way in writing about him? I mean, especially because he seems so mentally feeble.

Flynn: He wasn’t so feeble when I started the book, and he certainly wasn’t when he showed up at the shelter. He was just drunk, which I guess may be a contradiction. But, yeah, to end up as a homeless street alcoholic is a position you certainly don’t want to have exploited. But I was really careful about it. I felt I was very careful in the writing of it. That’s probably why I have a relationship with him now. Because I did take a long time to write the book, and part of that was to get to know him and to understand him and find out how he ended up where he did. Not to say I succeeded, because I have no idea how he did where he did, beyond to say he’s an alcoholic and that happens to alcoholics. Would he have ended up in the street if he wasn’t an alcoholic? I doubt it.

Rumpus: Yeah, it’s delicate material, and he’s a fragile subject.

Flynn: That’s one thing about writing a memoir about someone who is more damaged. You have to be careful with everyone, but especially someone like that. I mean, it’s not like he’s going to attack me. It’s just, karmically, it’s not a good thing to do to attack someone who’s vulnerable like that. In general I think to write toward compassion is more interesting than to grind an axe. What you’re writing should be more about yourself anyway. It’s more about revealing something about yourself. At a certain point, you’re just projecting onto your parents, anyway.

Rumpus: You know, in some of the stories you tell earlier on in the book, it sounds as if it’s more than alcoholism.

Flynn: Yeah, some kind of narcissistic disorder or something. Although, that’s also consistent with alcoholism. But that’s the thing: he never unplugged from the alcohol his whole life, so it’s hard to diagnose him.

Rumpus: I feel as if I’ve been compassionate toward my father in whatever writing about him I’ve published. People who know us both have mostly agreed. But it’s still not flattering to read certain things about yourself, even if the writer has been compassionate. Were you concerned about your father being hurt by your portrayal of him in any way?

Flynn: Well, I think I was presenting myself in that book, and especially in the next book, in not the most flattering way either. I think you have to be at least as hard on yourself as you are on whoever the bad guy is. That’s one of the rules. There’s a reason why whatever that bad guy is doing can affect you so deeply. I mean, if you were some sort of flawless individual, no one could touch you. There’s nothing that anyone could do to disturb your equilibrium. All they do is reveal some weakness in yourself that you need to work on. At least that’s true as far as I can tell. I just know that the times that I’ve been centered in my life, people could come at me with anything, and I’ve been just like, “oh, interesting.” The like two times in my life that I’ve been really centered. Someone might have said, “You’re not a trustworthy person,” and I would have responded, “Oh, I’m sorry. It must be hard for you to feel that. Because I know I’m trustworthy.” I have felt that before. It’s really so much about projection and what you’re carrying.

Rumpus: So in the moments when your father has been aware of Another Bullshit Night, what has he thought about it? What has he said?

Flynn: When I went and saw him this last time, I brought him the new book, The Ticking Is the Bomb, and a new book of poems that’s coming out. It took a while for him to sort of just land again after I gave them to him. He was just wildly impressed at the act of having written a book. He was looking at them as objects. He used to be more guarded about it. It was if he felt competitive and didn’t want me to know he was impressed. But now he’s more childlike, and he’ll say things like, “Wow, how did you do this?”

Rumpus: In the book, when you show him your first published book of poems, he seems sort of threatened and incredulous that his son did what he hadn’t been able to do, but also, like he genuinely wants to know how you did it.

Flynn: Yeah, but these days it’s all that child-like wonder of “How did you do it.” The ratio has changed. Where before it was mostly like, “Well, of course you write—you get it all from me,” now it’s more like, just really wanting to know.

Rumpus: You write about your father going on about these writings that he has, and wondering whether they really exist. And then you find his manuscript. Is it something you think you could do something with?

Flynn: Well, I put the first thirty pages of it up on my website. It’s there if anyone is interested. Go ahead and publish it!

Rumpus: That part of the story reminded me of Joe Gould’s Secret by Joseph Mitchell, the story of a homeless man with all these brilliant stories he supposedly wrote, but no one could find.

Flynn: Yeah, I can see why it would remind you of that. By the way, supposedly that’s a total pastiche of several characters. There is no one Joe Gould. I just heard someone on the radio criticize him for that. But who cares? It was written at a different time.

Rumpus: Yeah, then there was not the furor over journalistic accuracy in memoir. Related to that, in Another Bullshit Night you say that your mother found your notebook, and in it there was a “story” about a woman very much like her. So, were you writing fiction at that time, or fictionalizing as a way to protect people close to you, like your mother?

Flynn: Yeah, I was writing fiction. I started out writing that way. I am a fan of fiction.

Rumpus: Do you still write fiction?

Flynn: No, not really. Although, that said, I have written a play, and there are fictional characters in it. There’s a fictional story I wrote that Stephen Elliott published in Sex For America. So I’ve written some fiction, although I generally don’t write much of it. I don’t think of myself as a fiction writer. That actually terrifies me.

Rumpus: I’ve often considered fictionalizing my story to protect people, instead of writing it as memoir, but something about it just doesn’t feel right for me. It would just feel too false. Is that something you were trying to do back when you wrote the “story” about a “woman” like your mom?

Flynn: Oh, back then? That was when I was like twenty. I don’t think I had any idea of what I was doing. It was clearly based on my mother. I don’t think I had a sense of any kind of genre. I was reading fiction, and that was what you did. Naturalistic fiction loosely based on fact.

Rumpus: So there was no sense of protecting your mother as you were writing it?

Flynn: I can’t really remember my intentions. I think I knew as I wrote it that it wasn’t something I wanted her to read. I don’t want anyone to read any of my notebooks. It’s just that they haven’t been integrated or processed enough. It needs to go through a whole integration system. I think it was clear to me it just wasn’t something for her to read. You want to be able to control when people read what you write in some way.

Rumpus: Oh, definitely. It would be nice to be able to control people’s reactions to it, too.

Flynn: But a book also has to have a kind of energy that is out of your control. It’s funny, people will say to me, “It must be strange for you that I know so much about you,” but, you know, I wrote the book. (Laughs.) It is crafted in a sense, and there are levels you get to where you’re over your head, and then it comes back again. It gives a tension to the book, which you need, especially in nonfiction. I mean, you can’t know everything about yourself. So you get to the edge of that and go back and forth, and that is sort of what makes it shimmer. But then you release the book, and there’s sometimes a level of discomfort about that, and you think it’s going to kill you.

Rumpus: So, is any of that discomfort still there for you? About revealing so much about yourself, including some not-so-flattering aspects?

Flynn: No, not really. My wife, she’s very helpful. We got together when this book was coming out. She said, people project onto her all the time what they want to see, because she’s an actress. And she said, “It’s all projection.” Everybody has a father, everybody had a complicated relationship with their father, and they want to tell you about their father. It’s totally fine. At first it was uncomfortable but then after about a month or so, I realized, people’s reactions have nothing to do with me. Nothing to do with me. It’s a great thing, actually. There’s this experience that people either need or want to have, and they project it onto you. And they can see themselves in you. You sort of dissolve.

Rumpus: For me, that’s part of the value of memoir. The memoirist provides something that allows people to make sense of their own experiences.

Flynn: Yeah, I think so. Memoir is actually the most egoless genre, even though it might seem ostensibly so much ego-driven. In order for it to succeed, you have to dissolve the self into these larger universal truths, and explore these deeper mysteries. If it’s purely autobiographical and ego-driven, it’s going to fail. Although that would work for like a rock-and-roll memoir, where you just want to know all the juicy details. Not to say all rock-and-roll memoirs are like that. There are some great ones. Have you read Kristin Hersh’s?

Rumpus: Oh, yeah. I loved it.

Flynn: Yeah, it’s great. How’d she know how to write like that?

Rumpus: Patti Smith’s memoir is great, too. I loved it.

Flynn: Yeah, I loved it, too. The Ticking is the Bomb came out the same week as Just Kids, and everywhere I went, she was following me. I went to LA, and she was in LA giving a free concert. When I went to San Francisco, she was there, too. And I’d go to a store to do a book signing, and there’d be five of my books on the counter, and there’d just be like a U-Haul out front filled with her books, and they’d be wheeling them in. I didn’t know whether she’d already signed all of them, or she was coming in to sign them, but I just couldn’t keep up with her. But she’s great.

Rumpus: Back to the perils of writing memoir—so, what happened with your mother didn’t put you off writing memoir forever?

Flynn: Oh, no, it did. I didn’t write after that episode, after she died, I didn’t write for years. I didn’t start my first memoir until almost twenty years after she died. It stopped me from writing for a long time.

Rumpus: For how long?

Flynn: Definitely through most of my twenties. But I was also drinking then. I don’t really know what to blame it on. You can’t really say it was one thing or another. I mean, if she hadn’t read it, would I have written sooner? If she hadn’t read it, would I have been drinking then? I probably would have been drinking anyway. I had some drinking to do! We were all “alkies” in Scituate, Massachusetts. Everyone I knew. We called ourselves that. Every time you would see someone, they’d say, “You’re an alkie.”

Rumpus: When you sat down to write it, did you know it was going to be a memoir?

Flynn: Nah. It came out in these sort of episodic moments, like the moments in the shelter that I remembered. Those were the first pieces that came, just sort of going back to that time in the shelter when my father appeared.

Rumpus: Where were you in your life when you started it?

Flynn: Well, I had just finished two years of videotaping my mother’s boyfriends, and then started to focus on my father. I made this one twenty-minute documentary with interviews of ten of my mother’s boyfriends. I just asked them two questions: how they met my mother, and how they found out how she had died. And then they would talk. So, my father was one of them. And he wouldn’t answer the questions. He would just sort of ramble on about all these other things. The first time I asked him, he went on for like half and hour about how to rob banks—like giving me his advice on how to rob banks.

Rumpus: That’s actually kind of great.

Flynn: At the time, though, I was just so annoyed with him. I just thought, This is such bullshit. But that actually became a second movie, called “How To Rob A Bank.” I came around to realizing it was actually great. I screened the first movie at The Kitchen, and people who saw it were like, “Who is that guy?” He’s like the star of it. The camera loves him. He’s a real performer. All the other boyfriends would just be sitting there answering these questions, but my father would like lean into the camera and whisper and look around.

Rumpus: What a great character he is. No wonder you wanted to write a book about him.

Flynn: When you make a movie, you’re with someone a long time, and then you’re with them more as you’re cutting the film and trying to line things up with the soundtrack. So he was really in me, and then I just started writing. First there were some of the stories he gave on the video, and then other stuff just came. At a certain point it became clear that I wanted to write this, and that I wanted it to be nonfiction. I find a great tension in non-fiction. It naturally has a great tension to it. It’s this thing that happened that you try to represent accurately in the writing, but then there’s your perception of what happened. And that creates a whole tension between the two. You’re always navigating between them.

It seemed important, too, to write about my father as being homeless. I had written about him in poetry. In the first book of poems, I wrote about having a homeless father, and people kind of read it as an archetype or a metaphor for “the homeless father.” And they’d ask me, “How did you come up with that archetype of the homeless father?” I was really annoyed by it. I wanted to do a book where people couldn’t say that, or would have a harder time saying that.

Rumpus: What generally is your philosophy about writing about other people? And how do you handle it? Do you tell people in advance? Do you give them pieces to read before publication?

Flynn: I don’t really tell people in advance, at least not before the final draft. I don’t do it unless I need to, and I don’t usually feel I do. I haven’t gotten in much trouble with the books. Another Bullshit Night is mostly about me and my father. I got a release from him. He knew I was writing the book.

Rumpus: Really? You had to do that?

Flynn: Yeah. I had to have him sign legal papers. He had to agree that it was okay.

Rumpus: Wait – you have to do that when writing a memoir? I haven’t ever heard about that. I mean, if I write about things that have happened with people in my family, am I going to have to get releases from them?

Flynn: You know, I might be mixing it up with the films. I know I had to have him sign things for the films. Maybe he didn’t have to sign anything for the books.

Rumpus: Whew.

Flynn: But the New Yorker excerpted the book, and they called everybody, even the minor characters, and checked with them.

Rumpus: Yeah, that’s different. That’s a journalistic publication. Do you change people’s names?

Flynn: I say that I change people’s names, but I really don’t. (Laughs.)

Rumpus: Throws the lawyers off?

Flynn: Yeah, it throws Norton’s lawyers off. Unpleasant people. So you just tell them what you think they want to hear. I mean, I changed the names of most of the homeless people because I didn’t know them. And friends of mine—Norton got me to change names for some of them. Like in once scene I’m smoking a joint with someone and the lawyers were like, “You’ve got to change that name,” and I was like, “Seriously? That person doesn’t give a fuck.”

Rumpus: But you changed your wife’s name.

Flynn: Yeah, my wife and my child’s name. I did that for myself.

Rumpus: Even though everyone knows who you’re married to?

Flynn: But I couldn’t write it with her real name. When I’d put her real name in, I’d just stop writing. It was just a trick for myself. It just went faster that way. And at the end, it just somehow made sense to keep those names.

Rumpus: I thought that was funny, because it’s not as if you hide who you are married to. So how was Lili with what you wrote in The Ticking Is the Bomb? And how were Anna and Emily with all you revealed about your relationships with them in both books? Did you get any flack?

Flynn: The Emily character, who is in the first book—we are still dear, dear friends. I actually showed her the chapters with things about her family before the book came out, which was unusual. I mean, I didn’t even show it to my brother before it came out. When it did come out, he read it and then was like, “There are four things you got wrong: this, this, this and this.” Then we talked about it all for a half hour, and he was fine. I explained to him why I made the choices I did, but said I respected his version of how things happened. And he hasn’t brought it up since, so he seems cool with it.

Rumpus: Well that’s good.

Flynn: But the Emily character—it’s funny, you just don’t know what people are going to get upset about. I mean, I have her dropping acid, and she didn’t care about that, but she was concerned that her father needed to be represented as a French Canadian Catholic. She said, “That’s a really important part of who he is.” I was amazed. It has nothing to do with the book! Nothing. But it was really important to her, so I made that change for her. It was pretty funny. That’s what she cared about. I have no idea why.

Rumpus: What about Anna and Lili—was it hard for them to read about you trying to choose between the two of them, and being in relationships with them both at the same time?

Flynn: Well, I’m not in touch with Anna.

Rumpus: Right, you say in The Ticking Is The Bomb that you never heard from her again.

Flynn: And I have no idea if she’s read the book or not. And, Lili was there the whole time. It wasn’t like it was a big secret.

Rumpus: I mean, you revealed things that another person might think and not share. Like that you were in love with her and someone else at the same time.

Flynn: Well, we got married a year ago. She agreed to get married, so nothing bad came from it. I just think, a lot of that stuff is not really about her. It’s about my inner turmoil, and I think I have a right to that, as a writer. I don’t think that it’s a big secret to her. Maybe the particulars are, but the idea that people close to us struggle—hopefully you know that, or you shouldn’t be with that person. Besides, the particulars of it don’t matter really. It’s just all madness. I tried to represent my own madness as accurately as possible. So, that was my job to do that. Was there a risk in that with her? I think I knew that she’s a very centered person. I think of her as one of the sanest people I know. In that I mean, she has her own madness and she’s aware of that, but she doesn’t project it wildly onto the world. Which is usually the main problem with people. They don’t own it, their own madness. So, I think we have a real adult relationship in that way. We both sort of recognize our own struggles and try to work through them as best we can. But if you read The Ticking Is The Bomb, what do you learn about Lili, or “Inez” as I call her? Nothing really. I don’t really reveal anything about her.

Rumpus: Yeah, but there is some difficult stuff about how you were feeling. Like, at one point you thought, “Well, whoever gets pregnant first is who I’ll have a child and settle down with.”

Flynn: That was the bottom of my madness. That was supposed to represent how bad it can get.

Rumpus: I mean, I know if I was one of those women, I would have had a hard time reading that, and still like you.

Flynn: Oh, yeah, no—I don’t come off well at all in that book. And that was my intention in writing the book, as much as one can control something like that. In the first book, it’s easy to have a great deal of sympathy for me. I am a blameless victim. What did I do wrong? I have a bad father. But in the second book, I’m an adult making choices, and the choices are messy. The whole book is about darker impulses, and about the country making unbelievably dark choices. I mean, my dark choices are nothing in comparison to what was going on in the world. But if you just sort of sit there and say, “I don’t have any dark impulses. What are these bad soldiers doing to people?” it’s bullshit. The book is about all of us having these impulses. Every other book I’d read about war and torture was like, us and them. Like, “Bad soldiers. How could they do this?” But it’s more like, “How could you not do it?” We’re doing this kind of thing all the time.

Rumpus: So you were exploring your own darkness.

Flynn: Yes. I’m just part of the whole mix. It felt much more egoless to do that. We’re all part of this, we’re all in this.

Rumpus: To me, that’s a more challenging aspect of memoir writing than revealing other people—being honest about your human flaws. When I have revealed even little bits of those kinds of things about myself in pieces I publish, I get all kinds of concern and anger.

Flynn: From other people?

Rumpus: Mostly from my parents. And it just totally shuts me down. I suffer from a crippling combination of Nice Jewish Girl Syndrome, and Clergyman’s Daughter Syndrome. And I’m 45. It’s ridiculous.

Flynn: You know what you need?

Rumpus: No! Please tell me!

Flynn: You need to get yourself some Protestant parents.

Rumpus: That’s what I need?

Flynn: Seriously, if you don’t have a lot of WASPs in your family, you shouldn’t write memoir. Because everyone else—Jews, Catholics—they’ll be all over you. But WASPs don’t say fucking anything! You can pretty much write whatever you want, and they won’t say a word. All they’ll do is go and have a drink. I’m sorry—it’s unfortunate. But if you don’t want to be affected by it, you shouldn’t be Jewish.

Rumpus: I’ll have to try that. But, you know, my hope is that I can write about things that have happened in my family, and still have them in my life. A lot of people I’ve interviewed have lost their relationships with their families over what they’ve written, and I don’t want that to happen. You haven’t had to deal with that.

Flynn: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot about that from other writers, but I haven’t had that problem. I’m really serious about it: you should be Protestant. Because parents of other religions—like Catholics—they will not forgive you! They will not talk to you. No, but seriously. You should be allowed to tell the truth. And if you talk more about yourself, and are harsher on yourself than on anyone else, that helps. But parents are tricky. I got lucky—one was dead, and the other is crazy. I don’t have the same struggle that other people have doing this. I have dear friends for whom this hasn’t worked out so neatly. But what’s trickier than that—that’s only the outer ring of hell. You haven’t even entered the foyer yet if that’s what you’re struggling with. Because the real hell is revealing the dark stuff of the self. Once you get to that stuff, all your other worries are going to seem insignificant. That’s the real job of this: to go into all these dark places that people are afraid to go into and come back out tell about it. They all know about it anyway, but you get to sort of name it and come back still alive, and tell them, “You can do this.” If you just stay at the level where you’re worrying about hurting your parents, that’s like a revolving door. You’ll never get out of there.

Rumpus: No, I’ve got to get out of there. I’m ready to get out.

Flynn: That’s good. If you find you still have a hard time with it down the road, though, you might try suggesting to your parents that they convert to Episcopalian.


Sari Botton is a writer living in upstate New York. She is the editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Village Voice and more retrograde women’s magazines than she’d care to recall or admit to. She tweets at @saribotton. More from this author →