The Rumpus Interview with Tom Bissell

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Editor, journalist, memoirist, travel writer, short story writer, humorist, and public intellectual, Tom Bissell is the possessor of enough prizes, recognitions, and stellar reviews to fill a medium-sized moving van. He also plays video games. His fiction has been featured in multiple editions of the Best American Short Stories series, and his previous book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, was described by The New York Times Book Review as “the finest account yet of what it feels like to be a video game player.” His essential new collection of non-fiction, Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, includes fourteen articles written for The New Yorker, Harper’s, and the Believer, among other publications.

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The Rumpus: The subtitle of Magic Hours is “Essays on Creators and Creation,” and you cover everything from independent filmmaking, to travel writing, to sitcom production, to video game voice-over acting. It’s a hell of a cross-section. Is there a commonality, do you think, in every act of creation? To put it another way, besides speaking in accented English, what, artistically, is shared by Tommy Wiseau (writer/director/star of The Room), and Werner Herzog (arguably the world’s greatest living filmmaker)?

Tom Bissell: Tommy Wiseau and Werner Herzog have the following things in common: respiration, opposable thumbs, and Los Angeles residency. Notice I did not say, “Both have directed film.” I’ll say this: I accept that Tommy Wiseau is some kind of artist, even some kind of amazing artist, but he is not by any stretch of the imagination a good or strong artist, whereas Herzog is one of the greatest living artists, in my view, in this world. Where Tommy Wiseau most interests me is in his confidence. He proceeds as though it is perfectly obvious that he’s a genius and has a surety about himself and his vision that I doubt even Werner Herzog—an extremely confident artist—would ever claim for himself. But! One of the reasons I grouped these essays together gets to the heart of this question, which is also addressed in my Werner Herzog essay, wherein I imagine a future civilization that has only Herzog’s films, The Hidden Fortress, and Escape from New York as its record of our current film culture. When you decide to make something, you’re planting your flag atop some faraway planet no one can see, least of all you. All the questions of whether your work will survive and even how it will be perceived are ultimately beyond your power to determine. Thus I believe that everyone driven to make something works in these magic hours of confidence, and I’m profoundly compelled by trying to capture people in the midst of those so-called magic hours. People are at their most megalomaniacal yet also their most naked in those hours. Maybe the book is accidentally about how crazy you have to be to want to make something intended for more than just a few people.

Rumpus: I’m not whether you’ll want to answer this—or even if you should—but while we’re touching on Mr. Herzog and Mr. Wiseau, would you care to speculate as to what the former gentleman might make of The Room?

Bissell: Well, you know, it’s a good question. Herzog has a more impish sense of the absurd than I think a lot of people would suspect, given the Teutonic gravity of his filmic persona. He’s incredibly droll and funny in person. He even starred in a mockumentary about the Loch Ness Monster called Incident at Loch Ness, which is wonderful. However, I suspect the craftsman/technician part of him would rebel against The Room with every atom of his being. I basically can’t imagine him watching the movie without throwing up.

Rumpus: Perhaps my favorite piece in the book, “Invisible Girl,” is a profile of the video game voice-over artist, Jennifer Hale. Until you conscripted her into playing Mass Effect one night, she had never actually seen her character in full context. One’s impression is that she was amused by the experience, but hardly enthralled. It’s evident that her work exists very differently for her—the creator—than it does for pretty much everyone else, i.e. the thousands of players of Mass Effect. What do you make of that disconnect? Is it ideal? Is it sad? Is it just weird? While the audience recognizes her as an artist of the highest order, it doesn’t seem like she sees it that way.

Bissell: As for Jennifer . . . make that millions of players of Mass Effect, which only amplifies your question. The truth is, I don’t know if it’s ideal or sad or what, but I do think it’s weird. Acting, though, is a pretty weird job any way you cut it. I’m sure there are a lot of television actors out there who never watch the shows they’re in and a lot of stage and film actors who hate the scripts they’re performing. Jennifer’s disconnect is only a more heightened form of a situation a lot of actors find themselves in. I think what makes Jennifer’s situation more interesting is the amount of time you wind up spending in her company—the fact that, from the gamer’s perspective, you kind of become her. This means you’re stuck with the odd sensation of feeling closer to Jennifer’s character than she ever could or would want to. One of the reasons I think Jennifer has been so successful is her ability to inject some humanity into a medium with a notorious warmth deficit. In that sense, whether she plays games is kind of a moot point. She’s given dialogue to perform within certain parameters, and, as a professional, she knows how to do this and do it well. It’s not like she’s a blind person who’s been asked to paint. I can tell you that I’ve made her promise to play at least a little bit of Mass Effect 3 with me when it comes out. We’ll see if she chickens out. I hope she doesn’t.

Rumpus: The icy, subterranean stream of this collection is failure—a lot of the magic blows up. This is the case not only in some logical places, such as in the world of independent film (along with the essay on The Room, there is another piece, “Escanaba’s Magic Hours,” about a shoestring Jeff Daniels production, Escanaba In Da Moonlight, that I’m not sure exists any longer except in the records of IMDB) and along the frontiers of outsider and zine writing (“Grief and the Outsider”), but also in the career of a wildly successful artist like the sitcom producer Chuck Lorre (“A Simple Medium”), who first toiled as a musician for many years, and then, even after finding his way to television, at one point washed out of a gig scripting for My Little Pony. What should an aspiring creator make of this? Where does perseverance end and delusion begin?

Bissell: Most of the magic in the book blows up! Mine included. You know, I have other essays about creators and creation that didn’t make the cut. When I was putting the thing together I looked over those essays and asked myself, bloodlessly, “Do I even want this out there again?” Once upon a time I thought I’d try to publish one of those gargantuan Updike-y collections of nonfiction, which has everything up to and including the doodles he scribbled on the back of a receipt at his pharmacist’s, but with age I’ve accepted that just because I wrote and published something doesn’t mean it’s any good. I think most aspiring writers would look at the young writer who publishes with some regularity and think, “Well, there you go. She’s got it figured out.” But you know as well as I do that there’s no stratum of professional success that isolates you from failure. We’ve both written books that went nowhere and didn’t get published, right?

Rumpus: Yes. I’m afraid that’s painfully, abundantly true.

Bissell: My short stories still get rejected constantly. My magazine pieces get killed. The writer’s motto—the creator’s motto—should be: “Failure: It’s what’s for dinner.” How you respond to failure is the real measure of an artist, and this means nurturing the violently arrogant and overly confident monster that lurks deep inside all of us. But you have to keep that maniacal bastard out of all polite company. You feed him and nurture him and draw strength from him, but you never, ever let him out, get water on him, or feed him after midnight. FYI, Escanaba in Da Moonlight can be viewed on Netflix. You really should see it. It’s like a combination of a Hallmark card, Dumb & Dumber, Evil Dead, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. My dear friend Glenn Kenny, one of our best film critics, saw it, after which he told me, “That is, without question, the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen.”

Rumpus: Some of the artists you write about have enormous, varied bodies of work. Can you speak a little bit about what you do to prepare for writing about/interviewing them?

Bissell: With Herzog, I got a hold off almost every movie he made and watched them repeatedly and read half a dozen books about him. I did a month of straight up research and amassed something like 100 pages of notes before writing a word of the eventual essay. With the Robert Kaplan piece, ditto. I read every book the guy wrote, dozens of his essays, and, again, wound up with dozens and dozens of pages of notes. With Chuck Lorre I watched probably close to 100 episodes of his various shows, and for Jennifer Hale I played through Metal Gear Solid IV, Mass Effects 1 and 2, and Bulletstorm. For the Tommy Wiseau piece, I watched The Room more than twenty times. Investing dozens of hours into an artist’s microscopia before writing a single real sentence about that artist can get really wearying after a while. For Jim Harrison, I read most of his books again, which was about as heavenly an experience as could be imagined. There’s a horrible feeling you have when you’re whittling down 100 pages of notes into a fifteen-page spine to hang your reporting on. Then I remind myself that I’m effectively getting paid to play through Mass Effect or watch Fitzcarraldo or read Legends of the Fall.

When it comes to interviews, I very rarely turn up with a list of questions. Almost never, in fact. If you’ve prepared well, and know something about your subject, the conversation just happens. Jim Harrison and I, for instance, pretty much talked, very intimately, for three days straight.

Rumpus: What kind of reactions have you received from the creators profiled and discussed in Magic Hours? I’m going to go out on a limb and venture that Robert Kaplan (the travel writer who is the subject of “Euphorias of Perrier”) has not called to see if you are free for drinks.

Bissell: I’m pretty certain that Robert Kaplan would physically attack me if we ever met, and I wouldn’t blame him if he did. I’d probably want to hurt someone, too, if he said about me what I said about him. I took very little joy or satisfaction in writing that Kaplan piece. Then again, his books are awful and have had some terrible extra-literary reverberations in this world. People had attacked his work, but never comprehensively, and that’s what I most wanted to read about him. But what I wanted to read about him didn’t exist and so I had to write it myself. For a lot of the other subjects, I’ve become friendly with most of them. If I’m doing a full-on profile of someone, I’m usually interested in that person. That means I have no interest of earning someone’s trust only to torpedo them after the fact. Some writers do those kamikaze profiles well, but I don’t think I could. I feel like you’d have to deceive your subject, in some way, about your intentions, and that creeps me out. That said, my piece about Tommy Wiseau caused me a little ethical alarm. To get him to sit down and talk to me, I had to couch my interest in his work diplomatically, e.g. I told him I thought his work has “fascinating.” Which it is. But I couldn’t tell him, “I think you’re a genius, Tommy. Let’s talk!” because that would have been a lie and obliged me to behave dishonorably. Chuck Lorre had been burned so many times by entertainment-industry journalists that he was very, very reluctant to allow me to get close to him at first. I think he was convinced for 80 percent of our time together to that I was going to torch him. But once he realized I wanted to write about him from a position of genuine interest, he was warm and intimate and giving. He even had me out to his house, which is something I don’t think he’d done for any writer before.

Anyone who’s been tasked with writing about another person should keep the following thought at the front of his or her mind: I am armed and they are defenseless. The writer-subject relationship can be very, very confusing and gnarly, in all the expected Janet Malcolm ways, and I’m pretty happy that I’ve never been asked to write something about someone I came to loathe after meeting him or her, because I have no idea how I’d handle that.

Rumpus: Before I let you get away I want to ask you about an issue that, when it comes to writers and critics of creative non-fiction, strikes me as almost impossibly fraught. In both your profile of Herzog, and an essay about the great, intrepid journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, you write sympathetically about each man’s somewhat elastic ideas about what constitutes non-fiction. Most specifically, in your essay about Kapuscinski you make a distinction between one kind of “plainspoken, rigorously invisible” journalism, and another that is “not discursive, or even necessarily informative, but visionary.” An illustration of the latter can be found in Herzog’s documentary about the downed Vietnam fighter pilot Dieter Dengler, Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Here, the director staged—with Dengler’s approval—a scene in which the war hero opens and closes his front door, and puts words in Dengler’s mouth to the effect that it was a “habit” born of Dengler’s time in captivity. Herzog calls this “ecstatic truth,” but a lot of other people call it “bullshit”. Where does artistic license become a problem? [I want to add: One of the reasons that Tom’s position here is so interesting is that he himself is obsessive about keeping to the facts. You don’t need to take my word for this; he writes frequently for the New Yorker where the fact-checking apparatus is justifiably renowned for the ball-busting lengths it will go to insure accuracy.]

Bissell: This is probably the question that interests me most, as a nonfiction writer. I think the degree to which you can depart from “what happened” is almost aways a case-by-case matter. I’ve distorted things in my nonfiction books for the sake of simplicity or effect, but never in a way that, in my mind, crossed the line and wandered into James Frey territory. For instance, I wrote a book about my father and his experience in Vietnam and our experience in Vietnam together when we went back in 2003. My dad and I sat down for three long interviews at various points in the trip. My pop doesn’t like to be interviewed and likes even less being asked to “share” his feelings. So what I did in the book was pull apart and separate those three long interviews and intersperse them throughout the book’s depiction of the trip, often times combining the stuff he told me in our sit-downs with the stuff he told me while we were walking around looking at stuff. I cleared with him that this was what I was going to do, and he said, “Fine.” He had full veto power, too, so if something he said wound up in the early drafts whose import or placement he disagreed with, he could cut it. So the conversations in the book happened, they’re real, but they’re also arranged and orchestrated. A lot of people would say I essentially fictionalized our trip. And in some ways I did. But certain types of material are your material to shape. My dad’s and my relationship is my material, and our conversation is our material, and we agreed to present it in a certain way for better literary effect. I stand by that decision. So, like a lot of what you see in Herzog, I walk that interesting line in the book between “true” and “real” and mediated and shaped.

All description is a distortion necessarily. All representation is a distortion necessarily. You start there and let your own morality as an artist guide you. Does that sound like a weasel answer? I hope it doesn’t. Obviously, in other cases, like when you’re writing about someone who’s not your father and whose “material” you *can’t* shape, the rules are totally different.  And that’s where the (appropriately) ball-bustingly skilled fact-checkers at The New Yorker come in, just as you say.

Rumpus: What are you working on now?

Bissell: This month I’ll finish Greg Sestero’s memoir about making The Room, which I’m co-writing with him, the title of which right now is The Disaster Artist. Finally, I’m working on a couple video game scripts, neither of which has been announced yet, so I can’t say more than that. I’ve been doing a lot of video game stuff over the last year; I was either fired or dropped from two video game projects I was really excited about. One of my new projects, though, is also quite exciting—and it’s also almost done. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be fired from this project or the one that comes after it. Game-writing has been much harder and more grueling than I thought it would be—but, hearteningly, it’s exactly as much fun as I hoped it would be.


Owen King is the author of We’re All in This Together: A Novella and Stories, and co-editor (with John McNally) of the fiction anthology Who Can Save Us Now? His fiction has appeared in One Story and Prairie Schooner, and Guernica, among other publications. Double Feature, his first novel, was published by Scribner in March. He is married to the novelist Kelly Braffet. More from this author →