The Full Flynn
An extended conversation with Nick Flynn, author of 'Another Bullshit Night in Suck City'
Below is an extended transcript of the interview for "The Weirdness of Life: Nick Flynn on Another Bullshit Night in Suck City," a profile of the author in our Oct. 29 issue.
Austin Chronicle: You've dealt with some of your family's history in your poetry, specifically in Some Ether. How was the experience of writing the memoir different? Was it less or more emotionally exhausting?
Nick Flynn: There were a couple years of the writing, once I had gathered all the stories together, that felt like deeper psychological work. The first thing was doing research and putting things together, but then I had to try to figure out what it meant. It was really draining, psychically speaking. If I had a whole day, I would write for an hour and then be completely exhausted. I would actually fall asleep on the floor of my studio for 20 minutes to half an hour. I'd reach some sort of an impasse, a psychic impasse, where I just couldn't move forward in the writing. I would sleep and I would have a dream, and in the dream I would figure out where to go in the writing. Then I would wake up and start writing from that point. It was really this sort of accessing of the unconscious in some way. I would write for another hour and then I would fall asleep again, it would just keep happening. I'd do that maybe four times over one day. That part was an excavation.
AC: I wonder how it felt to be writing your father's life. In a sense, you had to animate him, think for him because you weren't there. I'm thinking specifically of a passage where you describe your father falling from the ladder. You write, "As he falls he thinks, If you are hurt they will come with their ambulances, they will put you in bed and feed you, they will let you rest." Then you step back and write, "Or maybe that's just what I have thought, the times I've fallen." It's a revealing moment, where you seem uncomfortable speaking for him, conscious of the fact that some of the narrative is conjecture.
NF: I'm glad I put that in there. As you were reading the beginning of that, I actually thought to myself, "Well, maybe that's just something I thought." That line was in and out of the book, so I'm happy I ended up keeping it. There were moments like that, where I was in his head, and I sort of wanted to tip my hand a little bit. I wouldn't think that anyone who read it would actually think I was in my father's head, but some people do wonder how I know certain things. I figure I'm allowed a certain amount of leeway just because he's my father, and the whole book is about the parallels in our lives. If I was writing about someone who wasn't so closely linked to me, it'd be a problem, and I think I would write it differently. It'd have much more of a speculative tone to it. I felt I was allowed certain things, because that's what the book was about, the son as a physical manifestation of the father.
AC: Now that the book is published, do you feel unburdened somehow, or do you feel more responsible to the people you write about?
NF: As far as the idea that "you write it and it sets you free" goes, I've never found that to be true. It doesn't hurt though. It moves you to see things differently. When a burden's lifted, another responsibility comes into place. Now I'm the one landlords call when my father's about to be evicted, which never happened before. At some point, I just realized that that was something I'd have to accept as the cost.
AC: A common thread in the criticism of all your work is your remarkable lack of self-pity, despite the weighty material. How do you manage to avoid coming across as being sorry for yourself, in view of the intensity of what you're writing about?
NF: The material is heavy, but the way I write hopefully has some air in it. It's not like this heavy loaf of something. Maybe on the surface there's some degree of extremity to it, but I just don't think it's outside the realm of people's imagination. Everyone I know struggles with their parents, and there are tragedies that arise in life. I never meant to write it as, "Reader beware, the tale I'm going to tell is a tale of woe" or something, because I really don't feel that way. I've worked with the homeless, I've worked with kids in the NYC public schools, I was out of the country for two years and spent a lot of time in Africa. ... The idea of self-pity as a white American living in the 20th century is pretty silly. As a straight, white, male American, I'd have to be pretty pitiful not to recognize the privileges that are inherent in being who I am. Earlier drafts of the book are dripping with self-righteousness, self-pity, and misdirected anger. I don't think you should edit that stuff out you should write everything but then you have to look it over and think, "Is that really the truth?" You realize that that isn't the truth, that the truth is more complicated. The closest you can get to it is to present what happened, and present it in a way with some sort of clarity. You have to let people come to their own opinions about it, or feel their own anger about it.
AC: You seem very concerned with truthfulness. Was it difficult to portray the homeless people you worked with, many of whom were mentally ill, in a way that was accurate and fair?
NF: Mental health is a continuum, and all of us have had days when we wake up further to one side than the other. If you're homeless, you end up getting stuck there [in mental illness], because all of your paranoias come true, neuroses are suddenly manifested into actual being, and it's just harder to swing back to the other side. That's one of the tragedies of homelessness, this sort of institutional codifying of homelessness and its causes, these people are homeless and "we" can't understand why. Not that I try to answer the question, but I try to get people to think about it, to realize that maybe it isn't so far outside the realm of understanding, how someone could end up here and the delicate things that keep people housed. That's why I wanted to show my father in his apartment also. It's a delicate negotiation to keep someone off the streets.
AC: At the same time, there's an undeniable humor to some of these people, often as a product of their mental illness. How did you acknowledge that humor without exploiting it?
NF: When I read this book in Boston and I don't know if this is just an Irish thing but people crack up, they think it's really funny. You read it in Minnesota and people weep, or they don't express any emotions whatsoever. I've been asking people lately to look inside themselves for whatever Irishness they have. To see that this is part of humanity, and there is a humor to it. When I worked in the shelter, it was like Beckett, and that's what makes Beckett so brilliant: this darkness that's continually punctured by incredibly funny scenes, hysterical absurdity, the weirdness of life, and the comedy that's just inherent in every tragedy. It's just the reality of it, you're out on the streets and you see ridiculous things. It is an absurd situation, and not to see that, to weigh it down with this tragedy, I don't see how that benefits anyone. There's humor throughout it, which just seems truer than something that's really ponderously heavy.
AC: Did you have to consider whether your book would "benefit" the homeless through its portrayal of them? You portray your father in a very honest, and sometimes unflattering, light. Did you have concerns about him being unsympathetic, in terms of the way readers might see him as determining his own fate rather than being a victim of circumstance?
NF: I'm reading at the Texas Book Festival, and I just found out that Laura Bush started that whole organization. Part of my book tour has been to try and infiltrate, so I try to put it in that perspective. I knew when I was writing the book that some people from the right could read this book, and could say, "Well, this guy deserves to be homeless. He's a fuck-up, he's an alcoholic, he left his family, why does he deserve anything from the government? Why does he deserve any help? This is what a safety net's for?" It always has to be like a mother with a kid, who's in a tragic situation, and we need to reach out and help her. I don't know, I just think everyone deserves an apartment, whether they're a fuck-up or an alcoholic. Why does being an alcoholic correspond to not having an apartment? Where did that logic come in? I think that's a very right-wing logic. If anyone's going to use that argument, I'd say, "Go ahead, use that argument, let's have discussion about it. If that's really what you think, you can take that logic to an extreme, and I'd like to do that with you, to see where you really would go with this."
AC: What do you hope the book accomplishes in terms of exposing people to the realities of homelessness?
NF: My father was invisibly homeless. If you saw him on the streets of Boston, you would never say, "That's a homeless guy." He just looks like a businessman, a retiree, a guy at a convention or something, just sitting reading the paper in the sun or something. Most of the homeless I dealt with weren't advertising their homelessness, because of the consequences involved. To admit that to themselves, or to society, would be a dangerous thing to do. That was really the point I wanted to get across: If you think that the situation is troublesome to you now, with this guy panhandling on the corner, just multiply that times 10, and that's the real number.
AC: What do you think is the difference in the emotional impact of the autobiographical poems in Some Ether and the memoir?
NF: One of the benefits of writing a memoir is that when you put the word "memoir" on it even though I hated using that term, I wish I could just call it "nonfiction" suddenly it becomes real, so that you don't have to convince someone that this is true. With the poems, about my father especially, it was really easy for people to assume, "Okay, this is just made up, it's just a metaphor. He's just taken this homeless person and grafted his father onto him. He's saying, 'That homeless person is like my father' and he's just taken out the 'like.' It felt important to point out that it was real. So that was definitely part of the impulse, because it seemed like I could write a million poems about it and it would always be assumed as a metaphor. For some reason, in people's minds, the words "father" and "homeless" in the same sentence, they couldn't contain it.
AC: Do you still consider yourself to be a poet, first and foremost?
NF: I do. I just love to because it's so perverse in this society to call yourself a poet. I love the glassy-eyed stares you get, it's such a perfect conversation-ender, unless someone is somehow connected to that world. Not to be off-putting, but I deeply love poetry. It's the thing that really deeply excites me, consistently. Not all poetry I read, of course, but a good poem is really something sublime to me.
AC: I don't imagine that you had an ulterior motive in writing this, but I wonder if you think that poetry is benefited when poets write prose. Do you think readers who discover poets through their prose will become more interested in poetry?
NF: People heard that the book was a little bit experimental, and they freaked out, like, "Oh fuck, I didn't want to buy something experimental!" You have to reassure them, "No, no, you can read this." I think it's a good thing to get people to read something that's a little beyond a straightforward chronological narrative. It shows them that there are different ways of expressing things, and that you shouldn't be intimidated by it. I like to think my book is actually an experimental page-turner. I wanted to have a tension to it that would make people continue reading, but it was important to have each section be the form it had to be, which wasn't necessarily straight narrative. So hopefully, people will read it and it will open them up more. Hopefully, they'll realize, "Oh, I don't have to be so afraid of all this other stuff."
AC: So you wanted it to be accessible, but not easy.
NF: Exactly. I deeply respect readers. I think they have so much capacity, which is why I didn't try to answer questions in the book. I tried to leave it open, because I really think that people have their own intelligence and that they'll come to their own conclusion. It feels more respectful to the reader to do that, not to treat them like idiots who can't handle something that's a little beyond their experience.