Nick Flynn has worked as a ship’s captain, an electrician, and a case-worker with homeless adults. His two most recent books, both released in 2011, are a collection of poems, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, and a memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb, which the Los Angeles Times calls a “disquieting masterpiece.” His previous memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (2004), won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, was shortlisted for France’s Prix Femina, and has been translated into thirteen languages. A movie adaptation of Another Bullshit Night, starring Robert DeNiro and Paul Dano, is scheduled for release in 2012. Flynn is also the author of two prior books of poetry, Some Ether (2000), and Blind Huber (2002), and a play, Alice Invents a Little Game and Alice Always Wins (2008), for which he received fellowships from, among other organizations, The Guggenheim Foundation and The Library of Congress.
Flynn’s poems, essays and non-fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, National Public Radio’s This American Life, The New York Times Book Review, and others. His film credits include artistic collaborator and field poet on the film Darwin’s Nightmare, which was nominated for an Academy Award for best feature documentary in 2006. He teaches at the University of Houston during the spring semester each year, and spends the rest of the year in Brooklyn and upstate New York.
On the day that we spoke, Flynn was boyishly animated and wearing a bright purple stocking cap.
Growing up, what were your early experiences with books?
I went to a public school, we didn’t have a whole lot of money, and there weren’t a lot of books around the house. Some of what I saw of books didn’t seem to be a life-affirming activity—it seemed to be almost like taking Valium. My brother read mountains of science fiction, which I didn’t understand could contain deeper meanings. My grandmother read murder/romances that she bought by the pound, just books to pass the time. To me, that wasn’t interesting. But my mother had a few good books around the house, some Shakespeare. Plath. ee cummings. And I liked to spend time in our local library, and to hang out at the local bookstore in town.
The first book I ever bought on my own was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, because I was really into horror. I was maybe in second grade. I remember looking at it and being like, I can only understand half these words. I can’t read this now. But it was so thrilling to know I’d be able to read this someday. A year, maybe two years later, I went back and read the whole thing.
The stuff that moved me in a creative way didn’t happen in school. I had one English teacher in junior high who was great, and we read interesting stuff, like Something Wicked This Way Comes. But most everything that excited me happened outside of school. I would find books that I wasn’t supposed to read. Illicit books, books people had hidden someplace. Things that were somehow charged, like Henry Miller, something dirty, or that people had hidden in a little shack down by the river. Strange things, you know? But they seemed somehow important enough to hide. You weren’t supposed to read them, and that had a pull.
I’m picturing shadowy figures in trench coats hiding great caches of books under a bridge on some Massachusetts river, or in a cabin in the woods.
Yeah, like Fahrenheit 451 or something, like the books were really these—these things.
So, having developed this excitement for certain types of books, can you identify when you were first pulled toward writing? And who or what encouraged you in that?
Well, no encouragement outside of myself. When I was about ten, I was reading Sherlock Holmes—I was reading mysteries then, and the reason I can think that it was around ten is because it shifted to horror after that, and then science fiction, you know—and a friend of mine, Arthur Joseph, and I spent a whole summer writing this long, Sherlock Holmes-type mystery that ended up being fifty pages. We were young, and that was a lot of work. I have no idea what it was about, but it was set in Egypt and Scotland. To us, those were the most remote and exotic locales. We’d get together and generate five pages a day. A couple of years later, with another friend, Charlie, we spent a summer writing a science fiction thing, because we were reading Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury. Not stuff we read in school. I’m pretty sure that I was the motivating force behind it, but they were game to do it.
It kept going like that. I would bring someone in so it wasn’t so lonely, and do a collaboration. And someone just reminded me that in college, if you came to my dorm room, I had a typewriter set up and in order to come into my room you had to type a line. It was sort of the same idea. This continual, ongoing narrative.
Did you call yourself a writer at that point?
I started to, as a teenager, yeah. It was ridiculous, but it was what I liked to do. I had no aspirations beyond that, no idea about grad programs or professionalization. It was just fun.
What was it that eventually led you to get your MFA at NYU?
In my late twenties, I took two workshops. First with Carolyn Forché, and then another one a couple of months later with Marie Howe. Marie asked me afterward, “Are you thinking of going to grad school?” I was in my late twenties, and I didn’t know there was such a thing. And now a person at sixteen knows what an MFA program is.
And they’ve already decided where they’re going.
Yeah. It’s become very professionalized. I was just totally outside of that.
But you’d already gone to undergrad at this point, right?
I hadn’t finished by then. It took me ten years to finish my undergrad degree from U-Mass Amherst, and just in time—I think you had ten years to finish it.
So once the question of grad school was raised, why did you decide to pursue your MFA, and what do you think you gained from it?
Well, at that time, for me it was to really commit to being a writer and being an artist, to take it seriously: Okay, what would it be if you really spent all day writing, and gave yourself that time? Do you have the temperament for it? It’s a temperament thing as much as anything. It takes a certain focus and a certain comfort with solitude. You have to be able to be with yourself, with your inner life, for long stretches and not distract yourself.
Were you consistently confident that you were capable of that solitude and commitment?
Well, in my twenties, no, no, no. I was just floundering around, drinking and doing drugs. And writing, but it was chaos. There’s nothing, really, from that time—even though I would have called myself a writer even more at that time than now.
Funny how that works.
Yeah. [Laughs.] Now I realize that you have to actually do something. But once I settled down somewhat, yeah, I had the temperament for it. It suited me. I could sit for four hours at a stretch and just really be in a project. Just be in it.
How have you, over time, motivated or disciplined yourself as a writer? You talk about sitting for four hours at a stretch. Some people say they write for a set number of hours in the early morning, some say they write five pages a day—
I did that all through my thirties. I wrote for at least an hour a day, every day. Generated five pages of new work every day. Just free writing, stream of consciousness, and from that the pattern of one’s subconscious begins to emerge. You begin to develop some sort of facility for accessing it, and that’s necessary, that’s what we’re writing for: to bring the inside out.
Would you go back and look at those pages every day or every week?
Sometimes. I’d go back at the end of a week and look over the thirty or forty pages I’d written and see what patterns were emerging, what was working, and that would inform what came next.
How does that differ from how you work now?
It’s more focused now. It really is four hours a day. If I’m in the middle of a project, I can find four hours a day. And if I do four hours a day, I’ll get the work done.
Backing up a little bit, assuming that your early collaborations with Arthur and Charlie weren’t published, what was your first publication?
Marie Howe, from that workshop I took, was editing an issue of Ploughshares, and she took three poems for it. That was the first. I’d never sent to magazines before, never done anything. I didn’t even realize what it meant to have poems in Ploughshares, that it was a big deal. It was the magazine that this poet I liked and respected was guest editing, but I didn’t realize that it would be years before I got more poems in Ploughshares. [Laughs.] Or more poems anywhere.
So at the time you took it in stride?
Yeah. I was sort of happy, but I wasn’t happy like you read about, like Raymond Carver laying in the bed surrounded by copies of his first published story. Maybe he had a check attached to it.
Did they pay you for those first three poems?
Not much, I think. And it was also out of Boston, so it felt very insular. Ploughshares was in Boston, I was in Boston: it just didn’t feel like that big a deal. Even though it is. But I didn’t understand. I was like, “Oh, you know, a local magazine. From Emerson.”
Right. [Laughs.] Just a little rag somebody’s putting out.
Right. And Emerson felt like this little marginal school. There’s Harvard there, and MIT, and Emerson is this freaky little school. I didn’t get it at all.
Did you have any vision at that time of what it would look like to be a successful writer once you committed yourself to it? Any idea of, “When I make it, it will be like this?”
I don’t even know what that is now, really. I get up and go to work in the morning and give the baby a bath at night. It seems like a regular job to me, in some ways. I get on planes and fly places with businessmen, and they’re going to do their thing and I’m going to read a poem at a university. I like it. It’s a really nice thing. But I always kept my day job, you know? I put everything into writing, but I never wanted to assume that it would support me. I’m primarily a poet, and that exists outside the money economy. That’s why coming into MFA programs now with the idea of a career as a poet just seems ridiculous to me.
Poetry is not a career. This is your vocation, what you have to do, and you figure out a way to live around it. The more you give yourself to it, the more it’s going to wreck the rest of your life. The poetry life is going to get better. But it’s not going to get better in the same way. You’re going to live in a worse apartment, you’re going to lose your relationship because the person you’re with thinks you’re insane for saying you’re a poet, and the book really isn’t going to come out for ten years. To say you’re a poet—you might as well say you’re Jesus Christ. A madman says that.
Poet is not a real job. You have to inhabit it and believe it for a long time, and the consequences are that you’ve got to live marginally, unless you’ve got some sort of outside funding. I lived very marginally until I was forty.
What did that look like?
I had a three-hundred dollar apartment. My first book of poems came out when I was forty, and it might not have worked. You don’t know. It comes out, you’ve got to do the best you can for it, and it might be a great book or it might not get recognized in your life. It might never get recognized.
If you invent an artificial heart, it’s going to be recognized. You could do something as good in a poem—you could invent the equivalent of an artificial heart, and no one even notices it. There are countless examples of poets who died unknown, and then you’re like, “Oh, hey, this is pretty good.” Fifty years later.
I don’t think you should ever go into any project with the idea of making money. I went into one project with that idea, and it made probably the least money of anything I’ve written.
Which project was that?
This book on teaching creative nonfiction to young people, called A Note Slipped Under the Door. It’s a perfectly fine book, but I had this sense that the people around me were like, “You know, if every teacher in the country buys it, you’re a millionaire.” I was working at the Writing Project at Columbia, and people were becoming stars in that world, but it wasn’t my world. It wasn’t what I was supposed to write, and I sort of knew it at the time. That’s always a problem. The good part was that it made me commit even more to writing what I wanted to write in Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and not worrying about how it would do.
You have no control over that, anyway. You have to allow the book to be what it’s going to be, and just hope you can find the book by being attentive, waiting long enough, and doing the work it takes. Then you have to let go of the results. There’s nothing you can do about it. I mean, you can try to promote it. If you’re loaded, all you’ve got to do is go out and buy four hundred copies a week, and it’s a New York Times bestseller. Four hundred copies, what is that, four grand a week? Plenty of people can afford that. Once it gets on the bestseller list, it generates its own energy. So if you had a hundred thousand dollars, you could make your book a bestseller.
So I take it you don’t place a lot of faith in the New York Times bestseller list?
No. People clearly do that. It’s done. A lot of people have got a hundred thousand dollars around. [Shrugs.] To get a bestseller, it could be a wise investment.
It might be a small investment, all things considered.
A question about partnership: Your wife is an actress. In your experience, what are the benefits and pitfalls of partnerships between artists? And what happens when a child enters the picture?
The benefits are huge. You can learn so much from how another artist approaches their work. For example, how a dancer looks at movement across a room is, if you pay attention to it, profound in how you apply that to your work. It’s just going to layer and deepen the work. So she’s an actress, but she also understands screenplays, and she’s written a couple, which is something I don’t understand on the level that she does. I’ve learned a lot from her. The pitfalls? The pitfalls are the same with any relationship. And the child’s just good. Pure good.
In an interview with Sari Botton on The Rumpus, you called memoir “the most egoless genre,” even though it might seem the most ego-driven. You said, “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 gonna fail.” Is that something you intuited early on, or something you had to struggle toward?
I just recently figured that out, really. Every genre has its shame, and in memoir, the shame is that it’s the Me-Moir, like [Graywolf Press Senior Editor] Jeff Shotts has said, and it’s completely solipsistic and self-centered. That’s what Ander Monson talks about in his book, Vanishing Point, that it has to be about something bigger. I think the way to do that is to dissolve the ego wherever you can. There are various ways to do that. Meditation isn’t a bad way to start out. If you’re going to do memoir, you should probably meditate. [Laughs.]
The poet Crystal Williams said something to me recently, paraphrasing James Baldwin, about the idea that if you tell everything, no one can hold you hostage. As someone who’s written from your own life experiences, how do you decide how much to tell?
The self in memoir is a crafted creation. It’s a fiction. In The Ticking Is The Bomb, the self is meant to embody a certain tone. The book is an examination of our darker impulses. So what I chose to put in that book was more an examination of my darker impulses. If I was writing about organic gardening, the self would have been very different. But I was writing about torture. The self in that book is meant to wrestle with that darkness. It doesn’t mean that the organic farmer Nick is a lie. They both exist simultaneously. There are multiple selves.
You can have whatever relationship you want with the character in the book. It’s a character in a book, and you’re having an interaction with it. I have no control over that. And I’m glad, because if I had to control everyone’s interaction with the characters in my books, it would be exhausting.
[Laughs.] Who has time for that?
[Laughs.] You let go of that. If you take a lot of time to write a book, you realize it is crafted. That doesn’t mean it’s not true. There’s nothing in my book that I could point at and say, “That’s not true.” There are many truths. More truths than you can fit into a book.
Talking about dissolving the ego and allowing for multiple selves and multiple truths, I’m curious about your thoughts on facing fear as a writer.
If you’re going to deal with baser emotions, I prefer shame or despair.
[Laughs.] Okay. So let’s make that: shame or despair, comma, the overcoming of.
Usually when I write a book, I feel at some point like this isn’t the thing I should be doing, that there’s something deeply wrong with the whole project. It could just be that no one is interested, that I’m wasting my time, I’ve been working on this for five years, and why am I doing this? I’ve felt that with every book I’ve written. I felt that way with Another Bullshit Night, like, “This is a book about this alcoholic homeless father. Who the fuck cares about this? There’s nothing redeeming about this in any way.” But then, you use that as fuel, you know? It also allows you to stay under the radar, because you’re not full of yourself.
Whenever I’ve felt like what I’m doing is the right thing, or that I’ve nailed it, it’s almost always wrong. It’s the ego rising up and deceiving me. I don’t know why I trust shame more—but then, it’s transformed from shame now into an unease. You’re dealing with very volatile things. Ineffable. You’re dealing with stuff that you cannot put into words, yet you’re trying to put them into words. There’s always going to be an unease with that if you’re doing it with attention. If you feel good about it, you’re probably not actually doing it. Because you can’t do it. You’re going to fail in some way.
So what is the thing for you, then—when you reach that point however many years in and say to yourself, “What the hell am I doing?”—what’s the thing that—
How do you keep going?
I suppose. Maybe it’s like in meditation, when they tell you to set your thinking aside. How do you set it aside?
You go back the next day. And you feel better. [Laughs.] At least, I do. It goes away on its own. It’s the wind blowing through you. It’s not real, it’s just a feeling. It should be respected: it’s giving you some sort of information that you should pay attention to, but you’re not going to be able to hold on to it.
Interview by Harvest Henderson
Photo by Geordie Wood