Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell (The Bat Segundo Show #518)

Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell are the co-authors of The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, a book which documents the making of The Room. Bissell previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #449 and The Bat Segundo Show #450.

Authors: Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell


Subjects Discussed: Ideal Hollywood standing positions to check smartphones, being addicted to technology, how Sestero and Bissell collaborated, Tommy Wiseau’s vernacular, how the Wiseau philosophy is applicable to real life, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s unanticipated influence on The Room, Wiseau’s thoughts on Fight Club, why Sestero put up with Tommy Wiseau for so long, Robin Williams vs. Tommy Wiseau, Patch Adams, a melodramatic video that Wiseau photographed and sent to an insurance company, the blind and reckless Hollywood producer attitude, Brad Pitt, the unspeakable display of Tommy Wiseau’s ass, Wiseau’s philosophy on shooting sex scenes, Bon Jovi’s reluctance to collaborate with Wiseau, getting music for The Room, composers hired by Tommy Wiseau, shooting The Room simultaneously in 35mm and HD, Wiseau’s curious innovations, Citizen Kane, being the first person to build a private bathroom on set, Hitchcock’s aversion to shooting on location, The Birds, Wiseau’s cinematic influences, “Cinema Crudité,” Wiseau’s Berlin Wall of personal involvement, occupying a territory (and a life) that is half invention and half real, Wiseau’s mysterious past in Europe, incidents from The Room pulled from real life, the Bay to Breakers race, Wiseau’s efforts to cash out-of-state checks, The Room as Wiseau’s secret autobiography, Wiseau’s fixation on James Dean, Giant, actors who dye their hair, A Rebel Without a Cause, Marlon Brando, whether Sestero’s involvement in The Room made any dents in his acting career, the challenges of conveying incomprehensible dialogue, the advantages of knowing people named Tom, penetrating into the great mystery of Mark’s disappearing beard in The Room, being nicknamed “Babyface” in acting class, being photographed being shaven, the film set as a surveillance state, crew members on The Room who worked simultaneously on Terminator 3, Wiseau’s fixation on youth, The Room as a parallel identity for Wiseau, parallels between The Room and Grand Theft Auto, The Room video game, and Bissell’s open letter to Niko Bellic.


Correspondent: I’m curious about how you guys both wrote this book. There are large chunks of dialogue between Greg and Tommy Wiseau. And it’s often so specific that I can’t imagine how you could get it that specific after several years had passed. So I’m wondering. I have to assume much of it is invented. Tom, you happened to share Tommy’s name. Did you two talk to each other in a dark room? You with the Wiseau accent? How did this come about? The dialogue in this book? To flesh out the big important story behind The Room.

Bissell: Well, Greg and I recorded all these chapters. We have like thirty hours of tape.

Correspondent: Oh!

Bissell: And Greg is an actor. Greg has a very good memory. And I would ask him to dig back into his memory. And he would do these conversations as clearly as he could remember them. And he knows Tommy so well that he could get those Tommytastic little grammatical flubs. I did very little of the dialogue. It kind of came out of Greg as he remembered the tenor of his conversations. That’s how it was recorded. And that’s how we transcribed it.

Correspondent: Was there any severe trauma, Greg, in this sense memory?

Sestero: Yeah. Actually, that’s off to a very good start. I do have a very good memory for better or for worse.

Bissell: And you’ve taken a lot of notes over the years.

Sestero: Yeah. And with Tommy, he’s so unique that you don’t really forget. As you can tell with the movie. People quote it all the time. You don’t really forget the way he speaks. There’s a very signature way of saying things. And it was such an unforgettable experience that I just remembered almost everything. And it came to me very quickly. I told stories about my experience to many people. So they were very vivid. Very clear in my memory. And the dialogue — I read excerpts of it to Tommy. Chapter Four. “Tommy’s Planet.” And he was shocked. He’s like, “My God! That’s exactly what happened. You remembered exactly what I say. Good job.”

Bissell: (laughs) You have to say it like he would say it.

Sestero: (in Wiseau voice) “My God! Good job!”

Correspondent: So he was consulted for all of the dialogue in this. I mean, he is a control freak, from what I gather.

Sestero: Yeah. I went over a lot of things with him about his past. And I traveled with him and I had gone to the places that I spoke about in the book. And he was very clear on stuff that he was comfortable with me putting in. His background, his retail career in San Francisco. But I knew he wouldn’t want me to talk about certain things. And I left that up to him. And I cut those things out. And the dialogue. Yeah. That’s the way he speaks. Basically verbatim. Especially when I traveled with him when I was writing the book on tour. And I was interviewing him. And it reconnected me with the way he talked. So a lot of that dialogue is straight out of how it happened.

Bissell: You also note that in the film, the film is a constant recycling of the same six or seven pieces of language. And when I’ve interviewed Tommy, he says those things. He wrote them. He says them. They kick around in his head. And so one of the real pleasures was, as Greg was remembering back and recreating these conversations, I would notice that those phrases would slip in. And I was like, the great thing I like about it is that a real avid Room fan will be reading these pre-Room scenes. And then suddenly boom! There’s a phrase from the movie. You’re like, “Oh my god!” Like when he asks Greg about how to get into SAG, he’s like, “Well like now that you are expert, how do you get into the SAG?” And then in the film, he’s like, “It seems to me that you are the expert, Mark!”

Sestero: Yeah. You can’t invent stuff with Tommy. He’s just this character that exists. So to do him justice, you need to quote him verbatim. And that was my goal with it. Is to be as exact as possible.

Correspondent: Has the Wiseau vernacular helped you in the course of your adult life? Has it allowed you to, I suppose, be more forthcoming in certain ways? When talking with family or friends or therapists?

Sestero: Yeah. It definitely has.

Correspondent: Do you have any examples you can offer? I mean, if you go to sleep at night, do you sometimes hear that Balkan voice lulling you?

Sestero: Yeah.

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: Encouraging certain nocturnal dreams and associated emissions?

Sestero: Definitely nocturnal. I do have many laughs about what Tommy would say in this moment. And I’ll even think like him sometimes.

Correspondent: Think like him?

Sestero: Yeah. Like what would he say? There’s one thing I really find. He’s always going. He’s always grabbing things and bringing things places. And I’d just be standing there and watching him. He’d be like, “My god, do something! Don’t be Statue of Liberty!” And so I’ve noticed myself carrying posters and getting really busy during this time. When somebody’s standing there. “Will you help me?” And I’ll think, I say, “Could you help me?” But Tommy would be like, “My god! Do something!” So it’s funny. I’ve understood him a lot more in the last few years what he says. But the way he communicates is so funny that it just makes him the character that he is.

Correspondent: One thing I didn’t know until I read this book was that The Talented Mr. Ripley was a huge influence on The Room, which I had no idea about and which makes complete sense in hindsight.

Bissell: It’s the source text.

Correspondent: The source text. Tommy and Greg. Tom and Dickie. And as you point out, it gave you the flu when you watched it the first time, without Tommy, for about two weeks.

Sestero: Yeah.

Correspondent: This was fascinating to me. I’m wondering if you have actually gone back to the original source, Patricia Highsmith, and tried to mine those novels for deeper insights about Tommy or your own life or how you became friends with him and all that.

Sestero: Yeah. I actually started reading — I’ve read the entire Ripley series. Yeah, they’re very similar characters in ways. The difference is, I think, that Tommy, deep down, he’s a genuine person. He’s charismatic. While Tom Ripley has a dark streak. He’s just not comfortable with himself. So there are fine lines of the way they operated. But it’s amazing.

Bissell: It’s the longing.

Sestero: Yeah. And it’s the core. When Tommy watched The Talented Mr. Ripley, what it did to him, how it really got a rise out of him like no other movie that I’d seen when I’d watched it. Like we watched Fight Club and he’s like, “My god! This is so boring.”

Correspondent: (laughs) He was bored by Fight Club?

Sestero: Yeah, I know, right? He was like, “I do better acting in class.”

Correspondent: Wow. Even with Meat Loaf and the cool editing?

Sestero: Fight Club‘s one of my favorite movies. But The Talented Mr. Ripley is — it has that element. He lit up. And that’s what he wanted to make.

Bissell: When Greg revealed that to me, and I didn’t know that until it actually came out in our interviews, I was like, “Stop the fucking tape.” And we actually stopped the tape. And we sat there and we talked through all of the correspondences. You and I just started bringing up things from the movie.

Sestero: It all started to happen!

Bissell: It all started making sense. Oh my god!

Sestero: Peter. There’s a character named Peter in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Matt Damon. It’s all his fault. Mark Damon. The all-American guy.

Bissell: And we both read Strangers on a Train when we were working on this book. That’s the reason we talked about that book a lot. So there’s a weird Highsmithian quality.

Sestero: Yeah.

Correspondent: Except there have been no murders thankfully.

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: Unless you did a criss-cross thing.

Bissell: Well, there was that one vagrant you and I hunted for sport.

Correspondent: Greg, it seems to me that with this Los Angeles apartment, the repeat playback of Tommy’s audition tape, the phone calls when you worked as a salesman at Armani Exchange, that you were either remarkably patient with Tommy or, well, you enjoyed being walked over. And I was really curious about this. I mean, even accounting for the whimsical follies of being a young man, what do you think kept you coming back to Tommy Wiseau? I mean, what was it? Was he just extraordinarily charismatic? Or did you just overlook some of these qualities?

Sestero: Yeah, I think youth obviously comes into play. But there’s just something about Tommy that was different. And I felt like an outcast with my family. And Tommy made me feel like I belonged to something. And I couldn’t really let go of the fact of the L.A. experience that I had when I first got there, the excitement of it and thinking that really I would have never had that. And even if that’s all it was, I never would have had that. And it was really because of him. So that bond really became strong. And it was really difficult. I mean, obviously, I thought about saying, “My god, I’ve got to just get out of this.” But anytime I tried to flee or tell Tommy what I thought or got emotional, and said those things, he would always retreat and come back and be like he didn’t mean to make me feel that way. So it was tough to leave somebody, especially in the book when he disappeared. When I saw him outside that acting class, just standing away from everybody, I felt for him. Because I felt the same way in a lot of ways. Except that I fit in more. But I understood what he was going through. So it’s hard to let someone float off into despair, knowing that you can make a difference. I always felt at the end of the day that I’d rather make a difference, to make someone feel better, than be self-aggrandizing. I guess this is all about being selfless than being selfish. I mean, obviously, I look crazy when you are able to look at the experience from the outside and see all these problems. It’s easy to just leave. But sometimes when you’re in it, you want to do what’s right hopefully and help that person.

Correspondent: Well, he probably gave you more approval than Robin Williams did on Patch Adams. Who knew that Tommy would have more solicitude than Robin Williams? Who I thought would exude that kind of thing being a wild and crazy guy from San Francisco.

Sestero: Yeah. Tommy’s a force and he challenged me to say, “Don’t be a chicken. Go for what you want to accomplish.” And I just never really forgot that.

Correspondent: Okay. I wanted to ask about the mysterious $6 million that financed The Room. There are allusions to a string of shops. The TSW Corporation so intrigued me that I actually did a business search at the California Secretary of State, finding nothing in relation to this.

Sestero: Really? (laughs)

Correspondent: I didn’t. So I’m wondering, Tom, what investigative acumen did you bring to this project? To really track down the Wiseau mystique? The unknown trail that people have been thinking about and conjuring up all sorts of theories about over these many years.

Bissell: Everything I know is in the book. And at a certain point, I have no idea how he amassed this fortune. I don’t think you really know either.

Sestero: I know he works around the clock. I know he had retail shops. I’d been there. I know he has those things. I know he owns a lot of real estate.

Bissell: He owns real estate.

Sestero: And that’s as far as it goes. I did research and interview people, but really I wanted him to tell his story and let the readers decide what was there.

Correspondent: Is there any way to get that video he sent to the insurance company? Because the way it was described was rather extraordinary.

Sestero: It was extraordinary.

Bissell: I’ve seen it.

Sestero: When Tom watched it…

Bissell: It’s incredible.

Sestero: …his reaction was that he put his hand up and he was just like, “Oh my god.”

Bissell: (laughs)

Sestero: What have I gotten myself into?

Correspondent: Basically, just to tell our listeners, he had all this classical music over it apparently and also he recruited people to say good things about Tommy. So that he could get the insurance money. (laughs)

Bissell: And there are these really mournful shots of these burned blue jeans, scorched.

Correspondent: Blue jeans? Really? (laughs)

Sestero: They actually didn’t even look that bad.

Correspondent: (laughs) The insurance company went for this?

Bissell: I don’t know.

Sestero: I don’t know.

Bissell: All we have is the tape.

Sestero: He’s a relentless retail guy. In fact, right now, he’s even designing an underwear line and a jeans line.

Correspondent: Is he really?

Sestero: He’s going all out.

Correspondent: Are you going to be one of his models?

Sestero: No. I’ll delegate that to somebody else.

Correspondent: Tom, do you need some additional income?

Bissell: I don’t think the world needs to see that.

Sestero: (laughs)

Correspondent: Okay.

Bissell: But I will say the line that I’m happiest with in this book is: “In discussing Tommy’s background, the simplest answer is the right answer. But with Tommy, there doesn’t seem to be a simplest answer.” That’s the astounding thing about him.

Sestero: Yeah. You think you know something. And then there’s just a trail of mystery that you’re lead down. And after knowing him for fifteen years, there’s still a lot left to know.

Correspondent: But if you think about it, the creative financing that he brought to The Room is really no different than the creative financing that is behind most Hollywood projects.

Sestero: That’s true.

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m wondering if, for some reason, he inhabited that same kind of blind reckless instinct that we usually associate with Hollywood producers who hope someone else can cook the books. And really that’s why he was able to get The Room made. Just because that’s the way it is in L.A.

Bissell: It seems like he read a how to make a movie book, but skipped every other paragraph. Because some things he obviously did right. One of his quotes is “How they do so in Hollywood. We no different from big studio.” So he clearly believed he was doing things according to studio procedures.

Correspondent: He was following some of the guidelines.

Sestero: Yeah. His interpretation for The Room was that he was doing it like the big sharks. The billboard, the equipment, the green screen. He thought that’s how a high-end Hollywood production does their movie.

Correspondent: One of the most frightening elements of The Room, which I really must talk to you gentlemen about just to clarify this, is Tommy Wiseau’s ass. It is there. It reportedly scared the editor’s wife. It is covered during the love scenes and yet we have this one Brad Pitt-like moment when he’s out of bed. And as the book puts it, “I’ve never seen anyone more comfortable naked around people who resented him.” But this still doesn’t explain something, which I had hoped to get from the book. Maybe you guys can answer. Which was the relentless soundtrack of groans and thrusting that are over all of these love scenes. They’re relentlessly noisy. And I’m wondering if there’s something about Tommy Wiseau’s relationship with his ass contributed to the kind of noise factor in these particular scenes, to say nothing of the fact that eleven minutes of the film is composed of love scenes and all that.

Bissell: (to Sestero) You had to record those groan tracks.

Correspondent: You were actually the groaner?!?

Bissell: You can hear Greg in one of the groan scenes going “Ohhhhhhhhhhh!!!!”

Sestero: Yeah, I had to sit in a video booth and do those while watching it. And I just thought, “My god. This is just painful.” And I thought, okay, let’s make it easy. Again, I didn’t think anyone would see it. So I did that. And it came out terrible. But Tommy did the same thing. I think with Tommy, he’s proud of his rear end. And that’s great. But he was trying to create a leading man moment for himself and felt good about it and he believed. He has to show his ass in this movie or it will not sell. So that’s what made him decide. He was laying on the ground inside Birns & Saywer, wondering if he should do it. And he’s like, “You know what? I have to.”

Correspondent: And it was not even a closed set. That’s what’s even more fascinating about that.

Bissell: He opened the set.

Correspondent: He opened the set. Wow. But that’s the other thing! Could he just not remember his groans? Much as he could not remember his lines?

Sestero: Well, with the groans, I think sometimes they do do those little things in post to fill them in. But his groans went really too far. Which I think make those scenes even more fun.

Correspondent: (laughs) Oh yeah? There’s groan outtakes.

Sestero: Yeah.

Bissell: How long is that first sex scene? It’s three and a half minutes.

Sestero: So long.

Correspondent: I know.

Sestero: It was actually even longer in the rough cut. It was like a music video. It just kept going on and on.

Correspondent: But he had to find something. A song that would last just as long.

Sestero: Exactly.

Correspondent: He couldn’t find a seven minute song that would work.

Sestero: He actually wanted to have one of Bon Jovi’s songs.

Bissell: “Always.”

Sestero: “Always.” To be there. And I don’t think Bon Jovi went for it.

(Loops for this program provided by oryan55, cork27, EOS, camzee, and supertex.)

The Bat Segundo Show #518: Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Tom Bissell, Part Two

Tom Bissell appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #450. He is most recently the author of Magic Hours. This is the second of a two-part conversation. The first part establishes Bissell’s peripatetic history and gets into his recent shift into video games, and can be listened to here. The second part gets into some entirely unanticipated truths about the relationship between life and words in 2012, among many other subjects.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Making the unanticipated five year wait count for something.

Author: Tom Bissell

Subjects Discussed: How Bissell’s father was depicted in Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, being a man with the average sadnesses, how assembling an essay collection allows one to see a life history, Bissell becoming comfortable in not presenting himself as a Wallace-like buffoon, early self-serious days working at a literary house, watching Jeff Daniels make a movie, cringing at your earlier work while reading it before a large crowd, not succumbing to glumness, abandoning the puckish but tart essays, finding humor in Werner Herzog, Bissell’s confessional streak, the lightning bolts of personal revelation, being powerless to make moves in an essay, the diminishing covenant of privacy between author and reader, the creative impact of assuming that most readers are coming into an essay for the first time, unearned intimacy, John D’Agata, not writing magazine journalism in present tense, when bad boy memoirs become ghoulish in changing tense, distinguishing one’s self from the compulsively confessional, maintaining a low-key online presence, responsibility on the page, deleted tweets, when people remark upon and say mean things about you online, the perils of Twitter Search, negative Goodreads reviews, taking on Robert D. Kaplan in Chasing the Sea and in Magic Hours, being angered by Imperial Grunts, rescuing Paula Fox, the Underground Literary Alliance, Bissell’s crusading impulses, writing negative reviews in the New York Times Book Review, Scott Spencer, recusing yourself from reviewing, getting into an online skirmish with Jorge Volpi over a Season of Ash review, putting away the remnants of Bissell’s mean streak, underrepresented voices vs. bad writing, George Plimpton’s invitation to the ULA, finding ways to calm down “boors” and be inclusive of more outsiders in the literary community, King Wenclas as a room wrecker, common embitterment about the publishing system, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, good writing and sincerity, being a “literary insider,” tolerating bad behavior, needless competition within the literary world, star systems within the publishing industry, varying notions of success, the dubious monolithic stature of The New York Times Book Review, Bissell’s negative review of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, whether we should give a damn about critical culture in 2012, James Wood, Dwight Macdonald’s “By Cozzens Possessed,” whether literary culture is more healthier than ever or starving, Dan Josefson’s That’s Not a Feeling, the problems with too many long-form online critical mechanisms, how the group blog made keeping tabs on culture a full-time job, how the Internet has altered time commitments and responsibilities, the future of Bissell’s fiction, listening to the world in a smartphone age as an eccentric or subversive act, how brains are rewired by electronic interfaces, false blame on video games, A Clockwork Orange, the impact of newspaper headline editors, chewing nicotine, obsessiveness, using words like “nummular,” learning 50 Uzbek words a day, achievements and gamification, setting goals, writing about The Room, “Bissellmania,” Jim Harrison, and the creative benefits of being in a stable relationship.


Correspondent: In The Father of All Things, you remarked on how your father was depicted in Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, where Caputo, he remarks that your father is very funny in telling all these jokes to the other soldiers in the face of tragedy. You wrote back then, “I saw the still normal man my father could have become, a man with the average sadnesses.” I’m wondering if assembling the essays for this collection was in some weird way an effort to look at yourself in the same way. Do you feel that you saw a younger Tom with these average sadnesses or anything like this? Some image of what your life could have become? I mean, I also note this because there’s an interesting sentence you write in “Unflowered Aloes” — the first essay, the youngest one — where you say, “For intellectuals, destiny as it applies to life is a ludicrous thought. But destiny as it applies to works of fiction and poetry goes largely unquestioned.” So do you subscribe to any peculiar destiny these days? What of this?

Bissell: The earlier essays are the ones that I was most hesitant to include in the book at all. They’re basically — I’m sure you think this way when you look at your own stuff that’s older than, say, five years. Basically, it’s a stranger’s work, right? And I once imagined that if I ever did a nonfiction thing, I’d have all the pieces that I’d ever wrote and it would be a big chunky thing. No one wanted to do that obviously. There’s a lot of essays that I could have included, but I didn’t. Just because they were so sloppy in their thinking and they were so — what I’m saying now gets into self-congratulatory territory. Because the presupposition is that your recent work is not perfect. And that’s not what I’m trying to say. But I think you can see in the essays, and I noticed this when I was going over them, is a journey from someone who has become gradually more comfortable not presenting himself as a [DAvid Foster] Wallace-like buffoon, and actually becoming someone who is able to be present in a piece, and I hope be honest and not have these kind of ridiculous squirting boutonniere moments where you’re somewhat desperately trying to get the reader’s affection and attention. So I think I’ve become a less needy presence. And I think my interests — I feel like when I’m talking about intellectuals in that first piece, I mean, all the stuff I said, I more or less believe. I was a somewhat self-serious person then. And I was working for this literary house. And you can see the tone varies in a lot of the pieces. The tone is often directly reflective of where I was living even physically, and the experiences I’d gone through. And maybe the more average experiences I’d had until that point, I think there’s a temptation to actually make more of your experience than can really be made of it. And the Escanaba essay, which is the second essay in the book about watching Jeff Daniels make this movie about my hometown, I read it aloud at Bookcourt the other night. And I kind of kept stopping and apologizing to the audience almost for the histrionic tone. (laughs)

Correspondent: I think most writers of personal journalism or confessional essays tend to do that — especially if it’s been a long while. I know Jonathan Ames does that. I’ve seen other writers do that.

Bissell: Well, I’m glad I’m not alone then.

Correspondent: They’re embarrassed. “Oh my god. I can’t believe I wrote this about myself.” I think that’s a very human reaction. But on the other hand, I mean I have to say, if the yardstick here in comparison to your father is yourself, do you see the typical sadnesses at all that you saw as Caputo depicted your father? Or anything like that?

Bissell: I don’t know. I do know that in some of the experiences I had immediately after September 11th, then covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I became a lot more concerned with making my work as funny as possible. (laughs) And maybe that was just an attempt to not succumb to a kind of glumness about — oh, this is just veering off into territory that I’m not even sure I understand. But I became way less interested in the kind of essay I would have written — like “Unflowered Aloes.” A puckish but tart stately essay, right? And I just became more interested in stuff that puts it out there on the line emotionally, but is primarily concerned with exploring the absurd and the humorous parts of these people. And I try to do that even in the Werner Herzog essay, which — he’s not the easiest subject in the world to wring a lot of humor out of. But I don’t know. I’m not sure. I feel like I have not answered your question at all.

Correspondent: Well, this is actually all good. Maybe another way to phrase it is this. I mean, there seems to me to have always been some interesting confessional streak in your writing. I think of when you finally spill about your fiancée in Chasing the Sea. I think, of course, of the ultimate example. It’s probably the last chapter in Extra Lives. I think of your decision in the Jim Harrison essay to basically announce at the end, “I’m giving up teaching.” These are really bold — I mean, very bold, quite frankly — ways to find a personal connection into someone who you clearly revere or some thing — like Grand Theft Auto — that you clearly revere. And I’m wondering. Why do you feel this need to do this? And why has it been blowing up with, I suppose, even more extraordinary pronouncement? “Hey, I went ahead and had this coke breakdown.” Or “I am packing up my life entirely and maybe if you follow me in the next essay, I’ll tell you how things are going.”

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: It also causes, at least this reader, to say, “Fuck! I hope Tom is okay!” (laughs)

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: So my question is: is this an effort to draw either longtime or short-term readers into what you’re doing? Does it provide a greater authenticity? Is it a way of shaking off the sort of smarmy, sort of semi-self-confident guy in “Unflowered Aloes”? What of this? Why?

Bissell: I think some of this must come from having started as a fiction writer and being profoundly uninterested in nonfiction for a long time. And so when you’re writing fiction, there are these lightning bolts of revelation from your own life, your own experience, that are being superinjecting that into the story or paragraph you’re working on. It’s easy to do in fiction. Because no one asks any questions, right? But that electricity is actually what gives fiction its texture. And without that sensed personal connection between writer and material, even if it’s not autobiographical material, there’s that electric sense that this voice knows of what it speaks. And for me, informational nonfiction, nonfiction that doesn’t have an identifiable human being in it, I mean, I could not care less about reading that stuff. And so I realize I confess things in my pieces not out of any real objective or desire. It just seems to be the move that I’m driven to make. Like I didn’t have any idea when I was writing the Grand Theft Auto essay that I was even going to get into my collapse. Into cocaine. No idea. I just started writing the essay and it just started coming out. I didn’t even know that I was going to get into the quitting my teaching thing literally until the moment I got there. So, believe it or not, those moves are like — I’m almost powerless to not do them in some strange way. They’re never — and here’s my defense. Teaching doesn’t come up in that whole essay until the very end. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs)

Bissell: So I hope structurally I’m proving my point. And I could have gone back.

Correspondent: But in an age of Google, I mean, we can find out. The reader can find out. “Oh, Tom was teaching somewhere. Wait. What the hell? He’s no longer teaching and he’s telling us this in his essay?” I mean, part of me almost wants to say, in an age where that covenant of author-reader privacy is diminishing, where the author is now expected to tell everything about himself — because everybody is spilling everything about themselves on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr, on whatever — I’m uncomfortable with that idea too. Because I feel, well, why must the author confess everything? Unless it’s pertinent to the piece. This is why I say to myself, well, the bigger leap. If you don’t know where it comes from, and it sometimes gets out there, well, it seems like you’re working in terrain that’s very uncontrolled. What do you do to make sure you don’t say too much?

Bissell: Decorum. My girlfriend. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs) What army? What vanguard is there to prevent you? “Hey, Tom, you can’t say this!”

Bissell: Well, I think that less than 1% of my readers are keeping track of me, right? And so in one sense, I’m assuming that everyone who reads something of mine is coming to me for the first time. And so I don’t presume that they have any concern for what’s going on before with me. And especially with my video game book, I think a lot of people read it not even knowing that I had this career as a literary writer before that. So I’m just assuming that the slate is blank. And I guess maybe these bombs get dropped in there to assert some kind of — well, I guess it’s reasserting the pact of intimacy between the reader and the writer. And that intimacy is not always there in nonfiction. It’s not even really expected. And what’s weird is that, as a nonfiction writer, you start off with this utterly unearned intimacy. Which is the intimacy that, well, I’m telling you the truth. And that’s the moral bond between the nonfiction reader and the nonfiction writer. “What I’m telling you is true.” And so you start on this very intimate terrain. And then I think a lot of nonfiction writers never really wander off that terrain. That that’s enough. And for me, it’s not enough.

Correspondent: On the other hand, the extreme version of that would be someone like John D’Agata or Mike Daisey, who basically throw that trust into the water and piss a lot of people off and perhaps, depending upon where your point of view is, destroy their credibility as someone who can share a story or who can even share some acceptable version of the truth, if that makes any sense. It seems to me that your confessional streak is both bomb-dropping but also just enough for us to maintain that covenant. Yet I know you’ve also taught About a Mountain at Portland. And so forth. So do you see yourself possibly entering into “Hey! I really wasn’t telling the truth about this. Fuck you.”

Bissell: (laughs) Well, here’s an interesting point that I will make that I will stand by. I never anymore write magazine pieces in the kind of magazine journalism present tense. Ever. I kind of loathe the nonfiction present tense. And I loathe it because — especially if you’re writing about yourself — when you write in the present tense, you are almost foreclosing any possibility of reflection. And you almost don’t have to account for your decisions or your behavior. And that’s why all bad behavior memoirs are always written in the present tense. “I slapped the hooker. And then I did another line. And then I staggered out and slept with the cab driver.” Now: “I slap the hooker, step outside. I snort another line of coke. I sit down with the cab driver.” No. I’m doing this in present tense. But you turn that into past tense and suddenly it doesn’t work anymore. Now it just seems ghoulish and there’s no sensationalistic fizziness to it. And you just have a reader that’s just saying, “Well, wait a minute? Why did you do these things?” Right? So you’ll notice that I never ever, ever write in the present tense when it comes to nonfiction. And I really, really strive when I do go into confessional mode to keep part of the partition up. I have no interest in revealing the details of my life if they’re not relevant to what I’m actually writing about. And I hope that would distinguish me from some people who seem compulsively confessional. That I would like to think that the stuff that I’m letting loose has a direct emotional bearing on the material that’s under investigation.

(Photo: Trisha Miller)

The Bat Segundo Show #450: Tom Bissell, Part Two (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Tom Bissell, Part One

Tom Bissell appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #449. He is most recently the author of Magic Hours. This is the first of a two-part conversation. The first part establishes Bissell’s peripatetic history and gets into his recent shift into video games. The second part gets into some entirely unanticipated truths about the relationship between life and words in 2012, among many other subjects, and can be listened to here.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Making the unanticipated five year wait count for something.

Author: Tom Bissell

Subjects Discussed: Living a peripatetic vocational existence, how receiving fellowships and jobs influence the city you live in, Ghostbusters references, moving and books, the joys of New York City, Bissell’s interest in recreations (film, video games, and photography), Grand Theft Auto, Uzbekistan, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Chuck Lorre, the restrictions of celebrity profiles, getting fired from My Little Pony, David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction, getting fired and removed from video game projects, writing for video games, why Bissell can’t quit video games (despite his best efforts), video game script formats, how screenplays and comic book scripts found their way into bookstores, Alan Moore’s meticulous description, communicating with level designers, attempting to form paragraphs within Excel spreadsheets, the dignified advantages of a screenplay over a video game script, the joys of playing builds, the ephemeral nature of video games, Baldur’s Gate II‘s enhanced edition, splitting duties between video game writing and nonfiction writing, Planescape: Torment, Sam Anderson’s article on “stupid games,” the addictive nature of games and smartphones, when video games suck significant portions of your time, Pac-Man’s strange perseverance, how graphical enhancement creates unanticipated obsolescence, trying to watch VHS tapes in a DVD age, the epic poem’s lifespan, when forms of communication stop being useful, downloadable content, grinding and monetization, Tribes: Ascend, finding artistic integrity within a money-making medium, Emily Dickinson, Jonathan Blow, and false impressions about teaching.


Correspondent: Let’s start with the first sentence of this book. I think it’s a pretty telling notion that the author’s note is: “The first essay in this collection was written by a 25-year-old assistant editor living in New York City and the last was written by a 37-year-old assistant professor of English living in Portland, Oregon.” Now this is interesting because you are now no longer living in Portland, Oregon. You are now no longer an assistant professor. I read an interview you did with Owen King and I learned that, in fact, your video game script writing is also in this tetchy peripatetic vocational mode. So my question to you is, well, what do you think accounts for this existence? Were the early roots basically set down with this whole aborted Peace Corps stint? I mean, what of this? What do you think accounts for this constant travel on your end?

Bissell: I guess — I lived in New York City for nine years with a couple stints away. One in which I spent seven months living in Vietnam. I spent a summer in the Canadian Arctic. So I’d live in New York City and then go to places and spend time there. And then I won the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rome Prize, which is a great thing. But it also kind of wrecked my life in some very curious way. I mean, I don’t want to say that to give the impression that I’m not hugely grateful and it’s not an amazing prize. But from there, I wound up moving out of New York without ever really meaning to. And then I lived in Rome for a while. And then I got this fellowship. Then I moved to Vegas. And then I decided that I wanted to move to Estonia. And then that didn’t go well. And then I decided, “Oh, I need to get a job.” So I got a job as a professor at a time where it was really hard to get them. So then when I was offered this thing, I was like, “Oh god. Gotta take it. Gotta take it.” You know, economic downturn. Apocalypse coming. Cats and dogs living together. You know. That’s a Ghostbusters reference.

Correspondent: Of course. I got it.

Bissell: (laughs) For the audience.

Correspondent: Well, unlike William Atherton, you do have a penis. (laughs) I’m sorry.

Bissell: You’ve just doubled down on my Ghostbusters reference. So I moved to Portland thinking that this was where I was going to be for a while. And for various reasons, it just didn’t take. So I recognized that this was a chaotic last few years that I had as a person and as a writer. It hadn’t felt that chaotic. Every step that I’ve taken has kind of been, well, this is obviously what I have to do. But looked at objectively, I mean, I can’t believe I’ve written anything. Considering the amount of places. Moving. As I get older, I just get more and more books. So my girlfriend and I just moved to Los Angeles. And the movers, when they greeted us, they were like very hostile right away.

Correspondent: Hostile.

Bissell: Why were these guys so mad at me?

Correspondent: Books? (laughs)

Bissell: (laughs) Yeah. Because of the books.

Correspondent: Yeah, I know. Having moved many times myself, that’s always the pain in the ass right there.

Bissell: Yeah, man. For the first time in my life, for the first time in my life, I was like, “Yeah, I think Kindles might make sense.”

Correspondent: Because you might move next year.

Bissell: Because I might move. So now, if I had my druthers, I would live in New York City again.

Correspondent: But you live in L.A. right now.

Bissell: We live in L.A.

Correspondent: How long do you think that will last?

Bissell: I’m determined to live there for at least several years. And we’ll see. We’ll see.

Correspondent: But the peripatetic picaresque instinct might actually seize you again? Is this something you can entirely tame? Do you think?

Bissell: I can’t. Because, like I said, New York is the only place that’s ever never stopped boring me. And I get bored in places. And then I want to be somewhere else. And New York is really the one city that I never got sick of. Just even going back here, walking around, it’s just the most amazing place. And every neighborhood — and I’m sounding like just a hackneyed New York-loving cliche monger right now. But every neighborhood you walk through is interesting and there’s just — you never get tired here. You never get tired of it.

Correspondent: Well, let’s look at this from another point of view through the writing. In this book, you have “Escanaba’s Magic Hour,” which demonstrates how the re-creation of this real world on film leads to some problems. Because there are these stiff regulatory pronouncements upon the Escanabans. Is that how I would say it? Escanabans?

Bissell: Escanabans.

Correspondent: Okay. Fantastic. Don’t want to be rebuked by a local. (laughs)

Bissell: Escanabianite.

Correspondent: Yes! Exactly. It’s interesting that you ended up talking with Herzog when you did. Because Rescue Dawn — is that not a re-creation of a quasi-re-creation? Then you also, of course, pieced together details from your family of this photo in The Father of All Things. And then, if we go ahead and factor in your stints in Uzbekistan, the trip to Vietnam, being embedded with the Marines in 2005, much of this also involves some effort on your part to try and find a relationship with the real world. Now, with video games, much of your time, I would say, is spent working on fictitious worlds. You know, you describe the world of Grand Theft Auto IV at the end of Extra Lives: “as real as Liberty City seems, you have no hope of even figuratively living within it.” So I have to ask you about this. If Edmund Wilson said that the human imagination has already come to conceive the possibility of recreating human society, how does your imagination work? Why these efforts to take stabs at re-creation over the years? That’s a rather enormous question. But I wanted to see if we could roll the ball.

Bissell: No, no. And this is where I think you’re really onto something. I think some people — the conventionally-minded readers — would look at my interest in something like Grand Theft Auto, having started off as a travel writer to “real” places, would look at this as a kind of alarming drop in quality control on my part. But I’m really interested in travel, both literal and figurative. Right? And I’d like to think my books — and this is something I’ve consciously tried to create in my books — is a sense of realities within realities. And that photo thing that you mentioned, which is at the beginning of The Father of All Things, which is this book I wrote about my dad and my relationship, and his relationship to Vietnam, and a generational relationship to war that we both had a different version of that — and I took this photo and basically jammed a 100 page section out of just looking at this photo. And I don’t think that’s terribly different from my interest in video games in a weird way. I don’t think it’s that different from planting yourself in a place like Uzbekistan, which I didn’t really have any right to write about, you know.

Correspondent: Do you still feel that now?

Bissell: Yeah. Yeah. You know, as a nonfiction writer who’s — I’m not an expert on anything. I’m just interested in a bunch of stuff. And sometimes those interests fade.

Correspondent: But aren’t those interests enough? Isn’t that curiosity the ultimate drive that causes you to recreate in some sense?

Bissell: I hope so. Yeah. So this idea of loving worlds both real and virtual. And my favorite is I think the driving thing behind my entire goal as a writer. And I think my interest in games is finding yourself in this densely created place that human beings have populated with detail and incident, and then just running out there and finding out what’s ther4e for you. Now it may be pathetic from a certain perspective, that I’ve gone from traveling to places like Vietnam and Uzbekistan to serving these digital worlds. But I try not to think of it that way. Because I think — like what John [Jeremiah] Sullivan’s piece about Michael Jackson said — anything that is is real. And I really believe that. Because he was talking about people who had criticized Michael Jackson’s new face. No. “Anything that is is natural.” And that, I think, is a really wonderful insight. And I think it’s true. Anything that is is natural.

Correspondent: Yeah. But I’m wondering if, when you’re writing about something like a sitcom television producer, as you do in this book, and you have to hit the tropes of “Okay, here we are at the rehearsal stage,” “here we are with the joke writers trying to revise the joke so that it gets the biggest laugh for the audience” — what is interesting is the whole incident with the luncheonette at the beginning. The hard work. The failure at the beginning. Getting fired from My Little Pony. Those are very human moments. And it almost seems to me that you — particularly a guy like you, who is very much interested in the complex details of any world — it must be difficult to find a way to sandwich those moments into a profile along these lines when, in fact, you also have to meet the need of an audience who wants to know additional sordid details. Behind-the-scenes stuff.

Bissell: About Charlie Sheen.

Correspondent: Exactly.

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: I mean, how do you negotiate the human in an essay like that when it would seem to me, if that is a goal of yours, to be more difficult than, say, going into ravaged terrain and seeing a disappearing sea or seeing that there are no remnants of a military campaign from decades before. You know what I mean?

Bissell: Well, this is the one thing that I think [David Foster] Wallace did so well in his essays. Which is he turned the act of noticing things into a kind of a narrative in and of itself. That the mere cataloging of things becomes the story in a weird sort of way. And I’ve never done this to the degree that he did it. But when you read these Wallace pieces, like about David Lynch or about talk radio, he’s always more interested in the cameraman or the baton twirlers. You know, he’s always interested in the freakshow qualities of the places he goes. And if you’re profiling a hit sitcom producer, you can’t do that. You can’t talk to the joke writer as much as you perhaps want to. Chuck Lorre, the subject of the piece, has to be the focus. So it took a long time to get those My Little Pony details out of him.

Correspondent: (laughs) How long did you have to work him? Did you have to grill him to get the My Little Pony details?

Bissell: Kind of. Yeah. Because it took him a long time to open up. And if there’s anything I can say about writing profiles, which writing celebrity profiles, I mean, why even bother? They’re too canny to really open up to you. And their publicists are all on everyone’s backs. And there’s all this quid pro quo that goes on with that kind of a piece. It’s not even writing. It’s like alien anthropology, right? But someone like Chuck Lorre, who has a publicist, but I think the idea of self-protection is much less pronounced as a technician type creator, right? Celebrity type creators are — I just can’t imagine ever being interested in writing about a person like that. So Chuck Lorre, you have all this access to the ins and outs of a fringe television job that he just happened to basically become the most successful sitcom producer of the modern age. It’s really interesting. But within that journey, there are all the arcana of how one goes about becoming a successful sitcom writer. And the fact that he got fired from My Little Pony was to me — I’m glad you latched onto that. Because that was the most interesting detail in that piece to me.

Correspondent: That from such a humiliation comes the great success.

(Photo: Trisha Miller)

The Bat Segundo Show #449: Tom Bissell, Part One (Download MP3)

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New Review: Tom Bissell’s EXTRA LIVES

I don’t confess nearly as much as Tom Bissell in my review of his excellent book, Extra Lives. But I do nevertheless come out to some extent in today’s Barnes & Noble Review:

When Valve recently updated its shiny Steam client—that flashy desktop app permitting the user to waste numerous hours on video games and to spend precious dollars on special weekend sales—I received the soul-shattering news that I’d clocked in an alarming 131 hours of Team Fortress 2. I had not asked for this statistic, yet this seemingly benevolent software company had given it to me in the game launch window. And the size of this embarrassing timesink felt incommensurate with my daily duties as a books enthusiast. It was enough to make me wonder if I needed to register for some national time-offender database.

Far more important than any any of this introspective flensing, of course, is Bissell’s book. Read the rest of the review to find out why Extra Lives is a must read.