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.

Play

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.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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.

Play

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.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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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