A Conversation with Tom Bissell

A Conversation with Tom Bissell

Interview by Ron Riekki

David Foster Wallace lives on in the heart and mind of Tom Bissell. It makes sense that the Wallace biopic, The End of the Tour, had shooting locations in Grand Rapids, Grand Haven, and Muskegon, Michigan. I have always seen Wallace as a Great Lakes writer, having spent so much of his life not far from either Lake Ontario or Lake Michigan. Bissell, with his similar Lake Michigan roots, in many ways feels like the rebirth of Wallace. There is a similar “protean” connection, to use a New York Times quote on Bissell’s (and Wallace’s) aesthetics. (Notably, Bissell wrote a new foreword to the posthumous rerelease of Infinite Jest.) To be blunt, Wallace and Bissell are both geniuses who burst with inquisitiveness. And what happens with geniuses is that Hollywood comes knocking—if you don’t believe me, just review the latest (deserved) silver screen fetish with Alan Turing. In this interview, we discuss Bissell’s entrance into the world of James Franco and Werner Herzog, his Upper Peninsula of Michigan roots, God, and who his favorite writers are.

Ron Riekki: First off, you’re an interesting interview, because your writing covers so many territories. It’s difficult to know where to start. I guess I will start with a quote from your Paris Review interview. Talking about your book The Disaster Artist, you said, “I realized that this story, of these two men and this strange piece of American culture, was as close to a novel as I was ever going to write.” Are you saying here that you aren’t going to be writing novels?

Tom Bissell: I guess I am saying that, yeah. What can I tell you? I’ve tried to write a bunch of novels. None of them worked, or I abandoned them. I stopped feeling any particular drive to be a novelist, and only people who desperately want to write novels should be novelists. I still write stories, and love writing stories, but I’m happier writing the occasional story interspersed with novel-like nonfiction books. The weird thing is, I still think of myself, in my literary bones, as a novelist. That’s my private cosmic joke: Here I am, a novelist who doesn’t actually write novels.

RR: I was first introduced to your writing with your Harper’s piece, “Escanaba’s magic hour: Movies, robot deer, and the American small town.” Along with The Disaster Artist, you seem to have very strong interests in the film industry. Now with Werner Herzog directing Salt and Fire, based on your short story “Aral,” and James Franco directing The Masterpiece based on The Disaster Artist, you seem to have entered into the world in which you’re so fascinated. Has Hollywood been a craving of yours all along? With your move to L.A., is that home to you now? What’s it like watching your books and stories get turned into films?

TB: Hollywood has never been a craving of mine, and I wound up in Los Angeles through a series of (pleasant) accidents. My girlfriend is an actor, though, so it’s better for her to be here than most places. I’ve had zero involvement with any of the movie stuff that’s happened to me, and I feel tremendously fortunate to have had the caliber of people seek out and film my work. Julia Loktev is an amazing filmmaker, Werner Herzog is literally my favorite living artist, and James Franco is an intense, talented, and immensely interesting guy. That said, all three projects, in various ways, diverted from my source material pretty dramatically. Which I’m totally fine with. When someone buys the rights to something, they’re also purchasing the legal, artistic, and moral right to fuck with it. But I never, ever set out to launch my stuff over the Hollywood transom. I have friends who’ve been tremendously lucky in selling their stuff to studios—they have managerial people whose entire job is getting stuff optioned—but I’ve never had that and doubt I ever will. Everything that’s come my way has been icing.

RR: Please tell me you’re doing a commentary to a DVD rerelease of The Room.

TB: I wish. However, I am angling to get Greg Sestero, with whom I wrote The Disaster Artist, in a room with James Franco for The Masterpiece DVD commentary, though.

RR: Any interest in writing screenplays yourself?

TB: I had considerably less than zero interest in screenwriting for a long time, but I am actually writing various screenplay stuff now. I sold a television show with my cousin, the comedian Matt Braunger, to a major network last year, and right now we’re waiting to hear whether we’re going to pilot or not. Screenplay writing is really fun—I enjoy the mechanics of it—but it’s not actually writing writing. Prose writing and scriptwriting have about as much in common, in my experience, as a triathlon does with hiking.

RR: In the same way that writing about the film industry got you involved with the film industry, your writing about video games got you involved in the writing of video games. Will you be writing more in the video game genre? What is a highlight from your video game–writing days?

TB: Video game–writing has been my bread and butter for the last six years or so. It’s how I earn the vast majority of my living. I doubt that will stop anytime soon, given the fact that my books don’t seem to sell very well and the market for literary journalism (how I used to make a living) is as bad as it’s ever been. So yeah, I continue to work in games as my more-or-less full-time gig. The games I’ve made have tended to be the polar opposite of the kinds of games I imagined as platonically ideal in my video-game book, Extra Lives. Basically, I’ve made a bunch of shooters. I don’t complain, because I like shooters personally, but as seriously as I take my job—and I do take it seriously—and as much as I care about pleasing my bosses and creative directors—and I care very much—it’s ultimately not a very literary gig. It’s more like carpentry. You get your little shots of dramatic opportunity in game writing, but so much of it is problem-solving, fixing holes, serving design needs, and providing vague glimmers of fictional context to players. To really be a writer/auteur-type on a video game, you’d also need to be the game’s creative director. As that is a position I am grossly unqualified to ever do, I seem to have topped out as a video game–writer for hire on action/shooter-type games. It pays well, I love the people I work with, and it’s like being a kid playing with sci-fi toys in the tub (on good days). It’s also a form of writing that probably less than 500 people on the planet even understand well, so in that sense, it’s cool being so far out on the edge of an entirely new and foreign type of dramatic/fiction writing.

RR: With Apostle: Travels among the Tombs of the Twelve, you venture into theological territory, which seems so far from movies and video games. Was there any trepidation about going in that direction? It seems that a book about Christianity is opening yourself up to criticism. Has there been criticism? Has it been valid?

TB: In one way or another, I’ve been writing about Christianity for my entire adult life. One of the novels I mentioned earlier, which I abandoned, was a historical novel about the apostle John. That’s where the germ for Apostle came from, actually. So I didn’t blink about wading into the topic of Christianity, as I was a serious and devoted Christian at one point in my life and even before I started writing Apostle had probably read more books on Christianity than on any other topic. I don’t read my reviews very carefully, and don’t read them at all if I know they’re negative (I mean, who cares?), but I get the sense that some of the more negative ones viewed me as an intellectual flâneur wandering into a topic bigger than my pitiful mind could accommodate. I cheerfully disagree.

RR: Can you talk a bit about how your belief increased or decreased during the writing of Apostle? Did you find yourself using the same sort of subjectivity with Christianity as you do with, say, film?

TB: My favorite historian of Christianity is a British scholar named Diarmaid MacCulloch. He is not a Christian, but he calls himself “a candid friend of Christianity.” I really like that. That’s how I tried to write about the subject—as a candid friend. Not as someone who wanted to mock or tear down the faith, but address it as best as I could from a literary, personal, and historical vantage point. I had zero belief in a monotheistic god before I started and had zero belief in a monotheistic god when I ended. But working through the book did, interestingly, lessen a certain reflexive irritation I confess to having felt many times in the past for average, everyday Christians.

RR: For someone who has written books with titles like God Lives in St. Petersburg and Apostle, I have to ask you this: Does God exist? What’s the meaning of life?

TB: God is a literary character in a world-sized novel. Our purpose here, within this novel, is to somehow advance our little piece of the plot.

RR: I’m proud of my U.P. heritage and have said over and over how I believe that a list of writers from the region are among the top in the United States, including yourself, Ander Monson, Catie Rosemurgy, Jonathan Johnson, and more. When you write, the U.P. tends to be almost subtextual. I do see you as a U.P. writer and add in that subtext as I read your writing. But ever since your Harper’s piece on Escanaba, it feels like the U.P. has slowly more and more faded from your writing. Why is that? Is it just because you are such a globally-minded writer?

TB: Like you, I cherish the U.P. and deeply enjoy being from the U.P. My partner is from Escanaba (we knew each other growing up), and most of our parents are still living there, so I spend a fair amount of time in the U.P. every year. I try to slip U.P. or Wisconsin references as often as I can into my work, but the brute fact of its existence upon my imagination is always there. As you say, “subtextual.” I like that! I tried to address the U.P. and what it’s meant to me pretty head-on in my profile of Jim Harrison, which I wrote five years ago now. But you should know I’ve also tried to write three different novels about the U.P., and all of them failed. So in some sense, it feels like a place that actively defeated my imagination. It’s possible I continue to hold that against it in some weird, psycholiterary way.

RR: What strange direction has your writing not gone yet that you think it will end up? What topics have you not been able to delve into that you would like to?

TB: I’d really like to try television writing, and hope I get a chance to. I have a 2-year-old daughter now, which has rather enlivened my perceived need to make a good living. As for where my career, such as it is, landed, and where it’s going… I could have never predicted any of this. Getting to publish the books that I have, getting to work on big video game franchises, some of my more cherished journalism assignments—it’s all been astounding to me. In this sense, I am never not the kid who grew up in Escanaba, Michigan. When I’m feeling down or crappy I always remind myself how immensely lucky I am. I might not be rich or famous but I’ve been able to make a living typing stuff into a laptop for fifteen years now. That’s a gift, and while I worked hard, lots of people work hard. Not everyone is lucky. I’ve been extremely lucky.

RR: Have you been reading or writing any poetry lately?

TB: I just finished Clive James’s Sentenced to Life, which made me cry practically on every other page.

RR: I’m curious, but who are some of your favorite bands? Songs?

TB: My grotesque taste in music is a topic of fascinated discussion among my circle of friends. Basically I listen to what I listened to in high school, which is to say 80s thrash metal. It’s what I like. If all the music recorded since 1996 fell into a black hole, I would neither notice nor care. I’m not a music guy, as you can probably guess.

RR: Who are some of your favorite up-and-coming writers? Do you read a lot? What do you read? Are you a used bookstore person? New books? Online reading? Do you start things and quit before the end or read all the way through no matter what? I’m curious what you read and how you read. Are you just as eclectic in your reading as in your writing?

TB: I don’t read as much as I used to—small child, full-time job, the demands of my own writing, etc.—but I still read probably more than 98.9 percent of the American public. Some writers writing right now whose work I love: John Jeremiah Sullivan, Rachel Kushner, Paul Beatty, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Thomas McGuane, Lorrie Moore, Martin Amis, Donovan Hohn, Cynthia Ozick, Jonathan Franzen, David Means, Leslie Jamison, Jamie Quatro, Geoff Dyer, Zadie Smith, Clive James. There’re more, obviously… And Norman Rush.

 RR: You have been hugely successful as an author. Why do you think that is? What has been your secret recipe to success?

 TB: Ha. I have been moderately successful as an author. I’ll accept that accolade happily. The older I get it, the more I think everything is luck. Luck, luck, luck. To get going as a writer, you really only need one or two people in a position of power to give you a shot and see what you can do. Lots of fine, hard-working writers, for whatever reason, never find that person or people. I did. There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t say a tiny little secular prayer of thanks to the people who, early in my career, gave me my shot. I’ve tried to make the best of it, which is all anyone can do.

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