Tom Matlack interviews Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and The Ticking Is the Bomb.
Nick Flynn is a poet and the author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, a memoir about his relationship with his estranged, alcoholic and homeless father. His latest book, The Ticking Is the Bomb, is a memoir that interweaves reflections on his childhood, his relationship with his father, his mother’s suicide, the impending birth of his daughter, and his outrage and obsession with the torture depicted in the photos from Abu Ghraib.
Tom Matlack: One of the things I really love about The Ticking Is the Bomb is the way you write about the way we all get lost. I think many of us men are at a crossroads. You realize this the morning you get up and look in the mirror and don’t recognize who you are.
Nick Flynn: I think it’s hard to tell when you are actually lost. It’s hard to remember that it’s actually a common experience—and maybe just a human experience, and almost a necessary experience—to get lost, and not to assume that one’s life’s going to go in some sort of clear trajectory where everything’s recognizable. I just don’t think that’s realistic.
But it also can be very dark and very troubling. Some people don’t get out of it either. For some people that’s the end of the road. I’ve had a few of these experiences in my life. It’s the nature of life. There’s some element of suffering in life. It comes to all of us. And it’s almost impossible to know how to navigate it until you’re in it.
It does feel a lot like the things I did in Boy Scouts. They drop you in the woods, and you have to survive for the weekend, with a knife and a match and a tarp or something. There’s a reason that the Boy Scouts do that. It’s a metaphor for what’s going to happen at other points in your life—how are you going to figure your way out of this thing? And hopefully you figure out somewhat healthy ways out of these things. The thing that led you into there might not have been that healthy. Or it might just have been necessary. It could just be circumstantial. Certainly life blindsides you.
TM: You write about the impact of realizing that you were going to be a father. How do you view fatherhood as potentially transformational?
NF: It wasn’t that I suddenly realized I was going to be a father. It was a choice. It was actually a very active choice. But the choice was something that had to be navigated. I had to step up to make that choice. The pregnancy was no surprise. And yet even within this sort of conscious decision, there was a lot of uncertainty. There was a lot of wondering if I was actually up for this moment, that I would be able to show up for it, that I’d be able to be a father. That was really abstract.
My wife [actress Lili Taylor] didn’t put any pressure on me any way. She was very clear. She was like, “This is what I want to do, this is the time for me to do it, and I’d like to do it with you. If you’re not ready to do, we’ll move on.” And it became very clear that it was really my choice. It was remarkably clear and simple that whatever I have to struggle with is what I have to struggle with. And it was not about making her happy or saving her. It was really very clear that she would prefer that we did it together.
I realized I hadn’t really approached our relationship in that way before. It always felt like there was some sort of burden of responsibility on me to take care of women or to save them, that there could be some crisis if I wasn’t there, some very serious consequences. And this didn’t seem that way at all. It seemed clear that I just had to wrestle with whatever was inside me and it gave it room to be dragged out into the open.
TM: So in terms of your impending fatherhood and your relationship with your own father and then your awareness of torture, how did all of that get stirred up in your mind?
NF: The book started as a meditation on the Abu Ghraib photographs. I sort of had done all the research and written a draft of a book. But I sensed that I hadn’t quite followed it deep enough. Since this isn’t journalism, it’s not just about what happened; it’s really about why this thing that happened is affecting me. That’s what a memoir is: an individual’s interpretation of events, rather than just what happened.
When I started looking into why these images snagged so deeply in my subconscious, I followed those threads back, and they led back to stuff I had touched on in the first memoir—my father’s time in prison, my mother’s suicide—but they went more deeply into them. In my father’s case, he had been tortured in federal prison; he’d been experimented on. And he would tell this story quite often. He was sleep-deprived, had been put in isolation and sexually humiliated. And as I was writing the book, I started realizing that these were the things that also were talked about at Abu Ghraib.
One of the books I read was by the historian Alfred McCoy. It details the CIA’s involvement in developing the torture techniques we saw at Abu Ghraib. They had a 50-year program to develop those techniques. McCoy talks about how the federal prisons had been the site of early experimentation of these torture techniques. And some of those prisons were prisons that my father was in. So his stories suddenly took on this other resonance.
TM: Who taught you about manhood?
NF: It would be a series of my mother’s boyfriends when I was growing up. There were about 10 different boyfriends, and each sort of taught me a little piece of it. So it’s very much a mosaic of ten different guys—and I actually feel fondly about nearly all of them. They all have contributed some piece to the puzzle.
TM: The second question is: how has romantic love shaped you as a man?
NF: I think that whole idea of romantic love was probably almost too strong an influence early on—getting caught up in the lyrics of pop songs or something and trying to figure out what that meant. I think that can separate one from having actual genuine interactions. And that also brought some sort of a competition with other men over women, which seems very unhealthy in retrospect.
TM: What two words would you use to describe your dad?
NF: Vodka and charm.
TM: How are you most unlike your father?
NF: Well, he’s pure id. And he doesn’t have any sort of container for that. I’m probably the exact same. I’m no different from him. It’s just that I’ve figured out how to keep it in a container a little bit more.
TM: From which of your mistakes did you learn the most?
NF: I think attempting to maintain more than one relationship at a time. The energy it takes is really not worth it. And the energy and the attention it takes away from any one relationship.
TM: This is a two-part question. What word would the women in your life use to describe you, and do you believe it’s accurate?
NF: I’m always reluctant to put words in anyone else’s mouth, but it’s something I really do often ask, like what people feel about how they’ve been portrayed in my book.
TM: How about your wife? What does your wife say about you?
NF: Oh, she’s very supportive. I get good feedback from her. We’re doing well. So whatever the word would be—I hate to give her a word—but it’d be on the positive end of the spectrum.
TM: My wife’s word is narcissistic, and it’s accurate.
NF: There are darker moments when I feel like I’m not quite living up to my potential, but for the most part I do take in what she says, so I’ll say it’s accurate.
TM: What dad in your life do you really admire for his parenting skills?
NF: For years before I became a father I would try to spend as much time as I could with my friends who were parents and their kids. And I was really impressed. They all sort of managed to do it, and do it gracefully. I felt like there was something about this generation, that they had learned something from the previous generation about showing up and being really present as fathers. And it also made me imagine that I could maybe do it. And it felt like it was really just about showing up and being present for it. I don’t mean to disparage my father in any sense, but those were things that he was not able to do.
TM: I have three kids. My experience is that showing up is 90 percent of the battle.
NF: So far that’s working. That simple formula seems to be working.
TM: How old is your daughter now?
NF: She’s 2.
TM: The next question is: have you been more successful in public or in your private life?
NF: I feel comfortable with both at the moment. I have a book out right now, so suddenly I’m in public life, or back into public life. That’s the thing about a book: You’re in the public life for a little bit, and then you sort of go away for a little while—several years in my case—and then you come out again, hopefully. It went well. The public thing went well this time, so I feel comfortable with both.
TM: When was the last time you cried?
NF: I can weep pretty easily. I can get tears in my eyes from a beautiful work of art. I get pretty emotional around the time of my mother’s death, so I probably cried around then, just a month or so ago. [Flynn’s mother committed suicide when he was 22; he’s now 49.]
TM: In December, right?
NF: Yeah, so there was a cry around that.
TM: How long has it been since your mom passed away?
NF: It’s a long time—over 20 years.
TM: The next question is what advice would you give teenage boys who are trying to figure out what it means to be a good man?
NF: There’s this sort of male energy that we have that can seem very destructive. But it doesn’t have to be. It actually can be a very positive force. A lot of the ways the male energy’s channeled in the society is in very negative ways: the violence or pornography, there’s all sorts of sexism, and there are all sorts of ways that energy is manipulated. But it’s actually a very beautiful thing, and to honor it for what it is and to try to use it in some positive way is the best we can do.
TM: And last but not least, what’s your most cherished guy ritual?
NF: Well, it’s really about the baby right now. In the last two years I’ve seen basically every sunrise, which has been sort of amazing. At a certain point you’re not sure how many more sunrises you’re going to see. And then I’ve seen every one since she’s been born. We get up together, and we have this sort of meditation thing in the morning for two or three hours—until her mom gets up—where we’re just together, just in this really quiet time that I really cherish.
Click here to listen to the entire conversation between Tom Matlack and Nick Flynn.