On-stage interview with CL Editor David Warner. Falk Theatre, 428 W. Kennedy Blvd., University of Tampa. Friday June 15, 7 p.m. Admission free. www.ut.edu/mfacw/lectores/
Amazing is an overused compliment, but as a description of the life and work of Nick Flynn, it’s apt. The most amazing coincidence in his life was arguably the night in the mid-1980s when his father, whom he hadn’t seen in years, showed up as a client in the Boston homeless shelter where Flynn was working. Flynn’s slow progress toward reconnection with Jonathan, a big-talking alcoholic ex-con with dreams of writing the Great American Novel, provided the fulcrum for his best-selling 2004 memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, aka Being Flynn, the sanitized title of the recent screen adaptation starring Paul Dano as the young Flynn and Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore as his parents. But as the memoir reveals, Flynn’s own trajectory from near-ruin (a severe substance addiction that was aggravated by his mother’s suicide when he was 22) to triumph (acclaim as a poet and memoirist, marriage to the indie film star Lili Taylor) is extraordinary in its own right. But the most amazing thing about Flynn is the writing itself. Unflinchingly honest, with a specificity of language and command of narrative that leaps decades and mixes genres with ease, Another Bullshit Night… addresses with clarity and empathy the complicated bond between father and son, and the dogged struggles of men and women trying to survive life on the streets.
I’ll be interviewing Flynn onstage at the University of Tampa’s Falk Theatre on Friday as part of the UT MFA in Creative Writing’s Lectores series. As prelude, here are excerpts from a phone conversation we had while he was vacationing last weekend with his 4-year-old daughter at a friend’s home in Burgundy, France.
The title change for the movie, from Another Bullshit Night in Suck City to Being Flynn: How much did that suck?
Nobody was really happy with that. It’s the Motion Picture Association of America — a strange group, actually, controlled by Christian fundamentalists.
When you’ve turned your own life into a book, what's it like to have someone else — actors, writer, director — turn your life story into a movie?
I’ve written a book coming out in January called The Reenactments about that question. It’s a very strange thing — the closest word I can think of is uncanny — the familiar appearing strange, the strange appearing familiar. These people are looking and thinking and doing things your familiy members did, and yet they’re not your family members. Paul Weitz [director and screenwriter for Being Flynn] showed me all the drafts over the seven years of trying to get the film made — it really is like his vision, like a third thing — [but] I was part of all the discussions about casting, everything was run by me. Paul Dano did a great job playing me as far as I can tell — he seemed like a much better me than I think I am. The most uncanny for me was probably my mother — Julianne Moore’s scenes. We only had her for four days total, but somehow her energy spread through the whole film.
“I don’t understand how you did that. What promoted you?” your father asks when he learns of your success as a writer. It’s a good question. After all you went through, what helped you find yourself?
Quitting drugs and alcohol… Therapy, good friends, finding meaning in art… having my father appear as this Dickens-like character: “This is what you will become… If you have any questions, this is your future.” None of them is the thing. If you read The Ticking is the Bomb [his 2010 memoir about marriage to Taylor and the birth of his daughter, interwoven with reflections on the terrors of life post-9/11], it’s not like I was suddenly cured. It goes into the darkness that follows — redemption is problematized.
There’s a passing reference to Taylor in Another Bullshit Night… in a passage where you’re thinking of your search for your father on the streets as a play in which she plays a small role… Was that reference added before or after you met?
That was a last edit at the 13th hour. I put her in because I had just met her and we had just gone on our first date. I think it cost money. [Taylor did wind up playing a small role in Being Flynn as a colleague of Nick’s at the shelter.] That was an uncanny moment — seeing my wife interact with Paul Dano… I think every time I jump when it happens: my wife touching my 27-year-old self on the shoulder.
There’s a dual impulse reflected in the memoir. Early on you say “hiding seems the point of everything,” but you also talk about facing trouble dead-on: “Somehow I’d learned to do that, like a tree learns to swallow barbed wire…”
You can either shut down or be hyper-vigilant — I don’t know if either one of them is a bad survival mechanism. It depends on the temperament of the person. If you create your own fantasy world, you might wind up being the guy who creates The Hobbit… whatever gets you through. Some people have to be drug addicts for 10 years — probably not the healthiest choice.
Has your father seen the movie?
I haven’t shown him the whole film yet. I showed him the trailer many times. He has some cognitive issues — the effects of long-term alcoholism. With Robert De Niro saying his name, he seemed to get a kick out of it.