Memoirville

Interview: Nick Flynn, author of The Ticking is the Bomb

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

By Lisa Qiu

“My intention in writing the book is to attempt to decrease the amount of suffering in the world, and one way I attempt to do that is to illuminate how one can get lost, or, more precisely, how I got lost.”

In 2004, Nick Flynn, who rocked the literary world with his gritty debut memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir), started the year with a certain internal unrest. Then, when photos showing America’s treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib leaked to the public that May, those images stuck with him in an inescapable way and began to shape his next work. The book soon became an exposition of the innate darkness in all of us, and he wanted to shine a light. The book, The Ticking is the Bomb, is a memoir and exploration of the times in his life where he’d been “lost in the woods.” The stories are told through what he describes as an organic cluster of images–-both those of inhumane treatment and others from his own experience that he’d held onto for sometimes inexplicable reasons–-around a mysterious central sphere. He uses an entirely non-linear form of storytelling that allowed him to explore life’s most impactful moments without a rigid chronology. SMITH’s Lisa Qiu interviewed him by phone about just how his second memoir emerged from his fervent opposition to torture.

After reading the back cover and the press release for the book, I was expecting something deeply depressing and angst-ridden.
Maybe we really should change that. A lot of people have told me the book wasn’t like anything they had expected from reading about it, though anything that has the word torture in it is going to turn a lot of people away. On the upside, a lot of people have told me the book wasn’t like anything they had expected from reading about it.

On the contrary, you open up with a funny story about how you accidentally shook hands with someone who wrote a book that endorses torture.
That was Sam Harris (The End of Faith), and our handshake was anything but accidental—we were both receiving awards for books we had written. It was only months later that I realized his book advocated the use of torture. After that, he and I corresponded for a long time by email, but I had no luck in convincing him to change his pro-torture position. Thankfully, in the past few years, virtually every retired U.S. general has signed a petition stating that torture does not work and that we really shouldn’t do it. It’s only armchair warriors like Harris who are still pro-torture, as far as I can tell.

What would you call the format of your book? It kind of reads like separate poems, vignettes, or blog entries.
I think of the book as an “image cluster”—a ball of energy with a small repertoire of images clustered around a central sphere. One could touch any image—“monkeys,” say, or “swimming,” or “photographs,” and if you pulled at it you’d find it was connected to a thread, which led to the center of the sphere. At the center of the sphere is, thankfully, still a mystery.

Why do you think we torture? Is it about power?
I think it’s more about fear, yet it’s also a measure of how we have failed to integrate our shadow, the dark side of our psyches, into our lives. The fear becomes unbearable and so we lash out in an irrational, and ineffective, way. For a few years our shadow selves rose up and took control—now, maybe, our shadows are back underfoot, at least as far as torture goes. Which doesn’t mean they have gone away.

Your book talks about your dark times and the past relationships you’ve had with other women. How did the women in your life react to that? How did your wife (the actor Lili Taylor), how involved was she in the writing process?
She knew about everything I documented in the book. When we were first together, I was dating another woman—that wasn’t a secret, but things got problematic, quickly. But my intention in writing the book is to attempt to decrease the amount of suffering in the world, and one way I attempt to do that is to illuminate how one can get lost, or, more precisely, how I got lost.

Was writing this book about your darkness cathartic?
I think of catharsis as a daily practice, rather than a one-time event. So in that sense, sure, writing a book can be cathartic. You just have to wake up the next day and do it again.

Do you have any advice for the memoirists on SMITH Magazine?
Memoirs deal with memory and speculation and perception, and yet there has to be a through-line of truth, of what happened—someone was born on a certain date, someone died on a certain date, you either went to jail or you didn’t—some things can be measured, and the interesting thing about memoir is how we navigate between these worlds.

And finally, Nick Flynn, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Many hands have kept me afloat.

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BUY Nick Flynn’s latest memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb

VISIT Nick Flynn’s website to read excerpts from The Ticking is the Bomb and learn more

Check out the “Beyond the Hoods: The Abu Ghraib Images of Daniel Heyman,” on SMITH Mag.

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