At 27, Nick Flynn met his father. The fledgling poet was working at a homeless shelter in Boston. His father was looking for a bed for the night.
Their stormy relationship was the subject of Flynn’s first memoir, “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.” A searing account, it’s formally complex and surprisingly funny, given that it centers around his father’s abuse and mental illness, along with his mother’s suicide.
The bestselling and award-winning book was made into the film “Being Flynn” in 2012, with Paul Dano playing Flynn and Robert De Niro as his father. The experience of making the film and watching actors recreate his life was the subject of Flynn’s third memoir, last year’s “The Reenactments.”
A memoir about a film about a memoir, at first glance, might seem like an embarrassingly solipsistic exercise. Yet through Flynn’s eyes, with the precise language and powers of observation he’s honed as a poet, “The Reenactments” becomes not a navel-gazing riff on Nick Flynn by Nick Flynn, but a more universal exploration of memory, art, and family.
“People ask all the time, ‘What was that like on the set?’” says Flynn. “And it’s not a short answer. … I feel like the experience for me was pretty profound in a way that was surprising to me.”
He’s been around movie sets more than most people — his wife is the actress Lili Taylor — and he describes movie-making as a tedious process. But the experience of watching his own life depicted — seeing Julianne Moore reenact his mom’s suicide, and De Niro mimic his father’s violent, drunken, nonsensical rants —proved a fertile subject.
“It’s a strange experience to have your family reenacted by, not only actors, but, like, incredibly great actors, and it did feel like there was something neurological happening,” he explains.
“The Reenactments” is no simple Hollywood memoir. It attempts to connect the ideas of thinkers like Nietzche, Beckett and Richard Dawkins with stories from the making of the film that might only be fodder for DVD extras in another artist’s hands.
He writes of doing a walking tour of Boston’s gathering places for the homeless with Dano and having their lives threatened by punks. When Flynn brings De Niro to meet his father, and tells him De Niro will play him in the film, his dad looks De Niro over and asks, “So you do a little acting? You like to act?”
“Yeah, I do a little acting,” replies the seven-time Oscar nominee.
On the surface, Flynn’s true story of losing his mother to suicide and his father to prison and madness until their chance reunion in a homeless shelter seems like a crass memoir publisher’s dream. But seeing his intellect at work on the page, not just the plot points of the harrowing story explored in all three of his memoirs, is really what makes Flynn worth reading.
Asked what separates a worthwhile memoir from a forgettable one, Flynn says, “Usually it’s where the writer is actually surprised by the story they’re telling. It’s a process of discovery, I think. The best memoirs don’t merely recount what happened, but ask a question of themselves, like, why they are telling that particular story and not one of hundreds of other stories you could recount from your life. It’s a threshold of something more hidden. Where memoir fails is when it doesn’t cross that threshold into the unknown.”
Not knowing where he’s going — both stylistically and substantively — seems an integral part of his process.
Flynn’s memoirs are made up of short sections, unbound by chronology, that can range from a dozen pages to just a few words on a page (“My god, what have I done?”). Some sections read like prose poems, some are structured as plays, some as news briefs. “Suck City” grew into its memoir form over a course of years — as he began it, Flynn says, he didn’t know if it’d be poems or a film or a play or a memoir.
“It’s just sort of what I do,” he laughs, “I write every day. I didn’t have an intention for the book. ... I didn’t know what it would be, and the form revealed itself after four years of writing it, as things started to take shape. I didn’t try to lead it anywhere. I let it lead me.”
On Saturday, Feb. 8, Flynn discusses memoir with Dani Shapiro, as part of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s ongoing Winter Words series. Shapiro is the author of five novels and three memoirs, most recently “Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life.”
Memoirs in general, and certainly Flynn’s three in particular, tend to be about, as he puts it, “gnarly things.”
If you’ve read his books, you probably know more about the gnarlier parts of Flynn’s biography than most of your friends’ lives. You know of his traumatic family life, of his drug and alcohol abuse, and you’ve surveyed the emotional and psychological landscape they left him. And yet, he says, any fear about his disclosures fell away quickly after he published “Suck City” in 2004.
“I was freaked out about publishing a memoir for the usual reasons — self-revelation and feeling like people are going to know you or something,” he recalls. “But you realize quickly that nobody really gives a f–k about you. Even at readings, the thing is they don’t care about you — they care about themselves.”
He says he finds that people read his books or come to hear him speak at events like this weekend’s to learn about themselves, not Nick Flynn. They’re drawn to his work because they too have a problematic father, or have another connection to his story, he says. He calls the question-and-answer portions of these events his favorite part of readings.
“I find that’s when I learn the most,” he says. “They usually ask questions that have nothing to do with me. … That’s fine. That’s what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to give people a cathartic experience in the presence of it. It’s supposed to connect to something within your life. So I just become a scrim for them to project upon.”
Flynn is currently working on a new collection of poems — his fourth — including some about his father, who died in November.
in conversation with Dani Shapiro
Presented by the Aspen Writers’ Foundation
Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014
Info: www.aspenwriters.org