The Ticking Is the Bomb, the second memoir by nonfiction writer and poet Nick Flynn, describes his experiences with fatherhood, writing, and the Abu Ghraib torture victims, some of whom he met personally. It also covers territory explored in his first memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: addiction in his own and his family’s lives and the ongoing need for a relationship with the past that doesn’t let it off too easily. I recently asked Nick about his book by e-mail.
You’ve mentioned that The Ticking Is the Bomb originally started as poems and evolved into memoir. What was that process like?
That book started as a meditation on the Abu Ghraib photographs; the moment I first saw them, they snagged on something in my subconscious landscape, and I spent the next six years following the thread of it. As I reluctantly dug into the unpleasant topic of state-sponsored torture, specifically America’s long role in it, one thing I noticed was how each element—earth, air, fire, and water—were used to torture. People were buried, suffocated, burned, and waterboarded. The first poems were these element poems, which will now be in a book of poems called The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, coming out in February from Graywolf. The four element poems were the scaffolding of the eventual memoir, which emerged from behind these poems.
How did The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands act as scaffolding for The Ticking Is the Bomb?
The Ticking Is the Bomb, I’m not proud to say, started as a polemic screed (“torture is bad”), and it was only through the poetry that it became complicated, layered, weird. Once I wrote the four element poems, which are hybrid persona poems, the way was open to examine my own darker impulses, which is what made it into a memoir. I was then able to remove the scaffolding of the poems, and the book was there. Fortunately, I still think torture is bad.
What’s it like having a movie made of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City? Are you involved in the adaptation of the book?
The whole experience with Hollywood has been bizarre—not with the people I’ve worked with directly, who have now become close friends, but with the muckety-mucks, the vice presidents of various studios, I guess, people I’ve never met. Paul Weitz, the director, wrote a really beautiful, poetic, eerie, funny, weird script, and then, over the years, the muckety-mucks each got to stick a fat finger into it, until by the end it was pretty wretched. Now, fortunately, the economy has tanked, and the budget is lower, and we got to go back to the original script, only it’s even better.
One of the things that I love about the structure of The Ticking Is the Bomb is its movement in time; it doesn’t move forward in a linear way from chapter to chapter, but switches back and forth among years and memories. There’s this great connection, for me, with our way of engaging culture now—surfing, clicking links, finding our own structures and connections in the representations of experience. Did you have a deliberate strategy for the structure, or did it evolve more naturally?
It evolved organically. I’m glad you found it echoed the experience of surfing and clicking—it was likely influenced by the Web, but not consciously. I thought of it more as an image cluster, a constellation of images, circling around a central mystery. I’m not sure if the Web is like this. With the Web you can endlessly spread outward. The book is a more contained universe.
Going back to the book’s organization, I love how the scenes with the Abu Ghraib victims are juxtaposed with more personal scenes; it doesn’t establish equivalence, but it mixes the intimacies and distances of both in really gripping ways. Is there any one thing that you want readers to take away as far as our connection to the victims is concerned?
With the Abu Ghraib photographs I was never interested in the question of how our soldiers came to torture other human beings, or even in how Dick Cheney came to authorize it. That Dick Cheney is pro-torture surprises no one; he freely admits it. That soldiers do terrible things during wartime should not surprise us. So at some point the book became about the darker impulses we all carry within us, which led me to examine my own darker impulses. The only way to break out of these darker impulses, for me, was to make a human, face-to-face connection with some of the ex-detainees from the photographs. This is always the only way out.
Any notes from your time with them that weren’t in the book, after your having more time and distance to reflect?
I hope that their humanity came through in the pages, how each had internalized what had happened to them in completely different ways. All of us, we laughed a lot during our time together, when we weren’t hearing about atrocities.
Do you think that writing a memoir has changed your approach to writing poetry at all, or vice versa?
Everything we do, I’d imagine, influences everything we will do. That said, I can’t say what poems I would have written if I hadn’t written the two memoirs, but I was writing poetry all along, in the shadows of those books, and I think that I’ve managed to sneak a lot of it into the memoirs. At least I tried.