Tom Bissell, pride of Escanaba, Mich., has recently published his first short-story collection, God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories. Bissell graduated from Michigan State University and in 1996 “served” in the Peace Corps, teaching English in Uzbekistan. He has been a book editor at Henry Holt and W.W. Norton and his own work has been published at McSweeney’s, the Believer, Men’s Journal, Esquire, the Alaska Quarterly, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Harper’s, and Bomb. His writing also was included in the anthologies Best American Science Writing 2004 and Wild East: Stories From the Last Frontier. In Bissell’s first book, Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, he tells the story of his 2001 return to Uzbekistan to explore the shrinking Aral Sea. With his colorful translator, Rustam, he eludes the Uzbek police to pursue a story that ends up being both a travelogue and a chronicle of Uzbek culture and history. Bissell also collaborated with friend Jeff Alexander to write Speak, Commentary, which has the revealing subtitle: “The Big Little Book of Fake DVD Commentaries, Wherein Well-Known Pundits Make Impassioned Remarks about Classic Science Fiction Films.” Bissell lives in lower Manhattan and is currently working on a book about his travels to Vietnam with his father.
The six stories of God Lives in St. Petersburg are redolent with the exotic settings of central Asia and Americans trying to work out their personal struggles and other cultural conflicts as strangers in strange lands. Two journalists are stranded in wartime Afghanistan; a female scientist investigates the Aral Sea disaster; on a hike through Kazakhstan, Jayne and Douglas’s marriage unravels. A young man just back from a long stint in Kyrgyzstan finds his relationship with his fiancée has moved on beyond his understanding. The son of an American ambassador in a Central Asian city screws up badly, and in the Pushcart Award-winning title story, an agonized missionary struggles to reconcile his homosexuality with his calling. The charm and the strength of Bissell’s stories is the way the unfamiliar foreign settings provide an emotionally resonant backdrop for the travails of his likable and sympathetic characters. As one reviewer opined, “At times, Bissell’s lucid narration of men and women in difficult, faraway places reads as the work of a resurrected Hemingway, but he is a Hemingway who may have watched a lot of Seinfeld…Still, we need all the Hemingways we can get, and for the most part, Bissell’s clever humor draws us in rather than pushes us away. God Lives in St. Petersburg is a rare treat, transporting us deep within this often-overlooked region, expanding our horizons while never condescending to teach us any prepackaged lessons.”
This chat, my first with Tom Bissell, reveals a writer passionately devoted to the craft and importance of literature. He also loves dogs.
Robert Birnbaum: Thomas Oliver Bissell?
Tom Bissell: Thomas Carlisle Bissell.
RB: Wait a minute, I thought it was an “O.”
TB: No, “C.”
RB: Oh, sorry. That’s a bit of vanity that you have allowed yourself—embossing the front board of the book.
TB: There are many benefits to having been an editor. And one of them is to know the exact box on what’s called the production sheet to call up your editor’s assistant to tell them to check [laughs] before the book gets—
RB: So that’s an easy option?
TB: Yeah. They only do it—normally they only do it for a book that is a high-profile, big-deal book. But the fact is, it’s called a blind stamp—it’s just a piece of metal that comes down and thwacks the cover of the book. That costs a half a penny per book, to have that done. It’s when you in fill that with foil or something or you do a signature, then that becomes a serious production cost. Just a pure dry stamp, initials thing, is easy.
RB: Who looks at the cover under the dust jacket?
TB: People who are into book production do.
RB: How many people is that?
TB: Not many.
TB: I am obsessed by book production. The rough front, the string on top of the book is called the “worm.” The rough front is when the pages are not uniform.
RB: Have you seen Peter Turchi’s new book [Maps of the Imagination]?
TB: No, I haven’t.
RB: It’s published by a newly resurrected Trinity University Press in Texas. It’s beautiful, and I read that it just won an international design award. I do pay attention but don’t know about worms and rough fronts. Turchi’s book, to the hand and the eye, was obviously special—it immediately stood out.
TB: University presses, since there are few things that they are able to compete with the big guys on—book production is something a lot of them take very seriously. University press books are invariably or inevitably better made and handsomer than a lot of the books that come out of New York publishing. They are books that are going to have to withstand a lot more reading, too.
When you say you are from Michigan a lot of people do that irritating mitten hand thing, when you point. Well, I’m not on the mitten. I’m off the mitten.
RB: I hadn’t thought of that. I just am aware that they charge hefty prices for their cloth covers.
TB: Fifty bucks, $45.
RB: OK, so now we have your name established. You were born in Eukanuba, Mich.?
RB: I want to say Eukanuba because that’s Rosie’s brand of dog food.
TB: Everyone wants to say Eukanuba. [both laugh]
RB: Where is it?
TB: In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is commonly referred to as—
RB: The U.P.
TB: Yeah, the U.P. and the least-known land mass in the contiguous United States.
TB: Many people don’t even know it exists. When you say you are from Michigan a lot of people do that irritating mitten hand thing, when you point. Well, I’m not on the mitten. [laughs] I’m off the mitten. I am from a part of Michigan that’s attached to Wisconsin.
RB: Did you come to talk with Jim Harrison because of shared Michigan roots?
TB: He and my father hunt pheasant together. Or have hunted together.
RB: Refresh me on what you asked him that pissed him off?
TB: I told him he was the “dean of Midwestern literature.”
TB: Which I thought was a very high compliment.
RB: And he said—
TB: “Rrrrrrrrr. You’re from Escanaba so I’ll forgive you for that.” [both laugh] He’s very touchy about being regarded as a regional writer. I understand why. Weirdly enough, I did a paper in college about, it was called—what the hell was it called?—it was an invective against reviews that Jim Harrison and Tom McGuane had received from East Coast critics. The whole piece was how East Coast literary apparatus does not and will never take Midwestern literature seriously. I had no idea when I wrote that paper I would [one day] be a part of the East Coast literary apparatus. [laughs]
RB: Do you still hold that view?
TB: Yes, but I don’t apply the same motives to why anymore. If that makes sense.
RB: You’re assuming that it’s just incidental—just what is top of mind to East Coast literary denizens.
TB: Yeah, and I don’t think it’s doctrinaire or ideological. Lots of people are totally willing to have that sense within them, overruled by exemplary work. But in terms of bottom-line prejudice—even prejudice is too strong a word. I would say—
RB: Benign indifference?
TB: Yeah. It’s pretty strong. I also think that truly gifted, good writers manage to escape it. Maybe not as much as they all would like, à la Mr. Harrison, who is a great writer.
RB: His books sell well.
TB: I think internationally they do, and certainly he’s made lots of good coin as a screenwriter. So if Jim Harrison feels neglected, what the hell hope is there for the rest of us?
RB: There is a bit of the contrarian, if not curmudgeon, in him. We talked about why he lived in Michigan and Arizona and now Montana. He explained that he preferred to live away from the “centers of ambition.” Which makes a lot of sense to me, especially when I make my regular trips to Boston.
TB: I am experiencing something somewhat similar to that. I tend to be happiest when I am out of the country.
RB: Do you live in Brooklyn?
TB: No, I live in lower Manhattan.
RB: Why don’t you live in Brooklyn? What’s the matter with you?
TB: I lived there for six years and just got sick of it.
RB: Really? Because?
TB: I get a very bad case of stasis, sometimes. And stagnation. I am very susceptible to feelings of stagnation. Which tends to do with just having been in the same place for too long. I don’t mean the same city. I mean the same room. [both laugh] The same apartment.
RB: Do we have a time limit in this conversation?
TB: No, no, nothing like that. After 9/11 lower Manhattan was pretty much empty and I love that part of town because of the Melvillian windblown streets. Lower Manhattan lost about 50 percent of its residents after Sept. 11, so the city started this thing called the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Which basically pays you rent reduction. So for the last few years I have been getting a check every month to live down there.
RB: It must come in handy when you are in Vietnam.
TB: It doesn’t erase your rent but takes a sizeable chunk out of it. I basically can see Ground Zero from where I live.
RB: Two of your books have to do with being away from American civilization, but tell me why you co-wrote the book on DVD commentaries?
TB: That was a just a kind of science project that got put of hand. We did this—my dear friend Jeff and I, who is my best friend, he and I both have history of being very intense Tolkien readers when we were kids. So we were watching the DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring one night and just because we know the movie, we know the books more intensely than the movie and we were watching the movie and we just started doing this fake lefty commentary, this fake lefty analysis of the politics of Middle Earth. I had this idea of tape recording this. So we had the tapes transcribed to see if there was anything there and it was pretty funny. So we cleaned them up and I had the idea to make them Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. A very addition to the idea.
TB: What do you do with a fake DVD commentary from the point of view of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky? I had no idea. I sent it to this guy, my roommate’s friend—this guy at mcsweeneys.net. His name is Lee Epstein and he used to be the web editor. They loved it and they ran it. And then [Dave] Eggers wanted to know if we could do them once a month. It became the most viewed page in mcsweeneys.net’s history.
RB: I thought Stephen Elliott’s poker page was?
TB: Yeah, they say sometimes it gets 7,000, 8,000, 9,000 hits a week still. The Chomsky-Zinn one. So do it once a month? Sure. Then they wanted to know if we wanted to do a paperback book. And we were like, “OK.” So we did these crazy commentaries, which were really a lot of fun. I have a closet interest in acting and performing and—
RB: The book is still available?
TB: Oh, yeah. We might do a sequel. The title is either going to be “Pale Commentary” [laughs] or “Pnacommentary” [laughs] which I think is a funny title.
RB: That was the beginning of your relationship with the McSweeney’s cadre? Had you submitted stories?
TB: I think they took a story of mine. My roommate Amber Hoover—I was Tom Bissell—yes, Hoover and Bissell, and we lived in the same apartment together in Brooklyn—it was funny, very amusing. Amber was friends with this guy Lee Epstein. I had a story I had written called “God Lives in St Petersburg.” The story had been rejected 30 times, I think. Between 25 and 30 times. And I didn’t know anyone at McSweeneys. I was an editor at that point.
RB: At Henry Holt?
TB: I think I was still at Norton at that point. I don’t know what I was doing. I may not even—I may have just gotten out of editing at that point. So I didn’t know anyone at that kind of scene at all. Except for my friend Adrienne Miller, who went way back with Eggers because they were at Esquire together. I gave the story to my roommate who gave it to Lee and I didn’t think I would hear anything else about it. And two months later apparently Lee just slipped it into the pile and they took it. That really began my association. It’s funny, because I am called a McSweeney’s writer a lot and although I really like many of the McSweeney’s people personally, very few of them are my friends socially. It’s weird—I hear it talking to people when I have been on tour—the way people talk about this phenomenon. I don’t know if there’s a phenomenon in the literary world or a kind of popular basis of thinking that has less grounding in actual fact. [both laugh]
RB: I don’t know about the literary world but that’s rampant in our culture. Consider the new degradations and denigrations. They are about products now. “The damn iPod people.” Or “Volvo moms.” Are these people all the same?
TB: No, it’s easy. It’s this cultural impulse that we seem to have had beaten into us for the last two decades.
RB: We’ve created branded—the unintended consequences.
TB: The people who create these brands never anticipate that it might actually be a bad thing.
RB: That they are stigmatized. As someone who knows the editing world and the starting as a writer, what did you make of the numerous rejections?
TB: Nothing much.
RB: You never thought, “Maybe this story isn’t up to snuff?”
TB: No, no.
RB: So you were hardened to that [receiving rejections] being part of the process of being published?
TB: I have pretty good taste, I think. I know when something works. I believed in myself as a writer and the fact that it was being rejected I attributed—and it came close a number of times.
RB: How does it come close?
TB: The person who gets it [first] says, “I really love this. I want to try to buy this.” And they take it to their boss and they say no. There is one prominent magazine I shall not mention where my friend tried to buy that story and it was basically laughed at during the editorial meeting. A couple of people mocked it. And he told me this because he was angry. When it won a Pushcart Prize I wanted to send that notification to…
RB: You were sending your work to commercial magazines?
TB: I was sending it everywhere.
RB: Even the small magazines?
TB: I basically always knew it was going to be a collection. So I never fetishized where the stories appear. Good stuff appears everywhere. And bad stuff appears everywhere and the fact was, I tended to submit to magazines I have read or that I was more than notionally familiar with. Alaska Quarterly Review, Agni—all those I read and bought subscriptions, occasionally, to some of them. I was not submitting to places because I came to them in Writer’s Market. I never really was concerned with the where. I just wanted them out there. I wanted that—”validation” is the wrong word to use. I just wanted the sense that they had appeared before so when they were in a book form they would come with some sort of critical mass behind them. Even if was just tiny. I don’t mean that in a commercial sense, just for me personally. It’s weird.
RB: As you wrote them, you knew that your first major publishing move was to collect enough stories for a book as opposed to writing a novel?
TB: I’ve written four novels.
RB: [laughs] How many rejections?
TB: None of them have every gotten that far. I spent five years on one of them and then abandoned it, [almost whispers] which was very hard.
RB: Abandoned, meaning it’s in a drawer somewhere? Or a garbage dump?
TB: Now it’s basically this cemetery, I tomb-rob all the time.
RB: It’s on your computer hard drive—
TB: It’s like, “Wasn’t there some moment, describing the way someone’s head was tilted or tone of voice?” I am constantly going back to it.
RB: You recall it that well?
TB: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s basically this corpse that I just take a bone from now and again. Actually, I am going to write an essay about this. I’m going to call it “Some Notes on an Abandoned Novel.” I am going to write on this phenomenon of abandoning—
RB: Do you see yourself as a literary jack of all trades?
RB: You’re an editor, essayist, and short-story writer—
TB: I guess I am probably either that admirable thing, which is the generalist, or that detestable thing, which is the [bursts out laughing] the dilettante, [both laugh] I don’t know. I hope I am a generalist.
RB: You’re comfortable writing in any form because—
TB: The only thing I haven’t written a lot of is poetry. I can’t claim that I read a tremendous amount of poetry. I probably read more poetry than most non-poets. I buy three or four books of poems a year. The last book of poems that I read that totally knocked me out was David Berman’s book Actual Air. Open City published it. But anyway, poetry is the one form I don’t feel comfortable in—literary essays, I really love writing them. Journalism, as long as it’s not actual real journalism, I feel pretty comfortable in. And I love writing fiction, so—I teach nonfiction and I always tell my students that the great thing about nonfiction is that basically if it’s not fiction and not poetry, it’s nonfiction. [laughs] You’ve got a huge area to work with.
RB: I may end up talking to Nick Hornby as I have come to him lately through The Polysyllabic Spree, the collection of his pieces on his monthly reading for the Believer. I think it’s tough to write interesting essays on reading and probably the only audience is readers, which makes them a nightmare audience, in a way. I was highly amused by his writings on Blake Bailey’s Yates biography.
TB: He didn’t like it, right?
RB: He did like it, with qualifications.
TB: He said it was depressing.
RB: He said it was too long. He came up with funny criteria for how long books should be. And he essentially concluded it was depressing, but I was amazed that he claimed that Yates’s life was so troubled that there were 10 entries for “breakdown” in the index. I, of course, checked and there weren’t [any].
TB: It’s not true?
RB: [laughs] No, it’s not true. And I had no problem with him making that up. It was fine.
TB: It sounded true.
RB: Which is why I liked it even more when I found out it was untrue.
TB: A British writer tends to have a less evolved relationship with fact. [laughs]
TB: The fact too good to check is a Briticism. It comes from British journalism.
RB: I had never heard that until Robert McCrum introduced me to the notion. Let’s return to your career arc. Escanaba, Mich., then?
TB: I went to community college for a year in my hometown. Bay De Noc Community College.
RB: Wow. How many people go to community college there?
TB: Most of the people in my hometown.
RB: Because they feel college is a necessity?
TB: I couldn’t tell you.
RB: What’s the employment situation in that area?
TB: In Escanaba there’s a paper mill and there’s the community college. Those are the two biggest employers in the county.
RB: I’m trying to understand why people go to college. Most people attend to enhance their employment possibilities.
TB: A lot of people go there to do what I did, which is to transfer out as soon as possible. I was a miserable high school student, so I had no options.
RB: Was it a bad high school?
TB: No. It’s not a great high school [either]. There are good people that teach in it, obviously, but it’s a small-town high school. Small-town kids in the rural Midwest have access to maybe one-tenth of the resources that kids in suburban high schools have access to. The fact that going to college—and I don’t say this with any arrogance-, and I hope it doesn’t come off that way: For a kid that was as serious about reading as I was and basically as smart as I was, even when I was a fuckup, the fact that nobody pulled me aside and tried to right my ship, that no one saw that and identified this in me except for one man, one teacher, and just one, that in retrospect seems to me to be a damning thing. Not that, “How could I have slipped through the cracks?” That’s not what I mean.
In Russian there is no word for “fun” either. It’s very peculiar. Fun as we understand it. In Uzbek it’s “khazil kilada,” which means to make jokes. So whenever we said, “We had fun,” it always came out, “Biz khazil kilamiz.” And I’m always like, “That’s not quite the same thing.”
RB: I call you and raise you. I went to school in Chicago and my high school had an affluent and ambitious student body. Nobody pulled me out. I read independently of my life as a high school student.
TB: That’s what’s not valued. That might be a Harrisonesque chip on my shoulder that I have. I am willing to—
RB: OK, from Escanaba Community College—
TB: I went to Michigan State.
RB: Where McGuane, Ford—
TB:—and Harrison and Dan Gerber the poet and heir to the Gerber baby fortune.
RB: And the Gerber Foundation.
TB: So I went there and I became the coeditor of the Michigan State literary magazine, which McGuane had founded in 1963. I knew who all these guys were then. And it was shocking to me how many English majors had no idea that the funniest writer alive—which is what I thought of McGuane back then—had gone to Michigan State. I was hated at Michigan State because I was a bit of a know-it-all and I talked a lot in class. I was pretty insufferable.
RB: Did your professors hate you?
TB: No, my instructors loved me. I just love books. It wasn’t out of some kind of brown-nosing ass-headedness. I was just so excited to be sitting in a class and be talking about books. But I applied to some internships in college and I didn’t get any of them. So I joined the Peace Corps, not knowing what else to do with myself.
RB: This was in?
TB: 1996. I had met Bob Shacochis at a writer’s conference a few years before that and he made a huge impression on me both as a man and as a writer.
RB: Was he one of three people who was interested in writing about Haiti?
TB: Yeah, a great book [The Immaculate Invasion] about Haiti. A masterpiece about Haiti. I wrote him a letter saying, “I’m thinking about the Peace Corps.” And [at the same time] I did one of those foolish things of proposing to my high school sweetheart.
RB: So one of those stories is very autobiographical?
TB: Oh yeah. [laughs] Yeah. And I went to the Peace Corps and was looking forward to a life of daring and adventure and the minute I got to Uzbekistan I knew, “I’m not going to be able to cut this. This is just—”
RB: Did you have choice of where you could go?
TB: No. I asked for Russia or Eastern Europe.
RB: Do you have Russian?
TB: I don’t. I studied German for four years.
RB: Allow me to skip ahead. Were you mimicking Ronald Reagan—there was at least one story where you claim that there is no word for such and such in the Russian language. Didn’t Reagan claim there was no world for “freedom”?
TB: Did he say that? It sounds very familiar. There’s no word for “efficiency.” In Uzbek there is no word for “fun.” And in Russian there is no word for “fun” either. It’s very peculiar. Fun as we understand it. In Uzbek it’s “khazil kilada,” which means to make jokes. So whenever we said, “We had fun,” it always came out, “Biz khazil kilamiz.” And I’m always like, “That’s not quite the same thing.” But the fact that “We made a lot of jokes” is the closest approximation that they have has led me to think that this notion of fun and leisure is really peculiarly Western.
RB: I think you have to overlay all the natural languages to get to the closest approximation of a sketch of reality. I thought Ali G was so good was because he seemed to include the non-verbal cues that a language expresses.
TB: There’s a great one where he asks people to commemorate the Tinchlik Massacre. “Tinchlick” in Kazakh means “peaceful.” The Peaceful Massacre, the fact that there are little central Asian jokes for people—I was wondering how many people in this country just got that joke? [laughs]
RB: So your first book was Chasing the Sea.
TB: It’s funny how that came to be written. It was my publisher’s idea. It was not my idea. I had a novel I was working on. I had a short-story collection that had four of the six stories in God Lives. It was the dreaded—oh God, it’s such a cliché—a story collection and then your novel.
RB: The two-book contract.
TB: I shudder to think of that now.
TB: I was a walking cliché. I was in search of the two-book deal and I was an editor at Holt.
RB: And you lived in Brooklyn.
TB: [chuckles] And I lived in Brooklyn with Amber Hoover. And no one wanted it [the novel]. It was rejected everywhere. And I had two pieces of magazine nonfiction under my belt at this point. That’s it. And my agent very cunningly slipped in the pack the magazine proposal I had written for Harper’s. When I say written, it was something I spent an hour on. I am not kidding. I knew they wanted to do a piece on me in Uzbekistan. It had been agreed to, so this proposal was pretty much to get something to base the contract on. And she [my agent] slipped this little fillip into the package and Jenny Minton, who was my first editor at Pantheon, read that. She liked the stories, and she rather liked the novel but she really thought there was a book there [in the magazine proposal]. When I first heard this, I thought, “No wonder publishing is going down the fucking tubes. These people are idiots. They want me to write a nonfiction book. There’s not a book here. Are you crazy? I’m not going to write a book about this.” My agent, Heather Schroder, who is lovely and wonderful and a true friend and a great ally, kind of talked me off the ledge. And convinced me that maybe I should do this. And I was totally against it. I went there thinking, “These fucking people think I’m going to write a book. Jesus Christ.” It wasn’t until I met the guy in Chasing the Sea, a translator named Rustan who becomes a major character in the book, when I met him I realized I was going to be OK. Until that moment, I was very concerned that I was going to have enough material for a book. Chasing the Sea was not my idea, which seems so strange now but after I’d finished I had an intention to go back to the novel and finish it and read the novel and it was like, “You know what, fuck this.” I abandoned it and wrote another story and changed another story enough so that it fit with the other ones.
RB: Are you writing an essay every issue for the Believer?
TB: I’ve written five pieces [out of 20 issues].
RB: Would that be your next book?
TB: Not that I am aware of.
RB: Jim Shepard’s film pieces are being published in book form this summer. And they are publishing an anthology of interviews [of which my talk with Jamaica Kincaid will be included]. So, it seems that they are using their content to produce books. And the Hornby essays are a book.
TB: I think I’d want to hoard my pieces. I want to be like Updike and have one of those big fat [laughs]—but he has more critical mass beneath him, to be able to warrant a 500-page book of essays, but nonetheless. I would love to do a book for Believer books.
Editors do the best they can. Like writers do the best they can.
RB: Did you buy the collected Yates stories for Holt?
TB: It was my idea.
RB: What else from your days as an editor are you proud of? I assume you are proud of the Yates book.
RB: How did it do commercially?
TB: It did OK. The paperback is going to sell for a real long time. So, that’s good.
RB: Has the Yates’s renaissance crested?
TB: I don’t think it’s in the cards for Richard Yates. It’s become as big as the vectors of Yates’s literary personality will allow. Something tells me that if it were really to reach critical mass, the ghost of Richard Yates would descend from heaven with a flaming sword and begin to wreak havoc on his supporters
RB: He finally was posthumously published in the New Yorker [fulfilling a lifelong ambition].
TB: Which I almost managed to fuck up. That’s another story.
RB: OK, we won’t get into that. So were there other things—
TB: Paula Fox—she was completely out of print. That was the first book I ever signed up—the paperback of Desperate Characters.
RB: Anything to do with [Jonathan] Franzen’s championing of her?
TB: Yeah, I read Franzen’s essay Perchance to Dream in college. And I wrote him a letter—a fan letter. It’s very weird. I read the essay and stumbled across in a ShopKo—which is the Midwest equivalent of Costcutters—a remaindered copy of Strong Motion. I had never heard of Franzen before. This was in ’95 or ’96. Looked at it and thought, “I just read this great essay by this guy.” So I bought it. I read it in one sitting. And it still to this day remains one of my favorite novels. It’s a really big book for me. It loosened me up as a fiction writer in some profound way. But, I wrote him a letter. He responded. I wrote him a much longer letter. He responded with a much shorter letter. And then I went to the Peace Corps. And I wrote him a couple of times when I was there. And you’ve read The Corrections?
TB: There’s that scene in the cruise ship and they are all talking about where they have traveled. And there are people talking about Uzbekistan and pit toilets in Uzbekistan. That stuff came out of letters I was writing him at the time. It was total sheer happenstance. So that’s my tiny contribution to The Corrections, which I am honored to—
RB: Were you mentioned in the acknowledgements or anywhere?
TB: Not in the book proper but privately he did. And after I quit the Peace Corps, I came to New York and I wound up as an intern at Harper’s magazine. And one of the jobs I had to do for my boss (Barbara Jones, she and I didn’t really hit it off well) she asked me to make sure he was coming to some dinner party she was having. So I had to call and leave a message saying, “Hi, are you coming to Barbara’s dinner party?” And I’m leaving the message and I am saying, “This is kind of weird: Do you remember that guy who wrote you letters? It’s me and I’m an intern here.” And he picked up the phone. And he said, “Oh my God, what are you doing there?” So we ended up having a drink.
RB: Did he go to the party?
TB: I think he did. But that was basically the beginning of a friendship between him and me. I became an assistant at Norton. My boss quit. I was asked to have ideas for Norton paperbacks—reissues and stuff like that. The first one I had was Desperate Characters. It was a book I was trying to read but I couldn’t find a copy of it. So I said to Franzen, “We should reissue Desperate Characters. And you should write the introduction.” And he was like, “Well I’m in, if you can get ’em to go for it. Sure.” So the next I know we paid about $1,500 for the paperback rights and I think it sold about 35,000 or 40,000 copies by now. It’s probably the most successful book I did as an editor.
I began to understand a) that rejection does not mean that you were a bad writer, there are a million things that feed in to rejections, and b) that books that I really enjoyed, even admired, that I read on submission but that didn’t set off fireworks inside of me, I shouldn’t be the editor for.
RB: It does seem like younger readers are hungry for—its almost a sport—they are hungry for discovering the unrecognized, the under-appreciated writers.
TB: Yeah, I feel that intensely.
RB: That’s wonderful, except the bigger statement or proposition is that there is a lot of good writing and hearing the ongoing drone of complaints about too many books, too much crap is published—the fact is there is an immense reservoir of great writing. And your story about the gauntlet your story went through and others—Courtney Brkic’s story collection was rejected 30 times. Sam Lipsyte is getting a lot of mileage out of being rejected 27 times.
TB: I sat in on an editorial meeting when that book got rejected. It was one of the—
RB: Has anyone bested Tibor Fischer’s 56 rejections?
TB: I don’t think so. That sounds like a record to me.
RB: All the same, this is good advice for people who are committed to being writers, to not take the rejections to heart.
RB: Easy for me to say.
TB: It is easy to say. But on the other hand you either—something compelled you to sit down and write that story. And at the time, it was a pretty powerful compulsion. Otherwise you wouldn’t have written it. I know how hard it is to write. You know how hard it is to write, how hard it is to finish something. The trick is to just keep hold of that feeling and maybe being in my side of things and being an editor at a pretty young age and basically the scales dropped from my eyes pretty severely. I began to understand a) that rejection does not mean that you were a bad writer, there are a million things that feed in to rejections, and b) that books that I really enjoyed, even admired, that I read on submission but that didn’t set off fireworks inside of me, I shouldn’t be the editor for. I shouldn’t be that person’s advocate. And I began to see that maybe my stories were being rejected not because the other person didn’t think I was good but because for some weird other reason. I just didn’t set the fire. You can’t set the fire for everyone. And having that realization and understanding that we are all just mortal, fallible, human beings. Most of us try to do as good a job as we can. And most editors and agents I know are pretty conscientious people and some of them are extraordinarily conscientious people, and very sensitive to a duty that we have, basically serving as the middleman of this incredibly delicate art, this incredibly delicate process that happens to have great art coming out of the other end of it. I began to stop thinking of this process in antagonistic terms. And I can’t tell you what burden that lifted off my mind as a young writer. And I still cringe when I go to writing conferences and I hang out with writers and hear the way editors are discussed. They get discussed like they are these mythical chimeras who come flying out of the sky and who land and make these arbitrary decisions and wish stardom on people. [emphatically] Man, it is just not like that. Editors do the best they can. Like writers do the best they can.
RB: There is a corollary to the movie business. I just read David Thomson’s The Whole Equation. One of the ways he skirts conventional wisdom is that he is not committed to lionizing directors at the expense of producers. And what stimulated the book was his youthful encounter with The Love of the Last Tycoon, whose character is based on the legendary Irving Thalberg. So David doesn’t argue that because the movie factory system was about making money that it couldn’t produce anything good.
TB: That’s the most asinine argument you can make.
RB: That is the way artists seem to look up at the process of the intersection of art and commerce, and everybody is immediately an adversary—it does make sense. Rejection can’t help but breed bitterness and anger and disappointment and irrationality. You are not going to view the process or system dispassionately.
TB: Especially a system that is so often wrong. The better part of all art, whether you are making movies or music or making books, we all view it—I wrote an essay about this once. It was the first things I published. It was my experience of publishing Desperate Characters. It was the first time I had to make this adult realization that it is not a cabal or conspiracy. It’s not this crass money-making venture. What it is, is just a bunch of people engaged in an endeavor that most of them care passionately about, and yes, they make mistakes, and yes, people are mysteriously blind to the obvious sometimes. But the obvious is only the obvious in hindsight. And they are living in a historical moment that unfortunately, because it is a semi-public enterprise, that dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands of people later are going to go back and pick you apart on.
RB: This is also an era complicated by issues of celebrity, and everyone wants the inside-baseball details of everything. So now it’s common information what the print runs are. Why would people waste their time with such—
TB: It’s some thing the Believer does. They list print runs in their book reviews. And whenever I see that I wince.
RB: Aren’t the numbers, by and large, bogus?
TB: I’ll tell you a publishing story I really like. A house I worked at had announced that a first printing was going to be 50,000 copies or something. And the author saw the ad and called up the editor, my boss and said, “Oh my God, I saw the ad. You’re really printing 50,000 copies?” And my boss, a very courtly Southern gentleman, said, “Well, we’d certainly like to print 50,000. [laughs] The number is a sincere hope.” Yeah, what the hell was he going to say?
RB: It’s [because of] tidbits like that and characters like some of the top executives of the major houses that animus is generated toward the business.
TB: My boss was a beautiful, sensitive man who cared fiercely about good writing. And didn’t edit books that weren’t good. Everyone makes their peace with this in a different way. I don’t take the opposite tack in which I say, “There is no such thing as selling out,” because there obviously is. I think what selling out is, is basically an abandonment of taste.
I loved Larry Bird, so I became a Celtics fan. And this is really funny—after Bird left the Celtics and began coaching the Pacers, I was watching the Pacers and Celtics play and I found myself rooting for the Pacers. I had this existential sports crisis, “Oh my God, I was never a Celtics fan; I was always a [Larry] Bird fan.”
RB: I’m not sure there is a clear criterion or decision procedure for understanding what selling out is—it’s so individual, so ephemeral.
TB: And there are great people and artists who by all available evidence have sold out and then some, and they somehow keep mysteriously and stubbornly making great stuff. I am fascinated by these questions of art and commerce. I think about them all the time. I was pretty strident on this stuff at one point in my life.
RB: Me, too. I wish I had gotten to where you are in your life earlier in my life. [both laugh]
TB: I was very lucky. It was just an accident. Which is not to say I am not enraged by just sheer instances of truly second-rate writers getting sprayed with the shit mist. I don’t mean second rate. That sounds way too—I would never name names—writers who get mistaken for great stuff and clearly the house doesn’t even believe it. It’s just a completely shameless attempt to—who knows.
RB: It all still looks like a roulette wheel to me. It’s hard not be seriously vexed. All the big images are about vulgarity. I love the phrase that carried over from Spy magazine’s portrayal of Donald Trump—”the short-fingered vulgarian”—
RB: It seems to apply to so many people that I saw in action in various enterprises in the ’90s—they were exactly that. So how could the things they produced or were involved in have any integrity or be anything resembling anything honorable? So, it seems some commerce generates its own miasma of crap and corruption.
TB: I was going to say that the rage comes from the writer part of me. It doesn’t come from—and when the writer part of me calms down, the former editor and more human part of me, the less interested part of me, can realize that what are publishing houses supposed to do? Not promote writers that they sign up? [laughs] Are they supposed to say, “Hey, we signed up a real piece of shit that we are going to fob off on you?”
RB: And not book them on Oprah. See what happens when you don’t? [RB is referring to Franzen’s Oprah contretemps.—eds.]
TB: Yeah, your book becomes even more successful.
RB: That could only happen once.
TB: She doesn’t do living writers any more, after that. Ghosts don’t complain.
RB: I’m struck by, from all we have talked about, how solidly ensconced you are in the writerly life. Do you follow sports?
TB: Oh yeah.
RB: Sky dive? What are your non-literary interests, your life aside from writing?
TB: Hmm, it’s kind of terrifying. I used to have a lot of interests and now I just read a lot.
RB: You used to have a lot of interests?
TB: I used to follow NBA basketball with a passion of—I was like a perennial 14-year-old boy. And I used to be a big baseball fan. I still will watch the odd game, but all my zealous energy has been commanded by writing and books. For better or for worse. I play a lot of video games. I jog. I play the banjo.
RB: When you were a hoop fan, what team were you a fan of?
TB: The Celtics.
RB: Seriously? Not a Pistons or Knicks fan?
TB: In the Michigan Upper Peninsula we hate people in the Lower Peninsula.
TB: We hate everything. Everyone there is a fan of the Bucks or the Brewers or the Cubs.
RB: What about Cleveland?
TB: No, we don’t like Ohio, either. So you are basically in sports limbo there. And I loved Larry Bird, so I became a Celtics fan. And this is really funny—after Bird left the Celtics and began coaching the Pacers, I was watching the Pacers and Celtics play and I found myself rooting for the Pacers. I had this existential sports crisis, “Oh my God, I was never a Celtics fan; I was always a [Larry] Bird fan.” So then I became a big Pacers fan. And then Bird left the Pacers and Isaiah fucking Thomas starts coaching the Pacers and any Celtics fan—you can not do anything but despise Isaiah Thomas. So then I was cast into sports limbo [again]. I made a huge effort to become a Knicks fan. It failed miserably. They are really—they are like—what’s a really unlikable country?
TB: Yeah, they are like the Paraguay of basketball franchises. So I’m not a big basketball fan anymore because I don’t have a team anymore.
RB: Don’t you think people become, to use a cliché, hard-wired to like their youthful or home team? I still scan the sports page for Cubs scores. Whatever happens, growing up in Chicago seems to have imprinted that unconscious loyalty, or call it habit. Maybe it’s because you left the country.
TB: I became a pretty big fan of Vietnamese soccer [laughs] when I was there. I loved going to games there.
RB: Your next book is about Vietnam?
TB: Uh huh.
TB: My dad is a combat vet. And it came from a magazine piece I was going to write. It’s kind of about—the frame of the book is about a 10-day trip my dad and I took. It’s a very compressed story. Like Chasing the Sea, it’s a travel book that has a million tributaries it went running off on. And I like this idea—
RB: Do you mind being referred to as travel writer? Jonathan Raban becomes incensed at that categorization.
TB: Maybe if I had been at it as long as him and written as many different things as he has and I were still called a travel writer, I would probably get irritated. I don’t really have any complaints about being called anything at this point in my career. [laughs] Just being known is something, is nice.
RB: Are you surprised at the any number of writers’ names that end up in gossip columns and various Page Sixes?
TB: I’ve wound up in gossip columns, and I am not even famous.
RB: Weird, isn’t it?
TB: Real weird. There was a piece in New York Sun today, Chat with the Writer.
RB: They are still in business?
TB: Yeah, they have a great book section.
RB: Who edits it?
TB: Adam Kirsch. Ben Lytal who writes for the Believer sometimes. It’s really nice. I’m still not entirely used to a “Chat with the Writer, Tom Bissell” as a suitable newspaper material.
TB: I don’t know. Seeing yourself—it’s a fine article and I am very happy with it and I really like the guy I talked to, but that’s not me, you know.
RB: Is our conversation you?
TB: No, it isn’t.
RB: What would make it you?
TB: I don’t know.
RB: Dare I suggest that all these pieces together—the “mosaic,” the gestalt of it all, make it you?
TB: Possibly. I had a conversation with a really good friend? someone I care about, who was asking me whether it bothered me that this [other] friend wasn’t more passionately interested in my writing. I actually have no idea. The friends that you have like that—I have a lot of friends that are writers and we don’t really read each other’s books. We’re just friends and that stuff is not part of the equation with our friendship. It’s absolutely crucial for writers to have—and I am not saying this because I am so besieged, so well known—that’s not at all what I mean. You just have to exist outside of yourself as a writer or else you are going to be writing New York media novels. God bless media-novel writers—I don’t want to be one of those people.
RB: Do you foresee regularly leaving the country for material for your writing?
TB: I think so. When I think about what kind of career I want to have as a writer I think of Paul Theroux, someone who has gotten to do all these amazing cool things.
RB: Are you fearless?
TB: God, no!
RB: It takes guts and courage to go to places that you are not familiar with. Do you heavily research—did you know much about Uzbekistan?
TB: No, but I was in the bosom of the U.S. Peace Corps.
RB: You had faith and trust?
TB: [chuckles] The Peace Corps hardens you. I told people I was going to Vietnam. “Who do you know? Where are you staying?” “I don’t know, I’ll figure it out when I get there.” And people are amazed by this. Vietnam is a beautiful place and—
RB: I don’t find that troublesome or unusual.
TB: You’ve traveled in Central America.
RB: My assumption would be that, like Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans, the people are gentle and generous. I would never worry about going to a place where you could sleep outdoors. [both laugh] Uzbekistan, I’d worry.
TB: It’s a bit rougher there.
RB: Is there a word for “fun” in Vietnamese?
TB: Yeah there is. I used to know it, too. That’s one of the great things about traveling; you learn shitty versions of various languages and then you forget them all. No, I am not fearless at all. In fact, I’m incredibly fearful about flying, in particular. I have near panic attacks. I have to basically dope myself up with racehorse-grade tranquilizers [both laugh] to not freak out when I am in the air. I hate flying.
RB: How did your father feel about going back to Vietnam?
TB: He was great. It was a beautiful—I want this book to be a beautiful book about a father and a son, first and foremost. I love my dad intensely. He and I have a lot of disagreements and try to be up front about this stuff and I have a lot of thoughts about failings he has as a moral thinking about Vietnam.