Red Hook, NY,
September 10th, 2021
When I met Nick Flynn for the first time, he was doing the final editing of his first memoir: Another Night in Bullshit City, which was published in September of 2004. Since then, I have been mixing up, de-tangling and remixing the stories I have read about Nick’s life in his memoirs with those he told in my presence, with those of my own observations when spending time with him or his family, with those I have imagined, with those which now have become my own memories, with those other people who have written about Nick and his wife and their work. When I suggested that we do an interview about the paperback release of This is the Night our House will catch Fire, I was sure I had read the hardcover version when it came out in August 2020. I knew about the fire, I knew about the house, I knew about his mom, but when I looked for my copy I could not find it. It was not there. It was like that thing his mom had said, that thing about not being around forever.
Franziska Lamprecht: I start with a very general question. What for you is the difference between a memoir and an autobiography?
Nick Flynn: When I think of an autobiography it is covering a whole life from cradle to grave, so it includes all the significant moments in your life. A memoir as far as I understand it, is one piece of one’s life, it’s taking one moment and letting that moment expand into something bigger.
And that moment has happened already? Is memoir connected to memory?
Yes, it’s a moment that’s already happened. I actually can’t think of a memoir that happens in the future, or creating the moment in the future that you then will write about. Is that what you are saying?
I am asking the question because the title of your memoir: This is the Night our House Will Catch Fire, is set in the future. Why did you choose a title that is set in the future?
As opposed to: This was the Night our House caught on Fire, or The Night our House caught Fire?
What I liked about that title was that it had that strange play with time. This is the moment before the thing that the book is about happens. The thing that seems to have the most energy is the fire, but what is just as important is what happened before, like the day leading up to that. How did we get to that point? The aftermath is something else.
My friend Marie Howe, she is very Catholic, she turned me on to this painting of the annunciation, where Mary is just about to be told that she is pregnant with God’s child. She is standing there, looking out into this beautiful landscape and this angel is coming down and hasn’t touched her shoulder yet. That is the moment. You can see everything just before life is about to change.
I am trying to understand the timeline in the painting. Is that a future vision? Is this a place in time from where we can look into the future then?
No, it’s the moment right before she is told. In the mythology of it she is already pregnant with God’s child, I guess, but she doesn’t know it though, it’s going to be revealed to her. And once you learn that thing, you cannot unlearn it. Your life will change, because with this knowledge you can’t go back to the moment before that.
Still, it’s not a given. The painting suggests that this might happen, but the angel could also suddenly turn into a bat, take a sudden turn, and fly away. The painting is no proof.
Yes, the painting is no proof it happened, but we have the Bible, we have the historical reference that it did happen. This is the story that some people ascribe to.
It’s like in my book, the day before the fire happened. I am making an apple pie with my mother, we are grilling things on the back deck, I introduce the boyfriend so we can know who he is, because if you just started with the fire immediately you would not have any sense what was burning.
By writing about your parents and making this writing public you have created a permanent place for them in the consciousness of your readers, which I guess is a somewhat public sphere. I am curious now, how a personal, published memory overlaps with that thing we call history?
The things I write about my parents would not fall into the realm of history, because I think history is the thing that changes the life of more people, and the things that happened between me and my parents affected only a small group of people, so it would not fall into a historical narrative, except if I gained some notoriety and then someone wanted to figure out the backstory. My parents are both dead, I think they’ve lost their shot at history, in case they ever wanted that. Most times you end up in historical records, because you did something terrible, or you made something seemingly significant that changed the course of events. May be you invented something beautiful. History is also very subjective; it is always changing too. You can go back and revisit it and realize that a lot of it was left out.
In any story that you tell, one of the main parts is, that there is so much left out of it. You can’t possibly put everything in. I have written four memoirs now, which may seem successive, and I enjoy the form, because you can take one moment and sort of like expand it out. Ideally, like in this book, the moment is also dealing with other political and social issues at the time. My mother being a single woman in her twenties, dating guys, raising two kids, working class and trying to figure out a way to do that in our country, where there is very little support, especially back then when I was a kid. To me it feels political in that sense; my mother making a choice figuring a way out of that by setting our house on fire. Maybe it was not the best move in some ways, but in other ways: what else you got? And that’s how I saw it for a long time, it seemed kind of admirable. She figured out a way to get this shitbox of a house renovated, she got insurance money, we got it fixed and we had a better house. We could live in it for a few years and then sell it.
You and your daughter visited the house, it is still standing in your hometown, a man called Peter lives there now. You also describe how you visited that other house that played a big role in your imagination as a child, the house of Mr. Mann, which is now a museum. If someone would come to you and say: We would like to turn your old house into a museum, what kind of museum would it be?
There are a few museums that came into my mind, when this question arose.
In Zagreb, for example, there is a Museum of Broken Relationships; it exhibits personal objects left over from former lovers, accompanied by brief descriptions.
I heard about the Museum of Sadness.
Where is that?
I am not sure, but people send something in that has some sad story attached to it and write about it.
There is the Museum of Death in Thailand, they show hemorrhaged brains, severed and mutilated legs and arms, lungs cut up by deep knife wounds and skulls punctured by bullets. There is the Avanos Hair Museum in Turkey. Have you heard of this one?
The town where this museum is located is famous for pottery, so many tourists visit. A man, a potter by trade, started the museum, forty years ago, when a dear friend left the town. Before she left she gave him a strand of her hair as a memento and he put it in a special place, and whenever a female costumer came into his pottery shop he told her the story about the woman who left him with nothing else but a strand of her hair. He must have been a very good and romantic storyteller, because every woman he told the story to supposedly took some scissors and cut a strand of her hair for him to keep. Now he his has a big cave full of hair, there are more than 16,000 locks of woman’s hair in that cave, each one with a label that lists the name of the original owners, some wrote their address, others added their phone numbers, some attached pass photos of themselves.
Is it a lock of hair or just a piece of hair?
It depends on the woman, how much they want to leave there.
That’s a strange museum.
Yes. Now, imagine Peter wants to sell your old house. A group of people want to buy it and turn it into a museum, but they don’t know what kind of museum it should be. What would you tell them?
What kind of objects would you put into the museum?
What I was thinking about as you were talking…if it was a museum that had anything to do with me… it goes back to the other book of mine we might talk about: Stay. I feel that is almost like a museum. It’s a compendium of the artists that I worked with over the last thirty years, collaborators, musicians, composers, dancers, who have basically as much to do with what I have written as my memories.
Mister Mann’s Museum is called the Mann Farmhouse, but it’s not only about him, it’s about his whole lineage, how he got to the town and all the little objects that he has, things he collected, like little metal trains, nautical things…But in mine, I could almost see it as a Museum of Friendship. It’s almost like the self is made of all these other people. So I would want to have that in it, all these other people and what they did and what they made alongside anything I made.
Museum of Friendships
Or maybe Museum of Unusual Friendships, just to make it a bit stranger, but they are actually not that unusual, they are just necessary friendships. Museum of Necessary Connections. It could have other section, other rooms, other artists that show who they worked with too. I would be very uncomfortable having a museum just about me, that would be a lot of responsibility.
I thought of a museum because of Mister Mann, but also because there are a lot of actual objects that you describe in your book.
What kind of objects?
There are the five round, white stones. You use the beginning sentence of your memoir describing them. Five Perfectly Round Stones, each about the size of an ostrich egg, that sit on my desk in Brooklyn. Then there is the photograph of the boy when he imagined the future as fire. Then there is your grandmother’s plastic cathedral that glows from within.
Then there is the scroll. That was sort of the totemic object of story, that was the object that started the book. The plastic cathedral came later. Part of the story is that my grandmother would pull that plastic cathedral out of her attic a month before Christmas. It was about the size of a breadbox, it looked like Notre Dame and it was made out of this creamy yellow plastic. You plugged it in and it lit up, it sort of glowed. You turned a little key and it would play: Silent Night. In writing the book, that thing came back to me. I remember that I was so hypnotized by that object as a child. Then thinking about the object when writing the book turned it into the equivalent of standing outside my house on fire and looking at it glow. And as I was writing about that, Notre Dame caught on fire and it became this image that kept spinning off meaning and everywhere I looked I would see different versions of this.
What is the object that contains the essence of a story? They call it sema, where the word Semiotics comes from, a sign or a signal. I first learned the word from a book called An Odyssey by Daniel Mendelsohn. One of the semas in that story is the bed that Odysseus and Penelope share. When he comes home from being at sea for twenty years, she does not recognize him, does not believe it is him, so she tests him. When he says let’s go to bed, she says: let’s move the bed to this other room. And he says, well I can’t move the bed, because I built the bed and it’s made out of a living tree, its growing still. And so the bed is a sema, because it represents their marriage, that it is alive and growing, it contains the whole essence of the story. The plastic cathedral is my equivalent of that.
And all the objects are like that. The stones come back at the end, because I talk about the beach being made by a glacier. The stones are the stones my mother walked across to throw herself into the ocean, the stones are the stones my daughter picked up and put into my car and it sort of weighs the car down, so it can’t leave. They look really bland on my desk, but when you wet them they start to glow and transform into these magic objects. I don’t really wet them on my desk, but I have these pictures of them on the beach and it is this surreal landscape when the ocean interacts with them. It’s something about that too, how something can come alive that you don’t see normally.
But do you think it’s possible that it’s all contained in one object, or is it more about these objects being nodes from where connections to other objects are being made?
It’s a chain of associations. Yes, the object itself is nothing, it’s how it exists. It’s where my grandmother put the cathedral, it’s the season of when she would bring it out, the song that would play in it. It’s always a cluster of associations.
The last sentence you wrote on the chapter of plastic cathedral is this: “Raylite cathedral becomes burning house becomes Notre Dame – a bright red thread could connect them.”
It made me think of apophenia. Have you heard of that?
Let me read you the definition from Wikipedia: “Apophenia is the tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things. The term (German: Apophänie) was coined by psychiatrist Klaus Conrad in his 1958 publication on the beginning stages of schizophrenia. He defined it as “unmotivated seeing of connections [accompanied by] a specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness”.
What about the term abnormal meaningfulness. Isn’t that interesting?
Yes, may be that is a good name for the museum. Museum of Abnormal Meaningfulness.
Yes. I like that.
There is another quote by the poet Adrianne Rich. It describes that when you are in the middle of a project you start seeing connections and patterns everywhere, until it becomes a bombardment and a meteorite shower. Everything has significance. It’s a kind of madness. It might be a little dramatic to link it to schizophrenia, but I think, its almost like the peeling back of a veil and realizing that everything is connected, as in the idea of inter-being, where the flower is only made of non-flower elements. The flower itself does not exist, it is only made of what made it. It does not exist without the clouds, without the sun, without the rain, without the earth, all these things go into making the flower, and the flower itself is a non-entity, which is sort of the mystery of Buddhism. The thing itself does not exist without the connections around it, the inter-being.
Yes, I think of apophenia like that – having the capacity and imagination of seeing and understanding the connections that make up the whole universe. That’s the beauty of art. But seeing and explaining hidden patterns and significances and being guided by meaningful coincidences, is also how QAnon helps its followers find conspiracy in chaos.
Why do we feel these QAnon people are crazy when they see and connect symbols and signs that supposedly prove the truth of their belief system?
I am not looking for one answer to the whole universe. Ideally, I think in memoirs and art you are opening up to larger mysteries. The purpose of this is not to close down. With QAnon people it seems that they are funneling all their knowledge into one predetermined outcome, whereas with art you start to see these connections and you want to bring in more, it’s an inverse funnel to QAnon, as far as I can tell. It’s not about nailing something down. In the end of any of my books, or in the end of any non-fiction book you like, you can’t come to one definitive answer or solution as to why something happened.
Yes, I have that thing in there of the bright red thread connecting these things, but what does that say? It’s not saying: the answer is this. The answer of why, or even if my mother set our house on fire, and how that resonates throughout my whole life, is the question of the whole book. I am not really seeking the answer to that. I rather seek to explore. When you look at things – what happens? What if it was like this, or like this, or like this? Allowing multiplicity of meanings.
Back to the objects, or the images of these objects. When we say an archeologist uses a shovel and a brush to dig up the bones and shards of the past, what tool is a memoirist using? What’s your tool?
The tools I use to excavate the past are not directly connected to the work that I do on the page. I have to get into the right psychic space in order to do the work and the work itself is sort of looking at things that are hovering, shimmering just beyond my conscious perception. I was in my mid-thirties when I heard the story, that my mother set our house on fire, but it wasn’t a story I could attach any affect or any emotion or energy to at the time, because to actually go into it and do what I did in the book and look at all the possible scenarios of what it meant, I just wasn’t psychically ready to do it. To get to this point, to be able to do that, took tons of working with therapists, having support groups, I go to 12 step meetings, I do yoga, I exercise, I swim across lakes, I have to do all these things in order to be able to look at something.
I also do some research. For this book the research was of a very particular kind, it was me returning to my hometown with my daughter. The book started with her asking me questions when she was seven, because she really wanted to know what I was like when I was seven. That was how the story with Mister Mann came about. I would remember that there was this guy who lived behind my grandmother’s house. I would leave my grandmother’s house and go through the woods and I could not get near his house, because my grandmother told me that he would come out of the house with a shotgun and shoot me. When I heard that, I really wanted him to come out of the house with a shotgun and shoot me. And as I was telling this story to my daughter it so happened that I had to go to Boston. My wife was working, we did not have any childcare and so the two of us took a road trip and we drove up to my hometown and I got to show her Mister Mann’s house. That was sort of the beginning of the book in some way.
Two parallel strands that continuously weave through the book are your attempts to explain to yourself A) why your mother set the house on fire, and B) understand why you had an affair.
Thinking about what connects these two events, I wondered if having an affair was like setting your family on fire? You risked harming your wife and your daughter, and your lover. Your mother was very lucky. She did not kill her two sons, the house did not completely burn down, she collected the insurance money to rebuild your home, you guys lived there after the fire. Like your mother, you were lucky too. Your wife did not divorce you, you and your daughter and your wife are still living together as a family.
This thread of thoughts got me interested in the idea of insurance, so I began thinking about insurance as a practice or arrangement by which a company or government agency provides a guarantee of compensation for specified loss, damage, illness, or death in return for payment of a premium.”
Isn’t a book a bit like a written contract between an insurance policy holder and the insurer or assurer? Can writers through their writing protect their readers (or themselves) against the consequences of loss and death? In which way can we understand a book as a reimbursement or a compensation?
I am not sure if I protect anyone from anything. The art that I go to has usually some level of discomfort for me, or unease. I don’t think that this is like a handbook, that if you wanted to collect insurance money this is what you can do. I can’t control how anyone reads this book but I can’t imagine that you read this book like a How To Manual on how to burn your house down and collect insurance money. You can not read it as How to have an affair.
Just like in an earlier book of mine: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, its not a How To Manual for what to do when you find your father homeless, yet a lot of people approach it like that. Especially in American culture, people think that everything has to tell them how to do something. None of my books tell you how to do anything. Like being a parent. It’s very hard to be a parent, for me, for my mother, to find herself with two kids in her twenties. I have these quotes in the back of my book
of other people that I have read. There is this one from Hillary Mantel, Wicked Parents: “There can be few mothers who, trapped with a fractious, wailing, ungrateful baby, have not wished it momentarily removed, and then become afraid of the dark powers the wish might attract.”
Just like that thing of being awake at 3am and that baby just crying and having that dark thought go through your mind and then it lands on something else. It’s wild. My writing is an examination of those impulses. I could not have written that without having a child, and if I had not gone through of some of this darkness of early fatherhood.
I want to go back to my question. I put too much into it at once, so I will break it down. First part first: Is there a way to say that your mom put your house on fire because it was in disrepair and she could not think of another way to fix it, while many years later you put your marriage on fire, by having an affair, because your marriage was in disrepair and you could not think of another way to fix it? Can I compare it like that?
No, there is not a direct A to B comparison. The more benign possibility is that my mother was young, that she did not have much money, the house was run down and insurance would pay, but I also go into much darker possibilities, which is the Mantel thing I just read. Maybe: if the kids were gone, I could start again. Maybe this all was just a mistake and I could start over again. That is the darker impulse. With that the whole quality of love comes into question, survival and what you had deny as a kid, when you looked into your mother’s eyes and saw this: maybe if you weren’t here, things would be better.
And so with the affair…there was beauty in it, connection, it made sense in a lot of ways and it did seem like something I was very hopeful about for a period of time. At the same time, it was caught up in almost like a bubble, an unreality. You are in something that no one else knows about, the whole point of the affair is that it is private and secret. It’s in a closed room where you can reveal yourself in a way to one person and that allows another reality to exist. But then there is the larger reality that you step out into and as soon as the affair was revealed to my wife, the other reality just flooded in and it all became one thing. A lot of questions come up, once the bubble of unreality is pierced. If I do this, then I loose contact with my child. So why do I do this? What was it about that time of the affair that made it seem ok? How can I divide my attention in a way that make this seem like a viable way to live?
Now I can’t really imagine, I am like: how did I do that? It’s sort of shocking, it’s sort of being another person. It took so much fucking energy to have an affair, and so much not being able to talk about things, it’s like an addiction in a way. I have struggled with addiction before and it felt like another type of addiction because it mirrors some of the same things. Secrecy, the world getting smaller, not being connected to those closest to you, so a lot of those things rose up again. Today I would recoil from the idea of having an affair like from a hot flame. Having an affair would not do anything good for my life. It’s like smoking crack. That is not even close to anything I would do right now. Today. Even taking a drink, it would not solve anything for me.
Is it ok, if I try again with this insurance thing?
I am trying to understand the idea of being able to be reckless and take a certain risk of loosing something, because there is the knowledge, or the cultural practice of possibly getting reimbursed for it later. In which way can we understand a book as a reimbursement or a compensation after loss, damage or death has happened? How is the loss measured, or assessed?
It’s a complicated question. I am trying to think of how to approach it. However anything turns out in the end, it becomes eventually how it should be. Here I am now with my wife and my child and not with my lover. But it could have gone the other way. I don’t think it should have, and I think that is the life that makes more sense. I am choosing, and I am grateful to choose. But it happens that people go off with their affair and that turns out to be a good life. However it turns out in the end, it takes on the air of inevitability.
I am resistant to the idea that it is my job, or that it is even possible, to make sense of the past, or to redeem it even. Or to even understand it. There is no one way to say why my mother set the house on fire, or if she even did it. Or with my father, there is no one thing to say, of why he was homeless. There is no one answer to that question. You could say: he was an alcoholic. Yes, but there are plenty of alcoholics that live in mansions. It’s not that. You could say, he was mentally ill in some way. That doesn’t make you homeless. But for my psyche, it is like being in a place, where I can give the energy to something that is really hard for me to take in and that does stir my life in some way. It starts to feel like fate or something.
My therapist said something very interesting yesterday. My therapist is a Jungian therapist, so we work a lot with archetypes and stories that go through families and there is something in my family of origin, there is a sense of deep violence that goes through it. It’s not really tangible, you can not point to moments like, my grandfather murdered someone or something like that, but there is this undercurrent of darkness and an energy that is really destructive. Writing these books is getting a sense of that and not let it be something, that rises up in me and I don’t know where it comes from. It could be something that is old, or something that I grew up with, there is something going on in my family that has this emotional and psychological violence, but it was hidden. It rose up in certain moments, my father ends up homeless in the streets, my mother ends up committing suicide. There are moments of intense violence that I can remember, but basically the days were like this one today. Beautiful days, you look around and everything looks really nice. But then there is this thing that is in our DNA or in our history, it could be something larger, the culture of New England, it could go back to battles between Ireland and England, how the English fucked over the Irish, it could go back to man himself, just human beings devouring each other. It could be these larger connections, but then we come to this moment and we ask, why do we do what we do? Why did my mother think that was a good idea, why did I think it was a good idea to have an affair? Jung has that quote: “Until we make the subconscious conscious it will rule our lives and we will call it fate.” So, there are these unconscious forces that are directing us. We see something, are afraid of it and act a certain way. Yet it does not actually line up with what is happening right in front of us. Being in a relationship, being married with a kid, and being with my wife was suddenly feeling like: I am going to die in this. This is something really violent here, home is a place where someone could just set fire to it at night. And so I have to think ways out of it. Yet, if I don’t see that, if I can’t figure that out, it is going to lead to really bad places. A lot of bad stuff that happens in the world, because people haven’t looked at that, they haven’t looked at where they are from, they have not looked at what caused them to hate that person or to do that thing, or to keep this secret.
So if there is anything like insurance about it, or being remunerated for some loss, it’s that. It’s looking at someone else who has gone through these things, has gone to the edge of something and come back, not with an answer, but somewhat intact.
Is that sort of insurance called forgiveness? To know that one can be able to forgive, and that in return one can count on being forgiven at some point.
Yes, it’s always about forgiveness. It doesn’t help anyone to walk around with resentments towards anyone, that just seems to lead to terrible things. I teach a lot and the only thing I really tell students is that the whole purpose of writing is to find compassion for the people you are writing about. No matter what they did. You have to find compassion for them, otherwise you are doing something else. You are grinding an ax, you are trying to get even, and that is just perpetuating all the badness in the world. I use myself as a model. Clearly, anyone who has read my books realizes, I am not presenting myself as some perfect model on how one should live, but I am presenting that as a possibility in the midst of all this.
Does your wife read your books?
I don’t know about that.
You don’t know?
No, I don’t know about that.
I occasionally read her poems and things. That’s very curated.
But you don’t know if she has read your books or not.
She has not read this one.
And that is ok with you, or not?
It’s been complicated. I have to find other ways to connect with her, which is ok. In most marriages the partner does not write books, that’s usually not how the other person gets to know them.
In your book you defined marriage as “a snowglobe with a little handmade apocalypse inside. A snowglobe waiting for someone to reach out a hand and shake it.” Who was that supposed to be? Whose hand was supposed to reach out and shake the snowglobe?
I guess the owner of the snowglobe, or whoever wanted to buy this snowglobe. It’s a strange idea of marriage. There is this car driving down the highway at night and you have the lights on in the car, as if someone puts on the light to look at a map or something, and you look and you see that little car next to you that is lit up, a little snowglobe, and then I connect that to the metaphor of marriage. And the hand? I am not sure about the hand. Just waiting for something to shake things up. I think that is the thing. I have always been meaning to wake up to life in some way. And writing doesn’t really do it. You can become completely lost in the world of language for life. I was at a risk for that too, so this book is more of an active process of writing it, more like being in the world as I am writing it and not having to separate myself from the world. A lot of it is about integrating one’s experiences. I have a meditation practice. I have a writing practice. I do therapy. And now it feels like as if I am trying to integrate all these aspects of my life into the work I do. I meditate before I write. In therapy we are dealing with the things that are in this book. It’s getting this connected, it’s not having a separate thing going on in my head while I am lying in bed next to my wife but I am having another whole book going on in my head.
The Museum of Necessary Connections.
Yes, maybe this is one of the rooms.
I wanted to show you this one-minute video excerpt on my phone and hear your reaction. It’s a large black beetle on its back, moving its legs vigorously in an attempt to turn around.
Couldn’t you help it? Very Kafka.
When I was filming this scene I felt some shame and guilt recognizing a strange excitement to see him struggle like that. I was thinking that I should not be filming this, but I was also thinking, that because I had real hesitations, it probably was going to be interesting footage. In a recent conversation with Victoria Redel on Zoom you said that its good writing, when you think you should not be writing this. And then you talked about the edge of discomfort. What is the edge of discomfort that I may have felt, when I filmed this beetle?
The discomfort of a beetle on its back, swinging its legs is not the kind of discomfort I am looking for. My discomfort is more like writing on the edge of what’s known, and what’s been said, and what’s ok to say. May be I have gone too far and revealed too much. Everything I have written had the sense of “I should not be writing this.” There are a lot of things in here…it involves my wife, my ex-lover, my mother, my brother. It involves other people, so it gets complicated. You have moral and ethical responsibilities towards these people. There is part of that, and then there is a level of shame in the writing. When I was writing about my father being homeless I felt a great deal of shame around that, and yet it felt like a human emotion that exists. It’s strange and messy and complicated, but it’s doing something. It’s giving you some information, that you would not get any other way. Whenever I am set off about something, whenever I feel anger or resentment towards someone, jealousy, small heartedness…if you don’t pay attention to it and act on it as if it was a real, bad things happen. But if you notice it and ask, what sort of information does this actually give me, then you can see the situation, you can see a little bit more deeply what’s going on rather than just reacting.
So, in the writing I surprise myself. Ideally, there is always that moment of surprise, that moment of like, wow, I did not expect for that to come out. And if someone took me to court and asked me: Do you believe this? Do you stand by everything you say in this book? I don’t know. This is my subconscious talking a lot of the time. Some of it it’s not even me talking. There is a moment where my mother becomes a wild beast on the back deck setting the house on fire. I don’t know if that’s true. I wasn’t there. It has entered into my mind subconsciously.
There is the passage: “Imagine the night, then, before she steps out into it, how it fills her hands. She thinks the lines on her palm are a map, but they are, still, only this God. In her palm is a box, inside this box ten infants sleep, their little red hats pulled down tight to their heads. Using her body as a shield, she runs a match across her teeth.”
All of this is a different kind of truth. If she did set it on fire, for me trying to inhabit that space where you can imagine setting a house on fire with kids in it, is very uncomfortable. It’s a very uncomfortable space to inhabit, especially if it’s your mother and you are the kid in the house. But it did seem like my job, if you are going to present something like that, not to judge her, but instead imagine yourself in that position. This is probably as judgmental as I get toward her. “My mother, on all fours now in the moonlight, lightens match after match on her teeth.” Somewhere I call her a beast or something. “A neighbor, looking out her window at that moment, sees a thing hunched over. It’s trying to get inside, but inside what?”
When you said that about the discomfort that is an example of going to a place that is really uncomfortable. But it’s important, because when I come out of it, I can imagine it more, it does allow me to have more compassion for the situation. My father, when I first looked at him, he was this homeless street alcoholic, he was such a pain in the ass, he was racist and sexist and homophobic, a nightmare. And then I did a timeline of his life and I could see he first went to jail after his mother died and he could not go home for the funeral, because my mother had a warrant on him, so he ends up stealing a car and going to jail. And then ten years later his father dies and he can’t come back to the funeral and he ends up robbing banks right after that. It seems like he is knowing he is going to jail, it is almost like a way to survive, it sort of a way to deal with grief, just to do something really fucked up, more fucked up than you have done before. He is grieving, his parents have just died and he does not know what to do, but he survived. He went to jail, there is this quote that more people check themselves into jail than ever get convicted. There is no other option.
The other option is dying.
In the Zoom conversation with Veronica Rendel, when you talked about the edge of discomfort you said: “Maybe I don’t have shame.” I am wondering why you said that?
Because I have written twelve books now. Other people really get freaked out, they ask, how can you say those things? One thing – they happened. You know that quote by Terence: “Nothing human is abhorrent to me.” Anything we do is understandable.
It’s not that I am proud of having had an affair, but I am also not ashamed of it either. I joined the club, I am not the first person to do this, it’s kind of common. And whatever I can do to write about it as honestly as I can, may be that is helpful in some way. I am not trying to be helpful, but it’s not something I feel like I should be ashamed of. May be I don’t feel pride either. I don’t know if it’s useful, if you are a writer of memoirs to be really prone to shame, it feels like that may limit where you can go with your writing.
This is not the conversation ended, but where the capacity of the memory card in the voice recorder had reached its limit. I want to thank Nick Flynn for answering my questions so openly and be so generous with his thoughts.
Franziska Lamprecht is an artist who started writing as an extension of the long-term process based works, she produces together with her husband Hajoe Moderegger under the name eteam. Their projects have been created and presented internationally and they could not have done this without the generous support of Creative Capital, The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Art in General, NYSCA, NYFA, Rhizome, CLUI, Taipei Artist Village, Eyebeam, Smack Mellon, Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, the City College of New York, the Hong Kong Baptist University and the Fulbright Program. In 2020 eteam published their novel: Grabeland with Nightboat Books.