A Bookforum Conversation with Tom Bissell

Book3With Morten Høi Jensen in Bookforum:

We’re fortunate to live in a time where a handful of enormously gifted writers are revitalizing the essay form. One example is Tom Bissell, whose new collection, Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, adds up to a kind of narrative of contemporary culture, weighing in on video games, underground literary movements, bad movies and the fates of great writers. Before his recent reading with his friend and fellow writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus at KGB Bar in New York, I spent an hour with Tom Bissell at his cousin’s apartment in Manhattan, where he and his girlfriend were staying while they were in town. Looking out on an unseasonably hot midtown afternoon, we drank scotch and chatted about the publishing industry, the resurgence of the essay form, and our mutual love for the Australian writer Clive James.

Bookforum: Do you miss New York?

Tom Bissell: Desperately. When I’ve lived in Portland and California and I wake up, Pacific Time just seems like the wrong time to me. Events in America happen on Eastern Standard Time, and knowing when you wake up at 9 in the morning—or, if you’re a writer, 9:30—that it’s already after lunch in the heartbeat of America—it’s just something I’ve never gotten used to.

BF: How long did you live in New York?

Tom Bissell: I lived here from 1997 to 2006.

BF: I enjoyed reading in Magic Hours about your experience here as an editorial assistant. You called it a “thankless but intensely interesting job.” I was wondering if it influenced your early work as a journalist in any way.

TB: I think what it did for me was make me much less hostile to the editorial apparatus once I became a writer. I’ve always been way more willing to empathize with editors than my other writer friends who didn’t have that experience. Without the editorial experience, I would have never have had so many myths about book publishing shattered before I even wrote a word. And I think the most insidious myth among writers is that publishers just get books lined up before them, pick the ones they want to sell, and then push them out the door. Now, in some sense of course they do that, but the really important thing that writers seem to forget is that just because publishers pick books that they want expend resources on doesn’t guarantee that the books will succeed. Good publishers are the ones who, when something’s not working, are capable of redirecting their focus onto the stuff that is working, and choose to support the stuff they maybe initially thought didn’t have a good shot. Bad publishers are the ones who just double down on a bad choice and throw good money out the window. I’ve been lucky enough to work with good, smart publishers, and though I don’t claim to know how exactly publishing works, I do often get the heebie jeebies when I hear my writer friends talk about book publishers in a needlessly hostile tone.

BF: That was the strength of your essay about the Underground Literary Alliance. You took them to task for that hostility—and not just them, because I think that hostility is actually quite common—and for not understanding that the majority of the people who work in the publishing industry hold literature just as sacred as they do. But that doesn’t automatically give them the resources or the privilege to publish everything.

TB: Right. And the other thing is that the publishing industry is much smaller than it was in, say, 1999, when I was a young editor, so I think the representative spectrum of taste is much smaller. It’s just so much harder to be a young writer right now, especially if you’re a fiction writer. I wouldn’t wish being a fiction writer right now on my worst enemy. I wouldn’t wish that on Osama Bin Laden’s children.