Talking River Review faculty advisor Jennifer Anderson recently had the opportunity to review Flynn’s new memoir and ask him some questions about his work.
Writers have long explored the notion of home, but seldom do we encounter a writer so willing to consider one’s impulse to destroy it. Poet, memoirist, and playwright Nick Flynn addresses this compulsion twofold in his latest memoir, This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire, published in 2020. When he was six, his mother set fire to their house, an incident as mysterious as it was traumatic:
In one version of the night our house caught fire I’m carried outside in my pajamas. […] In another version my mother shakes me awake with a word, and the word is RUN. Or maybe she simply yells from the bottom of the stairs. Or maybe she doesn’t say a word, maybe the house is silent, maybe it’s the smoke that wakes me.
In my mother’s version it was raccoons that started the fire. […] For years this was the story because it was a story that had an ending, even if it ended in flames. As a story it was, at least, comprehensible. (62-63)
Flynn’s mother committed suicide when he was twenty-two, and the truth about her actions that night will never have definitive answers. Even so, Flynn tries to understand that past as he confronts his own destructive tendencies by seamlessly weaving the narrative of his childhood with one from his adult life, wherein he engages in a years-long extramarital affair. While the match he strikes is metaphorical, its flame is no less painful or damaging to the home he shares with his wife and young daughter, as he writes, “Everything, it seemed, was ending—my marriage, my job, my home. Yet nothing ever ended—my childhood, the fire, bewilderment” (179).
While This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire delves into the complex motivations for destroying that which ideally shelters us, keeping us safe and feeling loved, that’s only one element of the story. Flynn’s memoir is largely a work about creation, about building—or rebuilding—the foundations of home. He accomplishes this, in part, through the stories he tells his daughter. Flynn makes clear from the start that he wants his daughter to know who she is and from where she originates. In the first chapter, “Ice Age,” he writes, “Now my job as a father (or one of them) is to tell my daughter stories from when I was her age. […] So one day she will understand where she is from, what made her. […] I’m trying to make it easy for my daughter, something my mother never did for me” (4). Rather than remaining an enigma to his daughter by allowing her to someday grapple with the same mysteries that have shadowed him throughout his life, he is unsparingly open in his examination of both the past and present. This fact is made unmistakably clear at the end of the memoir when Flynn directly addresses his daughter:
Love, if you are reading this now, please know I tried. […] You were too young, then you weren’t. I wanted you to know where you came from, to wade up to your knees in saltwater. To never turn your back on a wave. I wanted you to know where your father came from. […] Child, believe this: a chicken can spell anything by what she leaves untouched—nothing can be hidden from her. The story we tell about our childhoods, even the story you are telling now, as you are in the midst of it, each word is so much debris in the saltmarsh, being slowly swallowed into what we will end up calling LIFE. (267)
Even as he admits we inhabit a universe “made up of 70 percent dark energy, 30 percent dark matter, [with] less than 1 percent of what we think of as us” (30), a universe where nearly everything is unknown, Flynn has created a lyrically personal blueprint for his daughter to follow when navigating her own life.
Perhaps even more, and regardless of our individual experiences, Flynn’s memoir reminds us all that to understand who we are, we must first understand where we come from. It’s important that we atone for our mistakes, own them, and learn from them. As Faulkner recognized, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Interview with Nick Flynn
Jennifer Anderson: The title, This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire, immediately clues readers in on the importance of “home” in your memoir. Early on, in the chapter called “Synecdoche,” you say that “Today, before the house is awake (I am using ‘the house’ as a synecdoche), I was listening to the radio. A man was talking of the Talmud, how each word in it contains the whole, how it reveals the interconnectedness of all things” (32). Does the idea of “home” (or even “fire”) serve as a synecdoche for the entire book? And can you also talk about the idea of interconnectedness threaded throughout the narrative?
Nick Flynn: Nice question … that chapter, “Synecdoche,” comes from the Charlie Kaufman film (which I love), which also has a thread running through it of a burning house, or more accurately a smoldering house. That concept, of the interconnectedness of all things, runs through many spiritual traditions, and even into the realm of quantum physics. How the smallest piece of something contains the energy of the whole … I tried to capture some of that energy in the book. Is fire or home a synecdoche for the entire book? One cancels out the other, right?
JA: I’ve long admired your poetry and prose. Some passages of This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire read like poems. How does your poetry inform your creative nonfiction? For instance, the chapter “Run” is even structured poetically:
Run, my mother says, shaking me awake.
Only a voice inside my dream, but the dream’s already
Breathe through this, she says, reaching into the dark water,
pressing a wet cloth over my mouth.
I don’t know which is thicker—the dark, the smoke,
or the voice in my head. We have to get out, now.
I still can’t see, but I run.
I remember tumbling down the stairs into the thicker
I remember my body, how it knows not to breathe. (59)
NF: I did slip a few passages in the book that conform more closely to what we think of as poetry, in that I paid attention to the line breaks in each sentence … it was a way to let out a different type of energy. I think they might slip past many folks, just shimmer a little differently.
JA: It seems that structurally This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire functions similarly to your other works of creative nonfiction—I’m thinking specifically of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Although both are cohesive memoirs with clear narrative arcs, they’re written in such a way that a reader could hypothetically read singular sections in any order (which I’ve done), and these sections could stand alone and still resonate, sort of like individual flash essays. Can you talk about your process for writing a long memoir?
NF: Nice to think of you dipping into the books, creating your own adventure with them. Nice to think they could be read in multiple ways, that each chapter can stand on its own. It’s like poetry in that way, where each line has its own integrity. Though with the memoirs, I think reading from beginning to end will allow the repeated images (some call them motifs) to build in meaning from when you first encounter them. But if you read about the fire from the last section of the book, it might be like running a film backwards, which would have its own thrill.
JA: Along these same lines, there are elements of experimentation woven throughout the book, perhaps the most obvious on (the unnumbered) pages 222-223, which remain blank save for the repetition of “home” at the bottom. Can you talk about the value of experimentation and how these passages serve the larger narrative?
NF: I wanted those pages in the book, with the word home repeated along the bottom … it felt like a more accurate way to capture my inner experience at that moment in the book … almost as if the word “home,” or the idea of a home, or my actual home, the place I live, was what was at stake at that moment in the book, reduced to a flat line with a lot of sky above it. I think writing is by its nature experimental—it is such a strange practice, to make marks on a page, that corresponds to a sound in the world, that creates images in stranger’s heads. We forget sometimes how strange the act of writing is. Any time you can pull back that curtain can wake us up a little.
JA: In the early pages of your book, you note the importance of telling your daughter stories so that “one day she will understand where she is from, what made her.” You also state that “I’m trying to make it easy for my daughter, something my mother never did for me” (4). How can stories help make things easier for us?
NF: I don’t believe there’s just one thing that stories do for us … some can help us through rough patches, some can blind us to reality, some can be used to justify terrible things. I was talking about lifting the veil for my daughter on what I was like as a child, on what my hometown was like, which is where she is from, at least half of her. Yes, it was something my mother never did for me, to really let me know what her childhood was like. I think it would have helped me, even if the stories were made up, to understand her better. Maybe it would have helped her as well, to tell them.
JA: The idea of truth features prominently in your book—the truth about the fire, the truth about the affair, to name two moments. How, as writers of creative nonfiction, do we find truth, especially when grappling with so many uncertainties and different versions of the same stories?
NF: Truth—humbling thing to be in the face of it. We can try to get as close to it as we can, always knowing that there is a whole world just beyond the curtain that will forever remain a mystery. The truths in my book cover that spectrum, from what is clearly knowable (the affair) to what is forever unknowable (did my mother set our house on fire? If so, why?). Both, for this book, were extremely hard to wrestle with … coming clean about the affair did, somehow, open me up to looking into the fire. Yet even as I write that I doubt myself—the affair is knowable as an act in time and space, but the deeper truths of it are way more complicated.
JA: Finally, I deeply respect the honesty with which you write and how you don’t hold back, for instance, when writing about your affair—an intimate, difficult subject that opens you up for judgment from others. What advice would you offer emerging writers of creative nonfiction about sharing these types of stories?
NF: Early on I convince myself that no one will ever read what I write, which is very freeing. If I thought about my readers, I might not write anything. A young woman once admitted to me that she read a few pages of my first memoir, and threw the book across the room, when it became clear that I wasn’t going to take my homeless father into my home. A few years later this woman’s father, sadly, became homeless, and she returned to the book, and looked me up, and we were able to work together. I was grateful she told me about how she had judged me, grateful the book could be of some help when it was her turn. Nowadays, I am not that concerned with being judged—unless I have done something to you personally, something I clearly need to make amends to you for, I figure your judgement is something you need to wrestle with on your own. I don’t know most of my readers, I would simply hope they would bring themselves to the books and have their own experience.