In 2000, Nick Flynn’s debut poetry collection, Some Ether—which examines family, childhood, and trauma—won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award. He followed it up with collections like Blind Huber, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, and My Feelings, as well as the memoirs Another Bullshit Night in Suck City—which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award—The Ticking Is the Bomb, and The Reenactments.
Flynn’s latest book is a memoir about his early childhood and mother, who committed suicide when he was 22. This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire, in which Flynn reflects on his dysfunctional family and its effects on his life, was hailed by Publishers Weekly, which said, “Readers will devour this powerful memoir of letting go.”
We caught up with Flynn to talk about family and the difference between writing poetry and memoir.
The Millions: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City was an immediate success in 2004, and became a film. Was it always your plan to write a trilogy?
Nick Flynn: Immediate success? I’d say the surprising success of Suck City! It was never the plan to do a trilogy. My relationships with my parents were complicated. After the first book about my father’s homelessness, and then the second about my daughter, the third grew organically out of all the time I had spent writing about family and how interesting it was to see them projected onto the movie screen. At a certain point, it felt like the three memoirs were talking to each other. One might say that it’s all just writing one book.
TM: For this book, you took your daughter with you to visit the house that your mother tried to burn down when you were seven years old. What inspired you to take her along?
NF: Again, like writing the memoirs, I didn’t have a plan. It just worked out that while I was teaching in Boston, my wife was out of town, and I decided to take my daughter on my road trips. The interesting thing to me was that when we started our trips, she was seven years old, and she was interested in knowing what I was doing at age seven. Every summer for the next three years we would travel to Scituate. It was like showing her a map of my childhood, showing that these things had happened to me.
TM: Did you rely on journals from your life during these trips with your daughter?
NF: Actually, I had nothing written about those times. In a way, I did the work of getting the material for this memoir by working collaboratively with my daughter, by her wanting me to tell her stories but also the way those stories would bring back memories of other stories. It wasn’t until the third trip that we walked into the house that my mother had tried to burn down. It’s still standing, and it felt odd. But I was lucky the house was standing, to be able to go in with my daughter and see it again.
TM: Is your approach to writing poetry different than writing memoirs?
NF: All writing is different. My approach to memoir writing demands a different schedule than other writing. It may be more organized. I take notes, I write in condensed bursts. I do that with poetry also, but the process is more alchemic. It’s uncontainable. It’s fluid, I can drift in another realm. I can’t really do that in a memoir. The stuff in this book actually happened. It doesn’t always put me in the best light, but it’s not my job to put myself in the best light.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.