I met Tom Bissell in 2007 when we both lived in Rome. I had read his story collection God Lives in St. Petersburg and liked it, and as we became friends I couldn’t understand why this guy would want to come down from his mountain to hang out with me. He was the first writer I had met, and because I saw such a clear connection between the man and his prose—both are generous, intellectually rigorous, playful, honest—Tom became the source of one of those great revelations of the obvious. There’s a man behind the curtain. He’s really into Guitar Hero.
Tom Bissell is a frequent contributor to publications including Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The Believer. He has earned numerous awards and his stories have appeared repeatedly in Best American Short Stories. His acclaimed works of nonfiction include The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam; Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter; and Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation. He’s currently finishing a travel book about the tombs of the apostles. On March 27, video gamers will line up for the release of Gears of War: Judgment. Tom co-wrote the script.
A few weeks ago, we reconnected over Skype to talk about video games, questions of genre, and a writer’s confidence. Here’s the first half of our conversation.
James Pinto: Let’s talk about video games. What can a writer of fiction learn in terms of craft, in terms of narrative structure, from video games today?
Tom Bissell: Very little. What the video game writer can learn from fiction is way more interesting. Working on this game, I had a revelation about “truth” in writing. I know it’s ridiculous to talk about truth in writing when you’re talking about a Gears of War game, but hear me out. You know when you’re revising and you’re working a line of fiction, and the line just doesn’t feel right, it’s not landing right—it doesn’t feel true? Obviously, it’s an epistemological nightmare to talk about truth. Rest assured, I’m not talking about celestial or moral truth. I’m just talking about artistic truth, where a line feels bigger than you, feels bigger than your imagination; it appears to come from a place you can’t identify. When a line feels “true” in that way, it’s almost always going to be one of the highpoints of the story. This kind of truth is the thing that makes fiction writing so hard but also so rewarding.
Well, the first script we wrote for our video game was based on the level designers and the creative director telling us we need this kind of a moment here and that kind of a moment there. This, before we’d actually played the game, mind you. We knew the levels basically; we knew the story basically; we knew the characters; but we really didn’t know what any of it felt like. So we write these little bits of dialogue to order—and brevity is the real soul of video game writing, because no one is there for the artistry of individual lines—but when the lines were recorded and implemented in the game and we played it, my co-writer, Rob Auten, and I kept looking at each other in horror because the lines weren’t landing. They weren’t “true” in this very specific way I’m talking about.
I recognized instantly why this had happened. Fiction writing is all about re-seeing and re-exploring and fine-tuning. You know how a whole scene can come alive with just a single detail? Well, our script had no life in it, didn’t have any truth in it. It didn’t have any truth because you actually have to get in there, into the world, as a virtual reporter, as a virtual actor, and start steering these characters around this environment and figuring out what feels real. You need to feel your way into what an actual character would respond to and what they’d want to talk about. So the necessity of getting “truth” into a game script was the most important realization I had. It’s so similar to fiction writing. When everything, in a shooter especially, is working against your believing it as a human being, it’s that much more important that the script feels real—not naturalistically real, but real within its own goofball fictional parameters.
You once wrote, “Video games by their nature elevate the player to a position of tacit co-authorship.” Can that be said of fiction? Or is that one of the divides between the two forms?
No! All art is interactive to some extent. Fiction is one of the most diligently interactive forms imaginable. A really fine fiction writer is someone who knows how to give you just the right amount of detail and leave just enough space for interpretive agency, so when you’re reading, you’re feeling your own thoughts crowd into these artfully left absences that a generous fiction writer allows his or her audience to invade. That’s my favorite kind of fiction—ambiguous, morally ambiguous, whatever you want to call it, but fiction that allows a measure of interpretive agency. So, fiction writing is hugely, hugely interactive.
The interactivity of a story, though, is internal, private. The interactivity of a game is something that’s more tactile. And it actually affects the work itself on an obvious and reactive level. That to me is the really fascinating thing. The best games, the games that I love the most, are the games that leave an interesting space for the player to step into. It’s not interpretive agency anymore, it’s actual agency, which is more kinetic, and less private. Games can also give the player a huge measure of interpretive agency, sure, but that’s the same kind of agency any good work of art ideally allows you.
In a recent piece about first-person-shooter video games, you write:
It’s quite possible that shooters reveal that somewhere inside every human being is a shadow human being, one who kills and takes and does what he or she pleases. A lot of people who love shooters play them, they say, “to blow off steam.” That’s not why I play shooters. I play shooters because I like the pressure, the pressure of learning what to pay attention to in a realm where the ordinary governances of human behavior have been lifted. I like shooters, I suspect, for the same reason I used to like doing hard drugs. They allow my shadow self to emerge and play. For me, shooters aren’t about blowing off steam. They’re about taking in steam.
So I have to ask, because you are uniquely situated to comment on one aspect of this: is there a connection between gun violence and violent video games?
Say that you’ve been driven to the brink of homicidal madness by Call of Duty. Let’s say that. Unless there’s a gun store you can visit to help you fulfill your destiny as a homicidal maniac, you’re just a loon who’s been driven mad by Call of Duty. It seems to me that the more important part of this debate is the system that allows that kid to get his hands on a legally available weapon of mass destruction, which is what automatic weapons are.
Martin Amis says he doesn’t think violent entertainment really has the ability to do anything but affect the style of how already deranged people act out their fantasies. I think that’s probably true.
Well, the first thing that came to mind when I read about the shadow being was the “dormant brother inside of you” that Werner Herzog says he “awakens” at the end of the essay where you visit him [“The Secret Mainstream”]. So it seems there are at least two characters inside you—the shadow human being and the dormant brother. I wonder if they’re related at all? Do they talk to each other?
Well, we’re all made up of a constituency of good sons and bad sons, right? I’ve written about my bad sons now and again. And I think in writing about them, you actually make them less powerful. I don’t think I had a true drug problem in the sense that someone who really fucks up their life has a drug problem, but I definitely was doing more drugs than was emotionally, physically, or financially healthy for me. I just strapped in for a period of true self-destructiveness, and I was going to go as far as I could go until it got really scary. And it did. Something about writing about that experience really exorcised a lot of it. I have been happily drug-free for quite a while now, and if I hadn’t written about it, I don’t know if ever I would have gotten to the place of quietude inside me that I really needed to get. And I’m someone who hates thinking of writing as therapy. Oh god, it makes me want to puke when people say that. “Writing to Heal”—that was the name of a class I saw one time. I want to teach a class called “Writing to Wound.” In my experience, that’s a much more likely outcome.
But the shadow self is what also gives you the strength to write in some ways. Writing is a socially inappropriate and highly anti-social activity. So the shadow self that makes you huddle in a corner and do weird things like play shooters or do drugs or drink when you’re alone, or do whatever creepy thing it is you don’t like yourself for doing—I’m not convinced that those impulses are all that divorced from the impulses that make you sit down and imagine little stories about people who don’t exist.
What’s the dormant brother’s role, though?
I still don’t know what Werner meant when he said that!
Right. Can we talk a bit about genre?
You cover a lot ground. You’ve done travel writing, you’re a storywriter, you’re a cultural critic, a political commentator, a game nerd, a satirist. Those aren’t all different people, right?
I’ve had a very strange career as a writer. And I really like that. Part of me also kind of wishes I were a novelist. Which is what I think of myself as and have long wanted to be, even though at this point I’ve given up hope of ever writing a novel.
Yeah. I don’t think I will. No interest in writing a novel anymore. What’s interesting about that is I still think I am a novelist emotionally and psychologically. I just don’t happen to write novels, if that makes sense. My writing tries to be novelistic when I’m writing a book, whatever kind of a book it is. I would say my two travel books are basically novels that just happen to be based on real stuff. So, the older I get, the less interested I get in thinking about what genre means. Not in the irritating David Shields way: “Fiction is done and no one should write it any more.” But in the way that a series of words lined up on a page, by their mysterious combination and their inscrutable ordering, become a world in the reader’s brain. That seems such a magical, strange, precious thing. And whether it’s based on notes I took standing at the site or it’s based on a short story I’m writing, I just don’t think the two forms are that different. You’re still selecting details with the help of your imagination and trying to create an experience for another person that wasn’t present. To me those two things have way more in common than they have not in common. Nonfiction and fiction, though they’re obviously different things and they come from different places, and morally they’re obviously quite different—the nonfiction writer operates under a moral contract with the reader that the things he or she is writing purport to be true in some essential sense—but beyond that, language used to enable a second party to have a vicarious experience, is, as I said, the grand magic spell. The grandest. Genre to me is way less interesting than how the magic gets made.
Is the difference only in the origin then? Or do you have an idea that you’re trying to convey and sometimes that’s best done by fiction and sometimes by nonfiction?
Well, for me, I’ve made a living as a nonfiction writer.
But you’ve written a bunch of stories.
I have written a bunch of stories. I write stories when I can’t not write them. I really love writing stories. I think it’s the purest experience I’ve had as a writer. You wake up in the morning all ready to write, but it’s so hard to start writing fiction. Then you create a couple paragraphs and suddenly it’s real and you can see it and it’s kind of like a mirage in the distance. Right then you know what the terrain looks and later you go to bed excited and you’ve got lines and sentences running through your head and stuff characters say and you’re writing notes down at lunch. You really feel like a writer in those moments. When you’re slogging through a thousand-page travel book, looking over three-year-old notes from some church you were standing in in Turkey, it’s just a lot of donkeywork to recreate that moment. It’s not nearly as magical. Your imagination is engaged, but it’s engaged in the way a deep mining device is engaged. You’re like a geologist drilling into an actual, real-life experience. The fiction writer’s imagination is more like a cyclotron, just taking in everything.
But as far as you’re concerned, on a purely craft level, the techniques are the same and there’s no difference crossing genres?
Not to me. My Vietnam book opens with what is essentially a ninety-page novella interwoven with highly disparate, disputed nonfictional accounts of several of the same events. That stretch of pages is my favorite thing that I’ve ever written because as a piece of writing it’s completely unclassifiable. I have no idea what it is. I love nonfiction that’s like that, where you’re like, What the fuck is this? That’s to me the most exciting thing about a lot of nonfiction writing right now, from Geoff Dyer or John Jeremiah Sullivan to Eula Biss, who’s just amazingly good. The last few years I’ve been way more knocked out of my socks by nonfiction than fiction.
Part of what’s interesting here is that I love your nonfiction for its often-painful sense of honesty, and that sense gets tweaked in the fiction. It’s still there, but it’s been transformed.
Here’s the weird thing. A lot of my stories are based on things that happened to me and situations I’ve been in, and that’s where these questions of fiction and nonfiction become so gnarly. I feel like some of my short stories have a clearer relationship to the objective facts of a situation than a lot of my nonfiction has. We can titter and giggle about that. I could announce that at a reading of my fiction and everyone would say, Ohhh, what’s made up and what’s fictionalized? But if I went before a panel of nonfiction fundamentalists and said that I’d fabricated a few small things in my book about my dad, everyone would be aghast and shocked. I just don’t get that. I’ve never gotten it and I still don’t get it and I never will get it.
Further Links and Resources:
- Watch the trailer for Gears of War: Judgment.
- Read Tom’s videogame reviews at Grantland, including “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Shooter.”
- Here’s the recent New York Times article on Tom’s role in creating Gears of War: Judgment.
- Tom goes inside a videogame company in this piece for the New Yorker.
- For some of Tom’s fiction, here’s his story “Aral,” published in AGNI.