Monday, May 14, 2012

The Buzz Bissinger Q&A

This was a blast to do, and I hope that enthusiasm shows in this Q&A. Buzz was an absolute dream to interview--honest, profane, profound, and eloquent. 

And, please, check out Father's Day. It's an excellent, excellent read. It's on sale this week.

This interview previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission.


Many people know Pulitzer Prize winner Buzz Bissinger as the author of Friday Night Lights, the classic book on Texas high school football that spawned a movie and a beloved television series. In recent years, countless more know the Philadelphia writer as Twitter's resident crank.

His activity on the social network site is astounding, 140 characters of rage-filled catharsis that was the subject of a Los Angeles Times story. Here's some April activity: "David Simon [the creator of the classic TV crime drama The Wire] is a full of himself d**kweed. Don't ever put us in the same sentence." In response to @loveandcomedy: "F**k you. I will say to [you] whatever the f**k I want when you criticize me. Nice pic by the way. You look like total moron."

"People say, 'Well, you're just acting like a curmudgeon,'" says Bissinger, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a sports columnist for the Daily Beast. "Well, when I was in eighth grade there was an eighth grade yearbook, and the occupation predicted for me was undertaker." 

Those highly amusing—and occasionally ostracizing—tweets threaten to overshadow Bissinger's talents as a writer, a potential problem he obliterates with his beautiful new memoir, Father's Day: A Journey into the Mind & Heart of My Extraordinary Son.

In the book, Bissinger takes a cross-country trip with his then-24-year-old son, Zach, who was born with trace brain damage. (Zach, a savant, and his unscathed twin brother, Gerry, were born 13-and-a-half weeks prematurely.) The trip allows Bissinger to finally see the person behind the behavioral quirks. He also turns the spotlight on himself, exploring his own flaws as a father, son, and husband. Unfiltered honesty keeps you reading. There is no happy ending or miracle cure, just a father navigating a complicated love for the son he never wanted but can't live without.

Fresh off a family trip to South Africa, Bissinger thought jet lag might hinder his eloquence for this interview, which was conducted over the phone and edited for space and clarity.

He had nothing to worry about. 

Pete Croatto: In the book you mention that you had been keeping notes and files on Zach for years. What made you decide that now was the time for a book on you and your son—not later or earlier? 

Buzz Bissinger: As I thought about doing it, and I have thought about it for 20 years, I began to realize that a lot of the issues that a parent faces, the crucial issues—What's to become of my son? Should he be in a group home? What is the future going to be like?—they really intensify when he becomes an adult. I think when he was so adorable as a child I think you hold out certain hopes. Reality sets in when he became 21 and I just think it made the issues that more intense, that more emotional. And I think it makes for an interesting book for readers.

PC: I guess when Zach was younger the guise of cuteness hid some of the pain.

BB: That's a great point. It does. He was just absolutely gorgeous as a child. You hold out certain hopes. You ride the circuit of these psychologists, psychopharmacologists—many of whom are terrible…The cuteness hides a lot of it and, you know, there have been a lot of wonderful books written about kids who are different, but they also focus on the kids when they're at a young age. I just felt it'd be more interesting for readers if I focused on what he is like now. He's 28 now. He's not getting any cuter and he's not getting any younger, and it just crystallizes what is going to become of him when I'm gone and his mom is gone and the wrenching decision of, should he be in a group home now if he's with his friends? Is that better than having him living with me or his brother or his mother? Those wrenching issues really, really crystallized. They are wrenching, wrenching issues because you always have the feeling that as good as a group home may be, am I putting my son into a kind of prison. I still grapple with that.

[Writer's note: Zach currently lives with his mother and Bissinger's ex-wife, Debra, in Haddonfield, NJ.]  

PC: With this cross-country trip, did you ever think about keeping it between you and Zach, especially since it is so personal?

BB: In the back of the mind, I thought could this be a book and then in the back of my mind—or maybe in the forefront of my mind—is if I do a book like this am I revealing too much about him and also about myself? It's a difficult, difficult decision particularly in the case of someone like Zach. He hasn't read the galley. Even if he did, I don't think he would understand a lot of it, and that was a great weight on my shoulders and it's like any private story: You hope it has a universal application, but at its root is a private story. Should I go public with it and how should I go public with it? I felt it was worth a book because, to me, it's a universal book about parenting because we all have ambitions for our kids and certainly it's a universal book for the millions of parents who have kids who are different and, to me, the label is irrelevant. I just felt the only way to write was to be as wrenchingly honest as possible. Otherwise, what's the point?

PC: I think a lot people look at those with savantism as something out of Rain Man. They have a talent for numbers or a crazy memory. One of the book's great assets is that you show Zach has a functioning mind. 

BB: Well, he does. And it's something I think I really learned on the trip, and it's not B.S. I learned a tremendous amount on the trip really because I was focusing on him for the first time in terms of how his mind worked, and I also felt I needed to tell him certain things about his life. I didn't want to hide it from him, the fact that he was very sick when he was born, the fact that he might go into a group home, the fact that he would never get married. The whole thing, for me, was so emotionally wrought because he has a twin brother who is thriving. And I think Zach in his own way feels that, and wants to keep up with his brother and can't. But he clearly has a mind in which he's certainly able to articulate, he's able to function. I always thought savantism was kind of a parlor trick, but it's not. He uses his memory, memory for him, past is the present and he uses it to connect to people. And I see it all the time. That's how he relates. And he proves himself to be far more empathetic than I ever realized….Particularly the first half of the trip, I got angry a lot, I got moody a lot. Zach just never got mad and hung in there and really, really wanted to calm me down. I also found he's surprisingly observant. He just won't say it at the time, but then something will pop out of his mouth. He has seen something and it resonates with him and it stays with him. So, there really is a beautiful mind there.

I think there is a tendency in all of us, you see a kid with a disability and you do two one of two things: you sort of shy away or you're very, very patronizing. But most of us don't know what to do. I think the more you say, "Well, they're just kids, they're just adults, maybe a little bit different, you treat them the same you would everyone else." First of all, they love it. And, second of all, it's delightful to see how their minds work and how they put things together. You know, they are human beings.    

PC: You've mentioned emotionally wrenching a few times. How difficult was it to write this book? Between the trip ending and the publication of the book, we're talking four or five years, correct?

BB: We're talking about four years, and I think that's a reflection of how hard the book was to write. The trip was in 2007, and I thought I could pretty much bang this out in a year and a half. And I could not. I blocked on it. It was hard to find the right tone. It was hard to find the right mood. It was hard to find how much should I say, how honest should I be. I just blocked. I wrote about 60 or 70 pages in the beginning, and they just weren't very good. I was very dissatisfied with it. I just had to put it away. I kept staring in front of the computer and I just wasn't getting anywhere. I wound up doing another book, Shooting Stars with LeBron James, and it wasn't a great book, I'll be the first to admit it. I did it for the money, because I have to live.

And then I went back to it, and I was saved by two things. My agent in Hollywood, Ari Emanuel, he literally called me, sometimes it was once a week, but it was at least every month, pushing me to do this book just pushing me and pushing me. Then, finally, what happened was that my editor Houghton Mifflin, a guy named Eamon Dolan, he called and he said, "Hey, look, we need the book. We believe in it, I believe in it, and if we don't get it in six months we're not going to be able to publish it." Every writer needs a kick in the ass.

PC: As a former newspaperman, I'm sure having an imminent deadline…

BB: We all need deadlines. I tweet a lot and tend to be very outspoken and sometimes say things that are true or funny—and sometimes say things that make a complete ass of myself. But it was all avoidance. Then I sort of restarted, rewrote, and started at the beginning and found a tone and a rhythm that I felt worked. As I wrote, I said, "You have to be honest." Not as a conceit. I think one of the things that I'm trying to do in this book is give voice to those millions of parents who feel the same pain that I do, who feel the same frustration, who feel the same anger, who feel cheated, who feel this is not the child I wanted and are afraid to say it simply because people will misinterpret it and say, "Well, that means you don’t love your child."

I love Zach madly. But I'm not going to lie. He is not the child I wanted. He is never the child I envisioned. It took me a long time to accept that. Once you find acceptance, you perceive things within him that are marvelous, but there are still moments where it's just very hard…Zach still does things where he gets stuck. It feels like we're a needle in the groove of a record that's stuck. We're just playing the same song over and over again.

PC: But then there are those breakthroughs.

BB: …I remember asking him [during the trip], "Do you know what responsibility is?" It wasn't to be arrogant; I'm not quite sure. And he says, "Well, I think it means take care of your things, not like losing your camera bag." And he was exactly right. 

PC: Going back to the book's tone, covering this territory is ripe for folk heroes and gooey, black and white sentiment, but Father's Day—refreshingly—has none of those dramatic trappings….

BB: That was conscious, and it took a lot of time to get through, and the editing was wonderful. Look, I don't want this book to be a complete downer. Parts of it, I hope, are funny. The interactions between Zach and I myself are funny.

PC: It is. I'm not…

BB: I know you're not contradicting that. I did not want it to be one of these traditional "Zach is an angel from God" and have that kind of very weighty tone to it. There are certain moments in the book that are wrenching, but there are moments that are poignant, but there are moments that are funny. Because he is funny, because he doesn't know jealousy, he doesn't know guile, he doesn't know manipulation, he doesn't know competition. He just does what he thinks.

It's interesting to me that it takes someone with trace brain damage to have those traits. Maybe we all need a little trace brain damage.

PC: Well, at the end of the book you do write that you need him more than he needs you.

BB: Every day that I see him he's still progressing, he's still growing. His processing is astounding me. He's really working hard to become conversational, and I just have this incredible smile on my face. I also worry about him: he's still very limited. I am gratified that he is in my life. He's a spectacular man. It's not hyperbole: I admire him more than anyone in my life.  

He really has worked hard to create a life for himself, and he has done that: an integrated life of work and adult friends and contemporary friends. And he's cheerful and he works hard and he has appropriate independence. I really do admire him. But I'm not going to say he's changed me. At the end of every book, there's, "well, this changed my life." I'm still grumpy. I am. I'm still moody. I'm still a lot of things. But this man, Zach, is a breath of fresh air. He really is.

PC: I'm with you on that. I'm apprehensive of the whole "this changed my life" attitude because life is still going on. You're still going to be parent. You write that things still aren't great, that you shed a tear for Zach every day…

BB: They're not going to be great. You shed a tear because Zach is close. He has significant impairment, but the thing about Zach, and I think this comes out of the book, is that there are these kinds of moments of incredible lucidity. But they're moments. And you see those moments and you just think, "He is so close. He is so close. I wish I could move a wire here and move a wire over there." But you can't, but you can't. They excite you and then the tears come from saying, "Well, he's not going to marry. He's not going to live alone. He's not going to drive a car." These are the realities, and you have his twin brother who is doing all of these things, basically, and is thriving at his job and will get married and owns his own house…It's like looking at an inverted mirror of one another. One mirror is unblemished and the other is quite blemished.

PC: The theme of losing touch comes up frequently in the book. You go into your relationship with your mother and father, and the trip with Zach seems like a chance to not have someone else important in your life drift away….

BB: I think that's a great point. That's why it was put in. It was not put in to be indulgent. It's a book about fathers and sons. My relationship with my father, in particular in the end, was very, very complex. I didn't want to repeat my relationship with my mother and father. They were great people, but there were things that were missing. I did learn from them as a young parent that there were certain things that I did not want to repeat, and I did not want to lose touch with my son. And I felt to some degree that I had because of the divorce, because of not spending a lot of time with him alone. That’s another reason I took the trip: I wanted to do something special with him like I had done with my other kids where we just together.

PC: After this cross-country trip, do you feel like you're taking better care of your relationships?

BB: I feel like I'm taking better care of my relationship with Zach. I see his search for independence, and I think that's important. It indicates to me that's a natural maturation and progression in life. You have to be careful. You don't want to ever put someone like Zach into a situation he can't handle, but at the same time I celebrate that. I try to give him as wide a berth as I can. If he wants to walk around Cape Town, I know he has a great sense of direction, it's a safe place. If I say, "Zach, that's fine, just be back at the hotel in an hour," and he'll be back in an hour. I want to celebrate that. I just pay more attention to his vocabulary and what he's learning and spend more time on sort of appropriate behavior, and then praise for what's wonderful behavior. We talk a lot about how to deal with people and how to be conversational and how not to interrupt and to participate in the flow of a conversation. That's been a great breakthrough from him. Normally he would be those non-sequiturs like, "When is your birthday?" and "What tie do you wear?" and "Where do you work?" He's really gotten away from that.

PC: I know in the book you work with him on certain things during the trip, but it's wonderful you're seeing that progress.

BB:  Yeah, it really is. Normally, he sends out these blast emails to everyone. He loves his email, but they would ask him questions, he would never answer. Now, he's answering. He's giving good answers. I gave him an iPhone, which has changed his life. Like everyone, he's completely addicted. And he loves to text. So, like yesterday, he texts me, "Hey, Dad. The Inquirer won a Pulitzer." That was pretty cool. [Laughs]

PC: Is Zach excited about the book?

BB: He's excited about the book in the sense that he knows it's garnering attention and we talked about it. He's not giddy about it. I remember when I showed him the cover he sort of it looked it and said, "That's nice," and didn't stare it and just kind of put it away. Whereas Gerry looked it and thought it was great. I think he's excited, but he's not doing cartwheels, although he talks about it to a lot of people. Maybe as publicity increases—there's going to be a segment on The Today Show—that may excite him. But one of the things that keeps Zach going is he's always on to the next thing. He doesn't dwell on nostalgia. But I think he's excited. I don't think he's apoplectic…He wants to keep propelling himself forward.

PC: If the book doesn't do well, commercially or critically, will that bother you, especially since the material is so near and dear to you?

BB: Well, look, any author is lying—I don't care how big the reviewer is, how big the reviewing mechanism is—nobody likes negative things said about their work. And, yes, it's intensified by the fact that it's a very personal story and maybe you feel, "Well, gee, I should get a pass. I really laid myself out on the page."…You can't judge yourself by how it's reviewed. Reviewing can be very arbitrary. Some reviewers are great. Some are terrible. Some really read the book carefully. A lot of them don't. You try to get on all the shows you can, but I don't want my life judged by Terry Gross [of NPR's Fresh Air]: she passed on the show, that's fine. That's her prerogative, but I don't really give a s**t about her. I don't want to be judged by that.

I am proud of the book. I am proud that I wrote it. It was a tremendous departure from what I wrote in the past. I think it is a good book. It's certainly a tribute to the most special person that I've ever met. You always hope it resonates with readers, but you never know. The book business is so different now, and just getting attention is very, very hard and it's taken me a long time to get that. Now, if The New York Times comes out and smashes it, Pete, call me in 10 minutes and I'll be going through the f***ing roof, getting really pissed off. I still do that, but then I calm down and get that out of my system and write a nasty e-mail to my editors saying they should all be killed. And then, it passes.

I know when I've written something that's good. I know when I've written something that's bad. Shooting Stars [LeBron James's memoir of his high school days, which Bissinger wrote] was bad—I've said that publicly. It wasn't a good book for me to do. It just wasn’t.

PC: You're known as being a journalist and non-fiction writer. Was it strange to become the subject of a book?

BB: Oh yeah, it's incredibly strange because what's going through your head is, "Why is anyone going to care about this story? It's a personal story." How do you write about yourself? How do you write about someone who really is defenseless?…How much do you reveal about [Zach]? It's just very, very different. I'm used to taking notes about other people and making observances about other people. The practical problem was, how much do I say about myself? Is it becoming indulgent? And you want every sentence to be perfect and you really want to get it right and you really want to be honest. It wears you down, which is why I really blocked on it. That’s not an exaggeration. I've always had depression, but I couldn't deal with it. Putting it away was really good because then I went back to it, took a few breaths, and saw that it was a mess and did what you have to do in any book, which is find how you want to tell it and what's the right tone.

PC: If this were the only project you were working on, it would have been hell on earth. But you have a ton of stuff going on.

BB:  It helped. I'm not one of these people who can write for 10 hours a day anyway. I get too anxious. I write in the morning and then I can't stand going back to it. It helped to have other projects. I think with books like this if you get three good hours, you're lucky. It's just emotionally exhausting.

PC: The galley I have is a shade under 235 pages, and there's not an ounce of wasted emotion here. Was that all you were capable of? If your editor said, "We need 275 pages" would you have said, "I can't do this. I'm emotionally drained"?

BB: You can always do it. I could have put in more about me or more about certain situations. I do think the little history that's in it was pretty fascinating. Savantism is so fascinating because it's so bizarre. The history of premature babies; I never knew they were treated as freak shows. I had no idea. There was a lot more about me in it, which did make it longer. I think it came at about 260, 275. Eamon and I together we pared probably about 10,000 words from it…It's a beautiful story, but you've got to keep your eye on the ball. As much as it is a journey with Zach, it is my own personal journey: coming to grips with Zach, coming to grips with what impact my own ambitions—my own relationships with my mother and father—have had one me and on my kids. Like when I went to California without them [to write for TV's NYPD Blue]. That was doomed from the start.

PC: That part was heart wrenching to read.

BB: It was just doomed. I remember sitting on that bedspread in the Marriott Residence, or wherever the hell it was, eating fishies [Goldfish], because Zach and I would eat fishies. I knew I had made the worst decision of my life. And then, of course, when you work in Hollywood you just shoot yourself anyway.

PC: You're safely ensconced in Philadelphia now, so you're far away from that scene.

BB: I can go out to Hollywood, I don't have to live there. I can be more relaxed. I like Philly. We live in a beautiful part of the city. I've got more flexibility to kind of come and go as I please.

PC: When you're a writer, you do have that freedom to write from anywhere. So, if it's better to write in Rittenhouse Square than on Hollywood Boulevard…

BB: You're writing basically in a windowless room in Hollywood trying to simulate the reality of the New York police department. People do it wonderfully; I could not.

PC: You mentioned earlier that several members of your family have read Father's Day. What's been their reaction to it?

BB: I think Gerry was very moved by it, and loved it. Zach's mom said she liked it a great deal. Frankly, the reaction from the family has been fantastic…Look, is it going to have the success of Friday Night Lights? There's no way, because how many books have that success. That was the real shooting star. But people actually say, "I actually think the writing is better, there's not an ounce of fat, and you really laid out on the page." They think it's the best book I've done and certainly the most honest and admirable.

PC: I think it's a tremendous book. I'm no fortuneteller when it comes to the book industry…

BB: Look, nobody is. It's always in the back of your mind. Any writer who says, "I just write for one or "I write for two" or "I don't really care about my audience" or "I don't care if it sells," they're the biggest liar in the world. You want your books to sell, but you can't compromise. I didn’t make things up. Although it's a memoir, a lot of it was journalistically based. Ninety percent of it was based on tape-recorded conversations between Zach and myself, supplemented with pictures that I took. A lot of stuff with Gerry was [based on] interviews. I kept a running file. I think a lot of memoirs are piped, frankly. They make things up to make them more interesting or more exciting or more this or more that. I'm sure some people will say, "Too bad you didn't get robbed or Zach didn't kill you in the end" or whatever.

PC: So many memoirs bathe in those elements of woe, but…

BB: That's true. A lot of memoirs are always blaming someone else. I didn't want to do that. I do have faults. I do have flaws. I love my children madly, but I can fly off the handle. I can be very self-flagellating. I can be very hard on myself. That's not all contrivance. I've made mistakes. I have.

PC: We all have.

BB: I'm not going to pass them off…At the end of the day, the responsibility is mine.     

Buzz Bissinger's tour in support of "Father's Day" starts on Wednesday, May 16, at the Philadelphia Free Library. The event starts at 7:30 p.m.

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