In 2004, Nick Flynn wrote a bestselling memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, about working in a Boston homeless shelter where his estranged father was a resident. In 2012, that memoir was turned into a Hollywood movie, Being Flynn, starring Paul Dano as the author and Robert De Niro as the elder Flynn. Now, the making of the movie is the basis for Flynn’s new memoir, The Reenactments. While the book is a fascinating and entertaining behind-the-scenes look at the film’s production, it’s also a poignant meditation on reality and perception, fusing neuroscience, glassblowing, Joan Didion, and The Godfather. Zola spoke with Flynn, currently on tour promoting The Reenactments, about why he doesn’t write fiction, why he refuses to use the word “homeless,” and what surprised him most about De Niro. Also included here, a slideshow of exclusive snapshots from the Being Flynn set, courtesy of the author.
Nick Flynn: There were a few fictionalized things in the script I wasn’t comfortable with at first. Like inviting my dad into the loft where I lived. I never did that. But there have been many times over the years since when I have taken my dad in, taken care of him. So even though that time in the loft didn’t happen, fictionalizing it transferred the energy from all the times when it had. That’s where [screenwriter and director] Paul [Weitz] is really great.
Zola: Many people have accused Robert De Niro of mailing it in these last few years. But The Reenactments shows that he’s just as committed to acting as ever. You describe how he had teeth pulled for the role, flew through a snowstorm to meet your father before shooting began, insisted on knowing whether your father drank from a flask or straight from the bottle, and performed twenty takes of a single scene—all of them in a different way—without complaint.
NF: I was so impressed with what he did. From the very start, he was taking it really seriously. There was something in the material that clearly spoke to him.
Zola: Is there anything people would be surprised to learn about him?
NF: He doesn’t like doing violence in film. There are a couple scenes where he loses it in the shelter, throws something against a mirror. But it’s just not in his nature to do that.
Zola: This is your third memoir. You’ve published several poetry collections. You’ve even written a play. Will you ever write a novel?
NF: I had a short story that was published in an anthology. And I’ve written that play. I appreciate fiction, it’s just not usually where my writing goes. Memoir is a lot freer territory.
Zola: The Reenactments is full of quotes, by everyone from Walt Whitman to Joan Didion to groundbreaking neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran. The book even includes an index for them. It reminded me a lot of David Shields’ Reality Hunger.
NF: There’s also [Jonathan] Lethem’s book on influence. There’s a lot of that going on—that ‘collective memory.’ Whatever the culture puts out there, trying to show that in the writing. Some of the quotes I’ve had for a while, on my hard drive. I have folders of quotes of various types. I’m trying to show some sort of pattern—putting a quote about neuroscience next to Nietzsche.
Zola: On the last page of The Reenactments, in your author bio, you note that you no longer use the term “homeless,” preferring instead “working poor” or “folks who found themselves without a fixed address for a period of time.” When and why did you decide this?
NF: It really came about talking when the film came out—the more I talked about it, the more I did these benefit screenings for Housing First organizations. I thought, my father was always working, even though he didn’t have a place. I think it’s important to be accurate in language.
Zola: For people who may be interested in learning more about the working poor: anyone whose writing on the subject you’d recommend?
NF: Sam Tsemberis. He’s the founder and CEO of the organization Pathways to Housing. Any articles by him.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.