All the Things He Did Not Know: A Profile of Tom Bissell

Frank Bures
From the March/April 2007 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

"I believed in his talents," Hohn says, "but he was untested as a writer of nonfiction." Hohn wrote a letter on Harper's letterhead that got Bissell access to the movie set, and Bissell headed home to the Upper Peninsula. When he was done, he turned in a long piece titled "Escanaba's Magic Hour," which Hohn brought to the next editorial meeting. Harper's editor Lewis Lapham looked it over, gave it the green light, and Tom Bissell's career as a nonfiction writer took off.

His career as a fiction writer, however, did not. Still, he kept making the rounds with his novels and stories. One editor at Pantheon liked his voice but couldn't buy anything. So she asked Bissell's agent, Heather Schroder, if he had any nonfiction ideas. At the time Bissell had pitched a story to Harper's about the death of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. His agent sent off his one-page query for the piece and the next day Pantheon made him an offer he couldn't believe and definitely couldn't refuse: $100,000.

So Bissell headed back to central Asia, where he researched his first book, Chasing the Sea. He revisited Uzbekistan, got harassed by the state police, spelled out the bloody and fascinating history of the region, and walked among the old rusting hulls that lay on the dried seabed of what was once a massive inland ocean.

Chasing the Sea is a hugely successful mix of travel, history, and memoir, all woven together into a compelling read. Putting the book together confirmed much of what Bissell believed about writing in different genres. "There's really no important difference for me between writing nonfiction and fiction," Bissell says, "other than that with fiction, I don't have a notebook I can look at. But I think the richness of telling a nonfiction story is comparable to that of fiction. And I think the opportunity you have to make real observations about the world in fiction is similar to that of nonfiction." Soon thereafter, Bissell proved that he was one of those few writers who can work well in both genres. After Chasing the Sea was published, he turned to his short stories with a fresh eye, and after more revision, God Lives in St. Petersburg was published by Pantheon in 2005.

God Lives in St. Petersburg is a series of tense, tightly drawn stories about people in foreign places who are usually out of their element in the same way Paul Bowles's Port Moresby, Graham Greene's Alden Pyle, and Hemingway's Francis Macomber were out of theirs. The book received even more acclaim than Chasing the Sea, and rightly so. The stories are spare and rich, elemental and mystical. And they reveal something essential about all of Bissell's work, Hohn says.

"There's a line in the lead story of God Lives in St. Petersburg, ‘Death Defier,' about the character, who is fictional but who resembles Tom in some important ways: ‘He had a quiet, appalled thought at all the things he did not know.' And I think that in all of Tom's writing, in his fiction and his nonfiction, the pieces bewilder his narrator and his characters, and they bewilder us," Hohn says. "You find yourself in a very foreign place. He tries to take us to that point of shock."

Readers of Bissell's new book will find themselves in another foreign place—Vietnam. Like Chasing the Sea, The Father of All Things began as an article. In 2003, Bissell was sitting down for dinner with Devin Friedman—an editor at GQ who wanted him to write for the magazine—wracking his brain for story ideas. (Maybe he wanted to go to Turkey? Why? He wasn't sure.) Then he started telling Friedman about his father and Vietnam, how it shaped him and affected his life, and how he thought of going back there.

That, Friedman said, is what he should write about. So, on assignment from the magazine, Bissell and his dad returned to Vietnam later that year, where the two of them traveled from place to place. They saw where his dad had landed in April 1965 and where he was wounded by a roadside bomb in Tuy Phuoc. Along the way, Bissell tried to make sense of the time and place that made his dad who he is. It was a long, moving piece of literary journalism.

GQ killed it.

"When they killed it," Bissell remembers, "I was in total despair about the piece. I thought I had totally whiffed. So I sent it to Harper's really sheepishly. I sent them the third draft. I'd gotten up to eight drafts with GQ, and it kept getting worse and worse. I just hated the whole process. It was awful. So I sent Harper's the third draft, which was the only draft that I really liked, and they said they'd run it as is."

"War Wounds" was published in the December 2004 issue of Harper's, and Bissell says it generated a bigger response than anything he's ever written. It was chosen for The Best American Travel Writing 2005 and became one of the few nonfiction pieces ever read on NPR's Selected Shorts. But he wasn't quite done with Vietnam.

At the time, Bissell was under contract with Pantheon to write a book about people who live in the Arctic Circle. He had a good title, "Cold Comforts," and not much else. He'd begun to dread the whole project.

"I was in Vietnam for maybe two days," Bissell says, "when I realized, this has got to be the next book. The minute I got home, I wrote [Pantheon] an e-mail saying I wanted to scrap the Arctic book and write a book about Vietnam."

So Bissell wrote The Father of All Things, which is as much a book about the Vietnam War as it is about Bissell's unanswered questions about who his father really is. When it was finished, he sent it around to the people whose work he loves, the ones who'd encouraged him along the way. Caputo said Bissell's "maturing talents are on full display." Norman Rush called it "a triumphant piece of work," and said that "the bravery of Bissell's engagement, his intelligence, and his uncanny eye for the conclusive detail are on rich display."

A starred review in Publishers Weekly stated that the "ambitious" book "confirms Bissell's status as a rising star of American literature."

Even though he hasn't run out to buy a Ferrari or a Porsche—or even a Nissan—and filled the trunk with copies, Tom Bissell's life has somehow come around to where he always hoped it would be: doing the work he loves, writing books (he has another two-book deal from Pantheon), and being admired by the people he admires. But even more than that—maybe even better than sports cars—is the fact that Bissell now finds himself giving back something he once received from the books he read growing up.

"They make you feel less alone," he says. "They connect you to people you don't know. I've gotten a couple letters like the one I sent Franzen. The first one I got, I almost started to cry. The guy said he'd never read a book that made him want to write more. And I knew exactly what he meant.Those books gave me the life that I have."

Frank Bures writes for Tin House, Wired, Mother Jones, and other magazines. His work appeared in The Best American Travel Writing 2004 (Houghton Mifflin). He is the books editor for World Hum, an online literary travel magazine.