This month, McSweeney’s posted an excerpt from Magic Hours, their new book by former Portland State professor Tom Bissell (here’s a great profile of him from Portland’s Willamette Week). Subtitled “Essays on Creators and Creation,” the collection spans the past twelve years of Bissell’s career.
Although Bissell has recently left Portland for the sunnier streets of Los Angeles, I was able to ask him a few questions about Magic Hours via email:
AU: When did you first start thinking about writing Magic Hours? It seems like you’ve been kicking around some of the ideas in the book, especially those about creating narratives, for awhile—in Extra Lives, for example, and in various classes I’ve taken with you. When did all of that start to coalesce?
TB: I wrote the essays over a 12-year period, but the idea that they all kind of added up to an accidental statement of aesthetic belief…that became clear to me about a year ago. I do tend to get the same few bees in my bonnet as a writer: What is narrative, exactly? What’s the line between making stuff up and creating a narrative? Don’t nonfiction and fiction have more things in common than not? I’d always wanted to publish a book of essays. Finding someone who wanted to publish my essays was the problem. It wasn’t until I started talking to the folks at McSweeney’s about doing a collection of my work that we hit on this idea of essays about (for lack of a better phrase) the creative process.
AU: Luck is something else you focus on in Magic Hours—the importance of luck in artistic success, and luck as it relates to many writers who we now deem very important but who may not have had much success in their lifetimes. Can you tell me a little about your thoughts on luck and writing?
TB: The only reason I have a career is luck. Luck and a certain deranged confidence, I guess. You can write a wonderful essay or story or poem or even book, and if the stars aren’t perfectly aligned, it can all be for nothing. You need to get it to the right person at the right time who’s looking for just the thing you’re providing them. And that’s all 100 percent luck. Obviously, you make your own luck as a writer, too—by not giving up, by pushing forth, by writing more, by submitting a story even when it’s been rejected 20 times. But getting stuff bought and/or accepted is all subject to a most depressing severity of happenstance. I know for a fact that I rejected stuff as an editor because it got to me on the wrong day. I know that for a fact. So luck is hugely important. It’s also important once your work gets out there. Fight Club, I think, sold 2,000 copies in hardcover. One of the 2,000 people who read it, however, was David Fincher. That’s the kind of luck I mean.
AU: How did you end up working with McSweeney’s on this book? You’ve written for their various publications before; did Magic Hours arise from that relationship? Can you talk a little about the process of working with them?
TB: I’d talked to McSweeney’s about five years ago about maybe doing an essay collection of mine—my reviews, my travel pieces, my other stuff—but Dave Eggers said it didn’t make sense to do a book that didn’t have a unified or cohesive theme. I grabbed my ball and went home and sulked for a while—Oh, to be John Updike and publish a 500-page brick of assorted nonfiction every ten years!—but I thought about what he said.
Eventually, I realized he was right. Then I started seeking out more kinds of journalistic assignments that would fill out the cohesive, creativity-centered book I started to have in mind. In the last couple of years McSweeney’s has expanded its publishing arm by quite a bit, and as I was thinking about doing a collection again they got in touch and said, “Hey, do you have anything you might want to do with us?” As it happened…Obviously, I’m very grateful to McSweeney’s. They’ve helped me a ton in my career, from publishing one of my earliest stories and my second (and lamentably under-read) book Speak, Commentary. As for working with them, it’s pretty unique. They manage to run a completely professional-feeling operation (with real book designers and cover designers and editors and whatnot), and yet it doesn’t feel at all impersonal. It still has that wonderfully homespun feeling it did in the beginning, when it was running off of Dave Eggers’ plasma. Which is not at all to lament my relationship with Pantheon, my other publisher, which is technically a part of Random House but is operated in a remarkably intimate way by Dan Frank. Just about every writer I know has “My Horrible Publisher” stories. Here’s how many I have: zero.