Tom Bissell is a seasoned journalist and travel writer, as well as an accomplished author of fiction. With an eye for detail and a humorous, passionate style, he's also a hell of a tour guide. As we weave through the chaotic streets of Rome, where he's living this year as a winner of the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome, he points up at a picturesque balcony overlooking a square and tells me, "Mussolini spoke to a crowd from there, and he was furious when a screaming ambulance siren interrupted him." A turn into an unpromising alley opens onto the Pantheon, and a hilltop building with a stunning view of the city.
For a guy born and raised in Escanaba, Mich.—a small, working-class city—Bissell, 32, looks surprisingly at home in the Eternal City. Crossing a Roman street is a game of chicken, the oncoming cars ferocious. Bissell slaloms through the frenzy like an expert.
For all of his confidence, Bissell is also a bit clumsy. His bumping into low walls and snagging eye-level tree branches is reminiscent of his antics in his two travel books—Chasing the Sea, a memoir about Bissell's Peace Corps experiences and an investigation of the environmental disaster around the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan; and the forthcoming The Father of All Things (Pantheon, Mar.) in which Bissell and his father, John, return to Vietnam, where John served as a marine in the war—and the travel pieces he writes for magazines like Harper'sand the New Republic. Similar characters and places pop up in the stories in God Lives in St. Petersburg(Pantheon, 2005), Bissell's only published fiction so far.
Bissell is charming, well read and knowledgeable, able to spar with the people he meets about the troubled history of their countries. His endearing awkwardness is his secret weapon; it's how he gets the goods. "Never underestimate apparent incompetence as a very cunning method to get people to say things they never otherwise would," Bissell says. This simultaneously genuine and strategic persona earns the trust of Bissell's readers as well. In his books, Tom Bissell is just an average guy who happens to have taken a trip to some far-flung part of the world, with a notebook and tape recorder at the ready.
Bissell's mother, Muff, the daughter of a Marine Corps colonel, met Bissell's father at the base in Beaufort, S.C., where he was stationed after his tour in Vietnam. Muff was a great supporter of everything her son did: "If I was shooting people from a clock tower," says Bissell, "she was the kind of mother who would say, 'Why did those people get in front of poor Tommy's bullets?' " As The Father of All Things explains, Bissell's father was deeply scarred by the war—"he had a lot of anger about how that war ended, how it was perceived and how he was perceived because of it"—which created a long-lasting rift in the family. Bissell's new book is in part the story of how Bissell and his father closed that rift. For Bissell's father, the years after Vietnam were clouded by alcoholism and bitterness. Bissell's parents divorced in 1977, when he was three, but, as he says, "of all the divorced dynamics I know, mine was pretty amazing. My parents lived two blocks away from each other."
Growing up, Bissell remembers "being told that had the military been allowed to do what the military does, we would have 'won' the war." Over the course of the travelogue that is the centerpiece of The Father of All Things, as Bissell questions his father about his Vietnam memories, it becomes clear that John Bissell now sees the war in a very different light. The Bissells' trip ends in a joyful meeting with a Vietnamese man who fought against the Americans: "I drank, and cried, and drank, and nothing worked. Now I'm here. In your wonderful country," says John. Bissell immediately knew this moment was perfect for his book; "I couldn't have asked for a better ending," he says.
Writing the book also fostered a powerful sense of mutual admiration and gratitude between Bissell and his father. "Now that I've actually been to Vietnam with my dad, and also to Iraq"—for a recent Harper'spiece—"where I spent time with marines doing exactly what my dad did in Vietnam, I got a sense firsthand of the tension they feel and the kind of experience they're having," Bissell says. "I realize that a lot of my dad's anger was less a product of the war and the marines than it was of what being perceived as a kind of failure—a soldier who lost a war—would do to someone. Forming my own opinions about what war feels like, I don't have to defer to him anymore. What's interesting to me now is how war carries over into one's understanding of the world afterwards, how it affects the family dynamic and how a man sees himself." Rich with historical facts and observations about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, at heart The Father of All Things is a book about growing up: "The fact that my father was willing to go into all this with me, the fact that he was willing to let his son exploit his life in this way to the putative benefit of thousands of strangers is totally extraordinary."
As for the expectations and pressures of writing nonfiction, Bissell believes it's essential that a writer maintain a trust with his readers. "I think it's important that people understand that anyone who writes nonfiction has to acknowledge that a huge amount of subjectivity is present, and a huge amount of distortion," he says. The first section of The Father of All Things is essentially a novella in which Bissell lets us know he is imagining his family on the traumatic night when America watched the fall of Saigon on TV, when Bissell was just a baby. After reading a draft of that section, Bissell's mother confirmed for him that there are other kinds of truth than simply the straight facts. "She called me up and said, 'How do you know all this stuff? Who told you?' I said, 'No one told me, I just made it all up.' Then she said, 'That is exactly what it felt like, that's exactly what it's like.' I was just so happy that I knew them well enough to have an accurate sense of who they were. I totally fictionalized it and made it up, but I somehow told the truth at the same time."
During his year in Rome, Bissell is doing research for his next travel book, which traces the lives and deaths of the 12 apostles. He had the idea, and the contract, for the book before finding out he'd won the Rome Prize and now jokingly wonders "if maybe the divine didn't play a larger role in my life than I was willing to grant."
We go to the massive and daunting church of San Giovanni, one of his favorite places in the city, mostly because of the stunning 10-foot-tall statues of all the apostles surrounding the main hall of the church. Bissell recounts details of the martyrdoms in each of the statues. There's Simon, who leans on the saw with which he was cut in half, and the flayed Bartholomew, who holds his own ghostly skin in his arms. It's like he's introducing friends he's known for years.