Tom Bissell isn’t quite sure what to call himself. Is he a fiction writer, a journalist, a cultural critic, a video game writer? He’s all of these things and, by own his admission, none of them. When it comes to form, Bissell says, “I view myself as completely homeless. I don’t have one, I don’t want one.”
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to see his new story collection, Creative Types (Pantheon, Dec.), as something of a return. In 2005, after his nonfiction book Chasing the Sea, Bissell published the collection God Lives in St. Petersburg, as auspicious a fiction debut as any. Its title story won a Pushcart Prize, and two others spawned film adaptations, including one directed by Werner Herzog. Pankaj Mishra, lauding the book in the New York Times, said the “short story seems the right form for him.”
Bissell, 47, has not heeded that guidance. Since then he’s amassed a CV of almost dizzying variability. He’s published several nonfiction books, including The Disaster Artist (with Greg Sestero), a history of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, widely considered one of the worst films ever made; contributed reported pieces, travel essays, and criticism to magazines including Harper’s and the New Yorker; and worked as a writer on at least a dozen video games, including installments of the hit franchise Gears of War. He’s also forayed into Hollywood, having recently served as a writer and co-developer on the Apple TV+ series The Mosquito Coast, starring Justin Theroux.
Bissell, speaking from his home in Los Angeles, describes his iron-in-every-fire résumé with charming, mordant equanimity. “My entire career has just been an accidental stumble from one way to make a living as a writer to another,” he says.
Short fiction has expressly not been one of the ways Bissell has made a living, and that, he says, is why he loves the form so much. “To me, short fiction—a thing that is guaranteed not to make you money—is always the place where I go when I have time, when I need to recharge myself, when I need to remind myself that I actually like writing,” he explains. “It’s coming from a completely different place.”
Stories might be a refuge from Bissell’s jobbier jobs, but the entries in Creative Types clearly take inspiration from them. The characters include a reality TV producer, a Hollywood assistant, a magazine journalist, and a travel writer who by his own description has never made it off the “worstseller list.”
For Bissell, the stories function as “updates about my own career anxieties, going through the last 10 years.” And since, he says, writers’ career anxieties tend to be “the most boring things imaginable,” he decided to make them funny. “I always try to create exaggerated versions of myself and then beat the shit out of them on the page.”
The characters in the collection share more than largely unsatisfying creative careers. They also tend to be peripheral figures: people adjacent to power or major events but terminally excluded from them.
In “My Interview with the Avenger,” a writer for Esquire profiles a mysterious man who’s become a vigilante crime-fighting sensation. In “The Hack,” the assistant to James Franco teeters between his worship of celebrities and his simmering ambition to rise through the ranks and become their lord. (If it weren’t already an Ava Max song, that story could be called “Sweet but Psycho.”)
Bissell says this peripheral perspective comes from his work as a journalist. “I instinctively go to that position in fiction because it’s a position I’m so used to as a nonfiction writer,” he adds. “You’re constantly looking around the edges of the significant thing that’s happening.”
Bissell’s journalism has informed his fiction in other ways. “Most of these stories—I weirdly reported them,” he says. “I have a hard time writing about places I haven’t been to. I take a lot of notes, just like I would in a reported piece.”
For some entries, such as “Love Story, with Cocaine,” he even interviewed people. That story focuses on two characters in Tallinn, Estonia—one a native party girl and the other a washed-up American writer—who form a relationship, half friendship and half romance, centered mainly around the drug of the title.
To flesh out the native’s backstory, Bissell interviewed a close friend whose childhood, like the character’s, coincided with the restoration of Estonia’s independence. “When I’m trying to describe the contours of the mind of a rich young woman who came of age right after the fall of the Soviet Union,” he says, “that is hard to come upon without a native informant.”
Tallinn, where Bissell lived for a year, is also the setting for what may be the loudest story in Creative Types. In “The Fifth Category,” a fictionalized version of John Yoo, the legal architect of the Bush administration’s infamous “torture memos,” undergoes a hellish experience on an airplane after attending a conference in the Estonian capital. (Much fun can be had imagining the sniffling protagonists of “Love Story, with Cocaine” intersecting with Yoo on Tallinn’s cobbled streets.)
Bissell, who in his nonfiction has written extensively about America’s conflicts abroad, says that story was born of anger: “a sense of rage that my country was torturing people—a sense of impotent rage that the people who basically legalized it paid almost no professional price, seemed to pay no moral price.”
Yoo may seem like a stark departure from the collection’s other characters, but he shares important qualities with them. He too is a peripheral figure, a henchman to a superpower, and he too is, in his way, a “creative type.” What are his torture memos if not a literary endeavor? Confronted with the ambiguities of relevant legal and medical literature, Yoo provides his own definitions for things like “severe pain” and “prolonged mental harm.”
Peripheral figures, the story implies, can become accessories to extravagant cruelty, exemplars of what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.” “That phrase was concocted to diagnose people like John Yoo,” Bissell says. “I wanted him to pay for that.”
At the same time, Bissell concedes that rage is a “terrible impulse” for a fiction writer. “Fiction that begins in anger and ends in anger is never good fiction,” he says.
Perhaps the most disarming thing about “The Fifth Category” is how human its protagonist seems. For Bissell, “fiction is a process of realizing everyone is redeemable.”
Bissell may have high-minded ideas about fiction, but he’s skeptical about its ability to make sense of the world’s horrors—of geopolitical malice, of endless wars—in any comprehensive way. “All fiction can do is soothe individual people who need answers for something that was traumatic to them,” he says.
And as much as he enjoys the short story form, he has no plans to make it his main trade. “If I were primarily a short story writer,” he says, “I think I would come to resent that as much as I do anything. The cruel fact of life is that eventually everything becomes your job.”