Nick Flynn on “This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire” and Making the Unconscious Conscious

It’s often said that “you can’t go home again,” but despite that cautionary tale, Nick Flynn does just that in his latest memoir, This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire. Flynn’s use of poetic language, along with the conscious and the unconscious through various realms, is a brilliant and yet humbling account of who he was and who he is yet to become. Flynn is no stranger to nostalgia nor the revelations that the trials of life can teach us. In fact, these memories are more than that; they are bedtime stories for his daughter — a legacy of family and transformation. 

Nick Flynn has worked as a ship’s captain, an electrician, and as a case-worker with homeless adults. He is the author of twelve books, including The New York Times best-selling memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Since 2004, he has spent each spring in residence at the University of Houston, where he is a professor on the Creative Writing faculty. I had the privilege of corresponding with him recently over email and via Zoom.

This memoir toggles between journeys that are physical, internal, emotional, and even cosmic. What would you say is the primary catalyst in each journey?

I’d say it all comes down to this idea from [Carl] Jung: Until you make the unconscious conscious it will direct your life and you will call it fate. The journey is to find out who you are, which is the place from which you can be of most service in this life. 

Speaking of transformation, you return to the burning of the house at various points in the book, while also incorporating other references to fire throughout. All this is paired perfectly with other images, including one of my personal favorites, “Bag of Mice,” from your poetry collection, Some Ether. One can’t help but wonder — is this a nod to the myth of the phoenix? Do you see a new Flynn rising out of these stories?

Setting a house on fire is, yes, a transformation… in an alchemic sense, where change is sudden. Now I prefer more gradual transformations, that come about through daily practices — writing is one of those practices. Nice to imagine rising out of the ashes, though, but I don’t see it as a new self, rather a more self. 

Poetry is both visual and auditory. How would you say being a poet has influenced you as a nonfiction writer? Did poetic form help shape the symbolism and imagery in This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire?

This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire has passages that closely align with poetry, with line breaks and white space, generally in moments where the memory has become so distilled as to shimmer.     

Your narrative possesses a rhythm that moves through different places and times, anachronistically. What was the vision for the order of the book?

I made a chart for the structure as I was putting it together… it was on a large sheet of paper, with a line horizontally through it… each chapter had some energy above that line, which I saw as the conscious, physical realm, and some energy below that line, which I saw as the unconscious, dream realm. Then it was a matter of turning the dials so that one didn’t get lost too deeply in either realm.  

In one of the pieces that refers to the affair (“The Story of a Million Years”) you discuss what it means “to be known.” Can you tell us more about self-discovery? How do we evolve as a result of our experiences?

I don’t know if self-discovery always leads to evolving in a positive sense… I suppose if one never questioned why one does what one does you would never evolve, but just seeing who you are, without acting on it, whatever that might entail, could just lead into more self-justified murk.  

The symbolism throughout the book is both dark and light, traumatic and comforting: the fire, your mother, the woods, Mr. Mann (a figure that appears prominently throughout the book), the stones, the use of color. If you had to choose one to represent your personal transformation, what would it be and why?

In This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire, the main element of transformation is fire. The night my mother set our house on fire revealed something to her, and to me, something that was inside both of us, you could call it self-destructive, or self-renewing, either way it was necessary to drag it into the light. Had it stayed inside it would have come out in some other, likely even more destructive, ways. 

What was your inspiration to create the inner-dialogue of the other characters in your book? And in doing so, was it difficult to walk the line between nonfiction and fiction?

I do enter into the consciousness of at least two characters (three?) — my mother, my grandfather (Mr. Mann?)… so many traits are passed on through the blood, and that includes language and thoughts, that in some very real sense I am my mother, just as she was her father (my grandfather). It is more of a stretch to enter into a stranger’s consciousness, that would be pure fiction… people are so unfathomable… so the Mr. Mann passages are closer to fiction.   

This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire addresses the roles of parents in passing on family legacy to their children. When writing about these memories, how did you balance the voice of your younger self with the present?

It is in a real sense it is a book of how my self at seven parallels my daughter’s self when she was seven. What she was passing through at that time released all these memories in me — this really was the beginning of the book.  

These are very strange times for us all. How has the pandemic affected your writing? What’s next for you?  

2020 was the strangest year I’ve lived through, and I’ve lived through some strange years. I need people, so it’s been hard to keep my distance. At the beginning it was so unsettling, and the writing came slowly, which I was fine with, after having three books come out in a year. Now I worry I have become so used to this isolation that I worry that coming back into the light will be blinding. Though I have stayed connected (via Zoom) to a small circle of friends, which has been sustaining.

Nick, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions and speak with me over video chat. I enjoyed discussing how this work evolved, as well as learning about your process for creating the narrative in each of your memoirs.

This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire
By Nick Flynn
W. W. Norton & Company
Published August 25, 2020