Dirtbag, Massachusetts A memoir in essays about how a lost soul with a diamond heart was able to discover – after a series of jet-fueled and drug-destroying adventures – how to make a life out of all the pieces left in the wreckage of his past. This past spans from living in a Catholic homeless worker shelter in Boston, to living and working in bars in San Francisco at the start of the AIDS pandemic, to acting in a few porn flicks, and to round things off, Fitzgerald spent time in Burma working with a group called Free Burma Rangers. to smuggle medical supplies across the Thai-Burmese border. He has now settled in Brooklyn, where he has lived for several years.
As harrowing and somewhat frantic the book can be, the articles also trace the indelible moments of joy and a lifelong devotion to books and reading. And it is through this devotion to literature that Fitzgerald eventually finds himself defending other writers — first as a columnist who writes for Buzzfeed, and more recently as a critic recommending books as part of a regular section on today’s show.
Isaac Fitzgerald is the author of the bestselling children’s book, How to be a pirateco-authored by pen and ink And the knives and ink, two books about tattoos and the people who wear them. Fitzgerald himself has spelling ink spread across the knuckles of his right hand and the letters HOME, ending feeling, across the knuckles of his left fingers – a message to someone who has lost his way? Or could it be a reminder for all of us to remember where we came from?
yarn He met Isaac in the middle of an extensive book tour.
Spin: Isaac, to start with a cliché, I couldn’t leave your book until I finished it. Her family grief reminded me at times of Nick Flynn’s memoirs, Another bullshit night in Suck TownAbout his mother’s suicide and working at a homeless shelter, also in Boston, where his father was a client.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Ha! I already have a list of books someone asked me to write about books that influenced my book, and number one on that list was Nick’s book. Good call!
Despite this, your book, even with all the ferment and angst, has this wide range of sympathy and love running through it. In a way, the book sits somewhere between being angry about your past and forgiving it at the same time, making it read like a confession and a reckoning.
This is an excellent read of the book. What I realized – and I am someone who came to therapy fairly late, only in the last three years – was that when I examined my own life and what I thought I was okay with, or who I thought this life really was about how I acted in strange ways very. I was thinking of myself as someone who wasn’t angry as much as I was this person trying to be open to the world. Then, of course, it required the therapist to explain to me, “What is this thing about fighting all your friends when you were young, not out of anger, but because you thought it was fun? Don’t you think you might have been pushing things down and these things eventually showed up? While you were all fighting each other?”
I also realized in therapy that places like church and home – places that should have been safe for me – are not. I felt safe in places like Zeitgeist, a bar in San Francisco where I spent all my days and nights. And I felt safe at Armory, a makeshift film studio where I did some porn. These were places that anyone else might think weren’t safe, but it worked for me because I found loving communities there.
So, perhaps unconsciously you were discovering a way to neutralize spaces that others might consider dangerous?
One of the most beautiful moments in the book is when you are in San Francisco and describe your friendship with a gay man named Jeff who later passed away. And it occurred to me, from what little I already know about you, that there is a special affinity between you and gay men, even though you know you’re straight. How exactly did this relationship with the queer community happen?
This is a great question that no one has asked before. And something I love is, oh, is that something I should probably talk about in therapy? Because it seems like an interesting thing to delve into. I think it all starts with the Catholic factor and how much joy I found there as a child. We are talking about the eighties. We are talking about the AIDS crisis and how systemic homophobia means that no one even talks about AIDS. I grew up in this place where there were a lot of gay men and where there were a lot of people who lost friends and loved ones who were close to AIDS in the community.
And I have to wonder if that got me drawn into those kinds of relationships. This means that I was looking for friendships with gay men because they made me feel safe. Of course, there is definitely a more homophobic world out there than any upbringing I’ve had, but my parents were progressive. And they were open about this kind of thing and wanted to make sure I grew up in a place that wasn’t hateful. I am so grateful for that, and I especially thank them for introducing me to the world of books and reading.
Bring me back to the first question I meant to ask you that I only remember now. So, Isaac, what are you reading these days?
It was the last great book I read and I absolutely loved it night live rez By Morgan Talty, a great short story collection, like mine, also released in July. And why I love him so much is that Morgan is a Native American writer and I think the reservation he grew up on is on an island in the middle of a river. But he booked in Maine. And the book is about people trying to discover themselves, people trying to figure out family – right in my alley!
Your writing has a great consistency for the rhythm of the sentences. Then sometimes you do this thing where you go back to something you just said to say differently, or you can repeat it for emphasis. What is your writing process?
This opens up a space for me to talk about some things that are very important to me. I always have to read my work out loud. Hence the rhythm and rhythm begins. camel in Dirtbag, Massachusetts It didn’t look like that at first.
To start, I just word vomit on the page. Sometimes I record myself speaking and then write it down, which never works as well as one would hope. But once those words are on the page, I can read them out loud to hear their echoes and where they should fall. As I started saying it more and more out loud, reading it draft by draft, that’s when the process of fine-tuning the sentences really begins.
There is a wonderful moment in the book when she says, “My friends have been much cooler than me, and that will always be true at any time in my life. I tend to overweight when it comes to friendship.” This is an expressive and clever observation that you make about yourself.
Well, I have a tendency to put others on stilts and belittle myself, but that’s how I’ve felt all my life. When I was 12, I used to hang out with kids ages 16, 17, and 18, and they looked great to me. They looked great. They managed to get to the trucks; They went to parties. I was like a little mascot at the age of 12 and 13. And I couldn’t believe they let me ride in the van, or that I got invited to this or that party. I’ve had this sense of wonder through friendships my whole life.
I bet you were the coolest person to them, because Isaac, come on, you came across as such an amazing guy.
Well, I guess it will be an extra year or two of treatment before I can really digest that. But I will say, I am working on the understanding that perhaps now I can bring more to the table.
You are likely enjoying more success now than you might have in your life, at least on a professional level. Is this a fair assessment? After all the sadness and turbulent living you’ve been through, how do you enjoy all this newfound success, realizing how hard it can be to feel good about yourself?
You nail it. And I haven’t talked about this with anyone yet. So I am happy to talk to you for the first time about this. To be honest, I almost put the book in a basement. I couldn’t look directly at her for a bit, then it took a few days for me to sit down with her, and kiss her. Now, though, I think it’s time for me. And I’m ready, I’m ready in my heart to be excited about it all.