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Talking with Author Tom Bissell About Drugs, Video Games and ‘The Room’:
Francofile

Talking with Author Tom Bissell About Drugs, Video Games and ‘The Room’

Francofile Francofile

You spent nine years working and traveling, including to Jerusalem and Rome, for your new nonfiction book, Apostle. What were you looking for?
The framework of the book is me visiting the supposed tombs of the 12 apostles, but it’s really about early Christianity and how early Christian storytelling worked. The foundation these storytellers set down reverberates across thousands of years and still affects the way we think today. Every American city is filled with churches named after these 12 guys who lived 2,000 years ago. Trying to figure out how their stories had such sticking power became my focus; that’s what the book is about. And I’m not religious. That’s the other thing I always hasten to point out. It’s not a book by a believer; it’s a book by a nonbeliever.

You stopped working on Apostle to write Extra Lives, a book about video games. Why the shift?
I got really depressed about Apostle, because at first I didn’t know what the fuck I was writing about. I was amassing pages and reading and writing thousands of pages of notes. I would sink into despondency about the project. But then BioShock came out. I would think, Oh, I’ll just play for a couple of hours and go back to writing. Then it would be 10 p.m. and I’d be like, Oh my God, what have I done? Then I discovered cocaine, which is great for writing frantically for an hour, playing Call of Duty online for four hours and then going back to write for an hour. I was alone a lot in Estonia, which is where much of this went down. My cocaine hookup was a, shall we say, disreputable young lady with a mobster boyfriend. She helped me realize I needed to leave Estonia and stop doing drugs. We were fucked-up on drugs, lying in bed, and she said, “My boyfriend, if he knew about us, would kill you.” I remember lying there with her thinking, He would kill me. He would actually kill me. That’s when I thought, I have to get the fuck out of here; this is really bad. I’m not writing. I’m fucked-up all the time and spending 15 hours a day playing video games. I’ve got to go. So the great tonic for me with video games was actually becoming a video-game-industry professional. Now I play them a fraction as much as I used to.

In Extra Lives you say the book isn’t meant to be a comparison between video games and other art forms. Do you feel the same way about video games now that you’ve actually worked in creating them?
I used to think the promise of video games was the narrative possibilities. But I don’t think that’s true anymore. The story is one tiny piece of the artfulness of games. This will sound stupid, but I’m going to say it anyway: Setting up combat encounters in an action game is a real art form—where enemies come from, how you place the geometry in the level, where you get firing lines. That is a super interesting art form.

You also discuss the idea of “ludonarrative dissonance.”
That’s when the game tells you the character you’re controlling is a wonderful person who cares deeply about doing the right thing, but the gameplay involves shooting people in the face. It’s a core problem of gaming. The ludonarrative is the narrative that arises out of that.

You co-wrote the book The Disaster Artist with Greg Sestero, who starred in The Room, a really bad movie that’s now a cult classic—I’m even making a movie about it. What drew you to The Room?
It’s the only work of art that I know of—and I say this with fondness and affection—in which every single creative decision that was made was the wrong one. It’s like a symphony in which every note is slightly wrong.

Plenty of bad movies exist. What makes this one special?
It’s this exuberant imagination that has no idea what it’s doing, working in a system that’s structurally designed to prevent people like the movie’s director, Tommy Wiseau, from actually making movies. It’s different in literature, because self-published books appear all the time. The Tommy Wiseau of literature is a dime a dozen. The Tommy Wiseau of film doesn’t exist, because the Tommy Wiseau of film would have to convince literally a hundred other people to follow him.

Yet there are a lot of outlets for bad movies. Just look on YouTube.
But they’re boring. The Room isn’t boring. Every single moment is amazing. The Room is so watchable and entertaining. I’ve seen it a hundred fucking times, at least, and I would watch it again tonight. If you said, “Hey, let’s watch The Room,” I’d say, “Fuck, yeah. Let’s do it,” and I’d probably notice something different. I think Tommy is a legitimate artist, and I say that with some reservation about the viability, or the respectability, of the term artist.


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