Nick Flynn is a poet and the author of the memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, the basis for the major motion picture Being Flynn, starring Robert De Niro, Julianne Moore, and Paul Dano. His recent books include The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands and The Ticking Is the Bomb.
Nick Flynn: The book is really something. I'm not sure what to call it--a cross between Studs Terkel's Working and...what? The beginning of a love affair? Or a stay at rehab, if one were allowed to text from rehab. It's unlike anything I've ever read. How do you describe it to people?
Jeff Ragsdale: I was walking around New York City one day. I'd just gone through a horrific breakup. I was isolated, extremely depressed. As I was walking, I came up with the idea of posting a flyer. In essence it said, "Call me, I'm lonely as hell." I thought if I was lucky 10 people would call. It took off instantly. Hundreds of calls. The first month I didn't record or take notes on any of the conversations. I hadn't really talked to people (outside of my significant others) for years. I loved talking to these people who called. The majority of the conversations were hyper-intense, dealing with addiction, abuse, suicide, dysfunctional families, psychological disorders, crime. I met people from all walks of life, all over the world. For me, it was much-needed therapy. I was the loneliest guy in town.
NF: The form is a highwire act, with the barest of set-ups. We are immediately up there with you, with these voices coming at us. It's both thrilling and deeply unsettling. Did you find the form, or invent it?
JR: I found that when people are revealing their innermost secrets, there’s no time for backstory or setup. "My dad’s gonna die soon. He has terminal cancer. We’ve never gotten along. I wasn’t there for him when mom died. I acted like a spoiled brat. I’ve wasted my entire life being selfish."
It’s amazing what people will reveal to someone they don’t know on the other end of a phone. People revealed their most intimate sexual fantasies to me. They would call with excruciating things they just had to get off their chest but couldn’t tell friends or family members. "I’m bored with my girl, but she’s a cutter. I’m afraid she’ll hurt herself if I break it off. What should I do?" I became a relationship counselor, a sex therapist, a probation officer, a confession booth. I found that people just need someone outside their inner circle to talk to, who’ll just listen and won’t judge.
NF: I know that this is a collaboration of sorts, between you, David Shields and Michael Logan. How did that work?
JR: I was a former writing student of David’s. I felt there was possibly a book here. I described some of these conversations I was having with people. He and his friend Michael were mesmerized. We came up with the idea of taking these conversations and combining them with passages from a personal essay I'd been working on. David and Michael called themselves the re-mixers.
NF: You said "re-mixers." This is very much in the spirit of David's manifesto, Reality Hunger, in that we don't have to create the world, simply pay closer attention to it.
JR: Nothing is more interesting than day-to-day existence. We just wanted to frame what was out there. Give voice to how people talk now. Show how they're trying to keep it together.
“[Jeff’s] crazy idea actually worked.” —The Oprah Blog
“You can either make fun of Jeff, One Lonely Guy (it would be very easy to parody) and reject its self-help earnestness or you can respond as I did: transported by a healing work of art despite (or because of) the enormous amount of pain surging through it. The symphony of voices here is an overwhelming reading experience. This short book is also a verification of a legitimate new form of narrative; it's the definitive document so far of where our medium is heading. I've never read anything like it.” —Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho
“OMG I love this!! It’s so Russian—very reminiscent of the Chekhov story “Complaint Book” (entries in a complaint book at the railway station).” —Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed
“With Reality Hunger, David Shields offered us a manifesto, which unlike most manifestos, actually changed the world. Here, teaming up with Ragsdale and Logan, Shields embodies his ethos: we have crossed over the threshold, and are now—strangely, terrifyingly, beautifully—in this transformed world.” —Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
"The lit equivalent of a kiss-and-tell reality show and a frightening, utterly riveting thriller. This is not a pretty book, but it shows us the world we live in: unbearable everyday humanity, unwashed, unvarnished, completely captivating.” —Frederick Barthelme, author of Natural Selection
“A Goldman Sachs trader gave [Jeff] updates on the Occupy Wall Street protests. Others gave advice, and many vented about their own issues. . . People phoned from as far as Japan and Saudi Arabia.” —New York Post
"But black-box confession isn’t new to the computer age, and the main thing that distinguishes Jeff’s activities from the work of a priest or a counsellor is his lack of training. His callers know that. Many have aired their problems previously through professional channels and now want to connect with someone who’s like them—someone who has nothing practical to offer but who may understand. . . They text Jeff. They don’t sit by themselves for months staring at their coffee tables." —Nathan Heller, The New Yorker
“In Jeff, One Lonely Guy we are light years removed from the Orwellian Big Brother. Instead we relate face-to-face — more accurately, device-to-device — with the man with the iPad in the café, the woman on the train clicking through her cell phone, the executive who can’t stand to be away from his Blackberry for one minute, the teen who sends hundreds of texts a day. Alas, technology tempts us with the potential for genuine interaction. Or does it? The text messages and voice-mails Ragsdale receives are also a form of one-way traffic, flavored less by the give-and-take of personal interaction and more a form of self-engagement.”
“The experience of reading it can be close to revolutionary.” — Bookforum