Renowned writer Tom Bissell travels the world for his books, dealing with Eastern European law enforcement, rocky landings in the Arctic and instability in war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq along the way. For his latest novel, “Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of Twelve,” Bissell traced the footsteps of Jesus’ original followers to better understand their complex legacy. In a recent interview with The Michigan Daily, he reflected on his provocative career thus far.
His career has spanned not only continents, but genres. Often described as a travel writer by the press, Bissell and his publishers often shy away from this label as being overly narrow for a writer that covers everything from video games to history to contemporary world issues with eloquence and humor.
“I’ve been innovative or stupid enough — which is a fine line, really — to write a bunch of books that defy easy categorization,” Bissell said. “Most of them are technically travel books, and I like seeing them in the travel section, but often times they wind up getting shelved or grouped with other books that address the same subject matter but aren’t travel books.”
Bissell lets his own fascinations be an extension to his own voice through his prolific writing, which extends far beyond the book world into online columns and frequent appearances in magazines, anthologies and other publications. The only common thread that runs through this diverse body of work seems to be his own sense of curiosity — a driving interest in understanding the things that others take for granted, whether it be the latest edition of “Grand Theft Auto” or a thousand-year-old religious movement.
“There’s travel but also a lot of history, for better or worse, because I enjoy writing about it, but I think that’s what creates this perception of categorical hybridization,” he explained. “Back when I taught, I used to do a class called ‘Weird Nonfiction: Geoff Dyer, Joan Didion, Ryszard Kapuscinski, John D’Agata, Eula Biss.’ I think, in my heart of hearts, that’s where I’d like to be shelved.”
All the international intrigue that has defined his career as a writer belies a small town upbringing in Escanaba in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“When I was a kid, Escanaba seemed like the center of the universe to me,” Bissell said. “I knew it wasn’t London or Paris, obviously, but not until I got out and about did I realize how comparatively sheltered life truly was there,” Bissell said. “This came as quite a shock to me, naturally. Yet Escanaba remains a hugely important part of my life and imagination. I love being from the Upper Peninsula.”
But this protected, isolated UP life wasn’t quite what it appeared. The foundations of Bissell’s writing life were established back then, in large part due to the influence of several friends of his father — wartime companion Philip Caputo and Jim Harrison, both well-respected writers who exposed Bissell to the realities of their world.
“It was probably the biggest gift a young wanna-be writer in the Upper Peninsula could have had. Being a writer never seemed to me like an impossible goal,” he said. “And from hearing them talk about their lives, I knew it wasn’t glamorous. It was hard. Very hard.”
Bissell’s latest book, eight years in the making, brought him to another corner of the world to satisfy an itch he has always had.
It began with “a deep and abiding interest in early Christianity — how it began, what happened to it — and my own desire to get to the bottom of what I actually felt about this topic I’d read so much about and lived with in my head for so long,” he explained.
His search for these answers, as personal as they were universal, took him throughout the ancient world and led him to plenty of texts, some as old as time and others hot off the presses.
For the aspiring writers of tomorrow, Bissell said there is no magic formula to success, particularly in travel or nonfiction, both notoriously finicky genres prone to constant reinvention and short attention spans. All he could offer is trust — in your own skills, and even more than that, in curiosity. Always complaining that no one ever writes about something you’re obsessed with? Do something about it.
“Write what you’d like to read,” he said. “And try to get paid for it.”