In Nick Flynn’s new book, “The Reenactments,” the memoirist and poet delivers a meditation on the peculiar experience of watching his life story become a movie. Starring Robert De Niro, Julianne Moore and Paul Dano, the Paul Weitz-directed “Being Flynn” is based on the writer’s 2004 memoir, “Another Bull---- Night in Suck City.” A mostly faithful adaptation, the film concerns Flynn’s work in Boston’s largest homeless shelter, the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death, his battles with drugs, and his estranged father’s own alcoholism and homelessness.
Released in 2012, the film also depicts Flynn’s birth as a professional writer, a career that this week brings him to Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton for a teaching residency through Friday. Flynn, whose 2011 poetry collection “The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands” came out in paperback in January, will read from his work 7 p.m. Thursday on the school’s main campus. When reached last week in Boston, Flynn wasn’t sure what he would read or discuss during the appearance, which will be open to the public.
“The sad truth of it is, I really don’t have time to think about it until 10 minutes before,” Flynn says with a laugh. “I’m doing about eight things before that. It’s not even on my radar.”
Flynn is likely to field questions about “Being Flynn,” the making of which took seven years and involved much studio interference before Weitz was able to return to his original script and make the movie he’d always intended. For Flynn, who says he was on set for every day of filming, the production triggered a wealth of emotional and psychological responses, as would be expected of anyone witnessing the re-creation of his mother’s suicide and his father’s unraveling. Rather than retreat from the experience, Flynn sought to understand it, absorbing the work of neurobiologists such as V.S. Ramachandran and David Eagleman, the former an expert on perception and memory and the latter the best-selling author of “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.” Joan Didion, Walt Whitman and the public-radio series Radiolab, among other disparate sources, provide additional guidance.
As contemplative and searching as he is in “The Reenactments,” Flynn says he didn’t deliberate when asked to turn “Another Bull---- Night in Suck City” into a movie. “It’s like, why do you do anything? At some point, it’s just a simple yes or no question,” he says. “Do you want to do this or not? One could say no to that. Me, my personality would be to wonder from then on if I did the right thing. To say yes, other possibilities open.”
Early in “The Reenactments,” Flynn relates an anecdote involving Robert A. Lewis, a copilot of the Enola Gay, which delivered the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. “It was Lewis who,” Flynn writes, “as he watched the city below him burst into flame, uttered ‘My god, what have I done?’ ” The line haunts Flynn, and he repeats it a few pages later, adding “Or did the copilot say, ‘My god, what have we done?’ ” While these passages suggest regret shadowed Flynn during the making of the movie, he says that impression is not entirely accurate.
“I’m not sure how your emotional life is, [but] mine is a continually kaleidoscopic, changing thing. I just sort of observe it,” Flynn says. “Did I feel fear? About a million times. I’m sure I felt ecstatic about a million times. I’m sure I felt everything about a million times, because it was seven years before the film got made. In that time, I probably had every possible emotion many, many times. Was there a moment where I felt afraid enough not to do the movie? Apparently not. I felt all that stuff. I was not immune to any human emotion in the process of making the film. Every human emotion was available to me, and I experienced them fully. Did they stop me from doing something? Apparently not. We kept going ahead.
“In the book, when I say, ‘My god, what have I done?’ that was a genuine representation of a moment in the filming. Was that the primary, driving emotion through the whole thing? I would say not. The trepidation or fear of ‘My god, what the hell are we doing here?’ that was definitely one of the things that was flickering on the screen.”
Flynn opens “The Reenactments” on the sixth day of filming, Moore’s first day on the set. It’s Ash Wednesday, 2011. “What I am seeing is my mother on the day of her suicide,” Flynn writes, “a day I’ve only imagined, endlessly, not having been with her on that day.”
In her suicide note, Flynn’s mother mentioned an unfinished story she’d found in a notebook he’d left out by mistake during a trip home from college. The story concerned a woman struggling to raise her children while working two jobs, a woman much like his mother. “I didn’t get to the part where it becomes clear that those moments they had together between her jobs were precious,” Flynn writes in “Another Bull---- Night.” “I hadn’t gotten that far.”
In the new book, Flynn recalls Weitz’s telling him that he didn’t need to be on set during Moore’s scenes. But he insisted on staying. And even though Flynn remembers thinking, “Where else would I go?” the reader can’t help but wonder why he did stay, why he didn’t leave, why he didn’t run.
“Again, I was there every day of the shooting. Again, it was the same thing: It was like a yes or no question,” Flynn says during the interview. “I could have been there, or I could have been home. If I’m at home, my imagination is probably even fuller than whatever I’d experience on set, or maybe more tilted toward darkness or something. How I’d imagine it would be. But if you’re actually there, you get to have the layered experience of going through whatever strange emotional resonance it is to have to see your mother’s death reenacted.
“But you also get to talk to Julianne Moore afterward, which if I’m home I don’t get to do. You get to sort of laugh about something. You get to call your friend on the phone and say, like, ‘This is a really strange moment.’ To me, it becomes a much fuller experience because you’ve said yes. It’s just sort of generally the way I live my life. I sort of understand there’s not much that’s going to kill me. What are you afraid of? Are you afraid of dying? What’s going to happen if I do that? The worst thing that could happen is you die, right? Isn’t that the worst, I guess? You go insane and end up in an insane asylum? So you do it. You do it because it opens up infinitely more possibilities.”
Nick Flynn will read from his work 7 p.m. Thursday, March 14, in the Majestic Palm Room in the Student Union at Florida Atlantic University, 777 Glades Road, in Boca Raton. Admission is free. Go to FAU.edu.