IN 2007, while doing research for the book that would eventually become The Ticking Is the Bomb, writer Nick Flynn is invited to Istanbul to meet a group of former Abu Ghraib detainees. At this point, Flynn's book is nearly finished—he's writing a book about torture, inspired by the 2004 release of photographs documenting prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
One evening, Flynn has dinner with Amir, a man who appeared in one of the Abu Ghraib photos (on the end of a leash held by Lynndie England). Amir asks Flynn if he has any children, and Flynn replies that his first child is due soon. Amir, Flynn writes, "narrowed his eyes and smiled, as if I had just come into focus."
It would be misleading to suggest that this is a "turning point" or a "pivotal moment" or any other phrase that would imply the book has a conventional narrative structure. (In our phone interview, Flynn describes Ticking's non-chronological structure as a "closed image system, or image cluster," with a thread of recurring images running through it.) Flynn's encounter with Amir, though, would shape the book's eventual subject matter, transforming it from a book about torture to a book about torture and... parenting.
"I actually thought that I'd finished the book," Flynn tells me, "and then there was this moment presented to me, which just happened to coincide with the pregnancy."
In its final form, The Ticking Is the Bomb opens with two sets of photographs: the Abu Ghraib images and ultrasound images of Flynn's unborn child. Between these poles, Flynn considers torture, being a parent (his own mother committed suicide; his father, as Flynn wrote in 2004's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, was a homeless alcoholic), and his own troubled past. He also makes frequent reference to other books—always referring to his memory of the works rather than the works themselves.
"[Part of the book] is about how imperfect memory is," Flynn explains. "It's also about the whole larger epistemological question, about the limits of what one can know. I think I was trying to embody that in the writing, that there are certain things we can know and certain things we can't—and to make that the experience of the reader as they're reading it."