All the Things He Did Not Know: A Profile of Tom Bissell

  1. It was the end of summer on the Upper Peninsula. The leaves around the port city of Escanaba would turn soon and the waters of Lake Michigan would grow cold and choppy as winter rolled in. Tom Bissell was sitting at his dad’s house, holding his head in his hands. Things were not going well. They were not going according to plan.

    The year was 1996, and Bissell was just back from an abbreviated stint in the Peace Corps, working in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. After only eight months, after falling down a deep well of depression, after struggling to teach English, after watching his adopted puppy die in his arms on his twenty-third birthday, and after writing letters home in which he ominously referred to an imaginary friend named Blackmind, Bissell says, he came home early.

    No one was very happy about this. Not him. Not his family. “Everyone told me I’d fucked up, that I wasn’t tough enough, that I should have stuck it out,” Bissell recalls. Back in Escanaba—a cold, tough, industrial town with long, Siberian winters—he realized he had to do something, even if it wasn’t part of the plan. So he applied for a job at the local paper mill.

    “They got three applications. I think they interviewed two people. I was one of them. I didn’t get the job,” Bissell says. “When I found out I didn’t get the job, I thought, ‘I am so fucked!’ I had no clue what I was going to do.”

    This wasn’t how he’d pictured things when he’d finished college and sent off his applications to MFA ...

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