Isaac Fitzgerald: Confessing His Way Out of Dirtbag

(photo: Remi Morawski)

Isaac Fitzgerald is the author of the bestselling children's book How to Be a Pirate and co-author of Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them and Knives & Ink: Chefs and the Stories Behind Their Tattoos (winner of an IACP Award). He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian and the Best American Nonrequired Reading. His debut memoir, Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional, will be published July 19 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

What does the title of your memoir, Dirtbag, Massachusetts, mean to you? 

Credit where credit is due, author and friend Jason Diamond came up with the title. I lived many places in Massachusetts growing up, and one of the places I spent my teenage years was a town called Athol, Massachusetts. It was an old mill town, but the mills had long since left--leaving Athol to be one of the poorest towns in the state. That said, I still have a great fondness for the area. Other people in the state? Not so much. I'll give you one guess how other folks in Massachusetts referred to Athol. Anyhow, turns out you can't call your book Asshole, Massachusetts, but on a road trip with Jason Diamond up to Boston a few years back he said, "What about Dirtbag, Massachusetts?" and the name stuck.

Why add the subtitle "A Confessional"?

It's an essay collection but it's also a memoir, and "memoir in essays" felt a little clunky. For a long time there was no subtitle at all, but then I realized how many stories I was putting in this book that I'd never shared publicly before. "A Confessional" hit me one day and I shared it with my editor Nancy Miller at Bloomsbury. I liked how the phrase was a play on two things: a way to describe the writing, sure, but also a confessional is what you call the booth Catholics go to confess in. I was pretty sure Nancy was going to tell me it was too cheesy by half, but she loved it and now it's right there on the cover.

What were your reasons for writing this book? To purge some personal demons? To reach out to others who might be going through what you did and let them know they're not alone?

The latter, for sure. I try to use therapy to purge personal demons, not public writing. But I deeply believe in the power of storytelling when it comes to sharing your pain, missteps, mistakes, and even joy as a way of helping others feel less alone in the world. There's a quote from Alan Bennett's play The History Boys that I think of often: "The best moments in reading are when you come across something--a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things--which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours."

I've been so lucky to read so many books that have helped me better understand the world, and better understand myself. If Dirtbag, Massachusetts can do the same for even one other person, that's all I really want.

The book opens with a great line: "My parents were married when they had me, just to different people." How long did it take you to perfect that opening?

That phrase has been kicking around in my head seemingly forever. It was a quick phrase I could use to convey information in a light, informal way. Almost like a joke, before moving on before anyone asked too many questions. Myself included.

Some of the people in your memoir don't come off in the best light. What was their reaction?

I'm incredibly lucky that my family is supportive of this project. Many people with stories like mine don't even get recognition from their family, let alone understanding. In the end, I hope I don't come off in the best light in this book either. That's part of being human. In a way, it really depends on the lighting, right? But I'm incredibly grateful that many people, my family most of all, understand what I'm trying to accomplish with this book. That everyone is capable of growing and changing and--maybe, if we're lucky--forgiving.

Your account of drug use as a kid is frank and honest. But huffing Glade? What were you thinking? 

The easy answer here is--a lot of kids do drugs. When you're young, you're curious. You learn that something can change your perception of the world and that's exciting, or scary, or a little bit of both. But to dig a little deeper, I can admit that there was a sadness there, too. A need to quiet down the world, if only for a minute. 

So, what was I thinking? That I desperately didn't want to think for a little while.

Discovering the band Hold Steady is a pivotal moment for you. Do you still have any of their music on a personal playlist? What bands or musical artists hold sway with you these days?

I still listen to the Hold Steady constantly. I've actually met the band a few times now, which was exciting for me, and am friends with Franz Nicolay, the band's keyboardist. He's a wonderful writer, too--with a novel out right now called Someone Should Pay for Your Pain. I love all sorts of music now, much different than when I was growing up and could barely get my hands on any albums. I will sometimes play background music but it can't be anything with lyrics in it, I'm too easily distracted. Another favorite that I have to mention, though, is John Darnielle/The Mountain Goats. I was so thrilled when John gave me permission to use some of his lyrics for my book's epigraph. He's also a tremendous writer, by the way, with a book out right now called Devil House

Your life path has taken many turns. What do you think helped you most along the way? Therapy? Traveling outside your geographical area? Meeting new people?

All of those things and many others. At the core, though, is my belief that people can change. That we are all put on this earth to grow. To stay moving, and to stay curious about the world--and about ourselves. So, yes, therapy is a huge part of that for me. The same is true of education and travel and reading. Meeting new people is absolutely one of my favorite things. So yes, to all of that. In the end, I'm grateful that my life has taken as many turns as it has, and I'm looking forward to all the turns still coming down the road. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis

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