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In ‘Being Flynn,’ author Nick Flynn finds it’s getting easier

Elizabeth Lippman for The Boston Globe

NEW YORK - For a man whose early life was plagued with addiction, abandonment, and suicide, Nick Flynn sure is one cheerful guy.

Actually, his sunny demeanor would be noteworthy even if he hadn’t endured a painful past that would send most people deep into the self-pity zone.

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At 52, Flynn, whose life is the subject of “Being Flynn,’’ which was directed by Paul Weitz and opens Friday, seems to have adopted a roll-with-the-punches attitude that keeps him from taking himself or his troubles too seriously. The film is based on Flynn’s 2004 memoir, “Another [expletive] Night in Suck City,’’ in which he describes growing up with an absent, alcoholic father who wrote lengthy letters from prison. Years later, while working at a Boston homeless shelter, Flynn reconnects with his father, Jonathan, when the elder Flynn takes up residence there. Robert De Niro stars as Jonathan and Paul Dano plays Nick. Flynn’s wife, Lili Taylor, has a supporting role in the film.

“I realize now, my father gave me a lot,’’ he says during a recent meeting at the Waldorf Astoria. “It’s true he said all these crazy-ass things, but he also said things like, ‘We were put on this earth to help people.’ That was one of the first things he ever wrote to me. How did that influence me? Who knows? But I did end up working in a homeless shelter.’’

FOCUS FEATURES

Robert De Niro (left) talks with director Paul Weitz on the set of “Being Flynn,’’ a movie based on local author Nick Flynn’s memoir.

Until he showed up in the shelter in the mid-1980s, Flynn’s father was a shadowy presence who continued to write to his son after he was released from prison but rarely saw him, despite living blocks away.

“His return address was Beacon Hill and I was living in the Combat Zone,’’ Flynn says. “I knew we were geographically close and then he shows up at the shelter, which caused all this turmoil.’’

His father’s presence at the homeless shelter triggered a crisis for Nick, who says he had been abusing alcohol since he was 12. Growing up in Scituate, Flynn says, he and his friends regarded drinking as a skill, rather than a danger.

“We were very proud that we drank,’’ says Flynn, laughing at his misguided adolescent conceptions. “Everyone was an alcoholic - we called ourselves ‘alkies.’ It was a kind of self-awareness that meant nothing. How high your tolerance was and how much you could drink was a badge of honor. So I was aware of my ‘problem’ but that didn’t mean I’d do anything about it.’’

Flynn was dealt another blow when his mother committed suicide when he was 22. According to Flynn she had been using drugs around the time of her death. Despite all the warning flares, he says, introspection held no appeal.

“You would think I would have quit after my mother’s suicide or after my motorcycle accident when I was drunk and lost my spleen, but it all just made me drink more,’’ he says. “Even after my father showed up at the homeless shelter - an alcoholic, living on the streets - you would think that might be a sign, but I just went on a bender for two years after he showed up.’’

Jonathan Flynn perceived himself to be a brilliant writer, philosopher, and raconteur, according to his son. And apparently, the grim reality of his homelessness did nothing to tarnish his inflated self-image. He often made a spectacle of himself, which was especially hard to watch, Flynn says.

“After he’d been at the shelter for a month, my father decided he wanted to work there,’’ Flynn says. “So he went to my supervisor and applied for a job. My supervisor said, ‘You can’t work here until you’ve been off the street for two years.’ And my father said, ‘Yeah, but this is me. Obviously, I’m the exception.’

“And after two years of living in the shelter, he was a disaster and really spun out of control,’’ Flynn adds. “That’s what got me to look at my own use of drugs and alcohol, so I can thank him for that.’’

Around the time when Flynn faced his addiction, he began to focus on his writing, which had been his passion from the time he was a young boy.

“I always knew I was a writer, but it felt wrong because it created this connection to my father,’’ he says. “It was a secret thing.’’

In 1988 he began writing in earnest and applied to graduate programs. He published “Some Ether,’’ a collection of poetry, in 2000. His other books include “A Note Slipped Under the Door: Teaching From Poems We Love’’ (2000) with Shirley McPhillips, and “Blind Huber’’ (2002), another poetry collection. “Another [expletive] Night in Suck City,’’ which Flynn began working on in 1997, was published in 2004. It took Weitz another seven years to transform the book into a movie, but the director, who also wrote the screenplay, says he was determined to complete the project.

“I thought there were some central themes in the book that were deeply important to me and, I think, universal,’’ Weitz says at a meeting in his hotel suite. “The first is, are we fated to become our parents? How much is in our DNA and how much do we actually create?’’

Weitz’s directing credits include “Little Fockers’’ (2010) and “About a Boy’’ (2002), for which he also wrote the screenplay. He says after meeting Flynn, he was struck by his sense of humor and ability to let go of his story and allow Weitz to restructure it for the screen.

“There is a real contradiction in an adapted memoir in that you cannot be true to all the things you care about in the book - you have to capture something new,’’ Weitz says.

Despite initial interest in writing the screenplay, Flynn says he realized the project called for a fresh perspective. “I just wanted the book to stand alone and trust someone else to do this, and Paul was the right guy,’’ Flynn says. “We have similar sensibilities. Even in scenes of darkness, he recognizes that there’s a light shooting through it all.’’

Still, Weitz insisted Flynn stay by his side throughout the filming to make sure the details and nuances were accurately conveyed. According to Flynn, the task was not terribly demanding, but every now and then he caught a glaring misrepresentation.

“There was a scene at the end where De Niro [playing Flynn’s father] has a bottle on the table and someone had put a nice bottle of whiskey on the desk behind him,’’ he says. “I was like, ‘No, no - he’s not that kind of alcoholic. He doesn’t keep an extra bottle for company. He finishes one bottle of vodka and buys another bottle.’ ’’

Weitz and Flynn traveled to Boston to research the film. Later, they brought De Niro along to meet Jonathan Flynn, so he could gain insight into the role. Far from being star-struck or flattered, Flynn’s father, who is 82, was disappointed.

“He was totally, totally underwhelmed,’’ says Nick Flynn, laughing. “He’s always been a narcissist, so he’d already cast the person who would play him in the movie that would inevitably be made about his life.

“He was quite clear with Paul Weitz - he said, ‘There are only two people who can play me - Dustin Hoffman or myself,’ ’’ Flynn continues. “Paul made no promises.’’

Although Flynn’s relationship with his father is still imperfect (“He’s always been problematic. He’s still problematic’’), he maintains relatively close ties to him. Flynn, who lives in Brooklyn with Taylor and their 4-year-old daughter, visits his father in Boston, where the senior Flynn lives in a long-term care facility. During the spring, when he teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, Flynn checks in on his father by phone.

Flynn says he is glad the trauma of his past was channeled into something positive and led to the book and film.

“Your darkest moments become your greatest gifts,’’ he says.

“Write that down, it’s gold,’’ he says, sensing some skepticism. Then, looking amused, he adds, “Oh God, I’m just like my father.’’

Judy Abel can be reached at Judyabel22@gmail.com.
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