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Tom Bissell’s Wild Ride from Magazines to Video Games to TV

‘There may be money for writing longform, just not for me’

Tom Bissell has done about as much as any magazine writer could hope for. After penning some novels that never went anywhere, he turned to magazine writing, becoming a regular mid-aughts byline in titles like Harper’s and The New Yorker, covering the disappearance of the Aral Sea, covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His work has been featured in The Best American Travel Writing and The Best American Science Writing anthologies, and in 2010 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

But as the writing life has shifted and (some might say) been diminished, Bissell has, about as much as anyone, been adept at charting new territory. He wrote multiple installments of the blockbuster Gears of War video game series, co-wrote the book on which the James Franco film The Disaster Artist is based, and co-wrote the Apple TV adaptation of Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast. He’s written ten books, including two short story collections, the second of which, Creative Types, is set to be published in December.

This success, though, has been accompanied by periods of extreme volatility and financial uncertainty. “As recently as early in the pandemic, I was broke and had to figure something out,” he said. “It was really rough. I’m in my late ’40s, and I’m still scrambling and figuring out how one makes a life doing this. It’s not easy for anyone.”

Bissell last published the sort of first-person-heavy magazine features that were once his calling card in July 2016, when Harper’s put “My Holy Land Vacation” on its cover. Since then, he’s written essays and book reviews but has mostly been pushed to other mediums out of economic necessity.

“After the financial crisis in 2008, the assignments just stopped coming,” he said. “Before, I was getting two or three approaches a month to do a piece here, do a piece there, which was great. And then suddenly, the phone didn’t ring for a year.”

And the assignments he’s been offered since have tended to pay less. He notes that Men’s Journal paid him about $2.50 per word for one of his first stories around the turn of the millennium, and then, a few years ago, “a certain well-known magazine, the name of which I won’t mention,” offered him $1 per word for a piece of the same length. “There may be money for writing longform,” he said, “just not for me.”

So he hopped over to newer fields. “This chance opened up to write for video games for quite a bit more financial remuneration, and I just jumped at it,” he said. “I appreciate having the number of opportunities I do, but I think it’s cost me a little bit in terms of how I’m viewed as a writer. I feel like I’m a pretty versatile writer, and yet I get known as ‘the video game guy,’ and that’s a uniquely frustrating thing when I have ten books, some of which I’m actually pretty proud of.”

His last book, Apostle, landed to near critical silence. “Review attention is never anything I’ve had a problem getting; sales is another story,” he said. “Then Apostle came out, and it was genuinely disconcerting.”

Lately, he’s focused more of his energy on writing for TV. He finds it more fulfilling than video games, where a writer’s vision is such a small part of the overall project. In 2019, he was brought on to write and executive produce a TV series about the video game industry for the USA Network, Masters of Doom, based on David Kushner’s book of the same name. A pilot was produced, but a final order for the first season has been delayed into oblivion by COVID. Still, the experience “made me realize that maybe this is something that’s not just a diversion, maybe there’s an actual creative life here for me that I would really enjoy and find interesting and rewarding.”

And, in any case, TV writing is compellingly lucrative. “I have a small child, and I’m trying to make a living. I wish I had purer motives than that,” he said. “I am totally open to writing magazine pieces. I just need the space and the financial security to be able to focus on one exclusively, because for me, to be perfectly honest, it’s a money-losing proposition.”