An Interview with John Falk
In Hello to All That: A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace, John Falk has split himself in two. One story line follows John from the age of 12 through college, struggling with depression while trying to keep it a secret from his friends and family. Interspersed in alternating chapters is the story of John straight out of college, having flown into Sarajevo with faked press credentials to become a war correspondent. Desperately on the look out for a story to sell, he befriends an anti-sniper, the men employed to hunt down the snipers surrounding Sarajevo, terrorizing its citizens. Both Johns are in combat, if you will. One is fighting for control over his own mind, and the other is trying not to get killed before he can sell an article.
John and I talked on the phone about Zoloft, why he wouldn't recommend going to a war zone to cure your depression, and, of course, Owen Wilson running in slow motion.
What made you write the book now? It’s been several years since the book and since the movie, so what was the spark that made you start writing it?
After the article and the movie, I was in law school, and then I graduated, and then I practiced law. Then I went into that Internet bubble, ended up poor and destitute. I wanted to get married, but I didn’t have the bread, so I went back to the law. Then one weird chain of events happened. I ended up looking for a job, I had gone over to Bosnia, someone had taken me back to Bosnia for this reunion with the guy Harold from the book. When I got home, I wrote an article for Esquire on it. That turned into a movie script, which gave me the money to get married. I stopped looking for a legal job because Esquire wanted me to write another article about this trip I had taken to Bosnia. It was the trip with that guy Michael in the book. In writing that, that’s where the idea for the book came about.
I just read that the film rights have been bought with Owen Wilson attached.
I’ve become this aficionado as I start to watch all of his movies. I think he’s perfect. I doubt they’ll ever make it, but if they did, he’d be perfect.
Why do you say that?
It’s just because it’s Bosnia. And depression. Marketing-wise, it’d be tough. To tell you the truth, if he wants to make something, it gets done, but just the subject matter itself. It’s just out in Hollywood. I don’t think any Bosnia movies really ever made it.
Well, there's his Behind Enemy Lines, which is Top Gun in Bosnia.
Have you not seen it? That movie is a masterpiece of slow motion running. You should see it immediately.
When I saw the [previews], I thought, my god, what a bad movie. I’m not going anywhere near that.
No, it’s genius.
Is it really a good movie?
It’s exactly Top Gun in Bosnia.
With slow motion running, huh? That’s what… explosions going by and he’s running in slow mo…
If you have anything to do with the script for Hello to All That, if you could put in some slow motion running, I’m sure Owen Wilson would make it.
Running in slow motion across the sniper trap?
Holding my pieces of luggage? I’m trying to get the right to write the screenplay.
Was that part of you selling the rights, did you try to put that in the agreement?
They can fire me, they can not hire me, but they have to pay a little. To me. To go away.
How did Shot Through the Heart get made then? Did you write the script for that?
Shot Through the Heart, I didn’t know… I just wrote that article in law school. That guy Vlado [the anti-sniper, the subject of Falk’s Details article], in the end it seemed he really wanted me to do it, so I wrote it, but I never sold anything to a magazine. I was in law school and I just started faxing it around. Details eventually bought it. Editors had seen it, and even if they had passed on it, they all had producer friends out in Hollywood, and they shared it with them. So people wanted to buy the rights to it. At that point I didn’t know what I was doing. You get an agent, and they would never let you write the script anyway.
Did you see the movie? Did you like it?
I did actually. The ending was a little Hollywood-y. But the first script I got through was really bad. Oh my god. There was the anti-sniper and he was dressed in a cape and had a guitar case. It was so weird. The whole idea of a sniper is to shoot from a long distance, but for some odd reason he was sneaking up on people. That’s not a sniper! Anyway, it was really bad. I think they did a good job [with the second script]. It actually became very popular in Sarajevo, the movie. That’s kind of the ultimate compliment.
What led you to practicing law then?
I wanted to have a normal life. Law school was sitting there for the taking, and I wanted to meet chicks, American chicks because Slav girls are mean. Everything points in that direction, and I wanted to start up a normal life. Law school just happened to be there. I didn’t want to practice law, the idea was to go into business. But going to law school is not a good way to go straight into business, but I didn’t know that. Anyway, I went to law school, so that’s how I ended up there at a stepping stone to a normal life.
In the "about the author," it says “among psychologists today Falk is known as Patient X.” Can you explain that a little bit?
The shrink I went to was actually very prominent. He’s head of different associations, national associations. When I had seen him, I was so bad he said, I was in such bad shape actually he wanted to have me committed, which I didn’t know. Just for my own safety because it looked like there was just no life in me. So what happened was after I went on Zoloft, he lost touch with me. The next thing he heard a year and a half later, I was down in law school, I had taken these rotten kids back [Falk was instrumental in helping the children of his host family get scholarships to American universities and get them out of the war zone], I had been to Bosnia, and a few other things. It sounded like such a miraculous turnaround he wanted to speak with me. We talked on the phone a couple times and he was just so taken aback that… not that I was a different person, it’s just suddenly I was so engaged with my life. He said, look at what this medicine can do if it hits the right person. At that point, that was still the 90’s and you had Prozac Nation and “What’s this stuff really do?” and he had been in the business for fifty years and he was a real proponent of this crap and he started bringing me up not just to other patients but to doctors, saying, “Look. The right amount of medicine and the right kind of medicine hits someone and it can really change their lives.”
What made you want to combine the two stories of the depression and your days as a war correspondent?
It’s one story. Basically what it is, is one guy… I mean, they’re the same guy, but they’re different guys in a sense. One guy’s battling an almost unwinnable war against a chemical imbalance, if you will. Or whatever. Imbalance is a loaded word. He can’t live the life that he wants to. No matter what he does. There’s a neurological reason for it, and he can’t admit it and he won’t admit it. On the other side is this guy whose neurological whatever is opened to life a little bit, but he’s built up a lot of character flaws that keep him from living the life he wants to live and he doesn’t even know it. One side’s getting over the chemical.
I wanted to do it because I built up a depressive’s personality, which is just kind of logical. But when I took the medicine it didn’t go away. You still have that personality because you’ve been living with it, but suddenly you’re out in the world and experiencing it in a totally different new way, and it was a subtle change, but it’s big enough that I could do things I couldn’t do before. I just had to learn how to live. There were problems with my personality in that I was too self-focused still from the depression and whatnot, so it was sorta like you watch the person build up the personality on the one hand and dealing with it on the other. Growing up. I wanted to set them off against each other because it just felt right. There was no logical… it just struck me one day. It feels right to me anyway. I don’t know if people like it, but the damage is done.
Linear stories, I’m not like a linear story fan. I don’t know why.
Then what kind of stories do you like?
Anything where you dance around… there’s always like a main topic of focus or feel. Like did you read The Things They Carried [by Tim O’Brien]? I love that book. It’s obviously not a linear story, but they’re linked. There’s a continuity of feeling to it so it’s more truthful. Books that dance around in time, even subject matter… I like all books, but in particular. It’s almost more authentic to me.
In the book, your mother seems like the most amazing, supportive mother a depressive could ever possibly have. Do you credit her with your recovery?
Without the medicine, that’s the sickening thing about thirty years ago, you could have a mother like that and someone probably have killed themselves. And the mother probably would have died from guilt. It wasn’t her fault, it was just one of those things. Without her, there’s no way. For me, to have someone always in your corner, and then just love. I hated myself. Self-loathing is not even close to the word, and then you have someone who somehow finds some love in you, some goodness, and loves you more than you love yourself, that’s saying something. In a way, your life is not your own. You’re not just not alone, but if you wanted to kill yourself there’s this other problem, these other people who are kind to you. Your life is very important to them. It puts up a roadblock to the ultimate solution. The other thing was just having someone around who loves you and willing to be with you. She often said, “I won’t leave until we find a solution.” That’s a big thing to happen. Especially with broken families these days, if you find yourself alone in this situation, it’s got to be brutal.
You talked about how getting the year’s supply of Zoloft was very difficult [for the time he would be in Bosnia] because they wanted to put you into therapy. When you returned to America, did you have to go into extensive therapy?
I got back to law school, and then I went back down to the clinic. “I need a prescription for the month.” I wasn’t asking for a year’s supply and the woman who had been there, she was gone, I don’t know what had happened to her. Although the book’s not selling well, so I’d like to go into therapy now. If I could afford it. I have nothing against therapy at all, I think it’s great. If I had 200 bucks a pop, I’d do it because my insurance won’t cover it. Just go chat with somebody. Why not?
That seems to be a problem, the health insurance not covering therapy as well as it covers the medication.
Medicine’s not like a cure-all. It’s not a happy pill. I went to Bosnia and what I really learned was to reconnect with people. For whatever reason, that’s where it happened. And I don’t recommend it at home, going off to a war zone. But you need both sides of the coin. It depends on how long you’ve been depressed and how severely. But if you’ve been depressed for ten years and you go on medication, you feel a lot, that’s the beauty of it. Go on living. But you’ve created this personality that is used to living this way, and it might be self-destructive or not exactly beneficial to the way that you want to live, and that’s where it’s great to go into therapy. But I think they only give you 20 sessions or something. I don’t know what it is. My health insurance gives me nothing.
How has this process of releasing your first book been for you? You just said it’s not selling well…
It’s not selling as well as I wanted it to. That’s a bummer. Whatever, you go onward and upward. Just going around, the national book tour, it’s cool. I had a lot of parents come up and say they have a depressed son or daughter and the book really helped. It sounds corny, but that’s a lot. I know when I was depressed that hope is such a big thing. To have hope and the idea that someone knows what you’re going through and they maybe made it out of the muck is a big deal to me. I don’t care what the sales are, but if I can reach out to people, great. I really enjoyed that. The movie, hopefully something will happen there. I don’t think so, but whatever. Onward and upward.
How extensive was your book tour? How long were you out?
Ten days. New York, DC, Milwaukee, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco.
You guys skipped Chicago, which is where I am.
I thought I was going to Boston and Chicago, I just assumed. But it was DC and Milwaukee. I’ve never been to Chicago. I’ve been to O’Hare. Technically Chicago. Now you’re from Chicago?
I live here now. I’ve lived here for about a year and a half.
Ever been to New York?
I’m going in June.
They call Chicago the Second City for a reason.
Hey now. You've never been here. So what’s next? Are you going back to practicing law?
Those days are over. It’s funny, it’s like being led out by the siren song. I’m making more money than I was practicing law. Frankly, it’s what I think about all the time. I’m thinking about story ideas, not legal projects. It seems a natural fit. I finished a piece for Vanity Fair. The script… I got to come up for a treatment or at least put up a good fight. Article ideas to pitch I’m doing now.
I had first heard of you with my subscription to Details back when it was a real magazine. I remember reading your article. I loved it. So I wanted to ask you how you perceived the decline of Details Magazine, because for me it’s a tragic thing.
I had never heard of Details. Never. Until I was in Bosnia and I was standing by a fax machine. This little shit, a freelancer had a lot of bread and was staying at the Holiday Inn. As a freelancer. How the fuck? I see the fax coming off and the cover letter said Details. And I asked, “What the hell is that?” “Oh, it’s a really cool magazine in the States. Never heard of it?” “No, I was living in my parents’ attic.” Then I started reading it, but it was almost right after that it turned towards that… I don’t know. A lot of magazines now, they’re not articles, they’re just big advertisements. It’s like they’re chick magazines. But for guys. I know some guys who read Men’s Health. They’re not gay. Why are you reading that? And they like to shop. Guys, I don’t know. A lot of magazines get better circulation if they’re bigger, faster, more quick read. A lot of magazines have really thinned out.
What magazines do you read?
Vanity Fair. The New Yorker. The Economist. I love The Economist.
I’m always three months behind on The Economist. They come too fast.
It’s like homework, but The Economist is really tough. Foreign Affairs. Esquire. Men’s Journal. National Geographic Adventure.
Your magazine load sounds comparable to mine, and mine’s excessive.
It’s true, if it builds up, it’s like this huge homework assignment. You’ve paid a lot of money for it, now you’ve got to do it.
Do you enjoy writing the magazine pieces?
It took me like three months to write the sniper piece. I was like, “Wow. I’m illiterate. What do you know?” I’m in law school, as an illiterate. It never occurred to me that telling a story… I thought I have a cool story to tell, so I’ll just write it down. Then I realized it ain’t that simple, but I didn’t know how to fix it. It’s such a natural story, this guy’s story. It was kind of brutal. It was always very hard for me. I almost enjoy it now, now that I can come closer to what I really want to say. Before it was a crapshoot. I was editor dependent. The book’s much different.
Did you read any depression memoirs when you were getting ready to start writing this?
Of course. I had already read a bunch of them anyway, really before. I read Prozac Nation. The Beast. William Styron’s Darkness Visible. Kay Jamison’s stuff. Then a few others. They weren’t like happy reads, but I was interested in other people’s take on it. Then I read them and got very depressed. What a bummer.