On “Home is Burning”: An Interview with Dan Marshall

In 2006, twenty-five-year-old Dan Marshall was a carefree Berkeley grad, living large in sunny Los Angeles. He was dating a girl he loved, working a cushy job in corporate communications, and generally living life as if he’d never left the frat house. This young man was, in his own words, “spoiled as shit.”

Then suddenly, his easygoing, successful, marathon-running father is diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Shortly thereafter, his mother’s previously dormant lymphoma returns. Eleven months after receiving these blows, Dan finds himself back in his childhood home in Salt Lake City. Newly job-less and estranged from his girlfriend, Dan has been summoned home to help care for his quickly deteriorating and much-beloved father. His mother—a lovable woman as foul-mouthed and irreverent as her son, and a glutton for Hallmark-portioned “hope” as a result of her own decades-long battle with cancer—has guilt-tripped Dan into returning home, as have his siblings, a colorful cast of characters who have taken to referring to their parents as “Team Terminal.” They’re comprised of Dan’s gay, witty brother Greg, and trio of sisters: a hard-partying adopted Native American (Jessica) who’s spending just a little bit too much time with her high school soccer coach, an endearingly premature oddball (Chelsea), and Tiffany, the eldest and most strong-willed among the Marshall clan.

In Home is Burning (Flatiron, October 2015), Marshall’s memoir about this experience, the reader becomes intimately acquainted with these family members, each in his or her own way a bull in the china shop that is conservative Mormon Utah. Marshall’s subject matter may be gloomy, but his family’s uniformly twisted sense of humor keeps this ride a rollicking one.

With brash jokes, searing and often shocking honesty, and a loudly beating heart, Marshall writes about changing his father’s diapers, learning to adjust a respirator in a way that won’t kill the man who raised him, attempting to joke with ALS victims at support group meetings, managing his hyper-emotional mother’s increasingly frequent outbursts, and keying blow job jokes into the device his father uses to speak. When he’s not on “daddy duty” (i.e. caring for his father, the calmest Marshall, and the one most accepting of the situation) or busy getting drunk in the basement, Dan finds himself candidly blogging about the tragicomedy that has become his family’s everyday experience.

“Home is Burning,” the blog, may have been an outlet for acute pain, but it was intended for Dan’s pals. The author’s writing experience was at that point limited to his college’s humor magazine, and his blog, not surprisingly, was laugh-out-loud funny—a veritable vault of sex and fart jokes. However, it also included a blow-by-blow account of the author’s dealings with estranged family members, well-meaning Mormon neighbors, paramedics, medical technicians, and the Marshall’s racist housekeeper, Stana. As the situation at home grows increasingly grim, Dan the blogger more often slips into a fictional reality, one featuring imaginary (and always comical) accounts of what he wanted to say or do in any given agonizing situation, versus what was actually said.

Some years later, that hit blog has become a debut book, and not just any book, but aBarnes & Noble Fall 2015 Discover pick. It’s also a forthcoming movie from New Line Cinema, starring Miles Teller as Dan. The author happens to be an old friend; I’ve known him since his blogging days. But reading his completed memoir for the first time, I immediately understood why his story is striking such a wide chord.

While grief certainly isn’t any new phenomenon, Marshall recounts the pain and trauma of it in a unique, remarkably casual way. Rather than applying the quiet respect and common platitudes one might expect from someone in the process of losing a parent, Marshall offers a sucker-punch of a reveal of what it’s like to watch someone you love break down, and of the ways in which the situation causes Dan’s own life, as he puts it, to “dead-end.”

I recently caught up on the phone with Marshall, who in the years since losing his father has become a screenwriter and returned to Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, the author is about as candid (and profane) as his book. He’s also insightful, compassionate, and willing to speak frankly about the less flattering aspects of his own grieving process. Imagine, if you will, a darker, crasser Dave Eggers.

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Tell me about the process of turning a blog into a book, and then into a movie.

At first, I just collected all the blogs in a file on my computer. I called it “Slow Children Crossing,” like those signs you see in family neighborhoods. I was originally going to use that as the title, because the story was about my siblings and me—a bunch of spoiled little cocksuckers learning how to be adults. I had probably 900 pages worth of material. So I looked at that folder and I just started thinking chronologically about what could go where, and how I could put it all together. Some blog entries that functioned more as stand-alone stories had to go, and others were combined into chapters. On the blog, I hadn’t really written much about people outside of my family, but to turn it into a book I had to fill out the story with more of my ex-girlfriend, more of our neighbors, more of our cleaning lady, Stana.

Last March, after I finished up what was supposed to be the final draft of the book, I was excited to have some free time, to maybe write about something other than my dad slowly dying—and then the movie stuff happened, a little out of nowhere. I thought if it would happen, it would be after the book came out, but there was a little buzz around it, because it was a “Buzz Book” at BEA [Book Expo America], so my agent thought it made sense to try to package it and see if we could make it work. So then, I found myself creating a 20,000-word screenplay out of the 120,000-word book. So the whole experience—from 900-page blog, to book, to screenplay—has caused me to focus in on what’s really important. With movie stuff, it’s kinda weird, because at a certain point, it’s out of your hands, and up to the director and producer. There were a few hard cuts—stuff I thought was really funny—but who knows? Maybe after the movie, I could turnHome is Burning into a TV show [laughs]. But the nice thing is, the book is pretty close to exactly how I intended it.

You wrote the blog in the moment, as it happened, but drafted the book a few years after your dad’s passing. Tell me about the experience of revisiting the content, with a little more distance.

The blog was definitely more raw and less polished. When I looked at all those pages and considered a book, the question was, “Okay, what was I actually trying to say? What’s the story behind all these fart and dick jokes?” I think I was writing the blog to make my friends laugh—the content was definitely frattier, more about the easy jokes—but I tried to make the book more widely accessible. The book-writing process was more about picking the most important moments, wrapping them around a theme, and framing the journey—not to sound like some pretentious little art dickhead. But, it was about giving the story shape. It took a few drafts to get there, but I finally started to realize, “Okay, this is really a story about somebody and his siblings going through an intense situation and being forced through it to grow up and take on a little more responsibility.”

Part of its evolution was taking out some of the extraneous humor and injecting a little more heart. And in that process, I realized the story’s also about that fine line between hope and denial—with my mom’s cancer, it had been all Hope, hope hope! and of course with cancer, there are treatments and cures to hang that hope on. So for a while, we were applying those same hopeful techniques to this situation where there really wasn’t any. The characters’ journey was about getting over that denial and recognizing that bad shit was just gonna happen.

Tell me about how you managed to keep the book funny, and stay true to your family’s irreverence, while meanwhile offering a serious recount of an awful tragedy, and a heartfelt tribute to your dad.

It’s always tricky to balance those two tones. The hardest part was trying to pick those moments that would be more heartfelt—I find it easier to write funny than to be sentimental and sad. It was about taking a look at some of the quote-unquote funny stories, and thinking, “Okay, where’s the heart behind this chapter? What am I actually trying to say?” Take the chapter about Stana trying to capture and kill our family’s cats for pissing in the house, and us getting totally on board with that plan. I realized after a long time that that chapter is more about us creating a distraction from reality. It’s about finding a scapegoat—thinking it’s the cats that were the problem, not this terminal illness that’s killing our father.

Initially, I overlooked a lot of the heartfelt moments—it wasn’t until a few drafts in, as the book got better and more readable, that I was able to recognize them. I think the most effective parts of the book have that swing—the funny parts make the sad parts sadder, and vice versa. After all, injecting a tender family moment with a bunch of blow job jokes heightens the humor and the heart—and fucks with the reader a little bit.

Did any memoirists or comedy writers influence your blog-to-book process?

When I first moved home to Utah, a friend gave me Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The first couple of months spent taking care of my dad, I was reading that, and being kind of blown away by how Eggers approached the situation of losing both of his parents young and assuming care of his younger siblings. He was dealt a shitty hand, but wrote about it in a very compassionate, but also funny and lighthearted and approachable way. It didn’t influence my writing per se, but it definitely influenced my approach to the situation. David Sedaris’s ability to tell perfectly contained, funny yet sometimes intense stories with a specific lightheartedness was definitely inspiring in terms of the actual writing. I also read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Those “loss” books are great, but they take place after the person is dead—the deceased characters are only on the page during little flashbacks. I was definitely more interested in trying to write something about the actual, in-your-face dying, rather than the grieving.

But I didn’t find anything that functioned quite as a step-by-step account of what it’s like to lose a parent. I think a lot of people will hate this book because of its crassness, but the hope is that my book really does help people get through something hard like that—especially for readers in their late teens to thirties. I hope it shows these readers that other people have been there, and that they’ll too get through it.

In your epilogue, you write about how your mom came across your blog one night, and called you at five in the morning, threatening to sue for character defamation. You counter by explaining what you’ve written is all true, but she still insists, “Stop writing about me, you little shit-eater.” I’ve seen some promo materials in which she claims, “Fuck you Danny, and fuck your book. To everyone else, read this book. You will be laughing about it for years. If not, you’re too stupid to understand cynicism and dark humor.” That’s a pretty awesome transformation. Can you tell me about your family’s reaction to being written about so candidly?

It’s been a little tricky. Right now, my family’s generally happy and excited about it, but my mom read a version last December and texted me, “Fuck you Danny, and fuck your book.” But she’s come to accept that it’s a story about us kids losing our dad, and that she can’t be that upset. And no one can accuse me of making anything up. It’s all true. That all happened. But I recognize that it’s really hard, and kind of creepy, to be written about, that it can feel like a violation—like someone’s masturbating to you or praying about you. So I’m grateful to my whole family for being accepting and supportive.

I read that you’re donating a portion of the sales of this book to the ALS Association, in hopes of helping to fight ALS. How do you think the ALS community will respond to this book?

I don’t have much of a relationship with that community right now—not since I used to go to support group meetings with my dad. I think one of the things the book captures is how horrible ALS really is, and I think anyone who’s been through that with anyone they’ve loved will connect with the book and appreciate what it’s highlighting. I mean, back during the Ice Bucket Challenge days, when everyone was posting those ice bucket videos to social media, I don’t think most people even understood what the challenge was for. So I hope the book explains to people what ALS really is, and what it does to people. It’s such a tricky disease, and most people don’t know much about it. That’s why I’m planning to donate some proceeds to the ALS Association, and some to my dad’s doctor’s research facility.

What’s next? Do you see more books in your future?

I feel like I wrote about the most significant thing that’s happened in my life, and it’s weird to think that nothing will be as significant. I have a few nonfiction ideas, though—I’m kind of obsessed with the idea of happiness in our society, and the question of whether or not you can do certain things in your life to make yourself happier. I want to write a book that casually analyzes the ways in which people make themselves happy. Like, does getting a dog add ten “happiness points?” I’m thinking of it sort of like an Eat, Pray, Love for sad dudes [laughs].

I’m excited to read that one. Out of curiosity, what’s your writing process like?

When I started writing, all my friends my age were like, lawyers, and had real desk jobs, so I was basically like, “All right, writing is a desk job,” and so I’d try to be in front of the computer by nine, and there until about five, not necessarily writing the whole time—sometimes checking Facebook all day, and doing a little writing on the side. I’m more of a chip-away-at-it writer—I’ll have little bursts for a couple hours and then kinda take it easy until I have another burst. But I was working on it every day or a while. When the wheels started to turn with the book project, it all started to feel like being a little kid, when Christmas is coming, and you can’t fucking wait. That’s how I’ve felt ever since this book sold, and so I launched into the rewrites and subsequent drafts pretty quickly. It’s kind of weird, I guess, to be so excited about the arrival of this depressing-as-hell book [laughs].

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Keep in mind, Home is Burning is as delightful as it is depressing. And that it is available through Flatiron Books and Amazon.