I first met Steve Almond in the late ‘90s when he participated in a panel discussion at the Boston Public Library about the state of publishing. Unlike his more conciliatory co-panelists, Almond let loose with a spirited evisceration of an industry that pushes lackluster, commercially viable efforts over work created by hardworking craftspeople digging for literary truths. Almond came off as cynical, even bitter, though by the end of the event, he was the guy we fledgling young writers in the audience wanted to be. Almond was a renegade. A true artist.
Nearly two decades later, Almond has become a household name (at least among literary circles) and a local celebrity in Boston where he makes his home. He has been an adjunct professor of Fiction and Non-Fiction at Boston College and Emerson College, and a creative writing instructor whose classes consistently sell out at Grub Street, a non-profit organization for Boston-area writers. He has also become an enviably content family man – as opposed to the self-loathing cad he admits to being in his youth – a state that makes his lingering cynicism even more poignant.
As a writer, Almond is intimidatingly prolific. He has written ten books of fiction and non-fiction, including 2010’s Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, an essay collection about his years spent as a “drooling” music fanatic, and God Bless America, his most recent collection of short stories. Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, a memoir tracing his lifelong obsession with sweets, won a host of awards and was selected as a best book of 2004 by Amazon.com. His stories and essays have been featured in countless publications, including Tin House, Ploughshares, Salon.com and Playboy magazine, and have won him innumerable honors including the Pushcart Prize.
What’s most amazing about Almond is his versatility; the same writer who can write gut-busting predictions for 2014 (Pope Francis becomes a Unitarian, Miley Cyrus gets a tongue infection) can also break your heart, for instance, in his short story, “First Date Back,” about an emotionally damaged war veteran’s doomed love affair with a flight attendant. Almond is known for his sharp wit and penchant for tugging at the seams of a complacent American culture. But beneath his deliciously witty, sometimes harsh tone lies an enduring faith in humanity. Almond loves us all though we occasionally piss him off with our tendency to ignore our better angels.
— Laura K. Warrell
Laura K. Warrell (LW): One of the qualities that stands out in your work is how present you are as an author. As readers, we know so much about you – what you consider to be your weaknesses and obsessions, the botched relationships you suffered in the past and the marriage and family you enjoy in the present. Like Vonnegut, one of your literary heroes, you’ve written yourself deeply into the work. What does this do for you as a writer and what do you think it does for the reader?
Steve Almond (SA): Writers are always making themselves known; it’s just how overt they are about it. Any good art is coming from a writer’s deepest preoccupations, anxieties and concerns and sometimes directly from his or her memories and fantasy life. For instance, there’s no way to separate J.D. Salinger from Holden Caulfield. Caulfield wasn’t just out there in the cosmos waiting for Salinger to happen onto him. He was a figment of Salinger’s imagination, an expression of Salinger’s deepest anxieties and sorrows, a fictional disguise. Holden Caulfield is considered a beautifully imagined character, but really he came from the deepest precincts of Salinger’s psyche. Any decent artist is revealing the deepest part of who he or she is. In my recent nonfiction, I write overtly about my life and opinions. It’s not sublimated into fictional characters. But even if it was, it would still be me.
LW: Do you think it’s possible to write too much about the self, perhaps to the point of self-absorption?
SA: What lifts work away from solipsism and self-absorption is the author’s attempt to understand and endure feelings – sometimes difficult, even unbearable feelings, and sometimes feelings so ecstatic and wonderful they’re unbearable in a whole other way. Focusing on the self doesn’t make a work self-absorbed. What makes a work solipsistic or self-absorbed is a superficial focus on the self in a way that is self-concerned without being self-interrogating or self-aware.
LW: So, if you’re engaging with a text as a writer or reader and the work isn’t compelling or engaging, is it possible the author just isn’t present enough?
SA: A writer’s career is marked by the work that made it out into the world, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There are all the shitty drafts he or she wrote, the failed novels and projects that never got published. Those are places where the writer just didn’t dig deep enough. In my case, it happens when I haven’t known or loved the characters deeply enough to successfully write about them, so I produce work that tends to settle for cleverness over real emotional engagement, there’s a certain show-offy quality. That’s the definition of sentimentalism: asserted emotion. Emotion that’s not dramatized by the character and his or her experience but is asserted by the author. That’s an attempt to make the self known but it’s a failed attempt. I’m saying that as somebody who makes a lot of failed attempts.
LW: Part of what makes your work come alive is a kind of underlying obsession, which manifests in two ways. You write with a wonderfully obsessive attention to detail and you also write about what seems to obsess you – music, sex, candy. How important is obsessiveness and/or obsession to writing?
SA: Everybody comes into life as an obsessive. Obsession is the default setting of how human beings think and feel. When babies are hungry, they are obsessively hungry. Obsession is the arrest of attention in the midst of distraction, and it’s the defining quality that allows us to produce and consume art. But our obsessions are socialized, cajoled or shamed out of us. You’re not supposed to admit to having all these overweening, out-of-control, sometimes self-destructive feelings. But obsession isn’t there to fill your mind and spirit with junk; it’s a mode of consciousness. Artists are people who, by and large, are able to access that obsession and go straight at it, surrender to it, in the interest of trying to figure out why they can’t move past a particular experience or relationship dynamic or even a kind of food. For me, writing Candyfreak was about getting to a place of such desperation as a writer, such unhappiness and self-loathing, that the only thing that could get me to the keyboard was writing about something I was naturally urgent about and felt all sorts of obsessive, wondrous feelings towards. But what makes the book interesting, if it is interesting, is that it’s really a book about depression. I thought about the role candy had played in my life and realized every incident from my childhood and adulthood was not just about pursuing happiness but also finding a path away from despair. If I had just tried to write a fun, carefree book about candy it might have been clever but I don’t think it would’ve resonated as deeply with readers. Good autobiographical writing proceeds from the question ‘am I going to be okay,’ and the sense of that being in some doubt. That’s what inspirational memoir is all about: reassuring the reader everything is going to be okay.
LW: Sex also features heavily in your work; even when you’re talking about issues entirely unrelated to sex, you manage to sneak in a reference. In your essay, “How to Write Sex Scenes: The Twelve-Step Program,” you suggest that these sexual moments are less about eroticism than “desire and heartbreak.” Is this what allows you to write so frankly about sex while maintaining a sense of depth and purpose?
SA: The question is whether as a writer you’re settling for self-regard over self-awareness. Are you navel-gazing, or in this case, genital-gazing rather than peering into your own dark corners? When I write about sex, I’m basing it on what it’s like as a real person to be in sexual situations. Sometimes it’s wonderful, happy, physically ecstatic and intimate. But every time there’s doubt: about the relationship, about yourself, body shame, all the stuff that’s fucking real. There’s a certain kind of writing, including some of my more cheeky writing, that tries to portray sex like a sitcom and only glances in the direction of the deeper moments of self-loathing, doubt, or anxiety about our own pleasure or our capacity to give pleasure or whether we’re going to be lonely all our lives. That’s fucking scary shit. All I’m doing is saying, ‘yes, it’s scary,’ and when my characters go through it I try to draw from the parts of myself that are still kind of haunted by that. Other authors make other decisions. But if you slow down in the parts that are sad, awkward, shameful or painful – and yes, it’s hard to do but that’s where the equity is as an artist – you’re building these psychologically and emotionally reliable onramps to the moments that really matter. And that’s the point. My argument is that the sadder it gets, the funnier it gets. The comic impulse arises from tragic feelings, it’s the way we contend with tragic stuff. It’s a little moment of self-forgiveness.
LW: One of the essays I especially love from Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is “(I Bless the Rains Down in) Africa” in which you deconstruct the lyrics of the ‘80s hit “Africa” by Toto. On one hand, it’s a funny look at a somewhat silly piece of music. On the other hand, it’s a political piece about American culture. What was your process writing it?
SA: Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is about worshipful fans, people who idolize musicians and get really attached to the soundtrack by which years of our lives are defined. I put lots of things in the book to counterbalance my visits to obscure musicians who I think are awesome with the more esoteric stuff I wanted to talk about. “Africa” is a good example of how the music of particular songs is so great we don’t even listen to the words. A good backbeat and melody conquer everything. I loved “Africa” and listened to it, I had a Toto album, I’m not disavowing that the song is an ecstasy tablet for your limbic system. But when you really listen to the words, they seem to encapsulate so much of what’s completely fucked up about American culture. If you want to understand the level of pathology, delusion and American colonial privilege as we lurch toward the end of our imperial death spiral, listen to that song. It’s a great instance of how completely privileged, self-ennobling and insulated from real suffering we are. That’s all I was trying to say, though it’s really not fair. The songwriter wasn’t writing a political manifesto, he was writing a pop song. But I think the reason it gets a lot of credit, why the CBS Morning show plays it in their tribute to Nelson Mandela is because it’s exactly what America is built on. The song doesn’t offer real depth, but an appearance of depth by name checking an impoverished continent with lots of starving people. It’s a deeply cynical way of being in the world and typically American. My radar aims toward those kinds of white-hot, pulsing quasars of hypocrisy.
LW: Your short story collection, God Bless America, begins with an epigraph from Max Lerner, which says, “America is a passionate idea or it is nothing.” There are many ways to interpret the work and themes this book explores, but what stood out for me was the characters’ loneliness. There were a lot of lonely people in this book and, moreover, people with small dreams they couldn’t seem to attain. How do those ideas and Lerner’s quote fit into your view of America?
SA: Maybe this sounds depressing but that is America. One of my favorite books is John Williams’ Stoner, which is this quiet book about an academic who, we find out in the first paragraph, never made any great marks, never made any great impression on his students or colleagues, is utterly forgotten by history. And you sort of think, ‘God, what a loser’ but then you realize that’s 99.9% of us. We might dream big but in our lives, we’re mostly known only by the people around us and most of our big dreams don’t happen. America’s a sort of factory producing these dreams of big fame and unconditional, universal love but that’s not really how most people experience life. Instead, they struggle in day-to-day ways with small petty grievances. Our fourth estate is in such a mess now because we have a bunch of people who are really good at exploiting those grievances, anxieties, fears and sources of rage. We have such prosperity but we’re so pathologically greedy about it. Despite our good intentions on a personal basis, we have social policies that are ridiculous, inhumane and just cruel and heedless. So we end up with an unhappy civic culture. How does that happen? Well, it’s a bunch of lonely, unhappy people not listening to their conscience. There are moments in which individually people are beautiful and do wonderful things, but as a collective, we’re profoundly unhappy. Just turn on the TV and you’ll see it. It’s impossible to live in this country and not be distressed thinking, ‘goddamn, we’ve got all this shit and we’re less happy per person than precincts of the world where people are struggling to get enough nutrition and where there’s a significant risk of violence, and those people live more happily than we do.’ That’s a big mystery and this collection is my effort to understand it.
LW: One of the stories, “The Darkness Together,” about a mother and son whose peculiar relationship is exposed when they meet a stranger on a train, is such a satisfying read though, unlike your funnier work, it’s sad and emotionally heavy. So are there stories which you can’t “write funny,” not so much because of the subject matter but because the stories themselves don’t trigger the comic impulse?
SA: You could write a story like “The Darkness Together,” with humorous elements: the sexual anxiety of the kid, the mother’s blindness to her weird, seductive mojo. It’s not so much the material as it is the posture you have toward it, the attitude you take, the emotional space you’re writing out of. Sometimes it’s looser and more relaxed, and humor becomes part of it. And sometimes the emotional space is more sober. I wrote this collection during a dark time in American history, the Bush years, and maybe a dark time in my personal history. So a lot of the stories are more serious. At readings, I find myself saying, ‘sorry, these are not going to be rip roaring funny.’ What I admire are writers – Vonnegut, Lorrie Moore, Sam Lipsyte – who are able to be funny/sad, who recognize those two travel together. I like to write in that mode, that’s my natural terrain. It’s how I deal with my own unhappiness. But sometimes you write them straight. But yes, it’s a collection where readers shouldn’t expect to snort milk out of their noses.
LW: Do you know when a piece should be written with a more serious tone or does it just come to you that way?
SA: I have an idea for a story and as it takes shape, I just say, what if, what if and what next. Sometimes it arises with a serious question or I’m taking it seriously, looking at it straight without comic forgiving. I’m just going to go to the dark shit, no joking around. For instance in “First Date Back,” I’m writing about a soldier who’s just come back from a political conflict. He’s guarding a secret and thinks he’s fallen in love with a stewardess on his flight home. They have a brief relationship in which the combination of his craziness and her sensible attempt to hold him at bay collide. Anything can be written in a way that has comic aspects to it, I could’ve done it with this story. But the attitude I had imagining this guy and his deluded love affair, how the affair collides with or provokes this destructive secret he’s trying to keep inside, that was a sobering series of thoughts. There was no Steve Almond humorous tap dancing going on. I was getting closer to the truth, looking directly at it and trying to imagine the few hours those characters had together. Of course, marketing people don’t like how I won’t write the one funny book or the one sad/serious book. But I like that I have serious stories like “The Darkness Together” and “First Date Back” along with funnier stories like “A Jew Berserk on Christmas Eve” that clearly gets at serious stuff while giving the comic impulse free reign.
LW: You teach a class called “Funny is the New Deep” and also wrote an essay under the same title. You say “prophecy” arises from distress and suggest that “the (literary) prophet is an idealist unable to silence his disappointments.” How do you help writers, who might not have such easy access to those places of distress, pain and longing, get to those depths so they can write about life, sex or anything else in ways that are funny and deep?
SA: All you can do as a teacher is give permission and make it okay for students to go there, even to reward them for doing it. It’s trickier when you’re talking about stuff people are conflicted about letting out of the bag, like their sense of humor. A student may say, ‘I’m a serious person, I built my identity around being a serious person.’ But that doesn’t mean he or she has no sense of humor. It’s just a quieter, more concealed sense of humor. A sense of humor is just a bio-evolutionary adaptation, something human beings require in order to live with all the bad data rolling around their brains and hearts. It takes different forms. All I’m doing as a teacher is giving people permission and inspiring them. I say, ‘actually, this classroom is the place where I want to know how fucked up things are, and I want you to tell the truth about the things that matter to you the most deeply. In whatever form, in whatever tone.’ You can’t force people but you can make the decision desirable by making it clear that it’s a safe space to get into the shit and show examples of people doing it successfully: here’s what I mean by creating a strong narrator or what I mean by the comic impulse and how it operates in people’s work, this is what I mean when I say the sadder the work is and the more bruising its truths, the funnier it becomes. What I admire in other writers is their effort to tell the truth and pay attention to the world around and inside them, around and inside their characters. That’s what makes the language beautiful. So I tell students not to worry about being a beautiful writer and just tell the truth about what’s rattling around inside them. I’m always pleasantly shocked by how able people are to do that when you give them permission.
LW: Is it ever hard for you to be funny and deep?
SA: I struggle all the time getting at the darkest stuff in my own self and life, maybe because I’m still feeling guilty or confused or just frightened of it. But that’s what a career in writing is about: expanding the number of things you can be brutally honest about.
LW: In your homage to Vonnegut, you talk about the writer you “wished to become” back when you were a younger man. How close are you to becoming that writer?
SA: I still struggle everyday with making time, paying attention, figuring out the big mystery of how to write on a bigger scale. Maybe stuff inside me is blocked but it might also have to do with having a family and wanting to give love and attention to them. That’s going to take precedence over my art. The people I admire – Dave Eggers, Jess Walter, Anthony Doerr, Cheryl Strayed, Aimee Bender – they’re able to give to their art and, it seems, to their families’ lives and even to their social conscience. Those people are heroes to me. I hope I’ll start to follow their example and live up to what I can do as an artist.
—Laura K. Warrell & Steve Almond
Laura K. Warrell is a freelance writer living in Boston. She teaches writing at the Berklee College of Music and University of Massachusetts Boston and is a July, 2013, graduate of the MFA program at Vermont College. She has previously published both fiction and nonfiction in Numéro Cinq.