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20 Questions: Steve Almond

Steve Almond, who’s latest book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life (13 April) talks with PopMatters 20 Questions about high ideals for literature – and how sexy William Shatner is.

Steve Almond is the author of the short story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, the novel Which Brings Me to You (with Julianna Baggott), and the non-fiction books Candyfreak and (Not That You Asked). His most recent book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, which comes with a ‘Bitchin soundtrack’ (that can be heard here), published 13 April.

He talks with PopMatters 20 Questions about the best that literature can hope to achieve – and how sexy William Shatner is.

Book: Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life: A Book by and for the Fanatics Among Us (with Bitchin' Soundtrack)

Author: Steve Almond

Publisher: Random House

US Publication Date: 2010-04

Format: Hardcover

Length: 240 pages

Price: $23.00

Image: The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Honestly, it’s almost always a song that gets me choked up. This is why I have 3,000 CDs in my basement and why I fall in love with a new album about once a week and why I wind up calling my favorite singers by their first names, as if we’re friends. Because for me – and those of my ilk – songs are what allow us to reach the feelings we can’t access by other means.

I can remember listening to the Stevie Wonder song “Village Ghettoland” at age ten and bawling my head off at the line about families buying dog food. It’s not that I was some little saint – I was a pretty typical suburban brat – but the music made me feel this crushing sense of the world’s deprivation, which no doubt lived inside me.

I’m probably one of the few human beings on Earth who would admit to weeping when he hears the song “Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS. When I hear those cheesy orchestral synths, I’m instantly transported back to the morning I was dumped by a woman I was almost sure I loved.

Nearly every song I love has, at one time or another, made me cry. I realize this makes me sound like a total sap, but I can’t help it. That’s how it is with us drooling fanatics.

2. The fictional character most like you?

The obvious pick here would be Portnoy, given my published record of neurotica. But I’m going to go with William Stoner, the hero of my favorite novel on earth, Stoner by John Williams.

It’s not that we’re very much alike in terms of temperament – Stoner is quiet and uncomplaining, whereas I am loud and complaining – it’s the simple fact that Stoner’s life is rescued by literature. There’s a scene early in the book that describes what happens to Stoner upon hearing one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He goes into a kind of trance. It’s as if the world suddenly has been electrified.

That’s exactly what I felt in college when I read (for instance) Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, that same sense of ecstatic disorientation. It’s what I feel whenever I read an amazing book, and it’s what turned me into a writer.

3. The greatest album, ever?

This is like asking me to name a favorite vital organ. I mean look: it took me 14 months to settle on an all-time Top Ten list for the new book, and these weren’t months of casual consideration. I spent many, many hours anguishing over the relative merits of The White Album (which did not make the list) and Ike Reilly’s Salesmen and Racists (which did).

That said, I’m going with The Best of Gil Scott-Heron. In my book, Gil Scott-Heron is the single most important American musician of the past 50 years. He basically invented rap with the 1970 anthem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, and MCs have been ripping him off ever since. In songs such as “Winter in America”, he sings with astonishing grace about this country’s moral decline. He’s not just a brilliant thinker or poet, his music is a joyous stew of every major American genre -- R&B, hip hop, jazz, soul, latin funk – it’s all there, often in the same song. He’s the only guy I know who can sing about addiction and apartheid and still keep the party rocking.

Book: (Not that You Asked): Rants, Exploits and Obsessions

Author: Steve Almond

Publisher: Random House

US Publication Date: 2008-07

Format: Paperback

Length: 304 pages

Price: $14.00

Image: Star Trek or Star Wars?

Oh, God. Do I have to choose one? Can’t I choose Son of the Morning Star, Evan S. Connell’s brilliant 1984 biography of General George Custer? Not only does it include an astonishing account of the Battle of Little Big Horn, but it tells the larger (and equally gripping) story of the federal government’s annihilation of the Plains Indians. Or can I choose, Big Star, one of my all-time favorite bands?

But okay, if I have choose one of the big, obvious ‘Stars’, I’ll take Star Trek (the original series) for the simple reason that, like all great science fiction, it’s really about the concerns of the world we live in today.

Oh, also, William Shatner makes me hot.

5. Your ideal brain food?

Readings. When I first got to Boston, 12 years ago, this was all I did at night. I saw Saul Bellow and John Updike in the same week. I saw Seamus Heaney and Lorrie Moore and Tim O’Brien and Robert Pinsky and Frank Bidart and Sherman Alexie and a thousand lesser known writers. I’d sit toward the back of the room in my terrible hair and sweat unreasonably and scribble down notes. Then I’d race back to my bacterial apartment and poop out more hopeless drafts.

People think of readings as these quiet, boring affairs, but that’s total nonsense. Literature consists of the ravings of mad men and women! It’s where the perpetual din of marketing falls silent and the darkest feelings get expressed. What I love about readings is that you get the stories and poems themselves, but you also get the mind and heart behind the words.

I remember watching the late Barry Hannah read one of his stories and break down in tears toward the end. And I remember thinking: that’s how I want my stories to feel. I want them to matter that much. I’m not sure that qualifies as “brain food”, but it’s what sustains me.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

I managed not to kill my daughter during her first 72 hours of life. I realize this is not exactly something to brag about, given that most parents avoid killing their children for the entirety of their lives and never even brag about it, but it really did strike me as miraculous and deeply heroic, given that I thought I’d killed her no fewer than 12 times!

Here’s the thing they don’t tell you about newborn babies: they are really fragile. And if you’ve been waiting for, like, 20 years to finally have a kid and idealizing the experience the whole time, supposing that babies are just these kind of complicated accessories, it comes as a major shock that they’re so little and helpless and… breakable.

Book: My Life in Heavy Metal

Author: Steve Almond

Publisher: Grove/Atlantic [reprint]

US Publication Date: 2003-04

Format: Paperback

Length: 205 pages

Price: $12.00

Image: You want to be remembered for...?

Aside from being a parent who did not allow either of his two children to perish in his care, I’ll say helping to stem this country’s growing tide of hatred and idiocy. President Obama and John Stewart and Rachel Maddow have all done way more than I’ll ever do, but the writers I admire most – from Kurt Vonnegut to George Saunders – are the ones who recognize that artists are also citizens, and that we have a responsibility not just to create art, but to awaken mercy. That’s what all art is for, actually: it’s meant to make us feel more than we did before.

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

At the risk of being mocked, I’m going with Vonnegut. He spent his career trying to speak plainly about the things that mattered to him the most deeply. He did so, for the most part, without descending into didacticism – my chosen vice.

Instead, he simply reminded his readers of what Jesus Christ preached in his Sermon on the Mount, that we should care for one another unconditionally, that the poor and weak should be exalted, not reviled, and that the suffering of others should be felt by all of us. It was Vonnegut who warned that our species will perish if we stop engaging with acts of imagination. This has never seemed more true to me than it is today.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Any of Vincent Van Gogh’s late canvases. Let me put it this way: I never want to be as crazy or sad as Van Gogh, but I would love to look up into the night sky above Arles and see what he saw. I could say this of any of my favorite painters (most of whom were pretty miserable, come to think of it): Goya, Modigliani, Kandinsky.

10. Your hidden talents...?

This is tough, because I’m known as someone who flaunts his ineptitudes, but I’m going to say singing. I was in a gospel choir in college, and took voice lessons briefly. I was too chicken to go for it, though.

That’s the story of my life. It’s the story of a lot of people’s lives, I think, which is why I wrote this latest book. It’s for people like me who dreamed of being musicians but lacked the courage (and maybe the talent – you need the courage to figure out if you have the talent, right?). Instead, we’ve converted all that unrequited desire into being obsessive fans. So we don’t get to sing, exactly, but we get to sing along, which is better than nothing.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

Several years ago, my dad urged me to get into psychoanalysis. He’s a psychoanalyst (as is my mom) so this is something of an occupational hazard. Naturally, I took umbrage. “What are you saying, pop? That’s I’m crazy?” I shouted, somewhat crazily. So I stalled for a couple of years, claiming it would take too much time and be too expensive, both of which happen to be true.

My dad’s point, as he patiently explained, was that I was unhappy and wasn’t getting the things I really wanted in life, and he wanted me to get those things. Two years and a fairly serious depression later, I relented. I spent half a dozen years on the couch, and there wasn’t some big dramatic breakthrough, like you see in the movies, but I did gradually stop hating myself so much, and this allowed me to do better work and to treat the people in my life with more compassion and slowly but surely I did start to allow myself the stuff I’d been denying myself, chief among those things being a patient wife and two fragile-but-gorgeous children.

I have thanked my dad many times for his advice, which he offered at the peril of my own narcissism, and will continue to do so.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

I stole an Official Elvis Wristwatch from Graceland during my one and only visit to that shrine, back in the ‘90s. I’m a closet shoplifter and have been since I was very young. This is generally deplorable behavior – no argument there -- but it struck me as the proper response to being in a gift shop whose sole purpose was to profit from the death of a singer who’d been, in essence, killed by fame.

I realize this is a completely bogus rationalization, but in my defense, the watch broke after, like, two hours.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or...?

Levis, but only if they’re second-hand. I’ve owned very little new clothing in my life, something that drove my mother crazy (although she’s the one who started it, by saddling me with my older brother’s hand-me-downs) and now drives my wife crazy.

The way I look at it is like this: I’m too scrawny and unkempt to wear new clothing. It’s a bad fit, like putting a tuxedo on a mutt. So why go to all the trouble of buying new stuff? It’s expensive and bad for the environment and, more than likely, manufactured by underpaid foreign workers.

Besides, America has plenty of awesome pre-owned clothes. My wife can tell you: as much as I hate shopping, take me to a Goodwill or a Salvation Army and I’ll find the best stuff in record time.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Abraham Lincoln, without a doubt. It’s not just that he was a morally courageous guy, but based on his letters and speeches he was (by a long shot) the most thoughtful and compassionate person to occupy the White House. I’d love to hear Lincoln discuss the current state of the union. I mean, this was a guy who knew he was going to take a bullet for freeing the slaves, for removing the moral stain on this country.

I honestly wonder what he would make of the forces aligned against President Obama’s agenda. After all, most of what Obama has proposed boils down to addressing basic moral needs, from curing the sick to saving our habitat to redistributing a tiny percentage of this country’s obscene wealth for the common good, and yet he’s being compared (by some) to Hitler.

I’d love to ask Lincoln, point blank, if the Southern states that oppose Obama most vociferously, whose residents seem unable to accept his legitimacy as president, should be allowed to secede. Once we settled that, we could move on to dessert.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

I’d like to travel back to 1971, so as to insure I’m never photographed as a child/adolescent. Maybe I’m aiming a bit too low here? Maybe I could put a time machine to better use?

Actually, now that I think about it, I’d love go back to the year 30 of the Common Era in Judea, so I could see who Jesus Christ really was and what he said and did. I mean, there have been so many laws and judgments issued in his name, not to mention the sacred prayers uttered on his behalf.

My hope would be to discover that he was exactly as he’s described in the New Testament: a radical homeless pacifist who did not hate gay people or the poor or the sick but who, on the contrary, preached the gospel of love as a revolutionary force.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

I can’t do all three? Seriously. This sounds like the ideal weekend getaway in America. Either that, or the treatment for Jerry Bruckheimer’s next blockbuster.

Unfortunately, as much as I would like to shoot someone in my worst moments, I’d rather not act on those impulses. I’m also not a big fan of medicating with pharmaceuticals, though I have no problem with, uh, herbal remedies. As for a spa vacation, I’m going to give that to my wife. She does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to our (very energetic) one- and three-year-old.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or...?

Chocolate. Also chocolate. Oh, and chocolate. I’m pretty sure I could live without alcohol and cigarettes and meat and TV and movies and modern appliances, but chocolate – that’s my lifeblood. Literally. According to my doctor, my cholesterol levels indicate that I have chocolate liquor running in my veins at this point.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

You know, I want to say “country” because it sounds so peaceful and bucolic on paper. The problem is I would probably perish in a country setting, owing to a basic incompetence when it comes to fixing pretty much anything, including my hair.

Then again, cities are full of cars and concrete and delicious processed foods designed to kill you. So I’m thinking some kind of commune within biking distance of a small town. I’ll happily pitch in with the basic chores, so long as I get to do some cooking and select the music for the Friday Night Commune-wide Dance Party.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Put a little fire in your belly. Honestly, Obama. I realize there are a lot of corporate interests aligned against you, as well as a minority party whose stated aim is not to govern but to excite rage and grievance of their mostly aging white base. I get that.

What Americans want in a leader, however, is someone who projects strength. Your predecessor got away with all sorts of idiotic policies because he projected strength. You’ve actually got good ideas for how to solve our shared problems. So howzabout advocating for them as if our lives depend on them, because they do.

You need to call out the media for fomenting ignorant rage, then covering ignorant rage as if it were the big story. You need to call out the right-wing demagogues who line their pockets by inciting hatred and violence. In short, you need to wage war on those who seek to impede the moral progress of this country.

Steve & Erin's wedding photo (partial) by ©Stephen Sette-Ducati

Think of this as your own Civil Rights battle. Only this time it’s not just about ending segregation, it’s about safeguarding the fate of your children, and mine, and even those of the misguided citizens who compare you to Hitler.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

Mostly, I’m working on raising these babies of mine, but I’ll also be heading out to do lots of readings from Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. Those should be fun, because I get to play lots of music.

Next year, I’ll come out with a new short story collection called God Bless, America, which just goes to show that – for all my kvetching – I do love this country, and deeply. I just want us as citizens to live up to the measure of our own hearts.

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