Roaring the Truth: An Interview with Steve Almond
'There are people out there cheering for war, treating those deaths like some kind of athletic event. How sick do we have to be that this is not only acceptable, but virtually unchallenged by other politicians or clergy or anyone? And it's artists who have to stand up and be counted. Right now.' Stephen M. Deusner talks to Steve Almond.
Steve Almond is a busy man. Not only does he teach creative writing at Boston University, he also writes highly opinionated essays about books, publishing, sex, and politics (among many other subjects you can't bring up at the dinner table) for web and print media like mobylives.com and Poets & Writers. Traveling the country, he writes a regular online column called Chow Down wherein he documents the people he meets, questions he fields, odd comments, and assorted madnesses. He also finds time to write a quarterly music-related newsletter called The Tip.
Oh yeah, Almond also writes books. In 2002, he made waves with his debut, a short-story collection called My Life in Heavy Metal, which found an appreciative audience due to its explicit sexual content, direct prose style, and often devastating insights. If that book obsessed over sex, his follow-up, the best-selling nonfiction travelogue Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, documented obscure American candies like the Twin Bing and the Skrunch Bar. His third book is another short-story collection, intriguingly titled The Evil B.B. Chow, whose range of characters, tones, approaches, styles, and subject matters reveal an ambitious and accomplished author. He tackles subjects as diverse and divisive as Abraham Lincoln's alleged homosexuality, death by baseball bat, alien abductions, Michael Jackson's penis, and, of course, the evil B.B. Chow.
PopMatters had a word with the author about the book.
PopMatters: As a fiction writer, you've adhered exclusively to the short-story format instead of writing a novel, which is usually considered more marketable. First, why? Second, have you felt any pressure to produce long fiction, and would you ever consider it?
Steve Almond: I've felt pressure to produce long fiction for as long as I've been writing fiction (around 10 years). There's just an incredible bias in the publishing industry (emphasis on the latter word) toward novels and away from short stories. They're seen as D.O.A. in the marketplace, which seems nuts to me, given that various collections --Interpreter of Maladies, There Are No Strangers Here, Jesus' Son, Cathedral, and on and on -- have done smashingly (and deservedly) well in economic terms. So some of that bias is self-fulfilling fear on the part of publishing companies who -- to be fair -- are doing the work of angels and fools in a shrinking market.
The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories
by Steve Almond
April 2005, 248 pages, $22.95
At the same time, there is something remarkable about the novel. It's the ultimate form, in some ways, because you spend so much more time with the characters. You render everything on a larger canvas. I've written two of the things, big long messes that never quite grew into anything deep. But still, I'm desperate to try again, to challenge myself to that sort of commitment. Much as I love stories, I think I'll only be satisfied with myself as a writer if I'm able to produce a novel that feels publishable. The books that truly take me away -- for weeks at a time -- are all novels. Any of Bellow's exuberant books, the whole Rabbit series, Song of Solomon, Howard's End, Gatsby.
My point is that I want to view my own efforts to write a novel as a function of my own artistic aspirations rather than a good career move. And I need to learn how to commit to characters for a longer time, to confront the limits of my own capacities for attention and compassion. That's what a writing career does, in the best instance: it allows you to keep after what you can't do. I'm inspired by the example of Brad Watson, who wrote this killer book of stories, Last Days of the Dog Men and then took four years or so to put out The Heaven of Mercury, which just absolutely kicked my ass sideways. I thought: fuck man, he did it.
PM: What do you think makes for a good short-story collection?
SA: For me, a lot of it has to do with urgency. I need to feel like the person telling the story has no choice. It's got to get out there or something inside is going to explode. That's how I feel when I read Bellow or Barry Hannah or Lorrie Moore or Rick DeMarinis. I'm not big on stories that don't aim, at some level, to break my heart. And by break, I mean change for good. The best example I can think of is Frank O'Connor's "Guests of the Nation". The last paragraph of that story -- and the last line in particular -- is as close as you can get to the whole point of making art.
PM: "I Am As I Am" seems very prescient in light of the incident in April where a 13-year-old little league player killed another boy with a baseball bat. Do you feel the ideas and fears you explore in the story -- the general overprotectiveness of parents and towns -- are intensifying?
SA: Yeah, it's been a weird run. Michael Jackson is in the news again -- that was to be expected. But then this book comes out claiming that Abe Lincoln "was predominantly homosexual". Then that kid killed his friend with a baseball bat. Weird. Makes me feel like I might try a sideline in clairvoyance. As to the question, Americans seem to be living in a state of fear about the world, one that just keeps intensifying. I mean, look at our cars and homes. They've become these massive barricades. Look at what we watch on TV and in the movies -- it's all a bunch of violent ideation. And all these TV shows about dead bodies. So yeah, you've got all these parents who are projecting their pathologies of fear onto their kids and those kids are understandably messed up. The point of the story was simply to suggest that tragedies happen and that you have to allow kids to experience their own fear and guilt and sorrow. It's the cover-up that really screws people over. Unfortunately, America specializes in cover-ups.
PM: Do you feel that your essays and e-mail columns are ancillary to your fiction, or are they equal in your mind? Do you get much feedback on those pieces, specifically at readings?
SA: No, the stuff I do online has a pretty limited audience. It's a forum for me, basically, to express my direct concerns about our political culture, as well as literary stuff. I really believe that art has to play a role in changing the moral direction of our country. Mean, selfish people are in charge of the government and we're letting them make us into a much meaner culture. It reminds me of McCarthyism, to be honest, and to the early stages of fascism. There are people out there cheering for war, treating those deaths like some kind of athletic event. How sick do we have to be that this is not only acceptable, but virtually unchallenged by other politicians or clergy or anyone? And it's artists who have to stand up and be counted. Right now. We can't live in a fucking bubble. We're going to run out of all the basics (water, air, fuel) really damn soon. But we just keep ringing up the Visa and hoping our grandchildren are going to be able to pay it off. It's auto-cannibalizing.
Okay, sorry. I went off. That's what happens when I think about this stuff and -- to answer your question -- why I write these various pieces. They're an outgrowth of my emotional and moral convictions, which get more and more inflamed as our citizens become more and more bigoted and numb and lost.
PM: You write in your acknowledgements that writers like George Saunders and Margo Rabb will "heal" readers. Does fiction have a medicinal or therapeutic effect on you? On others? On society at large?
SA: Abso-fucking-lutely. I'm not suggesting that writing or reading is therapy. Different fucking activities. But the basic point of art -- any sort of art -- is to awaken mercy within the species. Call me Aristotelian or whatever, but that's what I want a book or movie or CD to do to me: I want to feel all stirred up. I want to feel like I've just been dumped and it hurts and it's never going to fucking stop. And I want to forgive myself for feeling that, rather than suppressing those feelings or converting the consequent shame into rage (see Limbaugh, Rush). Or, at the other extreme, strangely, confusedly ecstatic. Above all: I want to feel. Obviously, stories and books must formulate and express ideas -- no piece of writing goes anywhere without them. But most of the important ideas to me are feelings.
PM: For some readers, men writing in a female voice can be troubling. In a sense I think stories like "The Evil B.B. Chow" and "Wired for Life" expand the scope of the collection and nods to the complexities of romantic relationships How do these different voices fit together in a short-story collection? How do you approach a female as opposed to a male voice?
SA: I don't really think of my narrator in terms of gender. I think of them much more in basic emotional terms. In the case of "BB Chow": this person is cynical about love, this person is falling for a guy, this person gets dumped, unfairly and cruelly, by a sociopath. It's true that part of her frustration is how much she perceives the iniquity of men. But the larger problem she has is that she doesn't believe in what she's doing: she knows -- as all those magazine editors know -- that she's selling a line of bullshit. She's failing to deliver the truth to them, or herself. That's what she's got to face. It happens to do with gender, but it could just as well have to do with race, or class, or familial angst. Which is to say: as an author, you either love yer peeps or you don't. There's no such thing as a "masculine voice" or a "feminine voice". Men and women think and speak and act in, like, a zillion different ways. Also, as a gross generalization: women tend to live closer to their feelings than men and ask the sort of questions that are most literary: Why did things go wrong? What did I do? Why did he do this? How do I get over this? Those are the questions I'm most interested in, at least in a romantic story.
PM: "Appropriate Sex" is set among the students and teacher in a writing class. How does your teaching influence your writing? And vice versa?
SA: Love to teach precisely because it reminds me why I write. Some of this is noticing technical stuff. But a lot of it is just pure inspiration. Every semester I have a student or two who just blows my ass away. They're, like, 21 years old and they'll just open their mouths and roar the truth. And it affects me, emotionally. I get to know those kids, the insides of them, hopefully, the real shit. And it's heavy. That's why I wrote "Appropriate Sex," in part. To express my love for those little creative fucknuts.
PM: The nature and level of you involvement in the presentation of your books seem unique today -- self-funded book tours, numerous mailing lists, etc. I realize that to an extent this strategy is one of necessity, but do you feel authors should more involved in the presentation of their books?
SA: Authors should be as involved with the marketing of their books (which is what you're really talking about) as they want to be. No more, no less. I happen to recognized, quite early on, that no one was going to buy Heavy Metal if I didn't do everything I could to let them know that the book existed. I am acutely aware of how far out on the cultural margin literature is these days. It's quite a limited discussion, in the end, because 90 percent of the literate world is taking a goddamn drip IV of Fox News and Survivor and The Apprentice. I'd be an idiot not to see this. But the important thing isn't the marketing shit. That's just logistics. The important thing is the transfer of love from the author to the characters and to the readers. That's the real reason I do so many readings: I want to feel that. It's an emotional need, in other words, not a financial calculation. Writing is so fucking lonely, dude. It makes me crazy. I need to put myself back in the world and my writing, in a sense, is my way of connecting those two worlds, the private and the public.
PM: How is the book being received? How is your second tour going?
SA: The book is being received well, I guess. There haven't been many reviews to date, though the ones in The New York Times Book Review and Entertainment Weekly have been pretty positive. The most response has come from readers, which is as it should be anyway. I tend to hear from readers who dig the book, though a few fans of Heavy Metal have let me know, somewhat abashedly, that they don't like BB Chow as much. I somewhat expected this. Heavy Metal is the kind of book that makes a deep impact on certain readers -- the raw, confessional style and overt morality. BB Chow is a more diverse collection. Overall, though, it's been solid. The book tour is going great. The travel is exhausting, but there's really nothing like bringing my strange noise directly to the people. It's been great, for instance, to see all the cool stuff happening in a city like Los Angeles, which I've always thought of (unfairly) as a septic pipe for Hollywood's violent schemes.
PM: What are you currently working on?
SA: At the moment, I'm working on an essay for an anthology called Proud to Be a Liberal. The working title is "Fuck Your Mean Heart, Fuck Your Greed." I went for the subtle approach.... I don't try to work on fiction on the road, but when I get home in mid-May, I'll try to settle back into some stories, and the novel I've been avoiding. On a related note, next Spring Algonquin will publish a book called Which Brings Me to You, written with the novelist Julianna Baggott. It's a novel written in the form of letters between two cagey, thirty-something horndogs--confessions, really, of their past romantic disasters.