Steve Almond is the author of ten books of fiction and nonfiction whose titles read like the subject headers of emails from the best friend you’ve always wished you had: My Life in Heavy Metal, The Evil B.B. Chow, Candyfreak, Bad Poetry, (Not That You Asked), Letters From People Who Hate Me, Which Brings Me to You (co-authored with Julianna Baggot), This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, and Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.
His essays and stories have been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Rumpus, Slate, Salon, The Believer, Utne Reader, Bitch, Huffington Post, GQ, Spin, Best American Short Stories, and more, as well as in numerous anthologies. In October 2011, he appeared on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron. His work has been described as irreverent and hilarious, as urgent and moving, or as both at once.
The Days of Yore met up with Steve on a rainy afternoon at McNally Jackson Books in Soho. He was slated to read there later from his newest book, God Bless America, and to talk about his work with fellow writers Darin Strauss and Nick Flynn. It was late November, and Occupy Wall Street protesters had been cleared out of Zuccotti Park a few days prior. We found a quiet spot to talk in a basement section of the store marked “Ideas,” sandwiched between “Memoir” and “Religion.”
When did you first become interested in writing?
When I was a kid, I didn’t think, “I want to write!” I thought, “How do I get attention in this family?” and the way I had was being mouthy. I was a TV kid, but also really into reading. I remember reading Where the Red Fern Grows and A Cricket in Times Square and Encyclopedia Brown over and over, and thinking about particular books on my shelf as sacred objects: a dinosaur book, a book about famous sports people. But I don’t think I ever had a moment where I thought “That’s what I’ll do.”
I was more of a failed jock. I didn’t take creative writing classes. But I did work for the newspaper. I was a columnist in high school, a columnist in college—terrible columns. It was in my early to mid-twenties that I started reading short stories in Harper’s and other places, and I remember thinking that those writers were badasses. Those were the ones doing interesting work.
And you were in California during these early failed jock years?
I grew up in Palo Alto. It’s where Facebook is, where Apple started, the heart of Silicon Valley. But at that time it was a sleepy college town around Stanford, and we weren’t rich. My two brothers and I all shared one room until they remodeled when we were twelve or thirteen. Then my brother Mike and I moved to a different room together. Right before we went to college, we got our own rooms. I remember getting to college and thinking, “This room is huge!” It was tiny, but bigger than the room we’d shared.
Because there was so much money in downtown Palo Alto, I had a clear sense of class. I played soccer with those kids, and it was a Gatsby feeling: vast lawns and big houses. Where we lived, by world standards, we were doing great. By Palo Alto standards, it was the shitty part of town.
Seeing that incredible wealth stayed with me. A lot of class hang-ups make their way into my work. I remember in college spending time in New York City, where I was like, “Oh, there’s this kind of wealth?” I didn’t know what the rules were. My way of dealing with it was to say, “Keeping score that way is bullshit.” It was partly a defensive thing, and partly the values my parents inculcated.
Even through my folks were doctors, they treated people on a sliding scale, they were part of a collective, they were hippies. They were into not being materialistic, and some of that got into me, because extreme wealth is shameful to me. Donald Trump, to me, is the most embarrassing person in the world. At some point in adulthood you get that the rich person is never the good guy.
Unless he’s, like, Bruce Wayne.
Yeah, but the only reason Bruce Wayne is a good guy is because he has this anarchic, violent alter-ego that he can go into. And what does that person do? He goes into the bad part of town. He battles evil. He gets his noblesse oblige on. But it’s not like anybody goes, “Wow, that was awesome the way Bruce hosted that cocktail party.”
Both of your parents are psychoanalysts. Were there writers or artists in your family?
Like in a lot of families, I think there were people who wanted to be writers or artists. My mom was a wonderful pianist. She read like crazy. Later in life, she and my dad wrote a book, and she wrote another book a couple years ago that was very well regarded. It’s about women’s fears of giving birth to monsters and maternal ambivalence. My dad sang in college, they were both good cooks, and they did creative stuff as part of the countercultural movement. But they were from families where a lot was invested in them and it was expected that they were going to be professionals.
It takes either a tremendous amount of courage or a certain kind of privilege for somebody to say, “I can be an artist.” It didn’t occur to me that I could be a writer. I can remember reading Vonnegut’s books and, my freshman year, the teacher reading us Catcher in the Rye. He was this hammy guy; it was amazing. But I didn’t make the connection that you could try to do something like that, that there are people who decide that they get to write novels or stories.
So when did you make that connection that writing was your profession or calling?
This is one of those questions that writers always fumble, because it sounds presumptuous. There was never a moment when I was like, “I’m a writer.” If you say you’re a writer, everyone asks, “What do you write?” And you have to say, “Well, do you read The Crabapple Review?” and they’re like, “No.”
I went to grad school in my late twenties, and it felt like most of the other students were younger. I had worked for eight years in newspapers and figured out that it was hard to get good. I was in a rush. But I don’t think I had a sense of, “Now I’m a writer.” And I still—gee, you know, if I read somebody like Sam Lipsyte, or Nick Flynn or Darin Strauss, I don’t say, “Yeah, we’re all writers.” I think, “Man, those guys are pretty good writers… And I’ve written some books, too.” I’m still not as good at it as I’d like to be, but this is what I do.
I teach, and I support the books—which don’t make any money—by doing freelance writing, editing, teaching, going to conferences. It’s very cobbled together, and more than half my time is spent hustling.
I guess I do remember feeling like when I got to grad school that it was recognized that we were all trying to do this thing.
That you were making a commitment to writing?
Right. And that was probably fifteen years ago, and doing an MFA wasn’t common. I didn’t know there was such a thing until an editor of the newspaper that I worked for in Miami told me. I was sneaking off after work to go to this workshop that the writer John DuFresne was running for free up at FIU, but I didn’t see the route to doing what he was doing. There really is no professional codification. It’s just, “Well, earlier today I did some good writing, and that makes me a writer today, but yesterday I fucked around and didn’t do anything useful, so I can’t really say I was a writer yesterday.”
Maybe your writerly-ness is something you can only see looking back on it?
Other people make that determination. Now that people are writing online, readers decide. If somebody writes a blog and one person reads it and is moved by it, can you say that blogger isn’t a writer? It’s a hard line for me to draw, even without that modern complication.
So give me a picture of the pre-publishing, struggling young Steve Almond. What job are you working to get by?
I sold lawn aeration door to door in high school. It was a corrupt job and I wrote a story about it. I worked in a kitchen washing dishes in college. I did catering. I was a shipping and receiving clerk. I worked in ice cream parlors. But I didn’t have a lot of mortifying jobs. I was very practical: I was going to be a reporter.
I was from a pretty high-powered family. My folks met in Yale medical school, and they came from high-powered people, too. I developed an innate sense that I had better get a business card and a good gig and succeed. So I became a journalist.
At The El Paso Times, where I worked straight out of college, I had a great job. I mean, the prose that I wrote was awful, but it was a Gannett paper, a USA Today paper. They didn’t want poetry. They wanted a funny pun. I reviewed concerts, I wrote feature stories, I met some interesting people, and I liked it. Journalism puts you at the end of the stick and pokes you out into the world. It says, “Here, find some interesting shit and organize it into a story.”
How did your work as a journalist shape the kinds of writing you do now?
One, I wrote every day. Two, I got over the idea that a lot of people carry who don’t work at a vocational writing job: they think their prose is sacred and they treat it preciously. I was used to getting edited, used to arguing but also used to the process.
It also forced me to listen. Everybody’s always telling their story; sometimes it’s disguised, but they’re always trying to tell the story of who they are, what they’re about, what their anxieties are. That’s always swimming underneath the surface. I’d parachute into these environments and talk with people. But the job—especially when I went from the daily paper to the weekly paper, where I could write stories with scenes and characters—was really just to listen and try to capture the scene.
Where were you living at that time? What were you eating?
The places I lived and the food I ate were crappy. But I also sensed that winter was coming, and winter meant trying to make a living at this. I don’t think the other kids in grad school understood that. It was, “Yeah, Tony Early’s in Harpers, and he probably got a big paycheck for that, but I’m not Tony Early, and that’s not going to happen for me maybe ever, and certainly not for years. I’m not going to subsist on my five-dollar check from The Crabapple Review.” I once did get five dollars for a story. It was clear to me: I’m undertaking a pursuit that is like a drug addiction, it’s not going to pay off, I’m going to lose a lot of money, and it’s going to make me very anxious.
I was a cheapskate throughout my years as a reporter and in grad school and after grad school. I was making very little money. I paid rent, and I made giant bowls of soup. I was living alone, scaring off most anybody—especially women—who would come close. I’d make this giant thing of turkey soup and think, “Fuck, I’ve got to eat this soup before it turns rancid. I’ve got to get the calories in me.” But that was completely self-depriving, Jewish behavior. There was no rational reason why I couldn’t have treated myself a little bit better. It was just my mentality.
And a lot of America’s problem is that people have too much shit. My wife and I get into this, because I look around and I say, “Why do we need all this shit?”
And you have two kids now. Kids are shit magnets.
[Nodding.] Oh my god. People give you shit. Shit just comes into your life. There’s this endless stream—preschool shit, and Target shit, and it’s plastic and awful and life is too short.
I guess I look back romantically on those days when I was alone. I put crazy stuff up on the wall; there was no design scheme, no fancy furniture. I bought my clothes from thrift stores. I still do that. But it’s an ongoing moral battle: we’ve reached this place where we must get nice stationery to write thank you notes to the people who come to our party, because they wrote us thank-yous when we went to their party. And I’m like, really? We’re them? We’re that?
You mentioned that you teach, and that makes me think of the time you publicly resigned from your adjunct position at Boston College in 2006 because they invited in Condoleezza Rice as their commencement speaker. You’ve written about your admiration for Vonnegut; he was very vocal about moral issues and politics. I was going to ask whether you think writers have an obligation to address political or societal problems, but what I really want to ask is: how do we fix it?
I don’t know. Americans have to make a decision that convenience is not going to be their godhead. Until they are willing to see what the dividends of inconvenience might be—spiritually, emotionally and intellectually—I think we’re headed in the wrong direction.
Everything’s become convenient, even war. If we’re sending young people into terrible, violent situations, how about everybody has to sacrifice? How about there’s a war tax, and everybody has to pay five percent of whatever they’re making to pay for that war? How quickly do you think people would say, “Fuck that, let’s not have that war. Let’s find out whether that war is really crucial.” How about if you want to support the troops, then the price of that bumper sticker is two percent of your annual income, or five percent on purchases you make in the retail outlets closest to your home? That would make it clear: “If I want to have a war, I have to support the war. I can’t just privatize it and send off one percent of the population and wave a flag when they come back all fucked up.”
Public transportation should be required. There should be a luxury tax on the use of private vehicles. You can have them, it’s capitalism, nobody’s trying to take them away. But you’re going to have to pay more for them. And meat. If meat cost what it actually costs, we would use less meat. My wife and I get our meat through a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture], so it actually does. And corn syrup, all this stuff is subsidized, and it all comes down to us wanting convenience.
That’s what Facebook and other social media are about, too—making the gathering and disbursement of little ego moments very convenient. It’s so deeply threaded into the way we’re moving through the world that I don’t know how it gets undone. Part of me thinks we’ll have to reach the end of peak oil, and then we’ll have to make collective decisions. Since we don’t seem capable of trusting that scientists are right, the shit’s going to have to hit the fan.
I could say that I think people should read more and engage with acts of imagination, but it would be naïve to suppose that that’s going to bring us into harmony. The world is way out of balance, and the only way it starts to change is if people make an agreement to abandon a need for convenience.
[Smiling up at a customer browsing a nearby shelf of books.] Howdy.
So what do you see as the role of the writer or the artist in that? Does having a megaphone of some kind mean having a duty to speak out about these things?
Everybody decides for themselves. I’m outspoken about my distress, but the only duty that writers and artists have is to do their thing, and to be good to the people closest to them. That’s your central duty as a human, and it’s where we mostly fail— in being nice to the people right around us, our family and close friends.
A writer doesn’t have to speak out for this or that moral agenda—their art does that. I mean, say I read Sam Lipsyte’s story in The New Yorker. I recognize the kind of person he’s writing about, and there’s this astonishing, moving sense of an entitled person who’s damaged in many ways and stuck, and it’s heartbreaking. I read it, and I feel more than I did before. That’s the artist’s only real responsibility.
How has becoming a father affected both your distress and your creative process?
Having kids has certainly given me a longer horizon. When I was first doing my thing, I was less of a moral loudmouth. Now it’s not just the thirty or forty years that I have left to live. My kids have got eighty years, and I don’t want them to be chased down by roving diesel mobs, so I’ve got to do something. We’re making terrible decisions, and they’re the ones who are going to pay the price. That’s made me more insistent about mouthing off about what I see going wrong.
In terms of working, I don’t know. I took this digression into the world of nonfiction, which I was delighted to do, but I should be working on novels and short stories, because I feel that does the deepest work. My time has been cut up into smaller segments. I’ve been pretty absorbed in the kids—they’re two and five. Generally, it makes me much more sensitive. You see how much kids feel things, and it makes you more shaken up. I don’t know how that translates into the work.
I’m not super happy with anything that I’ve written recently, and I don’t feel able to pay attention for as long as I used to, but I can’t tell whether that’s just my feeling, or I’m blaming my kids but it’s my problem. You can’t fake it with kids, though. You’ve got to spend time with them, and it takes a lot of your energy. In the end, is the world going to say, “Oh, but you could have written that great novel?” Your kid doesn’t give a shit; they just want you to be around and play with them and pay attention to them. It’s not like it’s undercut my desire to write the great American novel, but either I’m not going to do that, or it’s going to take me much longer to get it done.
In This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey, you wrote that the internal conflict of a writer is a question of “what’s stronger: your compulsion to tell the truth about the things that matter to you most deeply or your fear of the consequences.” How does that wrestling match play out for you?
There’s a whole bunch of stuff that I probably should write about that I won’t because it would do damage to people who I love, and I don’t think that’s the worst thing in the world. Saul Bellow would write about anything, and with ruthless precision. Everybody knew he was writing about the failure of his marriage, and his wife and daughter. Herzog is that document.
Other writers who I admire—like Darin Strauss or Nick Flynn, who will be here tonight—they’re somehow able to write about that stuff. But even Darin’s memoir took him three novels before he was able to write about the most guarded secret in his life. And Nick had to write a lot of poetry before he was able to write his memoir about his father and mother. People develop the capacity to expose themselves on the page, and you get better at it the older you get. You develop those muscles. But some stuff remains off-limits if you say that it is. Nobody can say, “Tell the truth, that’s your only job.” You still have to go home for Thanksgiving.
Mostly I wrestle with being able to be at the keyboard and get everything else out of the way, all my little crazy ego needs, and just be with the characters in the fictional world. The world of your ego and needs is so intrusive and incessant, and now it’s been made so convenient. Ten years ago you couldn’t ego surf or check Facebook.
Do you think we all got a lot more done then?
Maybe we were finding other ways to waste time, but it seems like there was less distraction. Technology has monetized the process of getting distracted. That’s what your iPhone is. There’s no time when you’re able to be at loose ends with no readymade little world to plug into. It’s constant emotional and intellectual grazing. That’s the battle I find myself in: how do I get rid of that noise and do the deep work? It’s less about what I can reveal and more about whether I can quiet myself in the midst of distraction.
If you could time-travel back to yourself as a writer and a human at a younger age, what would your advice to that person be?
It took me a while to stop being a serious young writer and start writing stuff that was more honest. I was in this trap of writing obedient stories, and some of them got into magazines—it’s not that they were terrible, just that they were not who I was. They were earnest. And I’m earnest, but they weren’t the other things that rescue me from being insufferably earnest, like being a smartass, or having a certain moral outrage or a willingness to say impolite things or push characters into messy, dangerous situations.
I’m forty-five now, and it’s only in the last ten years that I’ve been able to stop worrying about being a serious writer and let my personality onto the page. But you know, I wouldn’t have listened to that advice. You’re as stubborn as you are. You have to get bored with your current incarnation, and then you change. You say, “I can’t stand being this person anymore.” Then you allow yourself to write something radically truthful or outrageous or dangerous. And the world usually tells you that’s the thing.
I wrote this book about candy, and I thought it was ridiculous. But it turns out to be the thing that people enjoy, partly because it’s a subject everybody connects to, but also because it was written out of desperation. I had spectacularly failed at the big historical grand epic novel I was going to write, and my first book of stories had done nothing, as stories do. I was depressed and fucked up, and sometimes that’s the exact place you have to get to. I’m not trying to exalt being in that state, but I was not in a healthy place and that need to be distracted by other people’s stories and grab at this pleasure I’d had as a kid—I think that’s what people responded to and why they liked that book.
Did you start out seeing Candyfreak as a book?
I did a long freelance story for this weekly paper in Boston. I was like, “I don’t know what else to do, so let me research this. I love this world; I want to spend time here.” I got a bunch of people to say yes, and this is where being a reporter is useful, because you realize you can ask people things. They can say no, but who cares?
I had the idea that it could be a book, but there was a long fallow period. So at a certain point I was like, “I guess this is what I’m working on.” I wasn’t going to write another novel; I didn’t have it in me to fail that way. I needed the prospect of free candy or a trip to get me to the keyboard. That’s not a bad situation, because it strips away vanity and pretension. There’s something about that level of desperation that’s good for your work.
What advice do you give to beginning writers in your workshops?
Writing is mostly sitting there outlasting your doubt, figuring out how to develop a critical faculty. The main thing I would say is to keep going. Do what you’re trying to do. Not everyone cranked out of the MFA programs is going to have a big, bustling literary career. There aren’t enough readers for that. But people do these things because they’re going in search of themselves and are trying to figure out who they are and how to get some of their central preoccupations and anxieties onto the page, whether in fictional disguise or not.
If you sit there long enough, and if you learn how to make better decisions, you’ll get books into the world if that’s what you want. More than that, you’ll have a richer life. You’ll spend your time doing something that causes you to be in communion with your internal life.
So stay patient, stay at it, and make those difficult decisions. Also, run toward the shame. There’s never been a moment when I’ve said, “Oh boy, I wish I hadn’t revealed that.” There might be a moment when I’ve said, “I wish I hadn’t revealed that in an exploitative way,” or, “I wish I hadn’t used that particular detail in a way that was ill-considered or unexamined.” But when I admire a piece of writing, it’s inevitably because it’s made its way to some devastating truth through shame.
Interview by Harvest Henderson
Photo of Steve Almond and his wife, the writer Erin Almond, by Stephen Sette Ducati
Good place to pick up his new book: