A Conversation with Steve Almond

By Cynthia Romanowski

Steve Almond is one of the most versatile authors I know of in today’s writing game. From journalism to short stories to long-form non-fiction to flash, Almond is not afraid to move between genres at a time when writing across genres seems to be becoming more and more important. He is a champion of truth-telling and an industry leader in self-deprecation who has also managed to successfully maneuver through the world of self-publishing.

Yet, probably the most important thing to know about Almond is that he is an author with strong ideals, often critical of the status quo, and not afraid to write about it. Needless to say, he is a guy an MFA student like myself could learn a lot from, so naturally I jumped at the chance to pick his brain. Here’s what he had to say about his new book, how he approaches fiction vs. non-fiction and why he’s just like Ernest Hemmingway, “only Jewyer.”

I was wondering if, from your journalism days interviewing rockstars and such, you had any tips on how to ask people for an interview? Your note on Vonnegut in "Not That You Asked" seemed so perfect and sincere that I thought you might have some pointers...

Most people are, like me, total narcissists, and happy to blab. Just be straightforward in asking. And make sure you let the person know that you know and appreciate their work. You have to be persistent, but not rude -- meaning patient.

Your next book, “God Bless America,” is coming out October 25th, can you tell me a little bit about it? To judge the book by it’s cover it looks sort of political. I was also wondering how that You Tube video of all your different “Republican endorsements” came to be? It’s really funny.

 God Bless America is a book of short stories. They're not really about politics, so much as the American knack for self-delusion. As for the book trailer, that's just something I cooked up one night, stoned (as usual), and got some friends to help me with.

You are obviously a writer who has never shied away from talking politics and bringing our country’s greatest problems (like self-delusion) to the forefront. Do you feel like, in general, other fiction writers tend to avoid these topics, or do you feel like you have good company in terms of expressing these issues? 

With short stories, the hope is that you're writing about the human experience in a way that transcends particulars. Because, after all, just because Americans are especially good at self-delusion doesn't mean we own the franchise. But there's also the issue of writers taking a stand on particular moral issues of the day (such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). There are writers taking that stuff on. Nick Flynn's "The Ticking Is the Bomb" is a non-fiction book that deals explicitly (and brilliantly) with America's penchant for torture. Jim Shepard's "Boys Town" and George Saunders' "Home" are two recent short stories that dealt, explicitly, with the violent aftershocks suffered by veterans of our recent wars. I wouldn't put myself in the company of those guys, because they're better writers than I am. But we share a sense of distress about the moral state of the country, that bleeds into our work.

Now I’m tempted to ask you if there is any “theme” in your new collection, but most short story writers seem to hate that.

I could offer some fancy pitch line about "the American Dream and its discontents," but I ain't gonna do you like that. GBA is basically the best of the stories I've written over the past ten years. If they fit together -- and I hope they do -- it's because they came from the same pointy head.

You are an author who has written extensively on both sides of the coin, fiction and non-fiction, can you talk a little bit about the difference between the two? In your semi-recent Rumpus article, “The Heroic Lie: A Brief Inquiry into the Fake Memoir” you talk about the potential dangers of writing from memory.

There's an obvious difference between fiction and non-fiction, and anyone who tries to blur that line -- such as James Frey -- probably has an agenda. Fiction is about creating a world that's designed for maximum emotional impact. The reader knows it's made up. Non-fiction is a subjective version of events that objectively took place. That doesn't mean that non-fiction is entirely factual. It isn't, because memory isn't. But you can't consciously make things up and say they really happened. (I mean, can you imagine how disastrous that would be? Like, say you had a President who wanted to invade another country, and he would just say they had weapons of mass destruction, without any real evidence. But I digress..)

Funny, I actually can imagine that…

I was also wondering if you’ve often started a story in non-fiction and had to fictionalize it to make it work, or make it work better. For example, your story “I Am as I Am” is about a boy hitting another with a baseball bat, and then in that same Rumpus article I mentioned above, you write about a similar but much less gruesome anecdote that happened to you as a child. Are these connected?

 The best stories always come from inside the writer, and are full of autobiographical elements. I wasn't thinking about hitting my older brother in the head with a baseball bat when I wrote that story, "I Am as I Am." I based that story on a newspaper clipping I'd seen. But the reason that clipping stuck with me, no doubt, is because that eerie memory of bashing my brother was rolling around in my subconscious. That's usually how it works. The artistic unconscious feeds us the best details, if we just stay at the keyboard and relax.

Now that we’re talking about the difference between fiction and non-fiction I have to ask … you’ve often talked about the importance of sex scenes, how they can be crucial and revealing in terms of character. You have also been extremely candid in non-fiction as far as sex scenes go (a backyard hot tub comes to mind), has this ever caused problems?  I think a lot of people who are starting out are really hesitant in this way--afraid it might mess up their marriage or other relationships. Any advice for non-fiction writers who suffer from that kind of conflict?

Yeah, this is a tough question: how much can I disclose. I teach a whole class on the subject. The truth is you always run a risk, no matter how well you disguise your subjects. And there's no easy solution. I've pissed off a few people along the way, including my wife, who's a writer herself. I wrote about one old flame in a recent book, and thought I disguised her pretty well. But a mutual friend figured out it was her and she was very hurt -- mostly that I didn't tell her I was writing about her. And she was right. I apologized and felt awful. I should also point out that it took me 20 years of writing before I'd disclose any really personal stuff, and there's still a lot of dark shit that I won't write about, because I know it would hurt those around me. This isn't a dilemma you solve; you just try to manage it.

 You’ve described fiction as “creating a world that’s designed for maximum emotional impact.” In a You Tube clip you said: “When you’re working on something, you’re basically convincing somebody else to convert your specks of language that you’ve put on the page, through their own attention and their own emotional life, into some very real emotional experience and then to pay for that experience.” Do you think being a twin helped you have this ability to tap into someone else’s emotional life? And sort of related to that, how did becoming a father affect this aspect of your writing?

I’m asking because--using myself as an example--I don’t have children. But I feel like becoming a parent is such a big part of the human experience that by not doing so it could affect my ability to accurately conjure those feelings and understand those emotional landscapes. Do you think that’s true at all?

 Oh gosh. Complicated stuff. As for being a twin, I'm not sure what impact that's had. I was very close to my brother when we were little, and we had a kind of intimacy that I suppose I'm still trying to reach through my writing. So it's not so much that I was better at empathizing because I had a twin, as maybe more motivated to empathize.
 As for whether you can write about being a parent without having kids: sure. Fiction writers are constantly imagining the inner (and outer) lives of people who are not themselves. And they are able to do this because human beings have a lot more in common than what separates them. We all fear and desire and worry over the same stuff.

That’s encouraging. I think a concrete example of that is in the title story of your collection The Evil B.B. Chow. You write so convincingly in a female, first person point of view. I was going to ask you about it but I think you’ve just answered that…

Now, wildly changing the subject, you are a champion of self-publishing, but I’m guessing you’re the exception and not the rule in terms of success after taking that route.  Based on your experience, would you encourage writers to self-publish, or is it one of those things that only works for well-established authors?

It doesn't "only" work for well-established authors. But it's incredibly hard, amid the recent deluge of self-published stuff, to succeed. There are a few success stories that everyone trumpets, and then the other million folks who sell a dozen copies. But it's really a question of what kind of experience you want to have. Not every book has to be a best-seller. I've been very happy to make these little books myself. They're personal and idiosyncratic, and I like that they move into the world organically, from my hands to the readers'. In terms of advice, I also encourage writers at the beginning of their careers to spend as much time at the keyboard as they can stand, and the rest reading. There's no shortcuts, as least that I've been able to find.

Now that you mention your “little books,” there is another niche that I think of when I hear your name, and that is the successful execution of the “micro-story” or “flash fiction,” like the pieces in your book “This Won’t Take But A Minute Honey.” We get a lot of flash submissions here at TCR, but most of the time the pieces feel incomplete, more like “slices of life,” or vignettes, than actual full-fledged stories. Any advice for tackling this form effectively; are there any pitfalls that you see happen again and again?

I think of flash fictions as little bursts of empathy. That's what you're trying to do: just get right to the heart of the matter. Sometimes that's by isolating a particular moment. Sometimes it's by telling a story with terrific efficiency, really compressing the sensual and psychological detail. And sometimes it's by allowing yourself to write more associatively. But you've got to have a different mindset from full-length stories. Your job is to fuck your reader up in a thousand words or less. There's not room for polite competence. And, at the same time, you can't just barf high-octane words onto the page. Urgent lucidity.

And finally, I wanted to ask what you are working on now? “Bad” poetry, fiction, non-fiction?

I'm working on a big, sucky novel. It's big. Also: sucky. That's about all I can say. If things are going well, I get a paragraph done a day. Then the next day I delete that paragraph. Then I go into the other room and piss into a jar. Then I drink it. Basically, I'm just like Hemingway. Only Jewyer.

Steve Almond(www.stevenalmond.com.) is the author of ten books, three of which he published himself. In October, Lookout Books will publish his new story collection, God Bless America. For more info on Steve, check out his Facebook page.

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