June 07, 2010
Steve Almond’s latest book of non-fiction, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, is written for “Drooling Fanatics,” people, like Almond himself, whose fixations with music take on an almost religious fervor. Almond’s past works include 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). He is also a TNB contributor, and his submissions have ranged from a self-interview to a criticism of fellow contributor Joe Daley’s “Five Bands I Should Like, but I Don’t. At All.” The latter ruffled some feathers at TNB, and Steve accepted my offer to talk about the dust-up, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, and the larger concerns of his work.
AE: From a fledgling writer’s perspective, you’re a hard guy to root against (even though I managed it for about a decade). Whether it’s an agent who conveniently forgets his guild’s raison d’etre, or a blogger who clearly just has it in for you, you’re not afraid to publicly take down someone for unfairness or pettiness. Maybe that’s why it was so frustrating for some—even some of your loyal readers—when you commented so robustly against Joe Daly’s piece, a fledgling writer himself. (For the record, some TNB readers hailed you for calling it as you see it.) In light of this backlash, would you care to clear anything up?
SA: TNB readers tend to be supportive, probably because the internet is beset by aggrieved trolls. So to the extent my post fed into that same negative shit, I apologize.
But even if I’d toned down my language, my point would have been the same: Joe Daly wrote an intellectually and emotionally lazy piece. I didn’t observe this to be mean. I was genuinely disappointed. I’ve spent my entire life in the thrall of music and the past two years puzzling over why it matters so much to me, what it makes me desire and remember and regret. Joe is obviously the same kind of dude. He’s capable of more than running smack on bands he hates.
If people want to hate me for saying this, I can’t stop them. But that’s not the same as engaging in a serious discussion about the piece in question – or what music means, or how to write about it. Which is what I was hoping would ensue, rather than the typical internet rubbernecking. (Fight! Fight!)
I realize I’m now in for a whole new round of abuse. But whatever. The folks who contribute to TNB can make this space whatever they want. It can become the literary equivalent of Facebook – a place to hang out, feel validated, score some attention and good communal vibes. Or it can become a forum that inspires them to get more serious about their work, which sometimes means other writers holding them to a higher standard. In its best incarnation, it will be both.
AE: I’m reading and enjoying Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, which I’ll review at TNB in a week or two. In an email to me, you commented that the book is “more jokey” early on and “gets more serious” as the book progresses. What made you make that choice?
SA: It’s mostly a function of the material. My adolescent worship of Styx, or my career as a wretched music critic – those are tragedies best treated as comedy. But as I’ve gotten older, my relationship to music has become deeper and darker and more self-indicting. Plus, I did all these interviews with my guitar heroes, who are (like most genuine artists) complicated and often troubled people. If Bob Schneider had been a happy, hilarious dude, the section on him would have reflected that. But he was a very isolated, unhappy guy – at least during my visit. So that goes in the book, too. My only goal is to write truthfully about the shit that matters to me most deeply. The rest is marketing.
AE: When I read your work, I find myself thinking of Kurt Vonnegut and what an important bridge he was for me from the world of Lemmy to the world of Hemingway. Like yours, his work is laugh-out-loud funny, but also like yours it’s obsessed with the struggles of the human heart, which are at the center of all great literature. I know you’re a Vonnegut fan from way back, but are you consciously trying to be that kind of “bridge writer,” escorting people from the world of pop culture to the world of literature?
SA: Totally. Our situation is perfectly clear. People are turning away from the sustained attention literature requires. Our intellectual and emotional metabolisms have accelerated and fragmented. People spend most of their lives in front of screens, trying to face down their loneliness without facing their internal lives. So part of what I do – not all, but part – is to write about the stuff that lots of people are obsessed with (such as candy and sports and rock stars and dumb television shows) and to burrow down through all the neurotically defensive bullshit about people “just wanting an escape,” so as to discover why this stuff matters to us. What spiritual function it’s serving.
I’m sorry as hell I have to do this, by the way. I wish people were less frightened and distracted. I wish short story writers were granted the same respect as movie stars. But that’s not where we’re at as a culture. Some of my friends have dealt with this by heading for Hollywood. Others write zombie novels. My approach is to directly address what I see as the central pathologies of our historical circumstance. Vonnegut says it best: we’re doomed as a species if we lose our capacity to engage with acts of imagination.
AE: Finally, I’m thinking of getting in touch with Paul Harding, rock drummer and 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for his novel Tinkers, and seeing if he’d like to form an all-lit rock band. Do you think you’re finally ready to embrace your true calling as a rock singer?
SA: I’m enough of a wannabe as it is. But you can always check with Phillip Roth. He’s a monster on the Moog.