Okay, let’s get two things out in the open: 1) Steve Almond is not The Dust, and 2) I freaking adore this guy. When talking about someone who has made a minor career of being a provocateur (his major career is as a writer, and no amount of argumentative antics really seems able to undercut that, thankfully), an admission of Full Scale Almond Love is, perhaps, to situate oneself on one side of a debate or divide. I’m not just talking about the hyper-conservative Right, whom Almond regularly takes on with both scathing and hilarious results—even many people in the literary world have mixed feelings about him. Criticisms include being overly self-promotional—right here on TNB he was once called a “brand,” in the negative sense—though in my opinion, those who dismiss Almond’s work on this basis are not really paying attention. If anything, his “crime” was being ahead of his time: almost any writer participating in web-culture, sending out mass emails, debating an idea in a comments section, or launching a Facebook fan page, could now be accused of the same libel. So although views may differ about the role writers should have in marketing their own work, in this era of low-emissions book tours and tell-enough-to-make-us-wince confessional memoirs, I’ve come to think of Steve Almond as a fairly restrained guy, actually. He’s also someone who lives a life about way more than hype, and has put his money—literally—where his mouth is. So here’s some truth: Steve Almond has a pretty big mouth. Here’s some more: he’s also far more driven by his own principles and an obsessive-if-idiosyncratic love of Art than by the pursuit of money or conventional success. For these reasons, as well as his raucously diverse publishing career and the fact that I’ve long found him one of the most emotionally compelling short fiction writers working today, I was excited to pick his brain for this column . . .
TNB: You’re a publishing connoisseur—basically, if there’s a way to put a book out, you’ve done it. You’ve worked with prestigious, literary trade houses like Grove and Algonquin, and even with the biggest of the corporates, Random House, for your recent nonfiction book, Rock & Roll Will Save Your Life. Lately, though, you’ve put out a couple of self-published titles, and your most recent story collection, God Bless America, is out from Lookout Books, which is a university publisher, right? Your publishing career is almost like a long-term study on Publishing in America—so much so that, although this column usually focuses on industry professionals rather than authors, I couldn’t resist bringing you in. What, in your experience, are the core differences in “types” of publishing? What’s the real deal on the various publishing options and experiences, from an author’s perspective?
SA: “Connoisseur” is charitable. My career is basically an ongoing car crash. But it’s an instructive car crash. I’ve finally admitted, after ten years of sort of squinting at it, that partnering up with a corporation is an unnatural thing for a creative writer to do. There’s an inherent conflict in motives. This became super obvious in my dealings with Random House. They wanted me to write bestsellers and I, um, failed. Whatever merit my books had as literary artifacts, they were a bust as commodities. It was a humbling and humiliating experience. But it did force me me step back and ask: What do I really want in a publishing experience? The answer was perfectly clear. I want to find an editor who will push me to do my best work. I don’t want a big advance or a fancy lunch at a New York City bistro. I’m done dreaming that particular American dream.
So my recent projects are really just about finding more organic, personal ways to put books into the world. I signed on with Lookout, which is a tiny press, because my editor, Ben George, was clearly going to kick my ass to make the stories better. My own experience suggests that writers tend to be happier with smaller presses. There’s more attention given to their work — by which I really mean the literary merit of that work – and less to its commercial prospects.
But, see, that’s just me. I’m not suggesting that the young writers out there are fools to seek the imprimatur of a major New York house. If that’s what motivates them to do their best work, they should aim for that. In the end, everyone who publishes literary fiction and non-fiction is doing the work of angels and fools. There’s no one who’s in it for the dough. So my point isn’t to bash the corporate presses. My point is that writers should spend as much of their time and energy as they can stand worrying about the one thing they can control (if imperfectly) which is their work. Because that’s the real struggle, and the real accomplishment: to write a great book. The rest is gravy.
TNB: How did you decide which book to publish in which way, and if you could go back—knowing and understanding your larger body of work better than you did, say, when My Life in Heavy Metal first came out, would you mix and match the books differently at all?
SA: Yeah, I made some mistakes. But they were all mistakes I’d probably make again. For instance, five years ago, I sent a bunch of editors two chapters of what I intended as a short appreciation of Kurt Vonnegut. Random House wanted a different book – a collection of essays. My gut told me that I should stick with Vonnegut. But I went with the money. It was a dumb move. Your gut always knows the right answer. That’s the lesson. But in terms of regrets, the major ones have to do with my own work ethic, and impatience. I don’t look back at my career and say, ‘Gee, that was a dumb deal.’ I say, ‘Maybe you should have slowed down and spent five years writing a novel, you numbskull.’
TNB: Most writers, historically, assumed that their writing careers were meant to follow a certain linear trajectory: publish short stories in reputable magazines, then get an agent, try to sell a book to the trade houses, and if that doesn’t pan out maybe try to win a university press contest—finally, if all else fails, submit to the indies. In the past twenty years, there have been small, steady shifts in that essential system, but suddenly now, in the past five years, the shifting has accelerated so greatly as to be extremely disconcerting to many people in the trade. Now, although some young writers are still playing it by the books, as you mentioned, you do have others bypassing those steps altogether and jumping straight into DIY book publishing. As a longstanding fighter in the trenches for independent publishing, I feel like I’m supposed to cheer about that, but it also gives me a lot of pause . . . I do believe in the editor/writer relationship, like you mention having with Ben. Many books, even in conventional publishing, come out before they’re fully edited/revised, so a DIY publishing culture can only exacerbate that. It seems to me like this movement has a lot of political upside, but perhaps less an aesthetic/artistic one. Others, though, might say that editors are full of shit to believe we should somehow be appointed “gatekeepers” of literary culture . . . what do you see as the balance?
SA: Another way of looking at it would be to consider the larger generational shift. When you and I were coming of age as writers, there was no such thing as self-publishing, or blogs, or Twitter. You had to go through filters (magazine editors, agents, book editors) before your voice could be registered in a public way. As a 20-year-old, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to write about my life for strangers, or to invent stories and expect others to read them. There just wasn’t the same sense of entitlement, which is the undercurrent of your question, I think.
And I do worry that my DIY books send the wrong message: Hey, don’t wait for The Man to publish your stuff. That’s bullshit. So whenever I read from them, I always stress that I didn’t put out my first book until I’d spent a decade writing short stories, and that young writers shouldn’t even mull over publishing until they’ve got something worth publishing, that they should focus on making decisions at the keyboard. Blah-blah-blah. You know my rap. I’m not sure how much it resonates.
The bottom line is that writing is a lonely, dogged, doubt-provoking pursuit. It runs against our cultural habits of thought and feeling. As a people, we’ve become far more impatient and inattentive and narcissistically needy. But literary art is almost never composed without tremendous patience and attention. And a good editor is essential to that end. History tends to sort out the phonies.
What I lament isn’t the potential deluge of not-very-considered books, so much as the decline in sustained reading as a leisure activity. I don’t mean the intellectual and emotional grazing of the Internet. I mean sitting down with a book, alone, in a quiet place, with no screens around, and engaging the imagination of another human. So my hidden agenda with the little DIY books is really for them to serve as a gateway drug to reading.
TNB: I’ve been a fan of yours since the 90s, before your first book even came out—I’m thinking of one of your early stories, “Valentino,” which we published in Other Voices magazine, which absolutely knocked me on my ass; I still talk about that story all the time. But one of the things I always think about your work is that it packs intense emotion in a way so much contemporary fiction shies away from doing, for fear of being branded “sentimental” perhaps. You seem to me fearless in this regard. Your writing is full of raw heart (and body), and yet there’s never the sense that you—as the writer—are in danger of “losing control” of the material or veering into the maudlin or manipulative. I’m not sure what my question is here, per se . . . I guess I wonder if you, as a reader and teacher, also find that young, post-postmodern writers too often eschew the strong emotional component of their work, and if you’ve made conscious decisions to put your own fiction out on a limb by refusing to be “subtle” or “restrained” or “polite” the way so much literary fiction can be—by refusing to hold the reader at arm’s length from the characters’ hearts and loins and guts. Is this something you do volitionally, and as a younger writer did you know you were doing it?
SA: What happened, really, is that I just got tired of trying to be a “serious young writer,” which I wasn’t very good at anyway. So I allowed a more natural voice to emerge, and – as happens when you grow up in a family where deep emotions are suppressed – I found this voice wanted (or more likely needed) to speak in blunt emotional terms. I have great admiration for writers who are able to convey deep emotion with subtlety. And for writers who take a more cerebral approach. But the one thing I can do, or try to do, is to push my characters into emotional danger. In the end, I’m more concerned with feelings than ideas. Or maybe I should say that (to me) the most interesting ideas are feelings. What I see when I look at the world, and America in particular, is a culture that is terribly estranged from its own feelings, and therefore acting out in cruel and senseless ways. So my stories and essays are my little attempts to face up to the truth of what’s inside me, and to get other people to do the same thing. I’m comfortable with that mode of writing at this point. But I was terrified of the first few stories I wrote where I really let it rip. And so were most of my friends. But I’d rather err in the direction of sentiment than nihilism.
TNB: God Bless America is a stunning collection of short fiction. I have to say up front that, although I really love your political essays, I’m actually a little bit worried that this collection’s title and cover copy are going to make readers believe that they should only pick this collection up if they want to engage with Steve Almond, Political Theorist and Provocateur. But while I tend to pretty much agree with everything That Guy says, and get excited when I see a new essay up on The Rumpus by That Guy . . . I don’t feel that readers have to feel that way in order to love this book. I feel like there’s been this marketing trend lately—from Franzen’s Freedom to Francine Prose’s latest My New American Life—in which books of fiction purport to illuminate or expose the truths of contemporary America. But—at the risk of sounding apolitical—I think God Bless America does a lot more than address the foibles of the American Dream, you know? These stories have a great historical context in terms of how the United States of our age plays out in them, but I think of you more as a writer who—like Kundera, maybe—uses psychology as his primary setting or terrain. The Prague Spring has come and gone, but what The Unbearable Lightness of Being offers us isn’t a historical document, but something eternal, unchained to nation or time, and I feel similarly about your work. What are your thoughts about that? Do you think of yourself as an “American” writer or a “political” writer, and what do those labels mean? (I tend to think “political” is too narrowly defined, for example what constitutes a “political” book—to me, all truly smart, good fiction feels political—but I digress.)
SA: I am an American. And I do write about “politics.” So I can’t really argue if someone applies those labels. But my persistent aim – like any sane person – is to address morality. That’s our hang-up as a species. We’re aware of our poor behavior. And what fascinates me about America is that we’re this country with all this privilege, and these wonderful abstract values. And yet the way we behave – and allow our leaders to behave – is pathologically childish and destructive. The great mystery is why. It’s not because Americans are evil. That’s too easy. I see this disjunction arising from people who are living too far from their own internal lives, whose tears are, to an astonishing degree, disconnected from their causes for grief. The collection isn’t some concerted effort to diagnose the country. But I am writing about the moral displacement that most Americans suffer from, and about the loneliness that makes us so susceptible to the monetized distractions whirling around us.
TNB: You’re married and a father—a devoted family man with a smart, hot wife. So, uh . . . what’s with all the portrayals of Motherhood in your fiction as, essentially, the saddest, most humiliating and downtrodden human endeavor ever attempted, if you know what I mean? This isn’t actually a criticism—some of my very favorite stories of yours, from “Valentino” on, and including “The Darkness Together” in this latest collection, strongly feature mothers as prominent characters, and I find your handling of these women to be deft and haunting—I think I remarked to you recently that “Darkness” evoked a kind of dread for me on par with “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”—I thought it was a masterful piece. Along with “Hagar’s Sons,” it was probably my favorite story in God Bless America. Still, I notice that—in the world of Steve Almond fiction—mothers are often depicted as incredibly sad, isolated, broken human beings, struggling futilely to hold on to some vestige of dignity and beauty in the face of overwhelming obstacles of age and a bottomless loneliness. Sometimes they’re a little crazy to boot. I’d love to hear you talk about that a little bit. Rumor has it that your parents are psychoanalysts. What do you think, is Freud leaking into your fiction?
SA: My parents are psychoanalysts. No rumor there. But the reason there are so many unhappy moms in my work, I suspect, is because my mom was quite unhappy when we were growing up. And though she herself would deny this, my brothers and I, and our father, were incredibly disrespectful and dismissive of her. It’s something I’ve always felt awful about. Not that my mom is some passive pushover. She’s a tough customer, one of six women in her Yale Medical School class, which included several hundred men. She’s an accomplished analyst, the author of two acclaimed books, and, a fantastic grandmother. But the specter of her unhappiness clearly haunts my work. And she really was quite unhappy when we were young. She had three kids in two years, was trying to finish her residency, and live up to the domestic demands of the mid-Sixties. She’d never put it this way, but she just got a totally raw deal. And, of course, as my brothers and I grew older, we aimed a lot of our own abuse at her. Her great crime was that she was ready to forgive us anything. This is a lot of what men do, in my experience: the convert their fears and doubts into anger, then aim at the women closest to them. This is also why I work hard (though not always successfully) to make sure that Erin is happy. Because her happiness is the key to the entire family system.
TNB: You recently wrote the foreword for an anthology I co-edited, Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience. While God Bless America has less graphic sex in it than some of your earlier work, sexuality still plays a prominent role, and I love that this collection’s political undertones did nothing to chase your characters out of the bedroom, either physically or psychologically. You wrote a great essay awhile back about the role of sex in contemporary fiction—I’m particularly interested, here, in the idea some writers, editors and critics have that sex is a “trivial” subject, not “important” enough to stand alongside war or class or race as the fodder of Literature, capital L. Tell us why this is a fucked up belief?
SA: I don’t think any self-respecting editor or critic would try to dismiss sex as trivial. It’s composes far too much of our selfhood. The great con of the modern American marketing machine is to strip sex of its emotional and psychological importance. And I do think this process (what I call “pornification”) causes some folks to mistrust sex as a literary subject. That’s really just sad. Because human beings are never more themselves than when they’re having sex. We don’t just undress our bodies. All that lust and doubt and shame and hope – that’s the true subject. So it does make me sad when I feel authors eliding that part of their characters’ identity. And, I should add, I was equally sad when I read Nicholson Baker’s new book, House of Holes. It was very funny, and a real turn-on. But it wasn’t about sex as an emotionally dangerous experience. It was about the fantasy sex that porn already provides.
TNB: What does a writer who seems to have “done everything” do next? Are you working on a new book, and can you tell us anything about it?
SA: I’m working on a crappy novel. This is (for the record) my fourth crappy novel. It’s going … crappy. But the truth is, a career should be marked by failures. That’s how you get better, I guess. You try to do things you can’t do. That’s what I’m telling myself, anyway, as I crap out each new and disappointing sentence.