_________________________________________ oedipal monster baby, drooling fanatic,
_______________“[S]omething occurred to me as I sped through that dirty shroud of fog, something Vonnegut has been trying to explain to the rest of us for most of his life. And that is this: Despair is a form of hope. It is an acknowledgment of the distance between our selves and our appointed happiness. At certain moments, it is reason enough to live.”
You might think that interviewing STEVE ALMOND for One More Crank would be an exercise in redundancy
, but, in the short time I have known Steve, and despite his take-no-prisoners critiques of politicians and wags and his legendary whiplash wit, I’ve found him not only to be intimidatingly intelligent and talented but generous, vulnerable, and genuinely humble. The author of the New York Times
Steve has also written the 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 memoir Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.
Almond is a prominent figure in Boston's literary scene, participating in many events and promoting local independent booksellers. God Bless America
, from Lookout Press, is his most recent story collection.
In a starred review, Booklist
notes that Almond’s “hilarious musings seem to contain elements of both Hornby and David Sedaris, but he’s truly a character of his own idiosyncratic making.” Junot Diaz names him “one of our finest literary provocateurs…[h]is stories are without equal in their beautiful terrible honesty,” and Benjamin Percy states that "Steve Almond is one of our most prolific-fearless-political-hairy-intelligent-sexy-hilarious writers. He makes me shake my head with sadness one page, snort coffee out my nose the next. And he makes me care deeply about his characters, so many of them wrong in the head and right in the heart, down on their luck but clinging to the desperate hope that the next hand of cards will turn up flush." The New York Times
describes his work as “taunting, revealing, irreverent, and earnest,” decorously echoing Forward.com
’s characterization of the author as “pleasure-obsessed, self-deprecating, horny, hilarious and always dedicated to parsing the messy terrain of the human heart.” Rocker Aimee Mann pins him “as devout and divided as an altar boy” when it comes to music”—an observation that might be applied to many aspects of Almond’s worldview. I sometimes wonder if he knows just how much of a Romantic he is, with his pronounced powers of what Keats called Negative Capability, “that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” except, perhaps, the “without any irritable reaching” part, which is why he agreed to take time out of his daily writing schedule to get cranky with me:K: You’ve had an interesting relationship with New York publishing and once wrote that you have worked with editors “who behaved in ways that struck [you] as cruel.” You’re now with Lookout Books and have struck out on your own with a series of short, pithy booklets published by Harvard Book Store’s own book-making robot. In this way, as a solo writer, you've been able make the exact kind of books you want. What’s the downside of this devil’s bargain?
S: The downside is that you're all on your own. As in: all those people you once bitched about (your editor, your publisher, your bookseller, your distributor, etc.) are now YOU. You have to do everything. And that's incredibly awesome and liberating and all that, but it's also just a big fat hassle. I feel like a traveling salesman, schlepping my books around in a suitcase. And I have to ask people for money. Which is fair, because writers should get paid. But it still feels kind of weird and vulgar--like I'm betraying the artistic compact by dealing with filthy lucre. Also, I often hate myself, so in that sense, I'm often working for a total asshole.K: Your early career was as a journalist, and you worked for the Miami New Times. In 1991, when you were just a little shaver, you wrote “The Case from Hell,” a two-part article about the Nogues family and their fifteen-year-old daughter’s accusation of sexual molestation, as well as the resulting demonization of the mother by the prosecution. Two questions: 1) Surely, the Richard Porras who was married to the girl’s older sister and who took in the family’s minor children isn’t the same Richard “Spike” Porras who co-produced the Lord of the Rings trilogy and was your classmate at Gunn High School…? 2) I’m wondering if covering this story changed the direction of your writing…if it changed you in some way…
S: Okay, you are FREAKING ME OUT. Nobody ever asks me about my work at the New Times
. So you're clearly CIA. Fine. I never made the Rick Porras connection, but I'm pretty sure they're different people. As for “The Case from Hell,” I've thought about that family and that story for a long time. It's part of what pushed me out of journalism and into fiction. Because here's the really freaky thing: all the evidence gathered by the police suggested that Nogues, the stepdad, was innocent, that he hadn't messed with his stepdaughters. And I bought that story, as did most of the media down in Miami. But several years after I first wrote that story, a tape recording surfaced of the stepdad essentially coming on to one of his stepdaughters, and making reference to previous sexual contact. I was just floored. And it made me realize that human truth is almost impossible to divine. And that pretending to know the real story--which is journalism, if you boil away the romance--wasn't for me, at least the investigative sort. The point is: you can think you know what's happening inside people, or a relationship, or a family, and it's always more complicated. What I love about fiction is that it's not so much about getting at the truth as asking the right questions. The people who are ruining this country (and lots of others) are the ones who are most sure of themselves, who cling to a personal version of truth rather than admitting to the terror of the unknown in their hearts.
Rick Porras had great hair in high school. I wonder if he still has it.
(Note from interviewer: Other low-performing alumni of Henry M. Gunn High
School in Palo Alto, California, include Matt Flynn, drummer for the B-52s and Maroon 5; Stephan Jenkins, lead singer for Third Eye Blind; writers David Leavitt, Ann Packer, and George Packer; and Trip Adler, CEO and co-founder of the document-sharing website Scribd
.)K: In 2006, in protest of then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice being invited to Boston College (where you were an adjunct professor) to give the commencement address and accept an honorary degree, you wrote a resignation letter that was published in the Boston Globe. In it, you write that “many members of the faculty and student body already have voiced their objection to the invitation, arguing that Rice's actions as secretary of state are inconsistent with the broader humanistic values of the university and the Catholic and Jesuit traditions from which those values derive.” Given that the Jesuits enforced the Inquisition and, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, “made war on books and learning, religious and secular alike,” did you have the same qualms when you first took the position with Boston College?
S: No, I didn't. I wasn't even sure who the Jesuits were. I suspected they were a Sixties-era girl-group specializing in religious pop. But I also think that the Jesuits are like any group with a long history: they've got a lot to answer for. If I'd been less of a clod, I'd have cited the Jesuits' past in my resignation letter. But I wrote that thing in a spasm of disgust. It was just like: Really? Her? The woman who sits on the board of Exxon Mobil? And shops for shoes in New York while people are drowning in New Orleans? That's who your graduates should want to become? So I saw a chance to have my little say and I did, and the only reason I still hear about it is because we're got a country full of people with great values and lousy behaviors. I'm one of them.K: WTF with Marc Maron, the twice-weekly podcast, has hosted such notables as Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler, and Dana DeAramond, the Disney World street dancer turned porn star. I mention their names because they are three of the twenty-six appearances (I may be missing one or two) by women in the course of 282 regular episodes and nearly three years of the show—about 9.2%. Is this why you agreed to be a guest on WTF?
S: Totally. If you've read any of my unofficial biographers, you know that I try not to appear on podcasts that aren't heavily skewed toward the male audience. Because, I mean, women--who needs them. Am I right? Always bitching about the toilet seat and wanting to talk about their feelings
. It gets old. So I knew Maron wasn't some pussy-whipped pantywaist. My personal feeling is that we're all bigots. We're all sexist and racist and ageist and we really, really hate the poor and the ugly. You know what would be the most heretical thing of all to suggest? That Jesus Christ was ugly. I mean, just butt ugly. With horrible teeth and boils all over his chest and balding but doing the comb over. The Ugly Messiah. It's my next book, right after I finish the Nogues project.
But I'm not kidding about all of us being bigots. I'm not saying that as a cause for celebration. It's a human failing. But I just hate when people front about that stuff. We make judgments about people constantly, usually based on our own fears and doubts and prejudices. Nobody's enlightened. We all just manage our disappointment.K: We know that you’re a “Drooling Fanatic” for rock and roll. Describe for us your nightmare band.
S: I'm going to say Garlic Diaper. They're a jazz/death metal octet out of Akron, Ohio. They play long, loud, aggressively unmelodic suites about famous under-appreciated philosophers. The best thing about them is that they have NO WOMEN.K: You write a lot in your stories about being a lonely guy. There's a lot of self-lacerating groupie sex, for instance. What's your personal life like now?
S: Okay, this is weird. Because the OTHER band I was going to mention is named "Self-Lacerating Groupie Sex." But they're Swedish, so that doesn't count. So. My personal life. It's basically a cycle of getting angry at my children, nagging my wife into giving me groupie sex, then going on man dates with my dude neighbors, who are likewise afflicted. We eat onion rings and pity ourselves.K: Stephen King was once asked by an interviewer about what scares him, and he described a time when his daughter fell and cut her leg on a snow shovel—all that blood. What is the most frightened you have ever been?
S: I fell down a waterfall when I was nine or so and was lucky not to have cracked my head open. But I wasn't old enough to be truly terrified. This is sad, but I think it was the two weeks when I was sure (sure!) that I had testicular cancer. I wrote about it in Candyfreak
. I basically convinced myself that there was a lump where it shouldn't be, and I was dying. And it was totally hypochondriacal and crazy, but I was sure of it. But whenever I think about dying -- really facing it: not being alive -- I get scared shitless. The only thing that gets me out of this loop, in fact, is cutting one
of my children's legs with a snow shovel.K: Before you encouraged Cheryl Strayed to take over, you were the voice behind the "Dear Sugar" advice column on The Rumpus. If you and Cheryl Strayed had a love child, who would it be?
S: Well, Cheryl's part would be totally sugary, and my part would be pretty salty, so I'm going to say it would be a delicious love child. But also very
neurotic. As for gender, I never guess. Just as long as they have ten fingers and ten toes to munch on...
(Note: the interviewer fully expected the answer to reference Sugar Babies…)K: What is the worst piece of writing advice you ever received, and how did you know?
S: I can't recall a specific bad piece of advice, but in grad school, I was in a pretty terrible, destructive workshop. The instructor just did all the dumb stuff--played favorites, criticized other published writers, fostered competition between students, etc. It sucked at the time, but in retrospect it probably helped me avoid being an asshole in these particular ways.K: Thanks, Steve! Catch you on the flip side. Stay cranky!
S: Okay! Off to make lemonade with my sugar babies!
a drive-by conversation with benjamin "super crank" percy
photo by jennifer may
maybe it's the scowl...or the growl
What I wanted was to back BENJAMIN PERCY into a corner.
I wanted to pin him down, poke him around, see just how cranky he could be. Dangerous, I know, but we’re familiars, both raised in the backwoods of the West. We can set traps, skin rabbits, split kindling, shoot beer cans, and drink whiskey ditches with the best of ‘em—or at least I
can. But Ben wasn’t taking the bait. For all his bravado, he’s a pretty humble guy. He’s nothing if not disciplined and fanatical in his focus. Maybe that’s why he has come so far, so fast. Born in 1979, Ben was raised in the high desert of Central Oregon and went to private school in the resort community of Sunriver, which is, perhaps, where his bifurcation began. Archeology was his first passion, but while at Brown University, and at the urging of his (now) wife, Lisa, Ben turned his focus to writing. He earned his MFA from Southern Illinois University. He teaches in the MFA program at Iowa State University and in the low-res MFA program at Pacific University. He has also taught as guest faculty at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and regularly lectures at conferences and universities around the country. He is the author of two novels, Red Moon
(forthcoming from Grand Central/Hachette in 2013), and The Wilding
(Graywolf, 2010), as well as two books of short stories: Refresh, Refresh
(Graywolf, 2007) and The Language of Elk
(Carnegie Mellon, 2006). His fiction and nonfiction have been read on National Public Radio, performed at Symphony Space
, and published in some of the top literary magazines in the country, including Esquire, GQ, Men's Journal, Outside, Paris Review, Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, TIME,
and The Wall Street Journal
. His honors include the Whiting Award, the Plimpton Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and inclusion in Best American Short Stories
. His story, "Refresh, Refresh," was adapted into a graphic novel (co-authored by filmmaker James Ponsoldt and illustrated by Eisner-nominated artist Danica Novgorodoff) and published by First Second Books/Macmillan in 2009. Peter Straub calls Ben “one of our most accomplished young writers.” Brady Udall proclaims him “the best new writer to step into the spotlight in years.” Dan Chaon praises his stories as “big-hearted and drunk and dangerous,” and Ann Patchett sees for Ben “a long and brilliant career.” At thirty-three, Ben’s rise from “promising” has turned to“skyrocketing” as he makes his latest move into film. "I think I'm writing…with a mythic voice,” Ben has said. “My stories are about bigfoot and bearded ladies, horse ranches, marijuana colonies and elk-hunting resorts. And I'm writing about all these things with a salty, mystical voice I hope partners the material and the landscape."
Ben granted me a few minutes between the hours of his writing, teaching, touring, fathering…and his own interviews with master authors.K: First, tell us about your recent interview with John Irving (TIME, April 23). There was some talk of the two of you lifting weights together, taking target practice, maybe even engaging in a hair-suit/hirsute wrestling match. Did it make you cranky to have to trot out your supposed masculinity in exchange for an interview with Mr. Irving?
B: John Irving is one of my literary heroes, so it was beyond surreal to find myself alongside him--hefting large pieces of metal, grappling together on the mats, later bullshitting in the steam room as we worked out the kinks from our time in the gym. He was a true gentleman, even when he kicked my ass. I came away with a paralyzed shoulder and rug burn on my face. He turns seventy this year, but he has the energy and strength of somebody half his age.K: Your writing is often compared to that of Southern writers who grounded their stories in violence and the grotesque, including James Dickey and Harry Crews—authors whose work I admire. Both men cultivated personae of almost primitive machismo—hard drinking, hard living, physical toughness--and some would say you’re following in those footsteps. I’ve been thinking of Crews’ essay, “The Violence that Finds Us,” in which he writes about his own myth catching up with him when he’s knifed in a bar. How do you keep your public persona and your life as a writer separate?
B: I grew up in the woods. I tore around on dirt bikes, got into fist fights, received a .357 for my sixteenth birthday. I jump out of planes, hang-glide, camp in the backcountry, take on magazine assignments where I drive large trucks around in the mud. But I also have a pretty ordinary counterpoint to that wildness: a wife, two kids,
home repair. A lot of my life is spent reading stories to my daughter or tossing a baseball with my boy or reading the newspaper with my wife on a Sunday morning. That balance is important, keeps me grounded. And then every few weeks I go off and do something insane and return home happily as if I have lanced some boil to release my poisonous core. Nobody has tried to knife me yet. But if they do, I will eat their liver.K: As “the new master of the American grotesque,” have you ever had an idea for an article, short story, or novel that you really wanted to write but didn’t because you feared that it might be too graphic, vulgar, or exploitive?
B: Mostly I write whatever comes howling out of me, but every now and then my agent--always the first line of defense--will say, "Really, Percy? Let's rethink this." I think I've developed a pretty good radar for how far I can go, how close I can get to the edge of the abyss without falling into it.K: Every one of your characters (including the animals) in The Wilding is cranky as hell about one thing or another: war, marriage, pending extinction. PW called Justin a “masterwork of pitiable wretchedness.” Paul, the father/grandfather, is crotchety, at least, and at worst, he's a tyrant. Did you base his personality on anyone that you know?
B: As always, some things are true, some things are not. As a writer I'm like a crow gathering up all the shiny objects in the world and weaving them into a gruesome nest. So when I look at Justin or I look at Paul--or when I look at any of my characters--I see physical and emotional characteristics that belong to neighbors, friends, schoolmates, colleagues, family members. But it's never a complete portrait --I'm blending then heaping over the top a healthy serving of imagination.K: You write fiction, articles, and essays on craft, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you go full-on confessional. Has anyone ever asked you a question about your personal life that really chapped your ass—and what was it?
B: I'm a fiction writer. Magazines keep asking me to write nonfiction, and I do, but I prefer to spend my time making stuff up, playing with my imaginary friends. And you'll notice, if you're a Facebook friend or Twitter follower, that I never post anything about my family and only rarely (and safely) anything about my personal life. I like to keep those fences up, with a few exceptions. It's pretty hard to offend me. Whenever anybody asks a question I don't want to answer, I just give them a circular or digressive response. Like right now.K: Your life as a professional writer seems defined by a kind urgency, a balls-to-the-wall race toward critical and commercial success. You make of your everyday life—your plan to lose weight and get healthy, your vasectomy—fodder for the magazine mill. Booklist characterized The Wilding as “a bit overambitious,” which I’m guessing you took as a compliment. In a previous interview, addressing the authors you admire most (Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, Rick Bass, Richard Yates), you wrote, “’I'm going to get you,’" I whisper to myself as I follow their tracks in the mud.” My question: Where does that drive come from?
B: Hard to say. But I am obsessed. Writing is an obsession, a mania. I am Ahab chasing the white whale. I regularly spend eight to ten hours at the keyboard. I don't do this to win awards or sell copies at the bookstore, though I'm ofcourse thankful when this happens. I do it because I love the work, what some people would consider the drudgery of putting one word in front of another and building sentences. I'm not a lot of fun for this reason. I presently have no hobbies: I have too many stories to tell, too many books to read, and not enough time for any indulgences beyond coffee and whiskey.K: Red Moon, a “werewolf novel…made of equal parts supernatural thriller, love story and political allegory,” sold on proposal, picked up a film deal with The Gotham Group, and you’ve just delivered a 640-page draft to your publisher. Do you have a particular fear about critical response to the book that breaks you out in a three a.m. sweat?
B: No fear. I'm writing the same sort of sentences, building the same sorts of characters that you'll see in any of my "literary" fiction. Some people called The Wilding
a "literary thriller," and I guess you could say the same of Red Moon
. I've never been a fan of the fences people try to build around genre. You've got good writing and you've got bad writing. Doesn't matter if there's a ghost or a robot or a spy or a cowboy in it. Take a look at Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy or Michael Chabon or Ursula K. LeGuin or Justin Cronin--that's the kind of hybrid model to aspire to, with careful craftsmanship and an engine that demands you turn the page.K: There’s a wild rumor floating around that your editor encouraged you to add Karen’s narrative line to The Wilding in order to introduce a feminine presence into an otherwise very masculine story. Is gender balance something you worry about in your writing? Will there be female werewolves in Red Moon or only girls who fall badly in love with male monsters?
B: That's not true. My editor wanted me to make what was originally more a novella (or shnovel
) into a novel. So we brainstormed different ways to make this happen, one of which was to move it from first to third person. In doing so, I was able to open up the narrative and follow multiple points of view. Not only was the narrative made more muscular, but the themes were explored from myriad perspectives. In that initial revision, I built five different plot-lines that were later stripped down to three, among them Karen. Red Moon
is a global novel that takes place over several years and follows many, many characters -- but four of them are especially important. Two
of these are female -- and both of them bad-asses. The book is about infectious disease and terrorism, but it is also about identity. Claire is my heroine, the lead at the heart of all the intertwining plotlines. When people asked me early on about gender balance, my response is always, hey, I wrote the stories in The Language of Elk
when I was twenty-three, twenty-four. I wrote the stories in Refresh, Refresh
in the two years after that. I wrote The Wilding
in the two years after that. I'm now thirty-two, and with each book, you see the characters growing up (moving from adolescence to married with children), you see the plots and language grow more sophisticated, and you see a better range of not just young and old, but men and women, and that's because the more any writer lives, the more able he or she is to imagine other lives convincingly. K: What is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve been given, and how did you know?
B: I can't think of any specific piece of lousy advice, but I dealt with a number of instructors who beat the living shit out of me. Said they hated my writing, they hated my stories. And, yes, they used that word, hate. Admittedly, I was pretty awful when I first began taking workshops, and I don't think anybody ever thought, oh, he's going to make it. This never bothered me much. I knew I sucked. And their criticism didn't
discourage me so much as it pushed me to read and study more books so that I could get better. Over time, I've managed to achieve a certain level of non-suckiness through pure stubbornness, doggedness, which I think might be a more important characteristic in a writer than talent.K: About the corduroy vest….
B: Ahem, that would be a leather and canvas vest. And I think it goes perfectly with my zebra-print thong.K: Thanks for that, Ben. Stay cranky!
cranky people +
cranky questions =
ONE MORE CRANK
-interviews with an attitude-
of indiscreet provocation
in the batter's box--february 3, 2012
pam houston (82% true, 18% don't ask)
in the line-up
matthew dickman (maybe she'll moan a little)
dorianne laux (the what-have-we-done of it)
charles baxter (everything gives me grief)
jo ann beard (what would werner do?)
luis alberto urrea (just ask arizona)
susan orlean (a droll attitude toward catastrophe)
anthony doerr (strangler figs--i'm just sayin')
daniel orozco (there can be cruelty)
monique truong (food, sweat, & tears)
diana abu-jaber (the very reluctant bedouin)
jess walter ('like' is a strong word)
bonnie jo campbell (my mom would hate it)
david shields (unrepentant literary homerist)
shann ray (what's this thing i hear about forgiveness?)
andrew sean greer (how dare you?)
antonya nelson (nothing [is ever] right)
adam johnson (part irony, part pure dread)
brandon schrand (mayhem & misbehavior)
karen karbo (dance like the devil on your head)
dan chaon (night terrors, they're nice)
sam ligon (somebody needs a spanking here, and it's probably me)
ben percy (aka 'super crank'--the scowl, the growl)
claire davis (ms. darkness visible to you, bub)
robert wrigley (gothic-misanthrope-sublime)
buddy levy (don't make me drive your bus)
steve almond (oedipal monster baby)
alan heathcock (it's the hat)