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 bestseller Candyfreak, 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!