“Renaissance Writer” An Interview with Steve Almond

by Dallas Woodburn

Steve Almond is a Renaissance Man of the unflinchingly honest written word. He broke into the literary scene in 2002 with his short story collection, My Life in Heavy Metal, which provoked strong reactions from reviewers due to its unapologetic sexual content. Next came a nonfiction book, Candyfreak, which Almond describes as a “diatribe about candy,” specifically the emotional presence candy plays in people’s lives. Almond has since enjoyed success in the novel and essay forms, and his short fiction is regularly featured in reputable literary journals including Tin House. Through his diverse writing forms, Almond continues to build his reputation as a writer unafraid of exposing the vulnerabilities of society – or of himself. His latest work, a collection of autobiographical essays titled (Not That You Asked) explores topics including sexual failure, numerous varieties of shame, and his adoration for Kurt Vonnegut. Kirkus Reviews raved: “Biting humor, honesty, smarts and heart: Vonnegut himself would have been proud.”

Credits: Two story collections, My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow; a nonfiction book, Candyfreak; a collection of essays, (Not That You Asked); and a novel, Which Brings Me to You, co-authored with Julianna Baggot.

Why: Well, I was always a big-mouth. You’ve got to have a thing for words in the first place. I wrote for newspapers in high school and college. But it took me a long time – til I was practically 30 – to start writing short stories. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of self-belief to do that sort of lonely work. It was pretty clear early on, though, that I was going to be working with words.

Finding inspiration: I write about the stuff that obsesses me, whether it’s a lost candy bar or a failed love affair. Writing is hard enough for me – having to make all those decisions in isolation – that I need to be obsessed to keep going.

Writing schedule: I try to write in the mornings, when I’m freshest. Also, I feel guilty if I don’t write early in the day. That said, it takes me a long time to settle in and I’m easily distracted. That’s the big challenge: to keep your butt in the chair. Whatever you do to keep yourself there, that’s your process.

Dealing with rejection: I sit around being bitter and dejected and make the lives of those around me awful. Then I suck it up and get back to work. You have to be stubborn. And, like I say, you have to be obsessed to keep going. It’s a matter of persistence much more than talent.

Finding your voice: I just try to write as naturally as I can, in the same way that I speak, with the same tendency to goof around, even when it’s a serious subject. You find your voice by not putting on airs, by not trying to have a style, but by speaking honestly about the things that matter to you most deeply. No tricks. No narcissism. Keep the focus on telling the emotional truth.

Crossing genres: I’m working on a nonfiction book at the moment, but hope to return to fiction as soon as I can – short short stories, I hope. And I’d like to get back at a novel. I really just hope to keep writing work that doesn’t make me cringe, that feels ambitious rather than reiterative. A career in writing – or any other art – is defined by figuring out what you can’t do, then doing it.

Advice: Tell the truth about the stuff that matters to you most deeply. Love your characters enough to see them through their trouble. I do believe there’s a relationship between art and morality, that the best art is trying to get human beings to behave with more compassion and, as Vonnegut always said, we’re sunk if we don’t reconnect to acts of imagination. So please, turn off the TV. Throw it away, even. Find reading now, before it’s too late. You’ll fail otherwise.

One thought on ““Renaissance Writer” An Interview with Steve Almond

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s