Writing Toward Mercy: An Interview with Steve Almond
Currently living outside Boston, Steve Almond is the author of ten books, including God Bless America and two other collections of stories, a novel (co-written with Julia Baggott), three nonfiction books, and three self-published “DIY” books. His most recent nonfiction book, Candyfreak, was a New York Times bestseller and received a great deal of critical acclaim, including the American Library Association Alex Award. His short stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Playboy, Zoetrope, and a number of other publications, and have been included in such anthologies as Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize.
After speaking at SUNY Geneseo, Almond kindly agreed to an interview with Gandy Dancer.
GANDY DANCER: Much of your work employs humor to explore human limitations. Can you talk a bit about the comedic impulse and its value in fiction or nonfiction?
STEVE ALMOND: Yeah, people tend to think the comic impulse is this conscious decision to try to be funny. And I guess it can be. But I think of it as an unconscious impulse that arises from feeling states that are usually tragic in nature: shame, embarrassment, lust, guilt, rage. Jokes arise from our effort to contend with these feelings without being crushed by them. They’re a form of subversion, of radical speech: someone willing to say stuff that’s forbidden in polite company. All the great comics—from Shakespeare to Chaplin to Vonnegut to Louis C.K.—are really just trying to tell the truth without being crushed by these truths.
GD: Most of your replies in Letters from People Who Hate Me are quite funny. However, the letter you wrote to Ryan Donovan is instead stunningly poignant. Why did you choose to include this response in the collection? Was there a particular element in Donovan’s letter that elicited such a unique response?
SA: Well, I do a lot of joking around in that book, which is probably better than trying to engage people who are so full of rage. But in Ryan’s case, I sensed he was a young guy who probably hadn’t thought very carefully about the relationship between morality and politics. So I wanted to share a little bit about my family, and offer him a little history lesson. Ideally, I wanted to use these letters not just to generate laughs, but some serious thought about what it means to be a moral actor in the modern world.
GD: Though your characters come from a wide variety of backgrounds and demographics, the conversations between them always come across as very natural. How does your approach change when you’re writing dialogue for a character like Charlotte from “Tamalpais” as opposed to a character like Raúl from “Not Until You Say Yes”?
SA: The goal is just to capture how people really talk in the world. Most of my dialogue was really wooden when I was just getting started. But being a journalist for many years helped, because I had to listen to a lot of people talking and when you do that you realize how strange and beautiful human speech is, and how much everyone has their own verbal trademarks—the words they use, the rhythms of their speech, their various tics. It’s just about listening and paying attention.
GD: Many of the stories in God Bless America involve characters that are meeting for the first time. What does a narrative gain from newly introduced characters, as opposed to ones with a more established relationship?
SA: There’s a certain volatility, I guess. Also, in some ways it’s nice for the reader, because they’re also “meeting” the characters for the first time. So when you have two people meeting for the first time, their experience kind of mirrors the experience of the reader. But there are drawbacks, as well, because you don’t have a shared history to look back to, or reenact.
GD: Even though a dry sense of humor pervades many of your stories, you are never mean spirited towards your characters. In your non-fiction though, you don’t shy away from mocking yourself. What is it about the genre that allows you to open fire?
SA: I don’t believe writers should ever been mean to their characters. Even the most despicable character, after all, represents some hidden part of the writer herself. The idea is to write toward mercy, toward a greater understanding of why people screw up and hurt each other and themselves. In the case of non-fiction, I feel the same way. I never want to be writing out of a revenge motive. But I do find it liberating to look back at my own idiotic behavior and sort of take stock. I’m not trying to “open fire” on myself so much as figure out a way to convert my shame into forgiveness.
GD: How does your process in general differ when you’re writing a nonfiction piece as opposed to a fiction piece?
SA: Fiction often involves autobiographical material, but it’s also about imaginative invention. You get to design a world for maximum emotional and psychological impact. That’s not your job in non-fiction. In non-fiction, your job is to remember and recount and reflect. It’s a radically objective version of events that objectively took place. When I’m writing fiction, there’s a sense of liberation which can be terrifying (you mean anything can happen—yikes!) but is also super exciting. With non-fiction, you’re limited to telling what happened, though your fantasies and fears and misconceptions are a part of the story, as well.
GD: Near the end of Bad Poetry, you compel the reader, “Look back at your old poems and stories and rants. Figure out who were beneath all the hys- terical adverbs. (…) Then write about that. It’s a form of forgiveness, actually.” What was it like to revisit your old poems with a new perspective? Did any- thing about the process surprise you?
SA: It was embarrassing, mostly, to see how crappy these poems were. Especially because these weren’t poems I scrawled on some notebook at age sixteen. They were poems I wrote in my mid to late 30s, having already received an MFA. I mean: I should have known better. But I didn’t! I was just so full of my own bullshit. I just flogged the language and figured that would get me to the truth. But it only made me look like an idiot. Which is fine. That was the big lesson for me: sometimes you look like an idiot at the keyboard. Big whoop. I also realized that behind every failed poem there was usually some real experience that I wanted to write about, but wasn’t ready to face just yet.
GD: Speaking of Bad Poetry, what, in your opinion, can be gained by publishing DIY books that you can’t achieve by publishing in a more traditional way?
SA: The DIY thing is tricky. I do it because I have all these crazy ideas for little, idiosyncratic books that really don’t fit into what most publishers are trying to do. So rather than getting into some arranged marriage with a publisher, I just print them up myself. The technology makes that possible; it’s democratized the means of production when it comes to printing. The catch, obviously, is that you’re suddenly responsible for everything that a traditional publisher does for writers (editing, book design, printing, distribution, marketing).
GD: In your reading at SUNY Geneseo, you discussed the comedic impulse as a more forgiving way to deal with flaws or regrets, and in your writing you certainly employ humor in the way you handle your subject matter. Has there ever been a time where you haven’t been able to find anything funny about a topic?
SA: Actually, I don’t think there’s anything that isn’t potentially funny, because the comic impulse is more about sensibility than subject. It’s how you choose to look at our various species of human folly. That being said, there are plenty of topics that I don’t find funny, such as the moral decay of this country, our lazy embrace of convenience, etc. But for the most part, people don’t want to hear uncut righteous rage. It’s not inviting as a rhetorical posture. So I tend to try to find the absurd edges and press at those as a way in.