An Interview with Steve Almond

by William H. Coles


Steve Almond Interview June 8, 2012

William H. Coles

Steve Almond Interview

Steve Almond was adjunct Professor at Boston College and teaches at Grubb Street, Sanibel Island, Writers@ Work, and Tin House. His most recent collection of short stories is God Bless America (2011)and his latest novel is Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life (2010). He reviews books for The Boston Globe and The Los Angeles Times.

Alta, Utah
    Alta, Utah in June. 9500-11,000 feet.

I’m in Alta, Utah at the historic Alta Lodge to attend a Writers @ Work workshop conducted by Steve Almond. 

I’d like to thank you, Steve, for your willingness to talk to www.storyinliteraryfiction.com, a website devoted to providing resources for literary writers. 

WHC

What is your concept of story as it has developed throughout history?  How is story important to culture, and to individuals?  And how is story being used today as an educational resource, a learning resource.

SA

Okay.  Let’s start big.  I think stories are how people do different things.  How they make sense of their experience.  How they give their experience shape.  It’s how they get things off their chests.  It’s how they put their wishes and fears into the world so it’s understandable to another person . . . often times hopefully beautiful too.  Certainly it could be educational, but I don’t think the kind of stories I’m interested in are not directed towards any specific goal beyond [the reader] feeling more human than they did before they read it.  There might be lots of other things that stories are doing.  Teaching a lesson, making us excited, whiling away a few minutes while we’re bored and in need of a world to escape into.  The best stories do all of those thing, but the central thing stories do is the awaken people to their internal lives, they allow people to experience sometimes uncontrollable unbearable difficult dangers, exalted feelings, in the form of a story, puts those characters who have faces, puts them in danger, and see what happens when people are put in emotional dangers. That brings them along and makes them attach to a particular character or characters and their fates.

WHC

It enlightens the reader to the human condition.  Is that fair?

SA

To dress it up.  Let me say that enlighten is okay but I think of stories as implicating the reader.  You don’t just feel you’re entertained or enlightened, you [the reader] feel you’re implicated by it.  When we read about Holden Caulfield hopefully, almost inevitably, we’re all experiencing the part of ourselves that is heartbroken confused, mourning, outraged, adolescent.  That part of us doesn’t go away.  If you read a great book, even if it’s about a character like Humbert Humbert, who would be considered depraved, dangerous and criminalized in every day life, but reading about his internal life, and the uncontrollable desire he feels for Lolita,  does it make us feel?  My attitude is this is a creepy guy and he got what he deserved and I too have felt desires that are dangerous and wrong and I can’t control them and how nice it is, how liberating it is, how scary it is, how human it is, that someone has written a story that speaks to that in such a sustained and beautiful way.   

WHC

You seemed a little uncomfortable with the word entertainment as related to a a story.  Shouldn’t a story entertain?

I’m really interested in stories where I feel implicated.

SA

Absolutely.  I mean, I’m not uncomfortable with it at all.  What I’m saying is a good story does lots of different things.  It doesn’t do any one thing; you can’t reduce it.  Human beings have needed stories and have been using stories to find meaning and do all these different jobs in their lives.  What I’m interested in is stories that entertain the reader, of course.  You hear me in class saying no amount of fancy language will take the place of weak action.  And to have action, you have to place characters in danger, to push them into dangerous situations.  You need to stick with them when it’s coming down all around them . . . and inside them.  I agree with all of that.  To me that’s the hallmark of exciting stuff.  But I’m really interested in stories where I feel implicated [involved in a necessary way], where I feel emotionally, psychologically, even morally involved by what I’m reading.  I know that I’ve made the same mistakes, had the same desires, suffered the same fears as the characters. 

WHC

You mentioned it was important for a reader to be engaged in a story.  You mentioned Gardner’s fictional dream.  And you say you maintain that engagement with action.  Is it also valuable [for new writers] to maintain that engagement by considering the Aristotelian basics of storytelling?  Beginning, middle, end, et cetera.  The progression.  Are those important?

SA

I’m not going to argue with Aristotle.  Yes.  Of course.  I mean people understandably try to describe story, what are its forms.  And if you hear any reluctance, it’s that it feels like such an instinctual part of our consciousness that it’s serving so many different functions and it can happen in so many different ways that to say–okay here’s what storytelling is, should do, or what form it should take, inherently feels a little reductive.   Because I could say, well, what about stories where the narrative jumps around?  Does that have a beginning, a middle, and an end?  Does that mean that stories in song, stories in symbolist poetry don’t have beginnings, middles, and ends like narrative?  Now I’m a great fan of beginnings, middles and ends, not [kinking up] your chronology or confusing your reader unnecessarily; so I’m not an advocator of just going out and doing your thing . . . and that’s a story.  A story has to take the reader somewhere emotionally, intellectually, and psychologically.  You have to be a willing accomplice, you have to be willingly kidnapped; your consciousness has to be kidnapped by the story.  But beyond that I don’t have a whole lot of rules.  Beyond that, there are rules that hold true in most cases– beginning, middle, end, but aside from that, let it rip.

WHC

Fiction seems to present opportunities for storytelling when other forms do not. Fiction allows you to develop characters as needed to enhance story and meaning.  Plot is developed in ways that are useful for the story for meaning and enlightenment.

SA

Yes.

WHC

But you teach a course in which you combine fiction, memoir, and essay simultaneously.  Teaching writing in a number of different forms  seems competitive to teaching the specifics of fiction that develop special stories.  How in your mind to you separate–and is it necessary to separate–essay, memoir, creative nonfiction, fiction,

SA

Yeah.  They’re not the same thing.  Nonfiction, creative nonfiction–or whatever they call it–is a radically subjective version of events that objectively took place.  Anytime the author consciously represents an event has taken place to the reader asserting that this took place, (nonfiction, it says it there on the spine), they’ve made a contract with the reader that this is a work of nonfiction; if you assert something took place that you know did not take place, then you’re doing a different sort of work.  It’s the work of fiction.  It’s a wonderful kind of work to do because you can design your own world for the maximum impact.  Implicate the reader in the deepest way.   But you can’t say, at least I feel it is wrong to make a false contract with the reader when you say, [in] this work of nonfiction I tell you, everything happened, and then to knowingly mix things up because it’s more dramatic and exciting. 

In my nonfiction books I try to put  at the beginning a proviso that says “look, all of this happened many [years] ago; I do my best to try  to recollect it.  I changed some names, if you are actually constructing character, but if I did I would concede to that.  And I’d say, “But you know the events I’m describing are altered.”   In other words, why not just take the ten minutes that is required at the beginning of a book to tell the reader it’s a work of nonfiction but there are a few aspects [changed].  I feel strongly that there are these memoirs where people keep making stuff up because it makes the story better and not admitting to the reader that they’re making stuff up.    My solution for that in my writing is to say, “Well, gee, I wished this had happened, and I’ll go off on a reverie.  But it’s different to tell the reader I wished this had happened, versus this happened.  The reason Oprah picked the James Frey book [A Million Little Pieces] . . . [that is] the reason it got published is it was a searing story that involved prison and all these characters who wound up being made up.  They came out of James Frey’s imagination.  He’s a successful writer and people are held by that story.    But somehow the publishers of the Oprahs of the world would publish and accept it if it was nonfiction and has the feeling of reality.  On the one hand, I don’t want to get down of Frey for writing a book that people were compelled by, but I do think it was dishonorable to make things up and call it nonficiton.  It’s a radically subjective version of events that objectively took place.  When I was a kid, I remember hitting my older brother on a back swing with a baseball bat, hitting his lip, and his lip exploded with blood.  I have a particular memory of that episode.  When I told my brother, “Hey, do you remember that time?” he had a completely different view.  Who’s right?  I don’t know.  We don’t have a camera.  We don’t halve evidence. Probably it’s a mixture of our two [memories].  One thing we both agree on is that it took place.  And I can see the scar on his mouth.  You understand what I’m saying?

WHC

Sure.

Tell the truth about things that matter to you most deeply.

SA

That being said, the reason I’m comfortable teaching cross genre is that the essential thing I’m trying to teach students is so basic.  Tell the truth about things that matter to you most deeply.  You want to find a fictional disguise.  Do it.  You want to deal it straight out as a memoir?  Do it.  If you want to tell it in a postmodern essay . . . do that.  But the fundamental ingredient is a sort of radical candor and disclosure, and a kind of courage, I guess.   And there are other things: not using unessential words, not wasting the reader’s time.  Basic rules that I feel apply no matter what kind of writing you do.

WHC

There is an overall author attitude that seems to relate to this.  That is the position of the author in the telling.   The point about objective storytelling and writing  versus subjective story telling and writing.  That would seem to drop a blade between memoir and nonfiction that in fiction the quality seems to improve the more the author divorces him or herself from the writing and move to a broader view of the world, and a broader view of experiences to create plot and characters, rather than focusing on their own experiences totally.  Not that personal experiences can’t stimulate fiction.  Is it valuable for authors to recognize objective prose writing in fiction as opposed to subjective?

SA

It’s tough to  . . . again I’m bristling at the idea that there are absolutes because anything you write is subjective because you’re choosing what gets included and isn’t included in the story.  Right?  Even if it sounds objective and it has the voice of sound, verifiable truth, you’re choosing to include certain facts and exclude other ones.  That’s a big decision.   History texts are pretty subjective affairs.  What are you going to call history?  What matters? 

WHC

Isn’t the concept of the author creating stories and the narrator telling stories [valuable in fiction]?  Can’t the narrator become the entity that generates the emotions in a reader [telling the stories from his or her world with unique perceptions opinions, and observations]?   And the actions in the story generate emotions in the reader rather than the author through narrative descriptive telling. 

Tell them a good story in a lucid way.

SA

Yes.  But that doesn’t have to do so much with the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, that has to do with the fundamentals; whichever voice is speaking to us [readers], fiction, nonfiction, close, very close, intimate . . . point of view . . . versus a distant third that hovers above like Kurt Vonnegut, or Tolstoy, does; those distinctions seem less important to me and the reader than the quality of the voice the reader gets intuitively; the voice that’s talking to them is a truth-telling voice, and a voice that didn’t waste their time.  Tell them a good story in a lucid way.  Bring them the action, the emotional, psychological, and moral action-drama that they want.  That’s the big distinction I make between the stuff that works and the stuff that doesn’t.  If they could find, I think, texts where you can say this is a memoir but it’s written like a scientific treatise, and it’s also objective.   It’s also true on the fictional side; everything that is written is deeply autobiographical.  Holden Caulfield didn’t just come onto the world out of JD Salinger’s bulging [mind].  That character came from his imagination, his deepest preoccupations.  There isn’t some separate protocol from the deepest recesses of your mind and your heart called the imagination; it’s the heart of who you are.  Anything you dream up is coming from, if it’s any good, your deepest preoccupations, obsessions, fears, and regrets.  A fictional disguise for that.  But it’s always coming from deep inside you . . . if it’s any good.  So I don’t think it’s possible to write in a way that isn’t subjective.

WHC

That’s true.  But isn’t there in classic fiction certain dedication to  the consistency  of voice , be it the voice the narrator–a very important aspect of classical fiction, or the character voice?   The authorial voice, quite often dominant in contemporary literature, both in fiction and memoir, is always present on the page.   Whereas, if you look at classical fiction–Jane Austen, Brontes, Forester, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, the author doesn’t intrude . . .  Jane Austen doesn’t come in with her personality . . .

SA

She has the narrator do that.

WHC

My point exactly.  She’s always there.  The reader knows she’s there.  But she’s objective in her creation in the sense she consistent in her dedication to the purity of the narrative voice, and the character voices.  Is this valuable thinking for the writer [to create more effective, more profound fictional stories]?

The author creates the narrator to guide the reader through the fictional world.

SA

One characteristic of people’s earlier careers, including my writing . . . I just didn’t think about creating a narrator.  I didn’t think there was an independent entity known as the narrator.  I’m the author.  I’m telling the story.  Maybe it’s third person, maybe some character is telling it, and me, the author.  But no, there is actually a narrator!  Jane Austen wrote those novels, but the voice that tells those novels is Jane Austen’s narrator.  That voice is created to guide the reader through the fictional world.  The author creates the narrator.  

There has been a tendency in recent years to jettison the narrator.

When you get a text where the author and the narrator converge, it is usually a much more confusing text to read, because there isn’t a narrator recognizing  that the reader needs to be kept oriented, that the reader needs to know x, y, and z in order for the scene to be gratifying, emotionally satisfying, dramatically satisfying.  And I think there has been a tendency in recent years to jettison the narrator because  we’re surrounded by art, by movies, and TV shows, where there isn’t any narrator.  It’s just your seeing what you’re seeing.  Maybe there’s a voice-over but most of the time you are flying without a narrator, you are encountering what you encounter.  That s why it’s so difficult to do movies from books.  

There is this entity, this narrator [in books].  We’re used to being instinctively in tune with storytelling, but visual stories in movies and TV–the dominant media of our age–won’t work by the same rules.  So there’s a tendency in an effort to  consciously or unconsciously ape the movies and TV, to sort of jettison the narrator that results in a lot of people plunging into scenes without us really knowing where we are.  We don’t have a cameras to show us the room we’re in, the building we’re in; we can’t pull back the camera to see we’re in a larger neighborhood.  We don’t have all [those] things, you just have the words on the page.   So if you, the author, know where we are, that’s not enough.  You need to create a narrator that tells everything that you know.  Not just, “‘Hey, what are you doing there?’  The boy had fallen down the well.”  Instead of “The officer walked up and looked down the well and said ‘Hey, what are you doing down there?”  See what I mean?   Often the narrator is just jettisoned.

WHC

Is the application of this discussion changed when considering narrative description when compared to in-scene dramatic story  development?     

SA

A lot of people are reluctant to have their narrator set the scene.  They’ve been told in workshops, show don’t tell, get to the action, stay in scene, and they have overlooked or mistrusted, or have been scornful of the pleasures of direct exposition. The most famous example I can think of is the novel Stoner, which we looked at in class; that’s the story where the first three paragraphs tell the story of that guy’s life.  The kind you might read in an obit fashion.  And that’s John Williams saying, “Hey, reader, you’re just going to have to go with me, this is not a guy who had a big consequential life, he wasn’t a hero, he wasn’t a soldier, he wasn’t a famous politician in life, he wasn’t a lover, an athlete, a musician, he wasn’t a star; he was one of the uncounted.  And there was nothing sensational about him.  But he was still a human being, and here’s his story.  Pretty gutsy thing to do and there is a lot of pleasure in having an author who will tell us who we’re going to be reading about and what the circumstances of his life were  . . . very matter of fact.  Young writers are very mistrustful other than  “Action! We’re in scene.  It’s happening.”  There’s this vivid sense of details and observations.  Those don’t mean anything unless they’re located within a particular consciousness, and that consciousness is located in the larger world.  That’s what Jane Austen, Tolstoy and the writers of the nineteenth century were so good at–strong, independent narrators.

WHC

Let me ask you about voice.  You seem to respond very strongly to interesting, innovative voices.  And in writing essay, memoir and fiction in the class, voice seems to be a pleasure for you when it’s well done.  When a strong voice is authorial, as it often is in contemporary writing, there seems to be a danger of slipping into sentimentality–into the telling of emotions–rather than allowing emotions to emerge through actions.  In your sensibilities, do you think this writing the story in authorial storytelling [the authorial voice predominating] isn’t degrading the quality of storytelling?

SA

I don’t know about the degrading the quality of storytelling . . .

WHC

My opinion, obviously.

Everybody responds to strong, vibrant voice.

SA

It seems to me there are many people writing wonderfully and many others still trying to figure it out.  The question about voice.  I think everybody responds to strong, vibrant voice.  Voices that appear to be radically subjective, fearless in their honesty, willing to tell ugly unpleasant hidden truths, transgressive, daring.  We love when the language surprises us, sounds euphonious to us.  In other words, I think most people respond to the same pleasures in voice, in the sense that the person telling the story is not going to waste their time.  Tell them a story that has an emotional, psychological, moral payoff.    And doesn’t confuse them.  That’s the basics of what I’m reading for.  And if the voice satisfies those criteria, I don’t say I now decide to listen; I’m already listening. 

WHC

If you look at story, especially fictional story, as truly dependent on characterization, (I assume you agree that there is [such a thing as] a character-based plot where the character drives the plot) what would you suggest to a writer to develop characterization?  How do we effectively bring innovative characterization to our writing?  How do we bring the thoughts and emotions of the character’s to drive the plot?

SA

Well, there a couple of things.  One, you just have to pay attention.  The author has to give the power to the narrator to notice the right details.  The other thing that happens is the author has to force the narrator to push the characters into situations we avoid in real life.  Art is in part about pushing characters into precarious situations and then slowing down when the character is in the midst of it, overrun by the  [system].  In “The Dead,” the James Joyce story, there’s this wrenching moment when he discovers his wife loves somebody . . . he changes.  He’s paying attention.  He’s trying to cope with that.  And he looks out the window and the world intensifies, kind of electrifies.  So that’s what you’re trying to do.  You’re trying to find a character [alive enough] to get into some sort of trouble and see him through it, or at least not fail.  That’s the central thing.  For short stories.  For memoir, you have to do the job of memory, recollection, of experiences; and for essays, of historical figures who are compelling to you.  Or for me, thinking about candy [CandyFreak], but  not just candy, not just candy as a pleasure but also the function it served as an antidepressant.  In other words, your obsessions should lead you into as much trouble as your character’s would.    

WHC

Let me ask you a little about conflict . . .

SA

NO!

WHC

Well. DAMN YOU!  [smiling]  My question is that conflict seems so essential to develop a character . . . and engage a reader, and yet to intellectually to introduce conflict in a story on all levels, not just the plot level, seems impossible at times.  Can you give us hints as to how to get conflict into writing?

SA

Well, I don’t always do it effectively.  People [writers] avoid conflict off the page.   They don’t want to get into it.  So they avoid it on the page.   The best example that is on my mind is Sam the Cat [Matthew Klam] where you’ve got a character, a lady’s man, he’s deeply invested on being a ladies man.   So what do you do to that character is to put them in danger, or worse, in conflict with themselves–which is the ultimate form of conflict.   The sense of the antagonist coming in; there’s Iago, he get’s Othello all jealous and enraged, but to me, what’s fascinating is not just external conflict.   Anybody can introduce a villain and make conflict happen, and they should, I exhort them to.  A good villain is priceless, more precious than rubies.  But there’s also introducing the conflict of the self.  And that’s another big part of it.  In that Klam story, you have this ladies man who’s whole identity is predicated on  this super masculinity.  What do you do to a character to force him in conflict with himself?  You give him a homosexual urge that will not go away.  You destabilize that character as much as possible.  Of course people don’t like to be destabilized in their life, so they don’t like to do it in their fiction.  But that’s where the good stuff is, when the characters are knocked off balance, and force up against a version of themselves that’s terrifying.

WHC

You said something today about humor that I thought was very valuable. You said that  you can develop a humorous writing style . . .

SA

Let me amend that a little.   What I was trying to say was that everyone has a sense of humor.  Everybody has developed a sense of humor in order to cope with unhappiness, awkwardness, embarrassment . . . whatever it is.

WHC

Yes. 

SA

It’s not a matter of developing a humorous writing style.  It’s much more a matter of realizing that the way we deal with tragedy and awkward feelings off the page, which is sometimes to use humor, also works on the page.  That it’s instinctive within the writer rather that a tool to be pulled out for the writer’s toolbox.

WHC

Yes.  Perfect.  Thanks for answering the question.  I’ve had humorists say in interviews that you can’t dissect humor.  As soon as you try, the humor is lost.  That seems right.  Yet, when writing in revisions, aren’t there potential opportunities in the writing that the writer can identify.  Humor has a set up, some sort of reversal that stimulates a response.   You do that naturally.  You’re an excellent speaker because you’ve got that sense of what will be funny.   That touch, that ability.  There must be ways for writer’s to find opportunities.  Do you find that true in your writing?  Or do you just let it come?

SA

No.  I’m aware.  For instance, if something lousy or embarrassing happens to me, I know now I’m ashamed and embarrassed about it.  But I know down the road, I’ll write about it.  And I’m not trying to be funny.  But I am trying to be honest about it, and my sense of humor will naturally and inactively arise to tell the story.  I’m not interested in the jokes that are causing me to avoid the pain.   I’m interested in the jokes that are allowing me to experience the experience within.   I just don’t think you set out to funny.  I think people who are funny set out to be less unhappy.  And the way they do that is with little bursts of forgiveness that take the form of jokes.

WHC

If any of our readers would like to study with you, are there teaching opportunities they can take advantage of?

SA

Well, in the Boston area, I teach at Grubb Street all the time.  Three-hour seminars once a month.   Otherwise, they can email me and say “Are you coming to this part of the world?”  I do a lot of conferences.   I teach down at Sanibel Island,  Often at Tin House, a wonderful conference.   I try to keep a list on the website.  If they don’t find something, they are [welcome] to email me.

WHC

Are there recommendations for reading?

SA

I just read Jess Walter’s new novel, he’s a wonderful writer, and this novel I think is coming out soon, a  perfect combination of page-turning action and deep psychological interiority.  But I would link to my site in the Harvard bookstore that sells my book, This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey and that has a list of thirty books.This Won't Take But a Minute, Honey

WHC

Terrific.  I’d like to thank you very much for talking with storyinliteraryfiction.com.  It’s been a pleasure and I’ve learned a lot.  Congratulations on the excellence of your teaching and the excellence of your writing.  It’s inspirational.

SA

I’m glad. Thank you

 


Read other Interviews by William H. Coles


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