Steve Almond

8 June, 2012

By William H. Coles

Steve Almond Interview

Steve Almond is a former adjunct professor at Boston College who now teaches at Grubb Street, Annabel Island, Writers@Work, and Tin House. His most recent collection of short stories is God Bless America (Lookout Books, 2011), and his latest novel is Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life (Random House, 2010). He reviews books for the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times.

William H. Coles

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

Steve Almond

Let’s start big: I think stories are how people do different things. How they make sense of their experiences. How they give their experiences shape. How they get things off their chests. How they put their wishes and fears into the world so they’re understandable — and hopefully beautiful — to another person. Certainly they could be educational, but I don’t think the kinds of stories I’m interested in are directed toward any specific goal beyond the reader feeling more human than they did before. 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 things, but centrally they awaken people to their internal lives, allow people to experience sometimes uncontrollable unbearable difficult dangers, exalted feelings. The story gives the characters faces, puts them in danger, emotional or otherwise, and sees what happens.

William H. Coles

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

Steve Almond

 “Enlighten” is okay, but I think of stories as implicating the reader. You don’t just feel entertained or enlightened; you the reader feel implicated. When we read about Holden Caulfield, hopefully, almost inevitably, we’re 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 criminal in real life, reading about his internal life and his uncontrollable desire for Lolita — how does it make us feel? My attitude is that this is a creepy guy who 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.

William H. Coles

You seemed a little uncomfortable there with the word “entertained” as related to a story. Shouldn’t a story entertain?

Steve Almond

 Absolutely. I’m not uncomfortable with that at all. I’m saying that 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 do many different jobs in their lives. I’m interested in stories that entertain the reader, of course. In class I say no amount of fancy language will take the place of weak action. And to have action, you have to place characters in danger, push them into dangerous situations. You need to stick with them when it’s coming down all around them, and inside them. 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 — emotionally, psychologically, even morally involved by what I’m reading. I realize I’ve made the same mistakes, had the same desires, suffered the same fears as the characters.

William H. Coles

You mention reader engagement, and you say you maintain that engagement with action. Is it 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?

Steve Almond

 I’m not going to argue with Aristotle. Yes, of course, people understandably try to describe story, its forms. And if you hear any reluctance, it’s likely because it feels like such an instinctual part of our consciousness, 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 and should do, and what form it should take,” necessarily feels reductive. Because I could say, well, what about stories where the narrative jumps around? Do those have a beginning, a middle, and an end? Does that mean that stories in song, or stories in Symbolist poetry, don’t have beginnings, middles, and ends like narrative? Now, I’m a great fan of beginnings, middles, and ends, and not manipulating your chronology to confuse your reader unnecessarily. So I’m not an advocate of just going out and doing your thing, and there, that’s a story. A story has to take the reader somewhere emotionally, intellectually, and psychologically. You have to be a willing accomplice; your consciousness has to be willingly kidnapped by the story. But beyond that I don’t have a whole lot of rules. There are rules that hold true in most cases, such as beginning, middle, end, but aside from that, let it rip.

William H. Coles

 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’s meaning and enlightenment.

Steve Almond

 Yes.

William H. Coles

 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 do you separate essay, memoir, creative nonfiction, fiction? And is it necessary to do so?

Steve Almond

 They’re not all the same thing. 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 that has taken place, asserting that it took place (“nonfiction” it says, there on the spine), they’ve made a contract with the reader that this is a work of nonfiction. If you assert that something took place and you know it did not, then you’re making a different sort of work. It’s fiction. It’s a wonderful kind of work to do because you can design your own world for maximum impact. Implicate the reader in the deepest way. But you can’t say — or 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 only things that happened” and then knowingly mix things up because it’s more dramatic and exciting.

In my nonfiction books I put at the beginning a proviso: “Look, all of this happened many years ago; I do my best to try to recollect it.” If I changed some names, or if I’m actually constructing characters, I would concede to that. Or I’d say, if this was the case, “The events I’m describing are altered.” In other words, why not just take a minute at the outset to tell the reader, for instance, it’s a work of nonfiction but there are a few aspects changed. I feel strongly about memoirs where people make stuff up because it improves the story and don’t admit it to the reader. My solution for that in my writing is to say, “Well, gee, I wish this had happened,” and I’ll go off on a reverie. The reason Oprah picked the James Frey book A Million Little Pieces, and the reason it got published, is because it’s a searing story that involves prison and all these people — who turned out to be made-up characters. They came out of James Frey’s imagination. On the one hand, I don’t want to put Frey down for writing a book that people found compelling, but I do think it was dishonorable to make things up and call it nonfiction. 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 backswing with a baseball bat, hitting his lip, and his lip exploded with blood. I have a particular memory of that episode. When I later asked my brother, “Hey, do you remember that time?” he had a completely different memory. Who’s right? I don’t know. We don’t have a film. We don’t have 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?

William H. Coles

 Sure. You often say: tell the truth about things that matter to you most deeply.

Steve Almond

 The reason I’m comfortable teaching cross-genre is that the essential thing I’m trying to put across 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: avoiding nonessential words, not wasting the reader’s time. Basic rules that I feel apply no matter what kind of writing you do.

William H. Coles

 There is an overall author attitude that seems to relate to this — namely, the position of the author in the telling. Objective storytelling and writing versus subjective storytelling and writing. That would seem to cleave memoir from nonfiction — that in fiction, the quality seems to improve the more the author divorces him- or herself from the writing and moves 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?

Steve Almond

 It’s tough. Again I’m bristling at the idea that there are absolutes. Anything you write is subjective because you’re choosing what gets included in the story or not. Right? Even if it sounds objective, like 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?

William H. Coles

 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? I think the actions in the story generate emotions in the reader, not the author’s narrative descriptive telling. Tell them a good story in a lucid way.

Steve Almond

 Yes. But that has less to do so with the distinction between fiction and nonfiction and more with the fundamentals. Whichever voice is speaking to us readers in fiction or nonfiction, a close, very close, intimate point of view versus a distant third that hovers above like in Kurt Vonnegut, or Leo Tolstoy — those distinctions seem less important to me and to 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 shouldn’t waste their time. As you say, tell them a good story in a lucid way. Bring them the action, the emotional, psychological, and moral action-drama they want. That’s the big distinction I make between stuff that works and 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 came into the world out of J. D. Salinger’s 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, if it’s any good, is coming from your deepest preoccupations, obsessions, fears, regrets. It’s a fictional disguise for that. But it’s always coming from deep inside you if it’s any good. I don’t think it’s possible to write in a way that isn’t subjective.

William H. Coles

 That’s true. But isn’t there in classic fiction a 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 in memoir, is always present on the page. Whereas if you look at classical fiction — Jane Austen, the Brontës, C. S. Forester, Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky — the author doesn’t intrude. Jane Austen doesn’t come in with her personality.

Steve Almond

 Because she has the narrator to do that.

William H. Coles

 My point exactly. Austen is always there. The reader knows she’s there. But she’s objective in her creation in the sense that she’s consistent in her dedication to the purity of the narrative voice, and the character voices. Is this valuable thinking for a writer who wishes create more effective, more profound fictional stories? The author creates the narrator to guide the reader through the fictional world.

Steve Almond

 One characteristic of people’s earlier careers, including my writing, is that I didn’t think about creating a narrator — 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 encounter a text where the author and the narrator converge, it is usually a 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. I think there has been a tendency in recent years to jettison the narrator because we’re surrounded by art, movies, and TV shows where there isn’t any narrator. It’s just you seeing what you’re seeing. Maybe there’s a voice-over, but most of the time you are flying without a narrator, encountering what you encounter. That’s why it’s so difficult to do movies from books.

In books there is this entity of the narrator. 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, which results in a tendency to consciously or unconsciously ape the movies and TV and jettison the narrator, which results in a lot of people plunging into scenes without us really knowing where we are. We don’t have a camera to show us the room we’re in, the building we’re in; we can’t pull back to see the larger neighborhood. We 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 who tells everything you know. Not just, “‘Hey, what are you doing there?’ The boy had fallen down the well.” Versus, “The officer walked up and looked down the well and said ‘Hey, what are you doing down there?’” See what I mean? The narrator has been jettisoned.

William H. Coles

 Is the application of this discussion different in narrative description versus in-scene dramatic story development?

Steve Almond

 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 overlook or mistrust, or are scornful of, the pleasures of direct exposition. The most famous example I can think of is John Williams’s novel Stoner, which we looked at in class, where the first three paragraphs tell the story of that guy’s life. As you might read in an obit. John Williams is 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, he wasn’t a lover, an athlete, a musician, a star. He was one of the uncounted. 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 in a matter-of-fact way. Young writers are very mistrustful other than “Action! We’re in scene. It’s happening.” There’s these vivid details and observations, but 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.

William H. Coles

 Let me ask you about voice. You seem to respond strongly to interesting, innovative voices. Whether in essays, memoirs, and fiction, voice seems to be a pleasure for you when it’s well done. But to me, 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, when it comes to storytelling, do you think a dominant authorial voice degrades the quality?

Steve Almond

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

William H. Coles

 My opinion, obviously.

Steve Almond

 It seems to me there are many people writing wonderfully and many others still trying to figure it out. As for the question about voice, I think everybody responds to strong, vibrant voice — voices that appear to be radically subjective, fearless in their honesty, transgressive, daring, willing to tell ugly unpleasant hidden truths. We love it when language surprises us, sounds euphonious. 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 decide to listen; I’m already listening.

William H. Coles

 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-driven plot), what would you suggest to a writer trying to develop that? How do we bring innovative, effective characterization to our writing? How do we make the thoughts and emotions of the characters drive the plot?

Steve Almond

 First, you simply have to pay attention. The author has to give the narrator power to notice the right details. And the author must 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 James Joyce’s story “The Dead,” there’s this wrenching moment when he discovers his wife loves somebody else, and he changes. He’s paying attention. He’s trying to cope with that. 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 who’s 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 or recollection of your own experiences; and for essays, those of historical figures who are compelling to you. In my case, thinking about candy [for CandyFreak], but 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.

William H. Coles

 Let me ask you a little about conflict.

Steve Almond

 NO!

William H. Coles

 Well, DAMN YOU! [laughs] My question is that conflict seems so essential to develop a character and engage a reader, and yet 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?

Steve Almond

 I myself don’t always do it effectively. Most people, including writers, avoid conflict off the page. So they avoid it on the page. The best example on my mind right now is Matthew Clam’s Sam the Cat, where you’ve got a character deeply invested in being a ladies’ man. So you put them in danger — or worse, in conflict with themselves, which is the ultimate form of conflict. You can have an antagonist come in; there’s Iago, he gets Othello all jealous and enraged. 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 I find fascinating conflict that is not just external. Conflict of the self. In that Klam story, you have this ladies’ man whose whole identity is predicated on super masculinity. What do you do to this character to force him into conflict with himself? You give him a homosexual urge that will not go away. You destabilize the character. Of course people don’t like to be destabilized in their real life, so they resist doing it in their fiction. But that’s where the good stuff is: when the characters are knocked off balance and forced up against a version of themselves that’s terrifying.

William H. Coles

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

Steve Almond

 Let me amend that a little. What I was trying to say was that everyone has developed a sense of humor in order to cope with unhappiness, awkwardness, embarrassment, whatever. It’s less a matter of developing a humorous writing style and much more a matter of realizing that the way we deal with tragedy and awkward feelings off the page, which sometimes is to use humor, also works on the page. It’s instinctive within the writer rather than a tool to be pulled out of the writer’s toolbox.

William H. Coles

 Thanks for that. 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 to insert it that the writer can identify? Humor has a setup, some sort of reversal that stimulates a response. You yourself do that naturally. And you’re an excellent speaker because you’ve got that sense of what will be funny. Do you think writers should seek these opportunities, or just let them come? Or at least, what do you find true in your writing?

Steve Almond

 I’m aware. For instance, if something lousy or embarrassing happens to me, I’m ashamed and embarrassed about it right now, but I know that down the road I’ll write about it. I’m not trying to be funny. I am trying to be honest, and my sense of humor will naturally arise to tell the story. I’m not interested in the jokes that help me avoid pain. I’m interested in jokes that allow me to experience the experience within. Few people set out to be funny; I think people who are funny set out to be less unhappy. And the way they do it is with little bursts of forgiveness that take the form of jokes.

William H. Coles

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

Steve Almond

 In the Boston area, I teach at Grubb Street all the time. Three-hour seminars once a month. I do a lot of conferences. I teach down at Annabel 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 and ask, “Are you coming to this part of the world?”

William H. Coles

 Do you have reading recommendations?

Steve Almond

 I just read Jess Walter’s new novel, TKtitle. He’s a wonderful writer, and this novel is a perfect combination of page-turning action and deep psychological interiority. And my book This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey has a list of books I recommend.

William H. Coles

 Terrific. 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.

Steve Almond

 I’m glad. Thank you.



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