An Interview with Steve Almond
By Pitchaya Sudbanthad
Steve Almond used to be a journalist, but he decided to forfeit the chance to earn a living wage and became a fiction writer instead. His latest book, My Life in Heavy Metal, is a short story collection that will break you into pieces with tales that might just be all too familiar. His next book is tentatively titled Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America. It will be published by Algonquin in Spring 2004.
So people like to say, that Steve, he's always writing about ze sex, ze sex, ze sex. Do you mind that labeling? How much does that categorization miss the point of what you've written?
A:† I hate the labeling, but there's nothing I can do, except to be thankful for the folks who felt the heartbreak that lives beneath the sex in my work. Also, I mean, I am interested in sex. But not just as a physical experience, but as an emotional one. Thatís what all good erotic literature is doing: just telling the whole goddamn truth. I mean, 5000 years ago some gorgeous human wrote the Song of Songs, the sexiest piece of poetry on earth. All that person did was tell the truth -- about how it feels to desire, to touch and be touched, to taste and smell and hear and see all the ecstatic and terrible sensations of physical congress. It's all about laying your characters bare on the page -- honoring the tremendous bravery required to get naked with another person. Or people.
††† This entire culture's attitudes toward sex are stuck at about age thirteen. Anytime sex is attached to actual feeling -- and, God forbid, deep feeling -- people just freak. It hits too close to home. So we use sex to sell perfume or tennis shoes, whatever. In that sense, Iím delighted to be known as a sex writer, because I get to portray sex for what it truly is: an incredibly vulnerable human experience.
I always manage to get my heart broken. Maybe that's why I like the people in your stories. What are the qualifications one might need to become a character in a Steve Almond story?
A: But everyone gets their hearts broken. I donít even trust people who havenít had their hearts broken. Thatís what hearts are for, so far as I can tell. As to what a character needs, Iíd say a healthy libido certainly helps. Certain crucial emotional blind spots. A willingness to revel in the pleasures of physical congress, and to honor them. And, maybe most of all, an ability to identify and articulate oneís own bullshit. I need to love all my characters, and itís hard for me to love someone who canít see (and forgive) their own bullshit.
If you have a character that you can bring into life, who would it be? Describe him/her, and what happens next.
A: To be honest, Iíd like to bring Abraham Lincoln to life and just let him take a look at what America has become and hear what he has to say about it. I know this sounds sort of cheesy, but he was the one American who had what I call the ďmoral eloquenceĒ to cure the country of its greed and hatred. He was murdered for our sins.
Let's take a break here and look at the sun. It's getting hot this summer. Do you like the sun?
A: Iím from California, so me and the sun go way back. But it took moving to Boston for me to understand just how hard the sun rocks. Every spring, thereís this one day when the sun shines in earnest for the first time and I always take my shirt off and lie on my porch and just thank God that Iím alive. I donít, however, look at the sun. It makes you go blind, like masturbation.
Top three moments from your recent book tour. Tell us everything we'd want to hear.
A: Book tours are so incredibly unglamorous, particularly the way I kick it, which is without money, having to stay on peopleís couches and stuff. But I had a rocking time in Portland, where this hot woman asked me to sign a book for the guy she was with and what she wanted was for me to tell her guy to hurry up and fuck her already. That was cool. I was pretty drunk when I read in Portland, Maine, and the first thing I did when I got on-stage was spill wine on myself. That was pretty smooth. And then there was the orgy in Atlanta. But I promised the Dean of Students I wouldnít say anything about that.
You are in an elevator. The door opens and the President steps in. You look around; the Secret Service is nowhere in sight. What do you say to the guy?
A: Why do you hate poor people so much?
Can you really love a Republican?
A: Yeah. You can love anyone. Thatís what Christ did. The deal with Republicans is that you have to understand how much anger theyíre carrying around. They hate gay people, they hate women, they hate people of color, they hate poor people, and most of all, they hate themselves. A part of me is almost like: jeez, these people are so insecure and pissed off, why not just let them steal elections? But the left is going to have to realize what theyíre up against and start making some moral differentiations between themselves and the Republicans. One of these sissy candidates is going to have to have the guts to say: Bush hates poor people. Look at his tax plan. He hates them. Bush hates gays. Look at his judicial appointees. Bush hates environmentalists. Look at his record. But they wonít do it. Theyíre chicken-hearted.
You are working on a non-fiction book about candy. Mmmm....candy. Tell us more about this project.
A: Next one is called "Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America." It's a non-fiction book about the history of candy in this country, and especially these crazy little niche candybars that exists on the margins of the mass market. The Twin Bing. The Idaho Spud. The Goo Goo Cluster. I wrote the book because Iím a complete candyfreak. I eat about half a pound of candy on an average day, sometimes three times that. And Iím constantly thinking about (read: obsessing over) candy. I basically wrote the book because I wanted to go to a bunch of factories and watch candy bars being mass produced. Thatís like porno to me. Anyway, the book comes out in Spring. Itís completely nuts.
But the novel. Is it on its way? What do you think about publishers' attitudes toward short stories? What do you think about readers' attitudes toward short stories?
A: Thereís an incredible bias against short stories amongst the New York publishing bigshots, because novels stand a better chance of being big hits. Thatís a well-known idiocy to any short story writer. There are also plenty of readers who donít really trust short stories, or get them, who only want novels. I myself have written two novels, both of them awful, and will soon set about writing a third one (likely to also be awful).
What's a lifelong fear of yours?
A: Death. Since age 5: terrified of death.
You have nice hair. Do you spend much time on it?
A: No. Just the standard wash every two weeks. You should have seen when I had a mullet. No lie. A very sad sight.
Candy question: Almond Joy or M&M's Almonds?
A: Actually, Hersheyís bar with almonds. Sensational bar. Roasted almonds have that smoky tang that accents chocolate so well. I also happen to be coconut-phobic. My hope is to start posting some excerpts from Candyfreak on www.stevenalmond.com soon.