Steve Almond

Steve AlmondSteve Almond grew up in California and received a BA at Wesleyan and an MFA at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has been a reporter in El Paso and Miami. His short stories have appeared in Zoetrope, Tin House, Ploughshares, and Playboy, among other publications. Almond also teaches at Boston College and Emerson College and is a contributor on WBUR, a NPR radio station. His short story collection, My Life in Heavy Metal, is his first published book. Steve Almond lives in Somerville, Massachusetts and may or may not be working on his novel. His web site is http://www.stevenalmond.com/

Robert Birnbaum:
I am only familiar with your recently published collection of stories.
I know nothing about you. Tell me some things about yourself.

Steve Almond: Let’s see.
I grew up in California. The most relevant thing is that both my
parents are psychiatrists who are now psychoanalysts. And, a couple
generations back everybody was a rabbi.

RB: I guess you disappointed your family.

SA: (laughs) Yeah. In a grander historical
way, I’m sure I have. So, for instance, a lot of what people
make a to-do about in these stories—which is a fraction of
what I have written, but here it is, it’s the book that’s
in the world, so it’s what people ask about—is that
there is so much sexual content in them.

RB: Oh?

SA: Yeah right, it hadn’t even occurred
to you. Of course, for me, I am fairly unabashed about that stuff.
My parents certainly spend their lives listening to people’s
deepest darkest thoughts, fears and fantasies. So it’s not
like, “Oh my gracious what is our son doing writing about
all this naughty stuff in public?”

RB: I was in a spinning class today and the
instructor— as we were being instructed to keep our heart
rates elevated to about 85%—said to me, “Robert, you’ve
had a lot of coffee, I guess you can get it up now.” I responded
with false incredulity, “What?” And there was some tittering
and she says, “I should have known there would be some dirty
minds in here.” I am still struck by the use of the word ‘dirty’
in regard to sex…

SA: Right. Well, this is a culture that is
incredibly--it’s not puritanical; it’s just very neurotic
and conflicted about sexuality. It’s fine if you want to use
sexuality to sell products. But if you really want to talk about
the really interesting part of sexuality— which is the emotional
vulnerability of it, how much is at stake, how desperate and embarrassed
people are, how ecstatic and out of control—that is off limits.
In a social context, where a woman is playing on your male vanity,
that’s off limits or is in some way poking fun at it, that’s
considered naughty and quite scandalous.

RB: I came to read your stories through another
writer [Patricia Henley] and she said something like, "At first I thought
these were just stories about a young guy trying to get laid, But
they are a lot more than that." Apparently, the reaction you
are getting is about the sexual stuff?

It’s fine if you want to use sexuality to sell products. But if
you really want to talk about the really interesting part
of sexuality--which is the emotional vulnerability of it,
how much is at stake, how desperate and embarrassed people
are, how ecstatic and out of control--that is off limits.

SA: This is what I mean about the culture
being very neurotic and conflicted about sexuality—to me like,
who cares? That’s just the furniture of the story. What people
are doing in the book, men and women, is desperately seeking a path
from loneliness and desperation, and so they throw their bodies
before their hearts. But everybody does that and it’s interesting
to write about and it’s an interesting thing to think about—
because everybody does it. And if they don’t do it in fact,
they do it in fantasy. Constantly. People walk around with —I
guess I am just repeating what Freud initially pointed out—people
are driven by very sexual and aggressive urges. Constantly. And
constantly working to keep them in check. People are increasingly
lathered up in this culture by advertising. Everything has gone
blue. Cosmopolitan is now what Playboy was twenty or thirty years
ago. Everything has gone bluer and bluer and bluer. But all that
stuff isn’t really addressing all the feelings that live behind
people’s desires. Which is really for contact, for communion,
for some kind of succor in the biblical sense. They want comfort.
So when people focus on the sexual—even some of the copy my
own publisher puts out about it—it’s just crap. I know
what’s in the stories. I know what I put in to them. And I’m
glad these stories are in a book, and I think they are fucking fabulous.
I love ‘em. I worked my ass off on ‘em. When people
react to them in a really prurient way and say, "Well, Jesus
they are about getting laid." Or about sexuality. I say, "Look,
what am I supposed to do? I tried to go deeper than that. And somebody
wasn’t ready to go there with me." That happens all the
time in popular culture.

RB: These stories have been previously published.

SA: Yes, they were all published somewhere
[else]. A couple in Playboy and Ploughshares and
Tin House and New England Review. Good literary
journals. I was a reporter for about seven years. I went from daily
journalism to weekly journalism. And then I wanted to write more
about people’s feelings. That’s really what I am getting
at. These are really very emotional stories, and when people reduce
them to being about physical stuff, they are totally missing it.
I tried so hard to really break people’s hearts a little bit.
Or at least affect them in the work. People are desperate for that.
That’s what art is supposed to do. I left journalism even
though I enjoyed working at a weekly paper because I wanted to write
fiction. I read beautiful short stories and novels, and like most
writers I said, “That’s what I want to do.” I
want to create a world and get people into that world, and move
them. So I went to graduate school for a couple of years and I came
up here, four of five years ago, to Boston to teach and write. I
have been steadily publishing stories for five or six years. Because
of journalism I write a lot and because of journalism I want my
stuff out in the world. So I have published seventy stories, something
like that. Most of them in pretty good magazines and this collection
represents a fraction of what I am up to. Many of the stories do
deal unflinchingly with sexuality. But of course, that’s not
how I see myself as a writer. I went through the experience of having
to write the other one hundred and fifty stories, most of which,
their furniture isn’t asses and cocks and pussies and the
rest of it.

RB: There are two pieces that I hesitate
to call short stories: “Moscow” and “Pornography”
are very short pieces…

SA: They are short shorts, yeah…

RB: They represented a departure from the
other stories. So you’ve written many stories. How did you
decide which stories to put in this collection of ten or eleven
stories?

Steve AlmondSA:
I want to say something about those two stories, especially “Pornography.”
Two or three years ago, fiction wasn’t doing it for me, and
I was stuck. And also felt like I wanted to write in a way that
was even more intense and immediate. So I wrote poetry for a year
and “Pornography” is a long line poem in the style of
CK Williams, who I worship. But I’m not big on definitions
for stories. I wanted to have a collection that had a five-page
story and a one-page story and a thirty page story (“How to
Love a Republican”) because that’s what I like when
I read a collection. What happened was the people at Grove bought
the collection that I sent down to them. It was the second editor
who looked at it and another editor had rejected an earlier version.
You know how chancy this stuff is, and the way it really happened
is annoyingly New Yorky. But, I was overjoyed. A sub editor at Playboy
had read my work, sent my stories over to a friend, Brendan Cahill,
at Grove. That’s how the stories got to Brendan.

RB: No agent?

SA: I had an agent, but in terms of how the
book got sold, the agent tried and failed because the collection
wasn’t as good earlier and a lot of the work that got Brendan’s
attention was work that I had just finished recently. The long and
the short of it is that Brendan said, “Look, we’ll take
the collection as is, but would you consider removing some of the
stories and sending us some more nominees?”

RB: What does "as is" mean?

SA: Well, it meant I sent eleven stories
that my agent and I had put together. He said, “These are
great. That’s fine. We’ll buy it as is but I would love
to weed out a couple of, what I consider, the weaker stories.”
And I said, “Sure, any help you can give me, great.”
And so, in fact, a whole bunch of them were late additions. “Pornography”
and “Moscow,” among them. When you are a first-time
author, especially putting out a collection of short stories, you
are basically dirt and you don’t have a lot of power. Until
you become—it’s truly galling but it’s the reality
that I have realized—a brand and have a following, you are
sunk. It’s a sad thing to admit, but…

RB: You are pointing out the well-worn story
of the endless struggles of young artists.

SA: To me it’s distressing because
I don’t want to have to go out and pimp my book all over the
place. I don’t want to spend all my time doing self-promotion.
I want to be working on the next fucking project.
But it became apparent to me very quickly that unless I sold a lot
of units that was really the way that my publisher was judging me.
They didn’t look at the book and say "Wow, the language
in these stories is really scalding. That image or this that and
the other." It’s not that it didn’t matter to them—it
was important—but it was clear that in terms of the future
of my career and how much shit I was going to have to eat, selling
a lot of books was the only way really to get people to notice.

RB: Let’s back up. Your parents are
psychoanalysts. I take it that means Freudian?

SA: Yes, the couch, and the whole deal.

RB: You grew up in California with rabbinical
scholars in your lineage and where did you go as an undergraduate?

SA: Wesleyan in Connecticut. And then I spent
seven years in El Paso and Miami primarily, reporting. I was an
investigative reporter and a reviewer. [I was a] Terrible investigative
reporter but I was dogged. Finally, I worked up the stones to try
fiction and so I went to graduate school in North Carolina at Greensboro—
basically they offered me money. I high-tailed it out of the South
as quick as I could. I wanted to get up to a northeastern city.
I wasn’t ready…I have students in their twenties at
BC and at Grub Street, various places I teach, and I am astonished
and a little worried on their behalf that at twenty, twenty-one,
even twenty-five they are seriously intent on writing for a living,
on becoming an artist. That wouldn’t have occurred to me until
I was in my later twenties. I’m thirty-six now. By which I
mean, that I think it takes a fair amount of bravery and imagination
and a sense of self-belief.

RB: Assuming they know what they are in for.
Writing programs are busting at the seams…

In my view of things this is the era in which artists have to step up and play the role that traditionally the church did and religion did in terms of awakening people’s compassion and their mercy.

SA: I mean the act of writing, sitting down
and writing requires a certain kind of self-belief. What I have
to say, my imagination combined with my memories and my evocations
and associations are important enough that ultimately somebody should
read them. That act of creation presupposes a great deal of self-belief
and I didn’t have that. I also needed, in various ways, to
have the ego support that having a title and card and an office
and a bunch of colleagues. When you move off into the world of trying
to be an artist or an auteur you don’t have bubkas.
You have your tools and your ability to articulate and that’s
it. And for me, even though my family has been wonderful and supportive
blah blah blah, the family standards are pretty high. My folks met
at Yale Medical School. They were insanely ambitious and remain
insanely ambitious. My brothers, the same thing. I really needed
the business card and the by line in the paper. I write about some
of this in My Life in Heavy Metal. That quick thrill, that
jolt of “There are all my pretty words.” The act of
sitting and cloistering yourself, to work on whatever it is, never
really knowing whether it’s going to come out or not or whether
anybody will read it is a real leap of faith.

RB: It seems that you are being generous
about what brings your students to this path. Why isn’t it
naivete? They are decent readers, middle class, they dabble, and
it appears that most people in writing programs don’t write
or write for long.

SA: I agree that lot of people will take
their own course and they’ll fade out if that’s what
they are destined to do, if they can’t stand the loneliness
and the intensity and the doubt and everything else, then they’ll
fade out. But I teach and I very much try to weed out my classes
in a way that says, “Look, I’m in this for life. This
is what I do. It’s the most important ecstatic thing that
you could possibly do with your life. And if you don’t believe
that, and you are just in here to dabble, then get the fuck out,
‘cuz I’m gonna make your life miserable for the next
four months and you are going to make my life miserable because
I am going to be disappointed in you. And you are going to know
that I am disappointed in you and in some fucked-up way, I am your
daddy and that’s gonna bum you out. So get the hell out if
you are not ready…”

RB: That’s your introductory speech
to your students?

SA: I don’t say it that aggressively,
but I do…

RB: Not at Boston College.

SA: Look, I do say quite pointedly, “Look,
if you are not interested in really doing something intense and
trying to explore a part of yourself and you think this is just
a gut and you're going to undertake this frivolously, get out. Because
I am not looking for a hug here. I am looking to go all the way.”
I think they respond to that. I see the process of trying to write,
of trying to make any kind of art—it’s terribly naive
for everybody, but it’s also quite a beautiful thing. I want
to, as a teacher and as a writer, to inspire people in that direction.
In my view of things, this is the era in which artists have to step
up and play the role that traditionally the church did and religion
did in terms of awakening people’s compassion and their mercy
in saying, “This is it. This species is headed for the crapper,
and if artists don’t rise up and start speaking about it forcefully
in a way which reaches lots of people, not just the little cloistered
chorus that’s already there for us, we’re fucked.”
So I adopt that kind of hard-core attitude in my teaching. I think
you have to be very kind to them because they are being naive. Of
course they have no idea how difficult it’s going to be. That’s
experiential. They do know that something inside them is excited.
Some flame has been lit. I believe if it’s there, in really
trying to foster it. Because even if they are not going to be great
writers—and they can’t all be —at least they’ll
be good readers. At least they’ll understand that art is trying
to move people and that’s an important goal in itself.

RB: Are you suggesting that arts and writers
are morally superior?

steve almondSA:
No. I don’t think so. I wish they were. Because in my idealization
of art I view someone like Saul Bellow— who is capable of
writing such beautiful, compassionate, deeply empathetic works,
so insightful and so merciful—I actually assume that if they
are conscious enough to do that then they are good to the people
around them. That’s a bunch of crap. It’s a bunch of
nonsense. Not just in Bellow’s case, but in many people’s
cases. I don’t think they are morally superior, but I think
when they are good as writers, in the moment that they are creating,
they are exquisitely human and in a way that is Christly. That is,
they love their characters unconditionally and not for their nobility
and good deeds but for their inequity, their wickedness and they
are totally unjudgmental in the best moments. They love their characters
and that love is transmitted to the reader. And that’s my
definition of good art in general. You see a beautiful Goya painting
you know Goya was in that place and knew what those characters were
experiencing, whether it’s Saturn eating his children or the
guy standing there in the middle of the Third of May about to be
shot. You are there. So I don’t think they are morally superior,
but I think the act of creation in deciding to do that is a damned
wonderful thing to do. I know a lot of people get down on MFA programs
and are very cynical about them. Fuck these steel tariffs and these
fucking welfare states that Bush has created for businessmen. Those
are the people whose values I think are truly iniquitous, keeping
score with money and material goods because you are too frightened
of the other stuff.

RB: The basis of the criticism of MFA programs
is mostly from inside the literary planet.

SA: I suppose so. There was a schmendrick
who wrote a piece in the Village Voice called “Young,
Gifted and Workshopped.” It was a critique of a bunch of people’s
work saying, “Look at this book, it’s so wonderful and
he didn’t go to an MFA program. Look at these books, these
people went to an MFA program.” My response was, “What
are you kidding me, you fucking idiot. Who gives a shit where anybody
went or what they did? All that matters is whether you bought what’s
on the page or not.”

RB: Where’s your compassion for a poor
journalist trying to make a living?

SA: This is what I was distressed by, the
idea that you need to have an angle to write about art. I wrote
the guy a note saying, “You know dude, thanks, sort of, for
mentioning my book, but I really wished that you had talked about
people’s art. That’s what we are about, not about what
their personal history was.” And he said, “Well, gee
that’s the only way you can sell a piece. You have to have
an angle like that.” And I thought, ”Well, that’s
just sad, on all levels.” It’s sad that he’s pandering.
That some editor of the Voice, in their literary supplement,
doesn’t have the stones to just say, "Why don’t
we write about books that we believe in, as pieces of art and the
fictional worlds that they create?" Rather than trying to come
up with this catchy, snarky weekly magazine aren’t-we-in-the-know?
It’s a form of machismo that is the reason that I
was driven from journalism in the first place.

RB: I’m not troubled by a story that
talks about whether Sonny Mehta or Gary Fisketjon can smoke in the
new Random House/Bertelsmann central headquarters when there are
more subtle aspects to consider…

SA: But that story is [about] late-model
capitalism. That story is consolidation. I am working on a nonfiction
project about candy. Like any other business, there is consolidation
at every level and it’s not just manufacturing, it’s
at the level of distribution and retail and everything is the big
get bigger and use their strength and it’s the system we live
under. It’s capitalism.

RB: What I am talking about here is that
the press that covers an art that is also directly a business, like
music and publishing, is also a very competitive business and frequently…

SA: What I am suggesting is that there is
something deeply cynical--and we are talking about the Village
Voice Literary Supplement
—that story is five years old.
I was hearing that story when I was in graduate school. The same
fucking crap. And all I really give a shit about and all any other
writer gives a shit about is “What did you think of the art
we made? Did you feel it or not? What did you think of our sentences?
What did you think of this scene in this story?” If we are
doing our job, that’s what we care about. And when critics
don’t it’s painful. Or when the organs of journalism
supposedly portraying what we are about are more interested in who
we are dating or whether we went to MFA programs or not, can you
see how distressing that would be? It’s like, “Fuck
you. Grow a soul.”

RB: That seems right, but what’s a
solution? I know I am not usually inclined to read reviews unless
they are written by a writer whose writing I like…

SA: You are rare. Look, a hundred thousand
people are going to glance at the review of a book in the NY
Times
. How many people, if it’s a review of an obscure
author like me, are actually going to the bookstore and pick up
that book? A fraction of them. The Village Voice reaches
however many people and how many can I reach, as an artist, mostly
putting my stuff out in the small press? Bubkas. A hundred
or two hundred or three hundred at a time…

RB: Well that’s part of the tradition
of the apprenticeship. I want to return to your notion that writers
and artists are replacing religious institutions as moral compass
of our time and soldiers of decency.

SA: I don’t think it’s decency
unless you are defining as …I would say mercy and compassion.
What you are pointing out, even the rhetoric you are using, is why
I find religion to be—perhaps not bankrupt—but deeply
troubling. Look at the religious right in this country. The right
in this country is essentially saying, "Let’s not make
it easier on the poor. And let’s not let those catamites and
those dirty homosexuals practice their deviancy." The last
time I checked Christ’s essential message, liberation theology
is, “Love the sick and the iniquitous and the poor.”
He was a homeless carpenter with no possessions. You saw this in
its most gaudy form in the tele-evangelist era when all these people
had air-conditioned dog houses for their pet dogs.

RB: Oh yeah, Tammy Faye Baker, et al.

SA: Right. I still think the rhetoric of
family values and the religious right is so deeply warped and hypocritical
and out of step with the real precepts of religiosity and spirituality
as it is written in the New and Old Testament and the Koran, for
that matter, that religion has become to a larger extent…
Fundamentalism has taken religion and made it a force for abject
intolerance and hatred and all the rest of it, and I don’t
think religion has the stones at this point to take on what are
the essential ills of this culture. I mean Western culture, which
is calling the shots. And that is business as usual; late-model
capitalism, the rich get richer, the strong get stronger. You build
higher fences when the shit starts to build up. What people don’t
realize in the First World is that the Third World is not going
to get any more tranquil. You can try to put a lid on it, but it’s
a bigger and bigger mess. I know from talking to friends who report
from the developing world and the Third World, that it’s going
to get worse and worse as people get more and more desperate and
people have fallen away from the role that religion initially played.
Which was to make life more bearable. To help people to sustain
their hope in the face of terrible inexplicable tragedy. Death most
often, but also illness and betrayal and temptation and sin and
all the rest. Those are the things that good artists want to take
on. And good religion does it as well. When I think about the role
religion plays in a macro way in the US, it’s completely corrupted.
I feel like artists have to be really forceful now in saying we
are going to shout our way under the radar and say, "This is
bullshit." They gave to be tummlers, makers of tumult,
to some extent.

RB: The issue of moral superiority suggests
itself because moral issues are so present in the literature and
part of the discourse and therefore the writer seems to be somewhat
higher on the evolutionary ladder…

What
you are aiming for anyway, the nirvana of it, is to recognize
that it’s a great privilege to get born and then to
be in a position through material comfort and psychological
and emotional strength and whatever else it requires, that
your job is to write.

SA: Individual artists really aren’t
so important in their morality in their lives. Art is the longest-running
human discussion about what it means to be human, what it means
to be good and bad and why we feel the way we do and do the things
we do. What it means. We are factories of doubt and meaning. That’s
what we are supposed to do. Artists, hopefully, have a certain kind
of sensitivity and maybe, bravery, in articulating those things
for everyone and allowing people to plug in to that. What they do
in their off time, who knows? Also, there are the people that they
might hurt through their writing. I certainly write stuff that is
often lifted from my life in very pointed ways, and I have to decide
whether I can live with that or not. Sometimes the answer is no
and I don’t publish or I switch it around. Sometimes the answer
is that I recognize that someone is going to get hurt, but I try
to love all the characters and I don’t do it out of revenge,
anger, and hatred. I did it in an attempt to forgive them and myself
and make less the grief of the situation. The question of personal
morality against what artists do when they are at the keyboard is
different tracks for me.

RB: Somewhere there has to be a payoff for
choosing a life that more often than not is harder and less secure.
Maybe one of those is the self-aggrandizing belief that because
one wrestles with these issues one is somehow more evolved, better
or something.

SA: Yeah, I guess. But that’s pretty
narcissistic.

RB: Oh?

SA: Yeah, right, exactly. Writers definitely
are. What you are aiming for anyway, the nirvana of it, is to recognize
that it’s a great privilege to get born and then to be in
a position through material comfort and psychological and emotional
strength and whatever else it requires, that your job is to write.
To try to pose these bigger questions and what I feel desperately
sorry—in an unbelievably condescending way, I really feel
sorry for people who are really hung up on their possessions. In
the end they know deep down it’s an empty way of living and
it’s not the deepest and most intense way of experiencing
your life and that’s what writers, if they are any good or
when they are at the keyboard, that’s what they are doing.
They are really engaged deeply, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually,
creatively but mostly emotionally in the process of living their
lives. Even, ironically enough, by creating these fictional worlds.
Because obviously everything they are writing about if they are
writing well is coming out of their deepest fears and desires. This
is why I view the author to be irrelevant. It’s much more
about what are they really writing about? What are their characters
frightened of, what do they desire, how do they screw up and how
do they get themselves out of the hole?

steve almondRB:
I was in this discussion about nature photographer Galen Rowell
(who died last summer) and I stated that I thought what ordeals
he had to go through to get some of his photos were remarkable.
Their response was that it was irrelevant. Only the photo mattered.
I just don’t see it that way.

SA: You are talking about process. That’s
something very different. I’m talking about the new criticism
that talks about the author and what is he about. The analogy in
writing would be, “Isn’t it a remarkable accomplishment
what T.C. Boyle did in Water Music? He must have done an
incredible amount of research on the early exploration of Africa
and what it was like to be in a prison in England if you were Irish
in the 15th century." That is part of the process and I think
that is crucial to talking about…

RB: I read some stories in which I came to
the conclusion that the authors’ mother had died recently
and that the writer was a recovering alcoholic. Why is the issue
raised for me? I don’t know anything about the writer…

SA: And those issues come up. That’s
natural. What troubles me when people ask about the author or speculate
about the author is that it’s part of a larger fame culture.
People magazine, and it’s that track of thinking
that is antithetical to the crucial mission of art. Which is to
get people to think about themselves and their lives and their struggles.
As opposed to whether the author has a cute smile. Your questions
are deeper than that, I understand, because they are brought up
in her work.

RB: I don’t have a theory about this
stuff, so I want to be careful about excluding information. Even
the dumb stuff about who Zadie Smith might be dating…

SA: But your other point is, we all care.
My point is, yeah it’s not the best part of us caring, but
we do. And it is a part that has some kind of meaning. One of the
first things I am asked about my book is, “How much of it
is autobiography?” I can understand that.

RB: (laughs)

SA: I’m not a woman and I never fall
in love with a computer repairman but that story is driven by the
fact of my own deepest concerns and I don’t even dick around
with, “Some are and some aren’t. It doesn’t really
matter.” I say, “Sure, if that’s what you want
to ask as a way of really figuring out whether I really meant it
or not or whether I’ve lived through those feelings.”
The answer is “Yeah, of course. Absolutely. One hundred percent.”
In the end, any kind of writing that is good and convincing and
moving is deeply autobiographical because the emotions that live
within the stories some how are conjured from deep inside the author.

RB: The range of questions that one asks
someone to find out who they are—is not that large.

SA: I’ll tell you what I do when sizing
someone up. I try to figure out what kind of music they listen to.
I try to figure out whether they read or not.

RB: That sounds like Amazon’s collateral
filtering.

SA: But to some extent it is because I want
to figure out how much they think about the world in the way that
I do. And how important music is to them. I once went on a date
with a woman who didn’t have any CDs. I thought to myself
as someone with three thousand CDs, who like all authors, if you
are honest, a frustrated musician, a total music geek, and a lover
of music. The best writing is music, it’s song. How I am I
really going to connect with this person, when music just doesn’t
play a role in her life? Same thing about what they read and if
they read. And how they think about the world and their role in
it. Are they thoughtful about it? But that’s me. A lot of
people who listen to that kind of scrutiny and say, “Fuck
you, pal. I want to watch Friends. That’s what I
enjoy. That’s the way I want to lead my life.”

My
approach is to try to convince them, quite forcefully because
I only have them for one term, that literature and writing
is something of now, of today, and it’s funny as hell
and it’s sad as hell and it’s important as hell.

RB: You may be right that these parameters
work in the world of commerce in identifying someone. It’s
a sad thing that they obtain, that they are effective in some way.

SA: Those people are trying to move product.
My business is trying to move people. I don’t just mean in
my work. When I deal with people—it probably exists in all
writers, that tummler gene—they want to move whoever
they are dealing with. They are not interested in just trying to
get the shoes sold. That’s a different frequency.

RB: No, no. Forget motive. I’m thinking
that we can acquire a certainty of knowledge about other people
so easily based on such little information. Shouldn’t we have
to work harder? I think we should have to work harder.

SA: It is and it’s also quite frightening.
That’s why people avoid it so much. I would ask somebody,
if I had a list of questions whether they believe in God and I wouldn’t
be as if yes or no is good or bad but rather how much they have
thought about it. How thoughtful are they about questions of that
magnitude. Whether someone is running the world or it’s up
to us? I go to parties and ask people what they do for a living.
Because I am very excited about what I do even when I am failing,
left, right and center—which is most of the time. It’s
an exciting thing to be. And they will be so embarrassed and inhibited.
And that is very sad, for me. When people aren’t really passionately
attached to what they are doing. Those are people who are their
own worst punishment. That’s why they are so easily led into
the arms of commerce. They think, “Well, I need some relief
from the emptiness I feel in my sense of purpose.” And people’s
relationship to family and how important that is to them, is to
me is hugely important. The family of people that you build around
you as you move through life. Your friends and acquaintances and
how important it is to take care of them and to really connect to
them when things aren’t going well. More so than when things
are all wonderful, like they portray in the beer ads.

RB: Life as a beer commercial has been a
high standard since the Reagan years. I had something else in mind
when I posed the issue of what you can ask people. I’ve spent
a lot of years talking to strangers. Talking about their books is
like taking their clothes off.

SA: They’ve taken their clothes off
and you’ve watched. But that’s fabulous, yeah.

RB: Anyway, I don’t care what questions
I ask. It doesn’t matter to me. I feel like I just have to
be present.

SA: Well, I think present and fairly thoughtful
when as an interviewer you hit a dead end or a cul de sac.

RB: Which this might be. Tell me, is there
such a thing in your worldview as a career arc or trajectory? Are
they terms you use?

SA: Those are words that editors and agents
use. Usually when they are asking where your novel is. I guess so.
I would like before I check out to have written a book of short
stories, a book of poems, a non-fiction book and a novel. I think
that would be an amazing thing.

RB: Only four?

SA: And a play and a screenplay.

RB: A memoir?

SA: No. I think most of it would be in there
in some way. I am great believer in all of these forms doing the
same work. They are all part of that same discussion. It’s
like whether someone uses oils or acrylic or whatever. I don’t
know if that will happen, but that’s what I would like to
happen. In terms of a career arc, I can say I wrote a book and I
hope to keep writing books that are very accessible—that can
speak to a large number of people for this same reason. I believe
that there are certain kinds that are beautiful and wonderful, but
I don’t expect modern Americans to read The Bostonians. They
could, if they had the patience and the will power and the dedication.
But I don’t think they are gonna. There’s just too much
other stuff on the radar. So it feels important to me to get to
a lot of people.

RB: What do your students read?

SA: They read a variety of short stories:
George Saunders, Denis Johnson, Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carol Oates,
Barry Hannah, Tobias Wolff. But I have them read, often times, the
most extreme [Raymond] Carver, the most extreme examples of those
folks, because I want their doors blown off. I want them to see
the sense of possibility and I want them to understand that it’s
only gonna be good if you let it rip, at a certain point and I don’t
mean in a way that’s indulgent. I mean in a way that’s
self-propelled and uncensored. Those authors at their best—even
though they are exquisitely controlled—especially Hannah or
Johnson, it feels to me like the work they are doing is so raw.
It’s coming straight out of the sub conscious. Because I also
teach a class on criticism, I have them read Anthony Lane and Nancy
Franklin that I consider the sharpest and funniest most accessible
critics. Usually from The New Yorker but from other things
as well. I’m as fascinated by good criticism as I am by good
fiction. I am equally fascinated by great poetry and a great novel…it’s
all the same stuff to me.

RB: I liked Lane’s title for his collection,
Nobody’s Perfect. Why don’t you have your students
reading the so-called classics?

SA: Probably because I’m so poorly
read.

RB: Me too. How did that happen to us?

SA: For me, TV.

RB: Poorly read meaning?

SA: I haven’t read a lot. Also, asking
a student to read Flaubert’s short stories or even Chekov
is—even though I don’t want it to and even though I
can try to teach it in such a way that would light that flame—I
think if I give them a Barry Hannah or a George Saunders story,
they will say, “Wow! Not only can I do this but this looks
like fun to do and it feels important to do.” They get out
of that mode of the didactic. “I must understand that Chekov
is writing about the theme of forgiveness in this story and that’s
what I am trying to do in my writing.” If I was teaching a
lit class, that’s a different thing.

RB: You could pair up contemporary writers
with classic writers.

SA: That can be done, and good teachers do
that. My approach is to try to convince them, quite forcefully because
I only have them for one term, that literature and writing is something
of now, of today and it’s funny as hell and it’s sad
as hell and it’s important as hell. The short cut for me to
do that is to give them contemporary writers who I came to as a
fairly poor reader with a bad attention span and raised on TV so
I could get in to them.

RB: Is teaching important to you?

SA: I don’t teach a lot. One of the
things that is very dangerous because it is almost impossible to
make money at writing, you can fall into a trap of the post-MFA
“I want to teach and that’s the only thing I can do
to make money.” Then you end up teaching four and five classes
a term and you don’t have any time left over for your art
or you screw your students. Two things I refuse to do. I find teaching
crucial because it’s a way of proselytizing. It’s a
good bully pulpit. I’m glad to have that, the nutty self-indulgent
but funny professor they had in college who made them look twice
at art and their own possible relationship to it. Also, it reminds
me of why I am in it. And looking at their work is helpful to me
and my process. That said, it’s not the way I make money.
I don’t make money to live off the little bit I make teaching.
I do that through journalism and other income sources. It’s
another reason I feel bad for all those young students who want
to go straight into writing. Some people say, “Well, I just
want to have a dumb job and wait tables and make money.” I
think that kind of work can be creatively stultifying. I’m
glad that my other line of work to make money is to write journalism
because at least that’s working the same muscles.

RB: Did the idea of a novel get mentioned
here?

SA: It always does.

RB: (laughs)

SA: I have already written two of them. They
are both terrible. I tried to write as third. It was terrible as
well. It will happen. It won’t happen immediately. I was terribly
disappointed by the failure of the last one. It will happen in due
course.

RB: How do you define the failure?

SA: I didn’t love the characters. I didn’t know
‘em or love’ em. I wasn’t in there with ‘em.

RB: You got to the end and you realized that?

SA: I realized it all throughout. That’s
a lot of what writing is. You try. I have to say this because it’s
so painful to actually realize that it’s true and to deal
with it. But at least I have to keep the game face on and say, “That’s
big part of writing. Failing. It’s not how many times they
knock you down, it’s how many times you get up.” That’s
true because I can successfully write a mildly entertaining short
story without too much trouble, these days. But a novel. I wouldn’t
let myself. It’s beyond my ken right now. It’s important
to keep trying and to realize that even if you fail you are not
a failure.

RB: Do you have first readers?

SA: Somewhat. The really most intimate aspects
of it, sadly enough, you are on your own. I’m not able to
say to people, “Gee, I’m really stuck. What should I
do here? Give me advice.” In most cases those answers lie
within you, and if you can’t get to them it’s because
they are blocked within you. That’s your thing to try and
work out. Or battle through. Or give in to and move on to the next
one. I do have people who read my work and that can be pretty tricky
because as you gain assurance in what you are trying to do, you
don’t know how much credence to give people’s idiosyncratic
views. I rely on people less and less to read stuff. But I still
do. When you are talking about big stakes, like a novel or a serious
story that you have been working on for a long time, it’s
devastating because they can deliver the bad news or they can really
distort your sense of a story. I sent the last story from the book
to a friend of mine. I’d just written it. It was very raw.
It was very different from everything else I had done. He read it
and said, “This feels too much like a journal entry. It doesn’t
feel like literature to me.” And for a long time that was
my view of the story. That it was this raw confessional thing that
was the wrong turn. And it only took other people taking it and
viewing it as important and then other people reading and saying,
“That’s really raw, but in a good way” for me
to reassess the story. There is a story that I wanted to desperately
get out of the collection because it’s weaker than the rest,
less feeling. I trusted my agent and editor too much and myself
not enough. I should have been insistent. I should have put another
story in there that’s a brilliant story, that I knew was great
and I didn’t have enough self-confidence to do that. And at
the same time, sometimes it takes somebody from outside to convince
you to give up. That’s what happened with this most recent
novel. Someone whose opinion I respect even though I don’t
know him that well, said, “I think you are on the wrong path
here.”

Copyright 2003 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing

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  1. Pingback: Interview: John H. Summers on The Baffler | Identity Theory

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