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

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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