An interview with Steve Almond
Steve Almond's short story collection My Life in Heavy Metal has provoked strong reactions in reviewers. Many were put off by the strong sexual content of the stories. One insisted in her review that the female ejaculation described in the first story was anatomically impossible. For his next book, Almond delves into the world of candy, hopefully with less controversial results. He spoke with me on the phone from Boston.
I read on your website that your next book is a diatribe about candy.
It's not just a diatribe. It's a totally weird book, it's about my relationship to candy, it's about the emotional presence that candy, specifically candy bars, plays in people's lives, it's about late model capitalism and the consolidation of the candy industry, and it's about the history of the United States. It's completely, as you can hear, out of its mind.
I was wondering about the word "diatribe."
The official name of it is tentatively Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America. It's not a diatribe like, "I am now going to pontificate," it's very much about my relationship to candy which is long and involved. And it's also about my heading off visiting all these crazy factories that make all of these obscure candy bars which to me stand as some kind of sentimental but still meaningful reminder of how fucked our culture has become by the constant commercial undertone to every single transaction. Everything is tainted by someone trying to make a sale. It's got a kind of diatribe-y lefty lean to it.
Is it an Eric Schlosser of the candy industry?
No, it's more Calvin Trillin/Hunter S. Thompson. If you took those guys' IQ's, added them together and divided it by three.
I'm a big fan of Calvin Trillin.
You'd have to make me a third stupider and then I'd be at his level. I fucking love Calvin Trillin. His food writing is beautiful. I love it when he goes off in search of some weird food, so I definitely thought about that when I was writing about these factories.
I'm actually still editing the book. I made it sound fairly pretentious, but it's actually a "Remember Pop Rocks?" kind of book. How old are you?
So you don't even remember some of this stuff. You may remember Pop Rocks, but unless you have a great memory, you don't remember the absolute craze they started when they were first introduced in the 70's. You couldn't find it anywhere. There was black market activity. Candy and chocolate have a very dark history.
You said in an interview that you were hoping to write four kinds of books, a novel, a short story collection, a nonfiction, and a collection of poetry. So now you have half?
I totally failed miserably at novels. They're incredibly hard, and I can't do it yet. That's going to take a while. This is a nonfiction book, but the next book after that, which Algonquin will also publish, is another book of stories. So yeah, I'm two for four, if you're keeping score. I've actually written some poems, but nothing you'd want to put into a manuscript. At all. If I'm seventy and I get a volume of poetry published, I'll be like, "Cool!" I hope it doesn't take until seventy for a novel.
Well, no one buys poetry anymore anyway.
The poets are pure. They're in it for the joy of language and insight. It's the song of language. They're not in it for the dough. There's a purity to the poets I know.
I wanted to talk about this piece you wrote for Poets & Writers about book reviews.
It got an incredible amount of response.
It also came out around the same time as The Believer manifesto, so it got lumped in with that.
I read The Believer's manifesto and it was much better researched than my blathering. They were expressing what a lot of authors had been feeling for a long time, that there's this critical culture that is not doing its job. The job of the critical culture is to talk about the pleasures and disappointments one might experience with a particular piece of literature. And, for that matter, to talk about the larger issues that works of literature raise, and I think that The New York Times Book Review definitely tries to do the latter, but often it's at the expense of me not getting a sense of what this writer is up to emotionally, of what language they're using to reach this end. Don't get me started. Some people read that article and thought, "Oh boy. Bitter. Taking a shot at critical culture." But they don't get it. The best critics are fucking essential. In some sense, that's what they want, a rigorous critical culture to examine their work in a meaningful way.
I don't care if people want to take apart Saul Bellow's novels to figure out who he is, biography versus canon, okay, Saul Bellow. Great. Pick it apart. But when you have a book from a relatively new writer, what's the point of making anything but their work the issue. What they did, whether they went to school. What an absurd premise. It's like they're saying we can't just write about literature and the emotions expressed in literature, we need some sort of hook or angle that will appeal to our readers. Fuck off on that. Find beautiful books to advocate for. Why do you want to read a bad review, so you don't buy a bad book? Save yourself a little money? It makes sense if it's Stephen King or Tom Clancy, but why not just find the books that deserve to be praised and direct people to them? Maybe that's too Pollyanna-ish.
We've got an anemic literary culture in this country, and we've got to find a way to make people understand how important literature is. That task sounds gushy, but I really think it's the job of literature to awaken mercy in people. It's deeply disappointing to me when people have pissing matches. Who the fuck cares about that bullshit? It's so People Magazine. Frey wrote a great book, Eggers wrote a great book, just let them go out there and write beautiful books. Who needs this literary feuding?
I think Frey instigated a lot of that.
Yeah, you're right. I don't know that much about it, but all I saw was Neal Pollack's riffs, and it was the most beautiful piece of absurdist theater on paper. It was the funniest fucking thing I've ever read.
I know that "My Life in Heavy Metal" is the name of the first story in the collection, but how did that become the name of the book?
It is a little silly. You felt silly saying it.
I find I have to explain to people that it's not your memoirs, that you weren't in a heavy metal band.
I have to explain to people. "It's not actually about heavy metal…" God, I hate it. Grove said it would be a good title. And maybe it has been, but it's just fucking silly.
You wrote the "Tips for Would-be Pornographers." Why do you think so many authors have trouble writing sex scenes?
I don't know. I love it. I think it's, well, I don't know. It's hard to do, I guess. I think of it as… not easy, but you've got a lot to work with. You can talk about all of the senses, and it's a very emotional experience. I think it's in my work a lot because emotionally it's very extreme. It's a very vulnerable state, and I'm kind of an emotion junkie.
I know the culture at large is still stuck at the age 11 or 13 when it comes to sexuality. Everyone is so freaked out about it, even if they're "liberated." People are so fearful of their own desires that it becomes prurient, that sex doesn't feel very emotional to me. Sex in Hollywood movies seems so not hot. Porn is so stupid and terrible. You know what there isn't enough of is good, emotional, sensual writing, filmmaking, music. There just isn't enough of it, period. It's not just writers who struggle with that.
Why do you think so many reviewers got so hung up on the sex and couldn't move past that? Shouldn't critics be able to see beyond it, even if the culture at large can't?
I was talking to my mom and said, "I didn't think it was so much about sex. I knew it was in there, but I thought we were past the leering." It's in there, but it's mostly about relationships and desire and fucking up and facing it. She said, "You know, I actually think people feel really uncomfortable not just with the sexuality in the book, but the amount they might be attracted to that kind of out there sexuality, and in turn repelled by it."
There's also an aesthetic thing at play. I lean heavily on physicality and emotion. It risks being maudlin and sentimental. It's not minimalist. To some extent, I think critics are expressing an aesthetic sense of what they want literature to do, and it isn't to be lusty and bawdy. They don't want big, broad strokes and they don't want a lot of emotional decoration. A good deal of writing, to me, I feel disappointed in. I don't feel like I'm emotionally involved it. I want to have a more emotional experience when I'm reading someone. I just read The Royal Physician's Visit by Per Enquist and it was exquisite. All the great books people love, Lolita, Catcher in the Rye, Dostoevsky, the better Dickens, they're all so emotional. I just can't stand that literature, and I think Hemingway had a lot to do with it, where everything is so tense and terse and macho and the actual human feeling is so muted and sublimated into these absolutely beautiful descriptions of landscapes and whatever else, but much less about people's internal lives.
I did judge the Bad Erotica contest from Nerve.
How was that? That stuff was hilarious.
That was so fun. It was terrible, but so good. Good terrible. "I awoke with the taste of his turgid penis still in my mouth." So bad it's brilliant.
But regarding the critics, it seems that they're harder on male sexuality than they are female sexuality.
Maybe, but it may also be that male authors have more problems writing about the emotions of sex than women. Maybe women are better at writing about sex because they're more open writing about their feelings.
I was reading one review in Salon and the critic said, "It's strangely creepy to explore how straight men feel about sex."
I think part of it might be that men are basically in charge of everything. There's an inclination to look at men who write about sexuality as potentially menacing and creepy. The equivalent of that is women who write about that are slutty and loose. But I do think there's something inherently weird about a man writing about a woman's body and how a woman experiences sexuality. Maybe men are just more presumptuous, I would think, "Oh, this guy thinks he knows."
And yet you have a female narrator in one of your stories.
I write a lot of female protagonists, too. It feels more natural for a woman to be talking about her feelings in the way my characters do than for a man. I don't know if you've noticed, but men kind of check out when things get emotional. Have you noticed that, Jessa?
I'm not that young.
Yeah, women learn that when they're 13. Anyway, that's why I tend to gravitate towards writing about women. And it's usually women who object. "I don't have any friends who talk like that!" Okay, I don't care. I may have made some mistakes, but you shouldn't talk about how "women" view sexuality. Every woman has her own way and comfort zone in how she talks about her sexuality. I know women who are so much raunchier than the woman in that story ("Geek Player, Love Slayer"). That woman is more or less based on a friend of mine.
Does it ever feel awkward when you're trying to write as a woman narrator?
I have a secret, that I don't mind you publishing at all. I wear women's undergarments when I'm writing a female character. I know a lot of other writers who do that. They don't talk about it, but there's an entire community of us. Cross writers.
Is Norman Mailer in that community?
I'm not going to talk about Mailer. I told you before the interview, I'm not going to get into whether Norman Mailer wears ladies' undergarments or not. I don't want my name near anything that says Norman Mailer wears women's undergarments.
You're living in Boston now, right? But you've been all over.
Let me tell you, you can check the bathrooms in El Paso. My name is all over those walls. I've been all over that town. I traveled around, I did the journalism thing. I went to El Paso and then Miami and then I came up to Boston with side excursions to other locations. I wanted to see the country. I wanted to make sure I saw parts of it before I settled down. I'm not sure I'm settled down yet.
You're teaching there at Boston College?
I'm sort of teaching at Boston College. I keep being too flaky to get myself together and say, "I want a class." I have been very irresponsible about getting back to them. I'm not teaching the next term, but the term after that.
Did you take time off for your book tour?
I definitely did. I did a very silly book tour.
You toured a lot. Most new authors hit five or six towns, but you seemed like you were gone a lot.
I didn't know any other way to get my book noticed. It's so hard. The one good thing is that there's this highly literate group of people who talk about the books they love and recommend books to one another. It's almost impossible for a book of short stories to get noticed. I worked my ass off, Grove worked really hard, and the book sold several thousand copies. It's not like no one reviewed it, I was very fortunate. I got a lot of articles, and it still didn't sell books. My mom probably bought 1,500.
Do you enjoy touring?
Are you kidding? It's like butter. I love reading. I love being able to talk to an audience. When I'm in front of an audience, I'm on a mission to get people to read more. My book, any book, whatever. Just to get them to think about their internal lives a bit. This culture is running as fast as they can away from the truth of themselves and how they really feel. It's pathetic.
Is there anything you wish you had done regarding the marketing of your book? Or anything different you're planning on doing with your next short story collection?
Not really. It's just incredibly difficult to get folks to buy short story collections. Unless you get anointed from on high--a rave review in the NYT Book Review, or Oprah digging your biscuit--most collections don't sell. Then again, the hope is that as people find the book, they recommend it to other folks. And this takes time. It's not like the damn movie industry, where you have to have a blockbuster opening weekend, or your sunk. The mark of a strong piece of literature is that it endures. That it continues to provide solace to readers long after the initial marketing push. I hope Metal is that kind of book.
Your book ended depressingly.
That character is the same as in the first story, and he got his just desserts. That's David. When he says, "And we are all punished, in the end, for the degradations we inflict upon those who love us." And he is. He's mortified. He has to walk into this scene, and he engineered it. It does end depressingly, but that was the arc of that guy. It's not meant to be a novel, it's just three stories with the same guy, "Heavy Metal," "Pale Love," and "Body in Extremis."
Was it a conscious decision to write the David stories as an arc, or did the character just keep popping up?
I actually wrote "The Body in Extremis" first. It was a much more autobiographical story than I'd ever written and at first I thought it just sucked. Way too raw. Way too confessional. Way too sexual. So I just put it in a drawer and forgot about it, basically. Then I got a query for an anthology about Exes (like ex-boyfriends or girlfriends) and dusted the story off and they actually took the thing. The response to that story was so enthusiastic that I decided to write "My Life in Heavy Metal," which was David ten years younger. Than I wrote "Run Away, My Pale Love" as a kind of bridge. So I guess my decision to write about him was somewhat intentional. In writing, you have to go to where the heat is, and for me, at that time in my life, the heat resided with this guy, who couldn't really keep his dick in order, or his life, and who sinned and was punished for his sins.
Most readers don't even notice that David is the narrator of all three stories. But for those who do, it's kind of cool, because David actually predicts what's going to happen to him. In "Heavy Metal" he gets caught in bed with another woman. And ten years later, in "The Body in Extremis" he's the one who has to walk in on his lover. It will sound odd to say, but I think I was drawn to David because his stories
have such a staunch sense of morality. When you sin against one who loves you, you are punished.
My Life in Heavy Metal by Steve Almond