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Almond Joy: An Interview with Steve Almond
Steve Almond has written two short story collections, including My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, as well as the nonfiction New York Times bestseller Candyfreak and the novel Which Brings Me to You, which he co-wrote with Julianna Baggott. As an author, Almond is perhaps best known for his humor, wit, and obsessions. When he is not flying around the country on book tour, he lives outside Boston with his wife, Erin, and their daughter Josephine.
The MFA program in creative writing at Fresno State is bringing the chocolate-loving Almond to campus Friday, September 21st from 7:30-9:30pm in the Alice Peters Auditorium for a reading of his recently published book of nonfiction essays, (Not That You Asked). The reading is free and open to the public. There will be parking available in lots UBC, A, and J.
In an e-mail interview, community journalist Carol Claassen talked with Almond about his new book, writing and genre, the environment, and the current state of education.
SA: On the most fundamental level, because I'm enraptured with the language. It's the way I try to get across to the world. As is so often the case, I started because I read amazing books. Most writers, in the end, are jealous readers.
Do you have a writing routine? How do you approach writing?
SA: I write in the morning, because I'm fresh from my dreams and have the most energy and focus. Also, because I feel guilty whenever I'm not writing -- for reasons that have to do with my own crazy guilt -- and if I get my work done in the morning, I don't have to walk around all day feeling bad about myself. But really, whatever keeps you at the keyboard is your "process." It helps if you're good and obsessed with your material.
What is a favorite writing-related compliment you've received? Also, are there any insults that you particularly cherish?
SA: A few people have told me that when they read my work it makes them want to write. That blows me away, because that's how I feel about my faves. As for insults, I mean, most of them wind up being about me, not the work. But the ones that I really appreciate are assessments of the work, honest criticisms that help me get better.
What compels you to choose one genre over another when you write? For instance, I myself write in two genres, and often I experience what I call a metaphysical congestion that urges me to write in a certain medium. I will know that what is forthcoming is either a poem or an essay, or possibly something in between. Do you have a similar experience?
SA: Yeah, that sounds right. For me, non-fiction is about recollection and reflection. Fiction is about imaginative invention. There's plenty of overlap -- and they're both aimed at the same goal, which is describing what it's like to be human -- but I generally know which neighborhood I want to be in.
What is a piece of writing advice you've received that you'd like to share with current MFA students in creative writing programs?
SA: Forget about trying to have a style. Just tell the truth about the things that matter to you most deeply.
Here's a question all the MFA students who are in the process of sending out their work would love to have you answer, I'm sure. How many rejection letters did you receive before you published your first piece?
SA: Probably about 100. I sent out a lot of stories, most of them quite bad, because I'd come from the world of journalism. So I was used to seeing my name in print. I'm also stubborn. The first acceptance is really the best one you ever get.
Creative Nonfiction has yet to cede to a universally agreed upon definition. How do you define the genre, and what do you make of the fact that your nonfiction books, including Candy Freak and (Not That You Asked) are filed in the cooking and humor sections, respectively, at the bookstore?
SA: The filing of my books is a matter of marketing. It has nothing to do with the sort of human work they're trying to do. As for my working definition of Creative Non-fiction, here goes: it's the writer's radically subjective version of objective events. You can't make stuff up. You simply have to tell the deepest truths possible about what happened.
Your most recent book spans a wide variety of topics, including politics, sports, fame, and desire. How did you select the essays you chose for (Not That You Asked)? How did you decide to order the sections and subsections?
SA: I wanted the essays to compose a kind of ad hoc autobiography. That is (roughly speaking!) they move from covering my early years and adolescence to my evolution as a writer and my new life as a husband and father. That was the idea, anyway. But it's a book of essays, so I fully expect that some readers are going to pick and choose which pieces interest them -- as is their right.
In your most recent book, you write about, among other things, morality and American politics. You mention environmental issues as well. What are some changes you would like to see in this nation's environmental policies?
SA: The main thing would be to stop allowing business interests to determine our environmental policy, and instead rely on the actual scientific data we've gathered to decide what our relationship, as a species, should be to the natural world. This would also require that the EPA be allowed to do its job. The Bush cabal has been incredibly childish and cowardly in refusing to confront the changes we have to make, and the rest of us have allowed them to be so. I suspect -- fear, really -- that it will take a lot of catastrophes for us to recognize how much trouble we're in.
You have said in interviews that this country does not want for authors, but for readers. Would you say that the education system is responsible for this lack of readership? What do you think high schools and colleges should be or could be doing differently to change young people's attitudes on reading and writing?
SA: It's not just the schools. It's the entire planet. We've become an image-based species, addicted to our various screens: TV, computer, Gameboy, phone. And we've turned away from language, in a very fundamental way. In the process, our imaginations have become impoverished, and our capacities to concentrate withered. So it's up to everyone -- parents, teachers, kids themselves -- to turn the fucking machines off, to stop looking and start imagining. We have to remember that as recently as 150 years ago people were fighting over the latest installment of a Dickens novel, not the remote control.
As a new dad, do you think the subject of fatherhood will become a focus in your future works?
SA: Of course. Whether it's fiction or non-fiction, I'm always writing about my own preoccupations, and my daughter is my #1 preoccupation these days. I'm not going to yammer on about "seeing the world anew through her eyes" or any of that gunk. I'll just say that being a parent is largely about emotional expansion, and I hope to hell that shows up in my work.
What are you working on next?
SA: Well, I'd really love to put out a book of short short stories, with some brief essays about writing. But Random House would like another non-fiction book, so I'm looking into writing about the experience of being an obsessive fan, especially of music (though I'm an obsessive fan of lots of other things, including the Oakland A's, dark chocolate, and my daughter Josephine).
This event has been posted on the Fresno Famous calendar.