Steve Almond on Success, Candy, and The Myth of the Suffering Artist by Julia Rubin and Justin Spall
Former journalist Steve Almond tackles serious issues of politics and human nature through his darkly humorous fiction and non-fiction works. He has published eight books of fiction and non-fiction. His most recent short story collection, God Bless America, explores issues such as war, racial tensions and sexual violence through the lenses of complex characters. Of that collection, the story, “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched,” was selected for The Best American Short Stories 2010, and “God Bless America” won the Paterson Prize for Fiction in 2012. Many of his other short stories have appeared in publications such as Tin House, Zoetrope, and Ploughshares. Two of his stories were awarded the Pushcart Prize.
Though Almond considers his natural form to be the short story, he has also found great success in non-fiction. Against Football: A Reluctant Manifesto expresses his critical stance on America’s obsession with the sport. The bestseller Candyfreak takes readers on a journey through the confectionary history of America.
Almond also continues to publish journalism and essays in such outlets as The New York Times Magazine, New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times, The Sun, Boston Globe, Poets & Writers, and Boston Magazine.
Along with publishing his work, Almond teaches for the Nieman Fellowship Program and Grub Street. He is a regular contributor to several radio shows, including NPR’s Here and Now. He currently co-hosts the Dear Sugar podcast with author Cheryl Strayed.
Steve Almond lives in Arlington, MA with his wife and three children.
Breakwater Review: You write both fiction and non-fiction. How do you decide which route to take?
Almond: Well, I don’t make a conscious decision. The work of non-fiction is about recollection and reportage and reflection. People try to make blurry the lines between fiction and non-fiction. It’s really not very blurry. Non-fiction is a radically subjective account of events that objectively took place. Period. End of sentence. You don’t make shit up, because that’s already got a name. It’s fiction.
When I’m writing, even if the events are sort of lifted from life in one way or another, I know that as a fiction writer, my job is to jury rig the circumstances. You have to dream it a little bit. It’s very clear to me, when I’m working on a story or novel, that I’m doing that work. It’s more associative, and you have to trust that your job is to find a well-defined character. This is the Aristotelian formulation, right? Story results from a well-defined character who encounters fate. Your job is to find that well-defined character, figure out what they’re frightened of and what they desire, and plot, essentially, is the mechanism by which you push them up against those fears and desires. That isn’t true of our lives. We would like to think that our lives work in that neat, schematic way, but they really don’t.
Breakwater: At what age did you know you wanted to start writing?
Almond: I mean, my parents are doctors-psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, so there’s that. You can unpack that later. But there were no artists in my family. They were very accomplished people, who were very well-schooled. There was a certain amount of pressure on the kids to do well. They probably thought I’d be a lawyer or something, but I was completely uninterested in that. What I actually thought is that I would be a reporter, a journalist, because I grew up during Watergate. I did that for quite a long time and then after seven or eight years of being a journalist… John Prine, the songwriter, has this great line, “When your heart gets bored with your mind, then it changes you.” That’s what happened.
Breakwater: What pushed you away from journalism?
Almond: Well, in my late twenties I realized that I didn’t want to do the kind of journalism I had been doing, which was asking, it seemed to me, the least interesting questions. It was asking; Who? What? Where? But it wasn’t asking how. It wasn’t asking why. The eternal questions. And in the meantime I had started reading, just for pleasure, the stories of Barry Hannah and Laurie Moore, Tony Doerr, Dennis Johnson and Carver and Joyce Carol Oates… All of them. I thought those were the people who were the bad asses, and I thought I would like to do that. I was in my late twenties, almost thirties before I went to grad school and I did because I didn’t know how else to be an artist. Then I spent the last twenty years, pretty much just writing, mostly shitty short stories and a few decent ones, and doing non-fiction.
Breakwater: How were you able to successfully make a career as a writer?
Almond: The first thing I would say is that I am successful in that I make a living writing, but my primary sense that I carry through the world is of being a failed novelist; really efficient, you know, lots of work in the margins, but ultimately failing at writing a novel. It’s super fascinating, the way in which, from the outside you can say, “Oh this person…” But internally, we have our own narrative. I hate to say that, because in a way, there’s a part of me that wants to say, “Well no, you’re making a living as a writer and you’ve published these books and that’s good. Lots of people would love to be in that position.” But internally—and I think this is sort of how, in many ways, doubt serves as a kind of engine for people creatively—my sense isn’t of being a successful writer.
I do make a living at writing, but actually, I only make a living at writing by doing lots of other things. Part of what I realized early on—I think it was being a journalist—was the scale of economy is really different in literature, and there’s no health plan. The central thing I can say is that you need to do a really brutal self-inventory, because ultimately time equals money, as my obnoxious fucking dad once said. He’s not obnoxious. It felt to me like a very obnoxious thing for him to say, but he was trying to give me some wisdom. I purchase time at the keyboard to write my miserable short stories and my failed novels through which I expect to make no money, by doing other work. To the extent that it’s possible, your job is to uncouple financial expectation from artistic creation, and to figure out how can I construct a life that is sustainable for me, where writing is, if not at the center, close to it.
I don’t buy into this myth of the suffering artist; that the way that art gets created is by being miserable. That’s not it. You go to your studio and you engage with unbearable feelings through the work and hopefully, ideally, you’re as happy as you can be outside of that. The only byproduct of being miserable all the time is that it just drives people away from you. So, you have to be very practical minded about it, which runs contrary to this myth that artists should be luftmensches who walk around with their head in the clouds. Not in my experience. The writers who I know, who I really respect deeply are just bad asses. I see their productivity and the quality of the work they’re producing. They have struggled for a long time in many cases. Jess Walter had his family when he was young and he’s really recently been able to write more because his kids have gotten older. There’s that arch too. Do you want to have a family? They’re not just going to sit there, saying, “You just go off and make your art, and I’ll be fine here in the kitchen.” That’s not how it works.
Amy Bender said this really smart thing, when we did a panel, and she said to think about when you’ve written the best piece of writing you ever wrote and then try to replicate those circumstances until such a time as it doesn’t work. Then try something else.
Breakwater: Are you still working on novels, and how do they coexist with the rest of your work?
Almond: I was working on a novel for a long time and I pulled myself away really to write this football book (Against Football: A Reluctant Manifesto). And that was quite diverting as I did a lot of media for that because it’s the central narrative in our culture. But then I went back to the novel, which was, believe it or not, about a right wing pundit who decides to run for president and becomes really successful: shockingly. So, I was going pretty well with that, talking to an editor—if I could get it done by August—because he wanted it to be timed for the political season. And then a bunch of stuff happened that involved struggling at the keyboard and family health stuff, that you have no control over, and it became clear to me that I wasn’t going to be able to finish it in time for the publishing house to even look at in a way that would be publishable before next election cycle. And then, by the way, I essentially watched Donald Trump live out my crazy novel.
But I stopped working on that and then I was just like, I need to get back to doing stories because that’s really what I would do if they would pay me lots of money. All I would do is write short stories because I think that’s naturally my form, but as a writer, as a person, you develop the idea about yourself that you’re going to do something. For me, the novel has always been the form I’ve been unable to figure out how to do, even though I’ve taken apart a lot of novels to try to figure it out. It’s not that I don’t write them—I write them, but they’re terrible. I never really know the character. I never really feel much for them, I just push them around for 500 pages, hoping that they’ll bump into meaning and climax and epiphany and all that stuff. I usually work on a novel, get depressed, get disgruntled by it, and cast it aside and then work on stories or non-fiction.
Breakwater: And this process has allowed you to be successful in short stories and non-fiction?
Almond: Well, in fact, Candyfreak, the only book I’ve ever written that’s made any money, was a direct result of this pattern. I had finished this novel about Shabbetei Zvi, the false Messaiah—we all know him. He was a Jew in 1626. And it’s this crazy story that I just wrote a horrible version of, and I showed it to my then agent, and she was like, “This is awful.” And I was like, “You’re right.” And I fell into a depression and that stripped me of my writerly vanity, and the only thing I was interested in doing was visiting candy factories and writing about chocolate and thinking about the role that it had played in my life as a kind of path from despair. Because I found it genuinely interesting: to think about the confectionary history of the country, my own history with candy, the way it functioned in my life. It was a genuine obsession of mine and a really amazing window into late model capitalism and consolidation in the 20th century, and a chance to just go around visiting candy factories. I just wrote that crazy book because it was the only thing I could do. If you’re struggling, if you’re struggling from writer’s block or doubt, my advice to you is very simple: set the bar as low as you can set it. Just think about what will get you to the keyboard that you’re genuinely interested in. The happy consequence of that attitude is that it strips away your writerly vanity about having to be the great novelist and you get to write about things that you’re genuinely compelled by, which will help you get back to the keyboard.
So, that’s happened over and over again, where I’ve bailed out of a particular novel, or flogged through a novel, found out that it did not work and is not going to find a place in the world and then sort of had to write my way out of the resulting depression by writing a book that was easier for me to write. Now, I’m not saying Candyfreak is some dumb book. I’m actually saying, even though I was miserable writing it, that it’s the combination of a lot of different things that are really fun to read together, like cultural critique and memoir and reportage and whatever new journalism. I’m really happy with how that book came out, but I didn’t even send it out, originally. I just put it in a drawer. I sent it to two or three agents. All of them said, “We have no idea where this would go in Borders,” to which I responded, “Borders?” But you know at the time, that was a big consideration.
I just wrote the book I wanted to write or felt I was capable of writing and it was not commercially viable. It was only my friends, saying, “Weren’t you, like, going to Idaho and visiting the Idaho Spud factory and the Googoo Cluster factory and the Valomilk?” and I was like, “Yeah, but it was dumb. Agents aren’t interested in it,” and they were like, “Well, why don’t you show it to us?” So, I sent the book to them, and they didn’t say, “Oh my god, this is great,” but they were like, “This is really interesting. You should keep working on this.” And I said, “Fuck it, I’m going to send it out myself.” My agent had fired me. And I sent it out myself. Almost every press said no, and one said yes. My one book that did well commercially barely even made it into the world. But I think in a way, those are oftentimes the best decisions that you make, because desperation has a very liberating effect. You’re stripped of a certain kind of vanity or the kind of work you should be doing. And that allows you to then do the kind of work that you actually want to do, or that you feel capable of doing.