Steve Almond just released his third story collection, God Bless America. Among the stories, which Junot Díaz says are, “without equal in their beautiful, terrible honesty,” a couple are included in Best American and Pushcart Prize anthologies.
As well as being an award-winning author and a regular contributor to The Rumpus, Steve Almond is also a damn good teacher. Five years ago I stumbled into a small Minnesota conference room where Steve was my workshop leader. Intermittently praising and ranting, he proved to be as fierce and compassionate an observer of student writing as he is of culture and humanity. Much like his marginalia, Steve’s stories are irreverent, unflinching, forgiving and funny. That he sees our pathologies so clearly is unnerving, that he watches so carefully—a cause for great hope.
Steve spoke to me by phone last week from the belly of a westbound bus. We talked about many things, including his thoughts on inattention, Christ, and American loneliness.
Jennifer Bowen Hicks: So many of the characters in your collection act out of loneliness. Has that become an American affliction?
Steve Almond: Americans didn’t invent loneliness but we’ve got a pretty strong franchise on it. I think that’s related to the kind of decisions we’ve made, as a culture, about the pace of our life and the importance of mobility. Look at our lust—I say this of myself as well—to be connected to Facebook and email and twitter; most of it is driven by a ravenous loneliness. People are trying so hard to feel some kind of connection.
I don’t want to romanticize other parts of the world—this is probably true of most of the developed world—but I feel like Americans are particularly dislocated from our families of origin, our extended families. Because dealing with family is emotionally inconvenient, and this culture has made convenience our Godhead. And so people turn to these work families, or these virtual families. But in the end I don’t think it works, because no matter how hard we try to jettison our families, in the end, we still take them with us.
Hicks: That reminds me of your story, “What the Bird Says.” Mr. Cutler is dying and, though it humiliates him, he calls his son, Jim back home to his deathbed. As he prepares to die you write that he’s “leaving the world of duty and bones.” You capture, better than any writer I know, the almost embarrassing revulsion that is present in loving and needing and being needed and loved. Why is neediness so shameful? Is it cultural?
Almond: Think about the myth of American Independence. Everybody’s supposed to be a rugged individualist and find their plot of land and dig a well. It’s part of the American mythos that we’re able to go it alone, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. That’s why I think people in the Tea Party, for instance, are kind of humiliated, because they know deep in their hearts they’re dependent on the government in many ways and they feel ashamed of that. Many of them are older and dependent on Medicare and Social Security. They all drive on roads. They think they can go it alone, but almost everybody in this country is the recipient of public subsidies – from our school classrooms to our roads to our hamburgers. And Thank God we have democracies that provide basic services and a safety net; there should be a kind of compassion that we can agree on.
As for me personally, yeah, you’re right on the nose. Though I love my family, neediness was totally shameful in the house I grew up in. It’s the reason I’m such a militant emotionalist. The fact that I’m that way doesn’t mean I’m over it; it’s actually evidence that I’m totally hung up on it. Which is why there’s this tension between extreme neediness, and shame, in my stories. You end up writing about your family over and over.
Hicks: Until you die? Please tell me no.
Almond: You know what? Until you die. Until you die. But hopefully the love and the forgiveness and all the stuff you wish had happened gets in there, too. That’s the rescuing part.
Hicks: There’s a morality in your stories that seems to suggest we owe each other a few fundamental things, what one of the Occupy Wall Street protestors called “Jesus stuff,”: love, kindness, forgiveness, food. Your stories seem to suggest our salvation lies in each other, in our compassion.
Almond: Yeah, well, where else would it be? Part of American anguish and loneliness comes from putting it somewhere else. Putting in the house, the iPod, the product. It’s like we’re in this post-idealistic world where we’re so programmed to think about the pitch or the profit that the idea of pure unfettered Christian goodness never comes up in the public discourse. How many times have you heard a politician, or a pundit, use the word “generosity”? Or “greed”? Jesus was saying basic stuff. It’s not at all complicated.
I think a lot of the reason Obama got so many votes as a relatively unknown guy was because we thought he’d lead us past our grievances, so we could start to function more lovingly as a nation. We need each other; that’s really what matters in the end. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to see what’s happening to America. Some of the stories in this collection are very sad and very dark and my fear is that people are going to wonder where the funny stuff is. Well, I’ve been living in America. Have you been living in America?
Hicks: How have your concerns have changed, politically and personally?
Almond: All of these stories were written in the last decade, during a time we’ve been sending young men to fight in foreign countries, and nearly all of them return wounded in some way. So naturally there are stories about veterans. I’m also a husband and a dad now, so I’m thinking about those relationships. Many of my characters are aging parents, or are dealing with aging parents. That’s where I am now. I’m not happy about it, but I am preoccupied by it. I think that’s why I wanted to include a few lighter stories, like “A Jew Berserk on Christmas Eve.” It’s my way of reminding myself that I may be older, but I’m not old.
Hicks: And how about the stories themselves? After three collections do you write the stories you want to write or the stories you’re able to write?
Almond: Well, I’m never going to be the kind of writer who’s really inventive with plot. “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” is the one landing I was able to stick, plot wise. Otherwise, my notions of plot are incredibly primitive: Find character. Push into danger. Put scary things in cave. Make character stay in cave.
Hicks: Your guy might be stuck in a cave but he’d be a hell of a character. Like Mr. Albert, Sergeant Tedesco, Sophie, Kenneth. I ached for and loved so many of them. Which character would you most like to have a beer with?
Almond: Probably Jim Cutler. He’s based on a friend of mine, so maybe I’m confusing him with my character. But that’s kind of the point of fiction. I feel like that story got written because, like Jim, I’m in exile from family even though I love them and I praise them. I like that Jim knows the world of trees and does physical labor and that he’s so thoughtful. Plus, he’s a self-identified stoner, like myself. So I wouldn’t have a beer with him but I’d definitely have a bowl.
Hicks: You could make him do that, you know. You’ve got the power.
Almond: Not only that, I could give him incredible pot.
Hicks: You could do whatever you want.
Almond: You’re right. You’re right. Jim Cutler in the library with hookers and blow!
Hicks: What’s the one question you’ve always wanted to be asked?
Almond: What’s it like to win an Academy Award? I’ve never been asked that.
Hicks: What is it like to win an Academy Award?
Almond: You know, my immediate reaction was to just make a list of the people I could now sleep with. It was an instantaneous, almost limbic response—I can suddenly have sex with Taylor Swift. Isn’t that disturbing?