Morally complicating your world view: A Conversation with Steve Almond


It took Steve Almond thirty years to write his first novel, All the Secrets of the World (Zando, 2022), published last year and released in paperback this spring. It’s an ambitious social novel set in the early 1980s that begins when two teenage girls—Lorena Saenz, the brainy daughter of an undocumented immigrant, and Jenny Stallworth, a popular White girl from a wealthy family—are paired together for a school science project. The lives of a far-ranging cast of characters intersect after Jenny’s father, a biologist who studies scorpions, goes missing.

Almond is the author of eleven books of short stories and nonfiction, including New York Times bestsellers Against Football and Candyfreak. He is cofounder of The Rumpus and co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the Dear Sugar podcast. I spoke with him via Zoom about why he idolizes one form of literature over all others, how he got inside Nancy Reagan’s head, and what book-length fiction requires beyond interesting characters.


The Rumpus: All the Secrets of the World is about issues that are very real. Immigration, racism, the criminal justice system, power, oppression. I’m curious why you chose to write a novel, especially given your experience in journalism and nonfiction.

Steve Almond: There are lots of ways to morally comprehend and comment upon what we’re living through, and I’ve written lots of words that are trying to get at the collision of power and the powerless. Against Football is that kind of book. Bad Stories is certainly that kind of book. And everything I wrote for The Rumpus was really nonfiction exploration of that stuff.

When I was a young journalist, I got hired at the El Paso Times, and my job there was kind of silly. I was a features writer and rock critic. It took me many years to figure out, in the form of short stories, what was really happening inside of me when I was in El Paso, kind of my reckless behavior, my narcissism, my patriarchal programming. It took me another twenty years to write about what was happening around me in El Paso, what the story of immigration is, which is a bunch of people without money, resources, security, safety, seeking work, or the possibility of living in a place with far more.

I spent so long on a soapbox wagging my finger at the world, I don’t want to do that anymore. I was delighted to tell a story through my love and effort to understand a bunch of people, all of whom are human beings and therefore screwed up in some way and some of whom are much more vulnerable, their margin for error much thinner. My belief is that when you read something, it morally complicates your vision of the world and the people in it. I was most interested in that. The book gravitates toward trying to understand and travel with the most vulnerable characters, Lorena and Tony and Graciela. But that also extends to Nancy Reagan and all of the characters who, in their own version of their lives, are the hero. Nobody is sitting there cackling. I don’t want any of the characters to get flattened into villains. It’s against what art is trying to do, which is enlarge people’s moral imagination. With fiction, you’re trying to get people emotionally attached to your characters, not to learn a lesson. Ideally, [readers] get emotionally attached to the characters and those characters’ experiences leave them, in the end, feeling more than they did before.

Rumpus: There are so many ideas in this novel, so many points you make about politics and power and the justice system, and so many characters. How did you work it all in? Did you come up with the characters first and then the plot? Did you already have the plot in mind?

Almond: When I was thirteen or fourteen, growing up in Palo Alto, California, a good friend of mine’s father—his Jeep was found out in the desert. He had been abducted, or that was the rumor that spread around school. And so that’s one seed. I think of these as, hauntings.

Then some years later, I’m working in El Paso writing my dopey reviews of Metallica and Bon Jovi, and I’m given an assignment to go out into the desert with a couple of biologists—turns out they’re scorpiologists. They drive me in their Volkswagen Bug to a patch of empty desert, and they flick on this purple ultraviolet lamp and suddenly the sand all around me is aglow with scorpions, this invisible world. In that same era, when I’m in El Paso every morning, I sit on my balcony in my little apartment, and I can see the morning commute, right? The women coming over, the day maids coming over and crossing the Rio Grande, scampering up the embankment.

All of those, you’ll recognize, made their way into the novel. Sometimes people say, “I don’t write autobiographical work.” Then where the fuck does it come from? If it’s any good, it comes from the deepest part of you. We write about what we can’t get rid of by other means. It assembles in the power of the story, the force of the story. It’s like a rocket taking off, it sucks all this stuff out of our unconscious—our memories, our associations, all this stuff that’s unresolved, it’s been waiting for us, it has business with us. And that’s what happened.

The engine was a young woman, Lorena, who’s been told her whole life, because her family is undocumented: “Stay invisible. Don’t be seen, don’t be noticed. Don’t make a spectacle of yourself.” And she walks into this home, where she’s suddenly, like a scorpion under the ultraviolet lamp, illuminated. And everybody in that home takes an unwholesome and unnatural and thrilling interest in her. And that sets off a chain of consequence.

I’ve been slugging away at novels for so long, and this is the first time I figured that it’s not enough just to have an interesting character or an interesting milieu or an interesting set of ideas, you really need a chain of consequence. This happened and therefore this happened and because of that, this next thing happened. And I finally—thank God, hallelujah—found a chain of consequence. The moment Lorena walks into that house, the moment she is looked upon and looks upon Rosemary and Marcus and Jenny Stallworth, the beautiful furnishings of those people living their White dream of upper middle-class prosperity, their mansion on the hill, that walking ad for the Reagan era, we’re off. And then I was just chasing it.

Rumpus: You said you tried for thirty years to write a novel. Different novels?

Almond: Oh, yeah. Not this novel, specifically. But then again, I’ve been trying to write versions of some stories for years, circling around them, as we do as writers. This was, I think, the fifth novel I finished. And it probably took me, stem to stern, six years. Then again, I think the reason I was able to finish it was because I’d had all those other failures. That’s not a pleasant thing to say, but those failures were actually part of the process.

I started writing this book in 2014. I got halfway done and then put it down in 2016 because the election made me crazy. When I picked it up again, in 2017 or 2018, it was a very different world we were living in. The story of Tony and his father and Graciela migrating from a Central American country and undergoing what is essentially an incredibly traumatic experience from which not everybody recovers, emotionally or otherwise, took on a greater sense of urgency. Tony was one of those kids who, if he had been migrating at the time I was writing the book, would have been taken away from his parents. I realized as I was writing, “Oh my God, I thought I was writing about the past but I’m actually writing about the present.”

Rumpus: Is being a published novelist what you’d hoped?

Almond: I’d gotten to the point, ego-wise, where just having finished a novel and believing it to be worthy of being in public was enough. I knew the other novels I’d written weren’t alive and I knew this one was alive. So, it was much less important to get it published, although I’m tremendously relieved and thrilled it did because it found you and whoever else read it. But that part is like gravy. I praise Zando for publishing it because it’s weird. It’s written in different modes, it begins as a psychological drama—creepy, troubling—and proceeds into a police procedural, then there’s a desert walkabout and exploration of faith and religious fanaticism, then it goes back and brings together those strands.

Rumpus: Will you write more novels?

Almond: I hope so, but it takes a certain bandwidth to do it. With three kids and a complicated life and financial obligations, it’s going to take a while. There are people who write novels every two years, or every five years, and that’s incredible. You guys are rock stars. I don’t have that. I’m in the midst of working on a craft book. I hope, after that, I’ll be able to move on to another novel. I really feel, more and more, that the conscious effort to write a novel was such a Sword of Damocles, it was such a hang up. That feeling of, “I have to do this,” is inimical, I think, to the creative process. It’s just not how the Muse works.

Rumpus: Has publishing this book silenced your self-doubt?

Almond: Maybe for the time being? Every nonfiction book by Steve Almond that you’ve read, the story of that book is: he tried to write a novel and couldn’t and then he wrote Candyfreak. He tried to write a novel and couldn’t and then he wrote Against Football or Bad Stories or whatever. I feel like the world’s most productive failed novelist. So, I hope that finally writing a novel doesn’t suddenly take the fire out, you know? I have to be patient and humble and curious and, hopefully, I’ll find another Lorena or somebody and want to spend time with them that way.

Rumpus: Why do you put the novel above other forms?

Almond: I’m a younger brother. I have issues with, “am I really legitimate as an artist? As a writer? As a man?” So, I think it’s my own hang-up. Because, of course, Edith Pearlman never wrote a novel. She wrote short stories, and she’s a major, important writer. I’m much more interested in Orwell’s nonfiction than his fiction. I tried to read 1984 and didn’t enjoy it much, didn’t care about the characters. But I read Politics and the English Language and holy shit, Orwell is the guy. He understood it, he saw it.

There is something extraordinary about the novel form as a reader, where I feel pulled into a world that’s not anecdotal. “Wow, somebody managed to imaginatively create a whole world and bring me through a complicated set of experiences and intersecting trajectories that are all interdependent,” I mean, fuck, it’s unbelievable, just the magnitude of it. That’s the ultimate creative achievement for me. I have so much admiration for novels I’ve read recently, like Megha Majumdar’s A Burning. Holy shit, that novel is absolutely shattering in its beauty and its pain. But you’re right, people find that transcendence in all different forms. And it’s very familiar for me to run down the other forms because they’re not the ultimate in my own math, but my math’s pretty screwed up.

Rumpus: Two of your main characters are Lorena, a teenage girl who’s the daughter of Honduran and El Salvadoran immigrants, and her mother, Graciela, a Honduran woman who’s undocumented. You’re a White male who was born here. How did you approach writing these characters whose experiences are so different from yours?

Almond: That’s the other reason I’m delighted the book got published. I had accepted on some level that it might not get published, and I think what I would say is when I’m writing, I’m not asking that kind of question. Whenever you’re writing fiction, you’re imagining your way into some other character. The basic moral question you ask when you write fiction is who am I asking the reader to pay attention to? Whose lives matter? I wanted to explore all sorts of different characters in this book, but I’m most concerned about—and I feel the reader should be most concerned about—the characters who are the most vulnerable. It would be fraudulent to suggest that those characters are White men.

I was trying to re-interrogate the Reagan era that I grew up in, which I think is the seed of so much of what’s happened now. It has turned very cruel and malignant, openly paranoid and conspiratorial. But there was a malignancy even then, when it had this sunny, optimistic P.R. feel to it, when [North] America was a mansion on the hill. Because we never asked, “Well, who lives in the mansion? Who cleans the mansion? Who gets arrested if they trespass?”

This book is where I asked those questions. I think you run a risk anytime you write outside your own experience, and you run a particular risk if you are a person of tremendous privilege, as I am, writing about characters with much less privilege. Can you write about the inner lives and motives and thoughts and feelings and experiences of people who are not you in a plausible and dramatically satisfying way? There’s an especially high bar to clear in terms of how careful you are, how sensitive you are, how thoughtful, curious, and humble you are. But that’s true of anybody who writes fiction, that’s actually a description of the job. You have to walk in other people’s shoes and imagine your way in.

If we, as a critical literary culture, say, “Actually, you can only authentically write about your own experience,” then everybody is going to be siloed off, and the people who will suffer the most, I think, are the people who are already marginalized.

I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this a female character, don’t screw it up.” I was thinking, “It’s Lorena.” Everybody’s been fourteen. Everybody’s had a version of stepping into a world of greater wealth and opportunity and opulence and not recognizing the danger of the attention you’re seeking. So that was my task.

I then had lots of people read it. I had somebody who was a Central American immigrant and a writer read it. I wanted her eyes on this manuscript. Most of my early readers were women. I had journalists who had worked on the border and I had a police officer who had worked in the Bay Area at that time, and to all of them I said, “Tell me what I’m getting wrong. Tell me what doesn’t feel real.” I don’t know what I don’t know. And there are inherently biases in my limited view of the world. So readers were very helpful.

Rumpus: Can we talk about Nancy Reagan?

Almond: Please.

Rumpus: I imagine there was a political barrier to really feeling for her.

Almond: Yeah, for sure. But in a way, it was the ultimate experiment. Like, can you be empathic and try to understand—not absolve, but understand—her point of view? Because, like, when you see a Trump bumper sticker, and the inner bigot within you is activated, you start thinking, “Oh, the driver of that vehicle is White. He owns a gun. He watches Fox News and he’s got all these garbage views.” But you have no idea who that person is. We’re all so full of biases and bigotries. It’s been consolidated and exploited more effectively on the political right, but everybody is subjected to that kind of nonsense.

So yeah, I’d spent forty years flattening Nancy Reagan into this caricature. She’s the Karen, to put it in cultural terms. She’s this fragile White lady who is totally preoccupied by appearances. As I realized she was going to insert herself into Lorena’s orbit, that she was one of those hovering bodies, like a star overhead, that was going to mess with Lorena, her life and that of her family, I started asking, “Well, who was she? If I’m going to write about her, I don’t want the cartoon version. I want somebody that the reader can’t totally disavow.” Nancy Reagan, like every other human being, had a complex, tortured inner life. She really loved her husband. Whatever you think about her, she loved her husband. She felt he was destined to lead the country almost in a prophetic way. Then, two or three months into his presidency, he’s shot and a bullet is lodged a quarter of an inch from his heart.

I used my license as a novelist to come up with a plausible reaction to these events. So Nancy adopted this belief system that she thought would keep him safe. That felt, to me, like, “Yeah, I can see how she was like all of us.” When we’re in danger, things get very primitive, our beliefs become superstitious. We will play to whatever we believe will keep our beloveds safe. To me, that was a way in.

Rumpus: Did it change how you feel about the real Nancy Reagan?

Almond: Yeah, I think it did. There’s something I admire in her indomitability. Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about how Whites live in this dream version of [North] America. Because of White supremacy and patriarchy and all the rest of it, we live in a bubble. Anybody who denies that, well, they’re not being honest about the systems of power in this country, and that fraudulence is painful to witness. Nancy Reagan was so insulated from the reality of the world that she believed her husband was going to have the cure by lowering taxes on fucking big corporations or whatever. And yet, what I was interested in is that fantasy is cleaved to a very loving wife whose beloved partner is in danger and is almost killed. So I guess the novel formulates that the “law and order” movement is predicated on personal trauma.

Rumpus: As a reader, I appreciated that perspective. I’d also dismissed scorpions as creepy crawlies, and your book helped me see them as something sensitive and even beautiful.

Almond: There’s this great prose poem by Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Somebody showed it to me after I’d written the book, and it’s amazing. I did enough research to realize, “Oh my God, the scorpions are just like us. They have hairs on their forearms, and they can feel a single grain of sand moving from ten yards away. They’re that sensitive.” I thought what an uncanny description of what it was like to sit at my kitchen table growing up with my family, the exquisite, painful sensitivity that we all had to one another. We were like scorpions.




Author photograph courtesy of Steve Almond

Lily Raff McCaulou is a writer in Bend, Oregon. She is the author of Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner (Grand Central Publishing, 2012) and her journalism has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, and Rolling Stone. She also works as a journalism advisor at a community college. More from this author →