March 18, 2015 |

Writing Is a Basic Moral Function: An Interview with Steve Almond

Steve Almond reads from This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey, photo by Timothy Faust

On his Othrppl podcast, Brad Listi calls Steve Almond, “a really good priest.” Although it’s hard to picture Almond’s lanky frame in a vestment, his long neck in a starched white clerical collar, there are a few humans who call him father. Steve is forty-eight, a father of three, with twelve books under his belt in just as many years.

Between a ‘Big Four’ like Random House, smaller presses and indies such as Algonquin, Grove, and Lookout, and even a few self-published titles, Almond has run the publishing gamut. He’s a writer who, since infamously quitting his job as an adjunct professor at Boston College in ’08, has worked to support himself and his family through writing tirelessly for publications such as The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and The Rumpus. Through these loud-mouthed, gold-but-broken-hearted op-ed pieces and non-fiction books, he’s garnered acclaim and plenty of hate. One of the three books self-published is called Letters From People Who Hate Me.

Last month, Steve traveled to Franklin & Marshall college in Lancaster, PA to read from those letters as well as his disruptive new book, Against Football. I met him at a coffee shop the day before his reading to discuss reactions to the new book, his brand of purposeful feather-ruffling, and most importantly, the way he struggles with his morality.


STORY: I came to your work by way of this journal I like, theNewerYork, which selected you as a competition judge last year, and I think the same week I found a podcast with you on Brad Listi’s show. I’ve read a number of your books since, but I go back to that Listi interview a lot, because it’s so damn good. In his intro he says about you, “He knows his mind…in touch with his own conscience…a really good priest…strong moral character…stands up for what he believes in.”

So my question is: does this “strong moral sense” seem unique to you, or at least abnormal or uncommon? And if so, is that depressing to you? Do you think everyone has a strong moral sense but doesn’t know how to act on it or verbalize it?

ALMOND: Literature can do this amazing thing where it can invent a world and characters through the imagination—and those stories, essays, memoirs, and poems can speak very powerfully to people’s emotional states, what they’ve gone through and even their moral states. So everybody who’s trying to write is carrying out, to one degree or another, a basic moral function, which is that they’re trying to get people to feel more than they did before, about the word, about themselves. You can’t get away from that—anyone involved with a creative endeavor is trying to shake up the feeling of the world. And hopefully to tug at some sympathy and mercy and greater sense of your moral responsibility toward what’s around you, to consider your role in the human family.

But some people are more overt about it. My friend Billy Giraldi writes brilliant, sometimes funny, sometimes dark essays and novels that are, often times in the nonfiction work, consistently moral, but in the fictional work—he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. It’s a story, it’s a parable, and it shakes you up and makes you feel things about the dark side of human nature and the suffering of desire and all this big ticket literary stuff. I have, in some parts of my career as a former journalist and a kind of heartbroken lefty, taken my cues from Vonnegut. I’ve written recently more overtly about big things like the corruption of our political systems, or the way that comedy functions as a moral backstop in our culture because of the desiccation of our political and media classes, or about football, this game I’ve loved for many years that I’ve had an apostasy about and realized, “Holy shit. This is completely against the values that I hold when I’m not being a fan.” For that reason, a certain amount of attention is given to my literary persona or how I move through the world.

But everybody is doing that. Everybody who decides to make art is to one extent or another trying to carry out a moral function. I just wear it kind of heavily. I’m glad that Brad recognizes and appreciates that, but there are lots of really brilliant artists who never say a thing about politics or contemporary culture but are still making profoundly moral pieces of work.

I’m grateful that somebody is paying attention. But it’s a weird thing because I’m as full of hypocrisy and sin and consumption and the rest of it as any other American; I’m just louder about how guilt-ridden I am about it (laughs).

STORY: I think the reason I am so drawn to your work is that I can get morality from other places and people, but not so much in a way that sounds as honest and genuine in the way you do it. Mainly, I think that’s because you put yourself at the center, like you’re talking to yourself as opposed to talking down to the reader. Do you feel that is something you consciously try to do, to talk as much to yourself as your audience?

ALMOND: There are sort of two different things. There’s rhetoric, which is an argument with the world, and then there’s, in a broad sense, poetry, which is an argument with the self. For instance, with this football book, I was bound and determined not to write a book from the ramparts of intelligencia and morality saying, “Savages quit your foolishness, this is ridiculous! The species is killing itself!”

Instead, I tried to cop to what’s a lot more honest: I’ve been in the thrall of this game for many years, increasingly felt shitty and guilty, and now I’m using my own moral struggle with it as a window into the larger corruptions of the game. Because if you do it the other way it doesn’t work. People don’t want to be strong-armed.

I just did an event in Kansas City, where because I was exhausted and hassled and tired from having three kids and all these other things, I kind of let too much rhetoric rule the day. I mean, I get outraged by stuff. But really, in the end, people don’t want to hear that. What they want to hear is, “I too am Saul on the road to Damascus. I’m struggling. I’m a sinner. I don’t know how to do better. But I recognize that this part of me isn’t the best part of me.” People respond to that.

Especially in this era where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone who is essentially profiting off of some moral surety, saying, “I know the way it should be. I know who is ripping you off.” That’s as corrupt and pernicious as it gets, because I think where people really live is in doubt and uncertainty and guilt and a sense that things are really broken in this culture—politically and in other ways.

There are a lot of causes for upset and lamentation, but it should be that. It should be lamentation as opposed to declamation or outrage. Because that’s really about your own ego and anger. I’ve got enough of that in my life. When I’m doing my best work, which is not often, it’s not about the lesser defense mechanisms. It’s about the big-ticket stuff: grief, and my own guilt and my own uncertainty and my own doubt. That is what I think most people need to hear. Because they’ve got enough of the other punditry.

STORY: With that said, and I’m not accusing you of anything, but I ask because I have this in my own personality; do you get anything out of the ruffling of feathers? I mean, I feel like this book has done that a little bit, such as publishing some of the nasty letters you received. How do you respond when people get angry? Is that something you look at as funny or sad, or what?

ALMOND: Well, I’ll show you a little book here in a minute I made called Letters From People Who Hate Me which is the way I tried to answer that question in book form. We’ll take a look at that then.

What I’ll say is that you have to be disruptive sometimes. I’ve been mostly disruptive to my own life. I can’t watch football anymore. I loved it; it was a refuge. It was a safe haven away from all of the adult, moral considerations and stuff that the good part of me is trying to turn into this virtue person. So I’d just be able to like, plug-in to football; it’s just like plugging-in to meat, or fossil fuels, or luxury items. It’s just like, “Ugh it’s so wonderful to be in this zone free from the encumbrances of my conscience,” but realistically, with a book like that, and certainly the publisher’s intention, it was to be disruptive. To say there is this huge central cultural narrative that is almost never examined as a moral undertaking…in which we’re all complicit. It’s incredibly disruptive. People don’t want to hear that. They think “Why would I pay 20 bucks to buy a book to make me feel shitty about something I watch for pleasure?

STORY: As in, it’s going to create an inconvenience for me, if I have to read this book.

ALMOND: Exactly, but that isn’t the reason not to write something. The reason is…you feel compelled to say something truthful. For me, sometimes you have to be disruptive…. I see a kind of reflexive reaction of American culture—like after the 9/11 attacks which were very complicated events that were provoked by a long complicated history, and yes they were psychopathic murderers and that’s one narrative, but there’s also all these other things that were happening around them that create a larger context. Americans didn’t want to hear that at all; everything got flattened out and [there was] this sort of sanctification of the military. To me, when culture starts heading in that direction, it’s a fascist direction, historically, when you have a flattening out of nuance and a stripping away of culture and any kind of eliminationist rhetoric.

So parts of Letters From People Who Hate Me and more of my political writing is a response to that. It’s saying, “I actually think we’re heading in the exact wrong direction here.” I know it’s going to be disruptive to say these things but that’s not the reason that you say them, you say them because they are true. If as a result of that they are disruptive then, okay, well what are you going to do? [You’re] just supposed to shut up? That’s not a good strategy, historically, in terms of responding to the ways in which cultures move away from the better angels of their nature…That’s what I see happening in a massive way in American culture. You just keep drifting away. Then there are these people who sort of serve this role of being prophetic. Like Vonnegut. He’s the guy who did it in a big way, with big issues, during a time where that push-back against the dominant culture might be successful. And, God, I never want to end up as heartbroken as he was, but I’m proving no more effective. Yet again, that’s not a reason not to have your say about things.

STORY: I was on the website (againstfootball.org) today, going through some of the posts. I was surprised actually that a lot of the posts are expressing fairly coherent thoughts. It’s not just like “Fuck you, Almond” and that kind of stuff. It’s actually reasonable.

Photo Credit: Steve Almond
Photo Credit: Steve Almond

ALMOND: Well they don’t bother. The “fuck you” people don’t bother, unless it’s really easy, really convenient; they just don’t bother. They’ll call into a radio show, or yell at the TV, or tweet something, but that’s different from people who really want to think and be in a state of moral struggle/doubt about something…People who come to the site are already in a process of going through some part of this.

STORY: So I want to talk about some of the other things you’re working on. I know you’ve got a lot of current projects, which I want to talk about, but are you working on a novel?

ALMOND: Always. Yeah (laughs).

STORY: I think I’ve heard you lament about this before. Is it any more concrete than it’s been in the past?

ALMOND: I’m always working on about three or four failed novels. I’m constantly running from one to the other trying to give them CPR. It’s just not a form that I am naturally adept at. The short story is really my form, and maybe the essay, or the manifesto, or things I feel comfortable with because of my experience with journalism and the world that’s kind of out there, as opposed to the imagined novel. But, I think that’s what I’m going to keep struggling with until I get it—not even get it right—just get it right enough that I feel like I made an honest effort.

STORY: You said recently on a podcast that you feel the short story is the thing that comes most naturally. Do you enjoy writing that the most?

ALMOND: Yeah. I would say that my feeling is that when it’s coming easier—and you know how this is—when you get some help from your artistic subconscious, things start naturally occurring to you, and you’re plugged into an important desire, and your character is really after something…when there’s an engine for the piece…I wouldn’t say it’s enjoyable because I’m still making a lot of decisions, and that’s pretty miserable, and I’m choked with doubt. But to have that feeling like “Oh, there’s something here…. I’m not just pushing a stone up a hill,” you know, there’s some help, something, there’s a rope on the other side—it might be thin, it might not be a lot of torque, but something is also impelling it, then it’s better. But, not enjoyable. I find writing very hard. I don’t find that feeling some writers talk about where it’s like “Oh I just got lost in it.” I never feel that way.

STORY: It’s work.

ALMOND: It’s work. And it’s decision making.

STORY: During your time as a reporter, were you writing short stories? Are those what became (the story collection, his first) My Life In Heavy Metal?

ALMOND: No, no. I wish. It was a much longer apprenticeship than that. I worked daily newspapers, weekly newspapers. At the weekly paper, I was starting to write scenes, develop characters, not out of imagination but good non-fiction narrative writing.

STORY: You weren’t publishing any fiction stories then?

ALMOND: No. I was going home and reading Harper’s Magazine and The New Yorker… Some stories I would read and go, “Man, those people are really doing the amazing, human work. They’re asking the really internal questions.” Meanwhile I’m just running around trying to be an investigative reporter. I’m just trying to nail people for my editors, to make news and maybe sell some futons. In the end, I could see that that’s sort of all that I was up to.

And I’m not trying to downgrade what the newspaper writers and reporters are doing, or ignore the moral ambitions they have, but to me I had this idea of: “There’s literature, and then there’s just this echo-y communication.” With that said, the last piece I did for that paper was actually a very interesting piece of narrative non-fiction…a very important piece of writing for me.

Really, the whole last two years I was at that newspaper I was sneaking to FIU to where the writer John Dufresne had this free workshop that he let people sit in on. [It was] something that was so staggeringly generous. Now as a writer… in my mid-late forties, [I’m] thinking “How the hell did he do that?”…He had so many demands on his time from his students, and his writing, and his family. Yet every Friday he would sit outside at this table, with a whole bunch of people just like me who were community members, some students, who just wanted to write. And he read our shit, and gave us responses. We had a humble workshop.

STORY: On the spot?

ALMOND: No, we would submit it. He would read them and then come to this prepared to talk. I mean, he wasn’t paid. I cannot explain to you how saintly it was of John Dufresne to do that, how important it was for me to have that community and regard. He let me audit his classes at FIU, too. And that was my way of sort of sticking my toe into the world of writing, thinking, “Is this something that I could do?”

STORY: That’s amazing.

ALMOND: Yeah. It took awhile though. I mean, I applied to MFAs, didn’t get into any. Then I applied again to like twenty, and I got into like two. I finally went off, after two years of writing on my own. Then I spent three or four years in graduate school and then another three or four years writing pretty dreary stories…Trying to imitate Denis Johnson or whoever… The point is that there was sort of a five or six year period where I was writing—not terrible stories. I mean, they were getting published, but they weren’t deeply honest or what I wanted to be making.

So then, the stories that ended up being in My Life in Heavy Metal were really written when I was thirty-four, thirty-five. They were written after I had gotten tired of just not being more truthful. With those stories I started writing what was really on my mind and heart, which was: desire in various forms, anguish about concerns like “Am I ever going to find the right one?” and all the self-destructive things you do when you are younger and haven’t yet figured your shit out…I don’t mean to be discouraging, but it took me awhile to get there, to where I was writing those kinds of honest stories.

STORY: That makes sense to me, having just read that collection this summer and then God Bless America very recently; all the stories seem romantic in a way that there is this character who wants something, who is either going to get it or not get it by the end of the story…they’re compelled by honest, moralistic emotions. The stories end in a very fulfilling way, even if it is kind of depressing.

ALMOND: Well I’m glad, because that’s what I intended.

STORY: And that’s not how a lot of modern stories are, like they’re mysterious and…

ALMOND: and elliptical

STORY: And often it feels like I’m just being fucked with. So, what I’m saying is that it makes sense that you had to write through a lot of that in order to get to the point that you were writing what you thought was right.

ALMOND: I don’t have the skill-set of David Foster Wallace, or Dave Eggers, or John Franzen, or Lorrie More. I realize that I don’t have as broad and deep a skill-set as that, but I do have a clear desire that I want to push [a character] into danger and see them through it, until there’s some resolution, until there’s some feeling at the end of it. I don’t like the kind of literature that is the accretion of details that culminate in a little burp of feeling. That’s frustrating to me. Even though life can be like that, I feel like, actually, you should be trying to break the reader’s heart. Always. I think that’s your job. To break a heart and make them feel alive. Sometimes those things are the very same. I want to be brought through the ringer. I like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son because every story takes you through the ringer. You feel deeply for that fuckhead.

STORY: Can you talk about what the Dear Sugar podcast with Cheryl Strayed is all about?

ALMOND: I started this column for The Rumpus right at the beginning. I said to Steven Elliot…”You gotta have an advice column and I think I should do it.”

So I created this character, “Dear Sugar”, who was this forty-year-old woman…wise and profane. I did that for about a year, but I was stinking it up. I just wasn’t feeling it at all. I wasn’t writing deeply or honestly. It was fraudulent. I said to my friend Cheryl Strayed, because I’d read her novel and some of her non-fiction, “You should do this. You actually will kill this.” Because she really was Sugar. And she took it over and it just became like this hugely important forum.

STORY: It was still on The Rumpus?

ALMOND: Yes, but she stopped doing it about two or three years ago. She compiled her columns into a book. I wrote the intro, sort of telling the story. The whole thing was really raw, really honest, very smart, beautifully written. Fast forward a few years and neither of us is doing the column, and she’s written Wild which is this big movie and bestseller, and I was working at WBUR, the radio station up in Boston. They wanted to do a podcast. I’m a talker, so they were like “We want to get your energy on the air.” So one of the ideas we came up with was based on the advice column that I write for the WBUR website, which isn’t like “Dear Sugar”… it doesn’t have the same literary ambitions; it’s more of a small-scale advice column. The producer asked me to invite Cheryl, so I asked, and sure enough she did.

We really like each other. We like talking. We like chewing over somebody’s struggle with something and figuring out how it resonates with us. We’ve been doing that. It’s a lot. We’re paddling to catch up. I just went to Portland a few weeks ago, and I’ll go in another few weeks to record a bunch of stuff. One thing we feel strongly about is that we need to be in the same room, because you can tell when people are really in the same room talking. It doesn’t feel the same on the phone.

STORY: So people just write to WBUR, or call in, and you guys talk it over?

ALMOND: No they write to dearsugarradio. We’ve gotten like 300 letters. We read over them and we each decide on a pile of them, trade them, come up with 20-25, and then we figure out if they fit into a theme. So we’re still trying to figure it out.

The only constant is that we’ll always be talking to each other in the same room. We’ll also have help from Elizabeth Gilbert, Roxanne Gay, and Steven Elliot and others… if we feel like there’s something that they can help us with. I try to mention music and literature as much as possible in the talks…ask myself, “Are there stories or poems that somehow resonate with what this person is struggling with?”

STORY: Are you going to bring back “This Week In Greed” for the next election?

ALMOND: I don’t know. I really liked writing it but see the thing is, I was writing those for free. I have three kids now. It’s really tough. It’s like, when we get done I’ll race back to my room, finish a piece of writing, crash for a little bit, and then go do the reading. Part of my motivation now has to be, “How do I make this work financially?” My wife’s a writer of novels, literary novels, so we’ll be lucky if she makes a nickel, and not because she’s not wonderful but because that just not why you do it. I’m sort of like this working writer, living outside Boston with three kids, and it’s expensive. So, I don’t know if I can afford to do that.

I also feel like I’d love to have a relationship with a venue where they can pay me something if they want me to write about the election in the way that I was. The way I was writing about it was not like “Here’s your news hook,” it was much more like, “Let’s think about this in the larger context and history here.”

STORY: Which isn’t that sell-able.

ALMOND: No, it isn’t. You know what The Rumpus was? The Rumpus was a space where I could say what I really wanted. Those were the best examples of me purely being able to speak in a way that I wanted to speak without any market forces saying, “Well what’s the angle?” That’s what I would get if I tried to write for Slate or some online venue that pays. They were sort of…literary think-pieces. Nobody wants those. I just don’t know if my lifestyle will allow me to write those anymore, for free. What I’d really like is for somebody to go “Hey, we really liked that thing you were doing, that thing that’s authentically coming to you, and we’re going to pay you something for that.” But that almost never happens.

The Venn Diagram is like: You can do what you want, what you love, what you need to do, or you can do the things that earn you money. For the greater artists, there’s a much larger overlap there, but I’ve got a very slender band.

STORY: This relates to something you were fairly open to talking about on Marc Maron’s podcast: sales of books. How is Against Football doing? I mean, it seems to be getting a lot of attention, but maybe that’s just because I’m paying attention.

ALMOND: Yup. That’s definitely true, and thank you for that. The truth is that I don’t really know. My internal sense says that people want to have the conversation but they don’t want to buy the book. People want to see something, they want to sort of show up for an event and float with the notion of having a conscience about football and really getting into the dark-side of the sport, but they really don’t want the full experience, and they certainly don’t want to pay to get it. And I get that.

With that said, I did my best. I think it’s gotten out there. I don’t know what the sales numbers are, but I think that it’s a non-fiction book about a popular topic so that brings a certain amount of attention to it. I don’t think it’s translated into like tens of thousands of sales but maybe thousands. We’ll see. Maybe in paperback it’ll have a new life.

What I’m really hoping for, and which is part of the reason I came down here for this, is that it’ll be used in classes. It’s short. It’s really easy to read. Yet it’s something that college students get. It’s not some abstract philosophical discourse about the nature of morality.

The greatest thing, kind of like my dream, would be if it were used in some freshman seminar—where like everybody in this freshman class read it because some seditious teacher down in like Alabama University said “Hey let’s shake things up. Let’s assign this book as the required text.” That would be awesome. Can you imagine how much conversation… and consternation that would create?

I don’t know if that’ll ever happen but…it’s a good dream to have.

STORY: Speaking of publishing, what’s your philosophy behind publishing the little DIY books?

ALMOND: Well it came out of the experience of having Random House be like “Hey, you’re going to be our essayist,” and giving me an inexcusably large advance which I didn’t want and shouldn’t have taken. But I did, and then felt like, “Wow. I just totally bellyflopped commercially.” Also, what a lousy way to feel. All I’m doing is worrying about satisfying this corporation’s investment in me as an artist/commodity.

I just wanted so much to get away from that New York publishing experience. I got it out of my system. The artistic aspirations to write a novel, to write deeply important fiction…that always exists and is always plaguing me as a goal and a guilt. But having the book published by a New York publisher? Got it. Done.

So for me, I was ready to make little books that were just the ones that I wanted to make. Books that only moved out into the world by means of the people I meet as a teacher or reader or whatever else. They’re also weird, personal, idiosyncratic books that would be ridiculous to talk to a publisher about. I mean, publishing is an arranged marriage between corporation and artist. So I wanted to—since the technology existed and I had this friend who was an amazing artist—I wanted to start putting some little books out into the world that were just what I wanted to do. These cool little books that would be so inexpensive, that they’d be like a gateway drug for students. I want to go to schools, read from these little books, and then sell them to kids for cash. This does a couple of different things. First, it gets them reading a book and valuing the book as an object. It’s one app. Like, that’s it. Which is huge given our current screen culture. And the other thing is it essentially makes them realize that artists are human beings, and part of what subsidizes their work is that you had to pay for it. Not everything is free on the internet. These books are like, “Hey, if you want to see this stuff, you’ve got to pay me.” Partly because that’s what you should do for art. It’s not a free giveaway culture. It’s my time and talent and my collaborator’s creative genius.

It’s special because the only way you can get these is by meeting me in person. I really like the idea that 95% of these books that are in the world, I’ve seen the person who has bought them. We’ve had a conversation…shook hands, we’ve done our little drug deal. Then they get to bring home something that doesn’t have an ISBN, you know, they can’t get it at the Mcdonald’s of literature, Amazon.

It’s really inconvenient as a business model. It’s stupid, because I could essentially make it much more available online, carry around the little credit card thing. But that’s okay. At a certain point you can choose the publishing experience you want. I’ve had lots of different kinds. Small presses, bigger presses, indie presses. And now, I really like this model. I read from them and if people dig them, hey, it’s five bucks.

Bad Poetry is about how failed art happens because the artist has a story they’re just not ready to tell yet. So, here’s a failed poem, and then on the other page, here’s the story, the stuff that was happening in my life that I just wasn’t ready to write about. It’s also about how narcissism gets in the way of good work.

These books are a part of my goal. They’re trying to get that kid, you know, that twenty-year-old kid who has never bought a book of their own volition. I’ll read from Letters From People Who Hate Me which includes some hate mail from readers that is very shocking and profane and these kids will think, “I’m going to buy a book today.”

I always make it a point to read from these books at colleges, and not because they’ll ever necessarily pick up another Steve Almond book but they bought a book. One book.


Steve Almond spent seven years as a newspaper reporter in Texas and Florida before writing his first book, the story collection My Life in Heavy Metal. His non-fiction book, Candyfreak, was a New York Times Bestseller. His short fiction has been included in The Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies, and his most recent collection, God Bless America, won the Paterson Prize for Fiction. Almond writes commentary and journalism regularly for The New York Times Magazine and The Boston Globe. A former sports reporter and play-by-play man, Almond lives outside Boston with his wife and three children.

Tyler Barton lives in Lancaster PA where he co-founded The Triangle, a local literary arts organization. He also serves as Fiction Editor for Third Point Press and writes fiction of his own, which can be found online at Bartleby-Snopes, Wyvern Lit, and Cease, Cows, among others.