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Interview: Steve Almond, author of God Bless America

October 16, 2011

I’m pleased to welcome two great short story writers this week: the inimitable Steve Almond in conversation with Tara Laskowski. Almond is just on the eve of a new book publication, the short story collection God Bless America, and a short tour with some key stops worth mentioning. On Wednesday, October 26, Barrelhouse will host Almond at The Black Squirrel in Washington, DC. On Saturday, November 12, he’ll keynote the Baltimore Writers’ Conference. And in the midst of a several appearances in North Carolina—beginning with Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill and ending at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books—Almond will also keynote this year’s Writer’s Week at UNC-Wilmington, where he’s currently serving as a visiting writer this fall; that talk, on Wednesday, November 16, also serves as the official launch party hosted by the publisher, Lookout Books. The book itself is available for pre-order at Lookout.org for 30 percent off the retail price until October 24, and will be released on October 25. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the chat below. — Art Taylor

After six years, fans of Steve Almond are pleased to hear that he has a new collection of short stories out. God Bless America, Almond’s third story collection after The Evil B.B. Chow and My Life in Heavy Metal, offers up 13 new glimpses into the lives, hopes and dreams of Americans.

Packed with humor, tragedy, sadness and hope, the collection is written, as the New York Times Book Review says, by a “gifted storyteller” who delivers “always enjoyable, often hysterical stories.”

Almond is an opinionated guy, and his stories don’t shy away from politics either—the effects of war, terrorism, the economy, big business, religion. As Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!, says, “Almond’s characters are sons and fathers, inveterate gamblers, thwarted dreamers, the mothers of children gone astray, and God Bless America teach us how to love every one of them.”

I had an opportunity to ask Almond a few questions about the collection, current and future projects, and his thoughts on the state of the country he so carefully paints a vivid portrait of.

Tara Laskowski: You capture here some very distinct portraits of Americans. How did this collection come about? Did you sit down to write about America, or did you find later as you were writing these pieces that this was the common thread throughout?

Steve Almond

Steve Almond: This is going to be disappointing. I basically just chose what I took to be my strongest stories and put together a manuscript. I wanted to be in the world of short fiction again. I didn’t consciously set out to write about America. But like every other sane person in this country, I’ve watched in a kind of horror as our country has descended further and further into moral ruin. So obviously, that concern crops up in the work. But I’m mostly interested in particular Americans, and the way in which people seek to cope with their loneliness and regrets.

What’s your favorite story in the collection and why? (Oh no…is that like asking someone who their favorite child is?)

“What the Bird Says.” I don’t expect other people will like it much, but it feels to me like the most emotionally ambitious story, the one that says, nakedly: these are the most crucial moments in the lives of this father and son.

As characters go, I like Billy Clamm a ton. He represents a certain hopefulness that captures America at its best. And I like the plot of “Donkey Greedy.” My plots always suck, so it’s nice to have a story with real shape to it.

I like the plot of “Donkey Greedy” a lot—and your plots don’t “suck,” by the way. I noticed a “get-rich-quick” theme running through that story with the gambling theme and also the title story of the collection. Even in “Tamalpais,” the waiter gets a hefty tip after serving a sad woman, though he is reluctant to have any part of it. “Easy money” is within reach in these pieces, yet it is not actually “easy” at all—and in most cases is the character’s downfall. Do you think that’s still the American Dream? Or are people more jaded now?

Easy money is the great myth of American life. It’s like our personal FUCK YOU to the Protestant Work Ethic. And it might work for a few people. But on the whole, any time you see easy money being racked up, there’s a whole set of people who are getting screwed over. Consider our most recent financial meltdown. I mean, look at Billy Clamm. When we leave him at the end of the title story, he’s heading off into the sunset with eight pounds of cocaine. But do you really expect his story to end well?

In pulling this collection together, were there any stories that you took out? Or are there any facets of American/Americans that you wished you wrote about?

Oh gosh. Ben and I argued furiously over the table of contents. We did a lot of horse trading, swapping stories in and out for months. He wanted the collection to be more serious, to show critics and readers that I wasn’t just a song and dance man. My feeling was that the collection needed more stories with levity. I had this one, “Divorcing Johnny Ponder,” that I loved. And another one, “The Idea of Sirloin,” in which a woman falls in love with a streak. In the end, we compromised. It’s a darker collection than I would have liked. But it’s also true that we’re living in a dark time.

I love the story “Shotgun Wedding” (and I have to say, being pregnant myself, after reading this story I REALLY wanted a cheesesteak). I was mad when it ended because I want to know what happened to Carrie and how she’s fairing now. Do you ever want to revisit your characters and write about them at a different point in their lives? Or is it that when you are done, you are done?

Mostly, I’m a story writer. So when the story ends, my relationship with the character is over. But I do have a few characters who I enjoy enough that I keep writing about them. Dr. Raymond Oss, who stars in “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched,” is a good example. What I should be doing with him, or one my other characters, is letting them roam around some more, until I have a novel. That would be the smart move. But I’m kind of an idiot when it comes to planning. As for Carrie, my sense is that she’ll be just fine. We don’t know exactly what happens with her, but we do know that she’s decided she wants a kid, which (as you know) is a big deal.

I always admire writers who can blend humor into what is an inherently sad or tragic moment, and you do that well here. Should more people write funny? Why is it so hard to write humor?

To me, the comic impulse always arises from tragic circumstances. Comedy is how we survive our sorrow. I never set out to be funny. That doesn’t work. What I do is force my characters to confront some dark stuff, and allow them to have a sense of humor about it. I see a lot of writers, especially at the beginning of their careers, who shy from humor. They feel like they need to be “serious” writers, and serious writers don’t joke around. Kurt Vonnegut was like this. His early stories are often earnest and dreary. It took him years to realize that his sense of humor was a central part of his personality, and that his job as a writer was to get the full range of his personality onto the page. I went through the same process. I actually don’t think it’s that hard to write funny – if you’ll allow yourself. We all come equipped with a sense of humor.

And what about politics—another topic that people tend to shy away from in polite conversation? You’re not afraid of that. Do you think more people should be vocal in their opinions? Are we too apathetic? Or are we too thick-headed and stupid?

It’s not a matter of being stupid so much as frightened and overwhelmed. Americans know that our country is morally out of whack, that we’ve rewarded unfettered greed for decades and it has not brought us prosperity, but ruin. We know we should be more generous and humane. We just don’t know where to start. I do believe the Occupy Wall Street movement is changing that, or has the potential to change that, by showing that spontaneous activism—not the phony activism purchased by right-wing billionaires—can change the moral conditions of the country. So there’s hope there.

I’m granting you free reign for a week to do whatever the hell you want to fix America. What issues do you tackle first?

I’d raise the tax rate on the top one percent to 91 percent, the same rate it was during the boom years of the Eisenhower administration. I’d use the revenue to initiate a massive overhaul of our public transportation in every major city. I’d levy a gas tax of 25 percent, to force individuals and companies to kick the habit. I’d remove Clarence Thomas from the Supreme Court, because of his refusal to disclose financial records and recuse himself from cases where he has an obvious bias. And put in place a single payer system for medical care. And I’d go on TV to explain exactly why I’m doing this. That would be day one.

What’s next on your writing to-do list? Are you working on another long piece you want to talk about?

A novel. I’m slogging away right now (with some breaks to go read from God Bless America). It’s pretty stinky so far, but that’s part of the process. Hopefully, I’ll be able to destink it at some point.

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