Not that you asked, but Steve Almond’s coming here anyway

Writer Steve Almond will be in Asheville this weekend to, as he says, “free America from the tyranny of, uh, America.” His publisher, however, probably thinks the goal of the writer’s “2008 Swing State Tour” is to sell Almond’s book, “Not That You Asked: Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions.”

Like Vonnegut: Almond says he tries to use humor to “bear how wretchedly the species is behaving at this point.”

Almond’s ostensible book tour even offers special guest appearances by Cindy McCain, Karl Rove, and a pit bull wearing Sarah Palin’s lipstick. Since Asheville’s a dog lover’s town, let’s hope Almond brings the pit bull when he swings through this corner of North Carolina.

“Not That You Asked” is a provocative array of essays about, as Almond told Mountain Xpress: “The stuff that happens in my life that sticks in my craw, whether that’s realizing the psychosis of a reality TV show or thinking about Vonnegut and the larger role of art in morality, or my own sexual humiliation as an adolescent.”

Almond also penned the story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, the nonfiction book Candyfreak, and the novel Which Brings Me to You, co-written with Julianna Baggott.

When he’s not traveling the country ranting and reading, Almond lives outside Boston with wife Erin and daughter Josephine.

Mountain Xpress caught up with Almond at home, just before his Swing State Tour started.

Mountain Xpress: First, why are reading in Asheville? Looking at your schedule, it seems kind of out of the way for you? (He’s in Norfolk, Va., the night before and Tempe, Ariz. the next night).

Steve Almond: I went around to lots of places when the hardback came out (2007). Then (when the paperback was released), I basically said to the folks at Random House, “Look, I don’t want to leave my wife and kid unless people are really excited.” And the folks at Malaprop’s are just into it. That’s all I care about, because in the end, it’s independent bookstores that hand sell books. The kind of writing I do is really predicated on independent bookstores—people who just dig it and get it. I really believe that, at my level, it’s very much word of mouth. So that’s sort of the criteria that I set out for Random House. I want to go to bookstores where they really know and get my work, and their customers are passionate readers and part of that thinking and feeling culture.

It also happens that I know and love Asheville because I went to school in Greensboro and had friends in Asheville. I remember Asheville having a very cool vibe to it. It’s a reader’s town.

Xpress: You said, “at my level.” So, what is your level?

Almond: I have a small, but I hope, loyal, following of people who buy my books. In the thousands, maybe? Knock on wood. And that’s just how it is. When you’re in the book world, unless you have some kind of Terry-Gross-ready, Oprah-ready survivor story or you’re brilliant like David Sedaris, you’re not going to be a best seller.

I’m a short story writer, and I’ve written this new book and Candy Freak as well. They’re the kind of books that have all these opinions that I don’t express in a way that’s quiet and subtle. I’m “heart on my sleeve, here’s what fucks me up, here’s when I felt really lost or confused or upset.” It’s fairly emotionally challenging stuff. I’m not into false affirmation or inspirational books. That’s not how life feels to me and, frankly, I don’t think that’s how life feels to most people. They look for kind of the escapist narratives where everything turns out ok in the end and everybody grows. And it’s all going to be ok. And I’m like, “Nah, I don’t think so. I don’t think by the end of this it’s really all going to be ok.” I think it’s OK along the way when you can be really honest with yourself. My books aren’t feel-good books. The only thing that sort of recommends them to a broader audience is that I, like Vonnegut, try to use humor to be able to bear how wretchedly the species is behaving at this point.

Xpress: That said, you got great reviews for “Not That You Asked.” So the critics like you a lot.

Almond: Yeah. That’s true. You know, the critics and my friends who hear me bitch and moan and say, “Alright, Steve, we’ll give you a little pat on the back.” Unless it’s a rave review, like on the front of the New York Times book review, I don’t think reviews are super, super important. Books really take a lot of time and attention from readers. They’re not like a TV show or Netflix. A book is a real investment. You have to spend time and energy into thinking about it and getting into it and feeling about it. In the end, having people who dig it is as important or more important than having some big critic love it.

Xpress: You’re a former reporter, and in fact wrote for an alternative newsweekly?

Almond: (After I was a reporter for a daily), I went and worked for this weekly where I could actually write about characters and scenes. It was what got me to go to grad school. I really realized the people I admired were serious writers who were trying to make sense of and bear and examine life—as opposed to telling clever fairy tales about the way life is.

And you make a decision in whatever field you’re in to affect people at different levels. And the more deeply you want to affect them, the fewer people are likely to be out there. This is kind of Obama’s challenge, oddly enough. He’s essentially challenging people to think about politics and the role of governance in a more compassionate way, and it’s not an easy sell. I’m impressed that a guy who’s that openly idealistic and realistic has gotten as far as he’s gotten. And I’m just praying out loud as much as I can that our best impulses will be reawakened. I’m guardedly hopeful that people have had enough and might be able to go against some of their worst instincts.

Xpress: What are you working on now?

Almond: I’m working on making sure that my wife’s doing ok with her pregnancy (due in Nov.). And taking care of Josie (who turns 2 Oct. 1). And I’m working on a non-fiction book as part of this duo of books I’m writing for Random House. It’s a book about music and my dorky obsession with different bands. It’s going OK. I’m in that phase of my life where I finally got my shit together enough to have a family, and that’s a pretty big narrative. It’s pretty distracting. I figure I do best when I write about stuff I’m obsessed with.

Xpress: You had a blog about raising Josephine on Babble.com for about a year, but then you ended it. What happened?

Almond: I think the Internet is great in the sense that it allows people to be honest, but it also allows people to sit in judgment. What I was finding was that it was very upsetting to my wife when people would use this blog about our baby as a pretext for criticizing me or our parenting. I was just like, “Dude, this is just par for the course. Ignore it. You’re giving them too much power.” But she was like, “No. This upsets me.” And I understood that. And more to the point, she’s my wife.

Xpress: Are you going to continue writing about your family?

Almond: Yes, in the book I’m writing now about music, I’m sure that Josie’s tastes and her little budding musical selections will be a part of it. But I think that the deal was just putting yourself out there in that way on a blog which is so charged with the ability of people pissing on you from their little cubby hole. Starting a family is my central narrative, so I think about it a lot. About what it means to be a parent and what it’s like to watch a kid grow up. At least for now when it’s so intense and right upon us, I’ll write about it, but only if I feel I have something useful to say. That also isn’t exploitative.

Xpress: What are your readings like?

Almond: I’m not into staid meetings. I’ll read something, and I’m happy to answer questions and have a discussion and start mixing it up with people. I certainly want to read some, and it’s partly to get people familiar with the work, but doing a reading, just doing it, is important. We don’t have a public square anymore. It’s a chance to get people together face to face and kind of have a heavy experience. I don’t mean heavy, depressing. I mean emotionally real.

I’ll read whatever people request. I like to read a little bit from the Vonnegut essay, because, it’s how the book started. At one reading, I knew there was a woman there who read the blog, so I decided to read the part about Josie’s birth and that whole terrifying experience. The main thing is that I really like to be unscripted. And make it less of a reading reading, libraryish—“Everybody quiet. Let’s listen to the great author pontificate.” I say, “Let’s go. Let’s party. Let’s mix it up.” I hope people heckle. Not in a mean way. You know, literature is supposed to be kind of the ravings of mad men and women, it’s not supposed to be this quiet safe little thing that happens with a “Quiet please” sign over it. It’s supposed to be a chance for people to really say what’s on their mind, the author and other people as well.

Party with Steve Almond at Malaprop’s Bookstore & Café on Friday, Sept. 26 at 7 p.m.

[Anne Fitten Glenn can be reached at afjones@bellsouth.net.]

who: Author Steve Almond
what: Reading from his latest book, Not That You Asked: Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions
where: Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café
when: Friday, Sept. 26. 7 p.m.

 

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