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GETTING IT ON... ON THE PAGE
[posted 02.17.2003]

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Sexual conquest and emotional inadequacy often go hand in hand in Steve Almond’s short fiction. The characters in his stories wrestle with love and lust, self-knowledge and self-gratification, longing and not belonging.

Sound familiar?

To us, too.

Which is why we had to talk to Almond… about ditching journalism for fiction, the publication last year of his debut story collection, My Life in Heavy Metal, and his preoccupation with writing about sex.

SUPER-OFFICIAL SHINYGUN INTERVIEW QUESTION LIST

Subject: Steve Almond, 36
Occupation: Geek Player (and fiction author)
Interviewed by: Samantha Bornemann

1.) You worked as a newspaper reporter for seven years, with stints in El Paso and Miami. What pushed you into journalism, and what beats did you cover?

I basically didn’t have the stones to be a fiction writer, but I knew I wanted to write, so I went into journalism. I was a music/restaurant critic in El Paso, and an investigative reporter in Miami. I pretty much sucked at both.

2.) When and why did you make the move from journalism to fiction?

Just got sick of the macho ethos of journalism. I wanted to be able to write about people and their emotional lives. So, in 1995, I decided to get an MFA.

3.) What characteristics should any surviving fiction writer possess?

I’d say the most important thing is to be compassionate toward your characters. And to be humble enough to want to get better, and stubborn enough to persist in the face of massive rejection.

4.) I recently checked in to the Zoetrope writers community, where folks on the discussion board — when not arguing the immaturity of writing in the first person — share tips on where and how to get published and why you might not be getting published. What do you, an author who has been published in dozens of literary publications, know that unpublished writers don’t?

Not a whole lot. It’s just incredibly competitive out there. A lot of people are writing great stories. Young writers should just focus on writing the best stories they can. There’s no other way to succeed.

5.) There’s a real, hardcover book out there penned by you. That’s big time. The reading tour in promotion of My Life in Heavy Metal must have been glamorous — nice hotels, assistants to fetch food and fend off groupies, sickening perk after sickening perk. That’s how it was, right? Right?

Uh, yeah. The gold-plated limo was the best. Or no, maybe it was the Jacuzzi full of Cristal. Or no, actually, it was the designated concubines.

6.) Your account of your reading tour included this quote without attribution: “If my son had a vagina, he’d write about that.” Who said this and why? Please flesh out the scene.

Uh, well, this woman at a reading asked me why I always wrote about my penis. And I was like: “Look lady, if I had a vagina, I’d write about that.” But then I thought: What can I do to really piss off my entire family? So I attributed the quote to my mother. Mission accomplished.

7.) My Life in Heavy Metal is chock full of sex. Your approach to this oh-so-popular act has been both praised and disparaged. Why, once and for all, are your stories so obsessed with the sounds, smells and texture of S-E-X?

Because people are obsessed with the sounds, smells and texture of S-E-X. Period.

8.) What’s the biggest mistake most writers make when putting sex on the page?

They forget that sex is merely an expression of people’s emotions.

9.) The web allows for unlimited word counts, but I’m still not going to list all the publications that have printed your short stories (though Tin House, Another Chicago Magazine, The Missouri Review, Nerve.com and Playboy are among them). Now, be brave: Tell us which magazine is your personal favorite to read, and defend your choice.

This is gonna be a classic wimpout, but I love them all for different reasons.Tin House is incredibly exciting, because they’re new and they take a lot of chances.Zoetrope always has great stories.Missouri and New England also take lots of chances. That’s the thing about the small press: All those magazines rock. You can find amazing stories in all of them, so it’d be kinda dopey for me to say, Oh, this is my fave.

10.) Ballpark estimate: How many stories have you begun and never finished? Is there something you’ve returned to time and again but that steadfastly refuses to work?

Probably 60 or 70. They’re still rolling around in my computer, sucking ass. I’ve gone back and revised a few. Sure, why the hell not? But most of them are just outlines I wrote when I was young and didn’t have the skill or patience to write in scene.

%(qst)11.) You’re an instructor of creative writing at Boston College. You teach because:
a) You enjoy it.
b) Critiquing the work of young writers keeps you sharp.
c) It’s a good source of income for a fiction author.
d) All of the above.%

Totally A and B. Not C. Not ever. Teaching is actually a terrible way for a writer to make a living. The pay is lousy and the hours are long, if you’re doing it right.

%(qst)12.) a) How would your students describe you as a teacher and a writer?
12.) b) Ask one of your students to describe you as a teacher and a writer. %

They basically either dig me because I’m weird and intense or hate me for the same reason. I’ve posted some of the nastiest student evals on my wall. My favorite line from a student is: “If writing were a part of my body, I’d cut it off with an exacto knife.” Ironically, this is the best sentence she wrote all term.

%(qst)13.) If you could study creative fiction under any living author, who would it be? What would you look to that writer to teach you? %

Hard to say, because I’m not sure being a great writer makes someone a good teacher. I mean, I’d love to study with Saul Bellow. But I actually do study with him, by reading his books over and over.

14.) Name the last book you read and the next that you want to read.

The Heaven of Mercury is the last book I read. AMAZING novel by Brad Watson. The next one I want to read is On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, a collection of stories by my pal, Karl Iagnemma. His stuff rocks!

15.) Tell us about your “ultra-hip music ezine,” The Tip. How long have you been writing that?

It’s just a list of ten CDs I’d recommend. I’ve been putting it out for about three years, in response to friends who asked me for musical tips. I’m a total music geek. I’ve got about 3000 CDs and I’m always on the lookout for good new stuff. Because radio and the magazines are doing a pretty sucky job of promoting great new music.

16.) When you were 10 years old, you wanted to be:

Loved.

17.) Three things you’re most proud of accomplishing:

1. Having the guts to be an artist.
2. Being kind to my friends and family.
3. Not letting rejection stop me from taking risks.

18.) Three things you’ve yet to accomplish but strive to:

1. Write a novel.
2. Meet the right woman & start breeding.
3. Take more pleasure in life.

19.) Three (or more) things you’d rather just forget ever happened.

1. Adolescence.
2. Adolescence.
3. Adolescence.

20.) What do you dream about?

Chocolate.

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samantha bornemann is a chicago-based author and editor. you can read more of her tv and film criticism at popmatters.com and in the book neptune noir.