{ An Interview with Author Steve Almond, Who Wants Emotional Danger and Quality Tape Recorders }
Daniel Guzman-Negron

my life in heavy metalIn an age where entertainment is reaching equilibrium-mangled decibels in every imaginable way, it takes a unique voice to reach through the noise. And what's the voice saying? Just get naked, pal.
   In his book My Life in Heavy Metal, author Steve Almond navigates the reader through episodes in the dark and mysterious landscape of the human relationship. Steve agreed to sit down to talk about the dangers of emotions and car explosions, the joys of writing, and the benefits of being spiritually bare and free of irony in a world that is anything but.

Steve: Please tell me you got a good tape recorder. Because when I used to report, we were always going, and I was always screwing up.

Dan: I've got a good tape recorder. I tested it, it works. I think.

S: All right, dude.

No ink
Steve Almond began his writing career as a journalist for newspapers in places such as El Paso and Miami. Following a Masters degree in creative writing, and gigs like fiction editor for the Greensboro Review in North Carolina, he migrated north to Boston, where it is very cold. When he's not writing, he works as an adjunct professor at Boston College. He's seen both sides of the literary table, sometimes as the writer submitting work, sometimes as the editor rejecting the work.

D: What do you hate about submissions and submitting your writing, both as a writer and editor?

S: [As a writer], I would get back my story, I'd work real hard on something, I'd send it out, and I'd just get back this form without any ink on it. Every young writer deals with this, you just send out a lot and people don't have time to say anything.... And [as an editor] I felt it was stingy and foolish and mean-spirited not to let those writers know we read their stories, we got what they were trying to do, and here's why it didn't make the cut.

Read this
D: What are some tips for younger [writers]?

S: You have to, essentially, read a lot of stuff. Find a way to really realize when a language has been worn out, when a plot has been overused. When people are just outlining stories rather than writing a scene. When they are rushing through the moment of a scene that should be the most dramatic in which the emotions of the characters should be revealed most intimately, people are ready to pass it. They are frightened of it.

D: Well, we live in an age where it's, a lot of it is very plot-driven, you know, cars blowing up, that sort of shit. And even with character-charged scenes, it still gets trimmed to just a borrowed moment, airbrush the emotional blemishes.

S: Sure, movies, TV.... The job of an artist is what do I consider, what am I looking for in art. And it just breaks my heart. I'm emotionally jones-ing, I want the emotion.

D: Just let the character tell the story.

S: Yeah, the best writing is all about the character. And you know [when] the author really cares about the character, you know, not just playing around or trying to show how well they could write. And the ones that I did not enjoy were all about the writer trying to waggle their dicks. [laughs]

D: Good art should be more than that.

S: That's what good art does. The love that an artist puts into a fictional world is transmitted to the reader. And that's why we love Holden Caulfield, because J.D. Salinger loved him. And good art, just automatically, you can sniff it out immediately. And in the stories that were poorly done, the author didn't really know or love these characters. If it doesn't reach to that point where the character is in real danger, then probably I haven't done my job.
   But, the kinds of dangers people can get into are as various as can be. There's the sort that's about, "God, I'm screwing up romantically", but there's also ... betraying a friend, or withholding your love, like in "Among the Ik" [a story in Heavy Metal]. What that guy has done is withheld his love from his children, and now he's paying for it. There's a million different ways you can get into trouble, and I think, in the end, unless the character is in trouble and in some emotional danger, I'm not that interested.

D: Screw the car explosions.

S: What's really dangerous is two people in a room, and one starts crying. That's real emotional danger.

The literary world
S: What people want, they want to be able to laugh and enjoy something, and in this era, fewer and fewer people are reading, there is so much other crap to distract us and get us focused on what's the next product to buy. To me it's really important to write stories that are funny and approachable and right out there, but in unexpected ways, to cut deeper than that, the loneliness and desperation that I think a lot of people feel. It's a great time to be alive in terms of material comfort, but I know that people are terribly lonely, people are not living full lives, or experiencing their full feelings.

D: What do you hear from the literary heads?

S: People want novels. That's all you hear from publisherS: "Where's a novel, you got a novel?" It's tough to get short stories out there, it's much more word of mouth. They hear about it, they go out there and buy it. It's a personal decision.

Thoughts on stories from My Life in Heavy Metal
"Geek Player, Love Slayer"
D: A geeky, buff computer guy and the woman who wants to blow him. I remember you reading this one and everyone in the audience going, "Ooooh." But the story is more than that.

S: Well, there's a wonderful passage that mentions the "deep lonely rage of the Geek Player" and it was so hauntingly perfect. There's no such thing as someone who's evil, there's just people who are frightened. In the end, I'm not interested in the way the characters are supposed to behave, that's not the way life works. We screw up, we make mistakes.

"The Last Single Days of Don Victor Potapenko"
D: I've met lots of old guys like these, the guy at the end of the bar who rolls his own cigarettes, big walrus moustache, and I'm thinking, that's his world, at night, that's where he lives, right there at that table.

S: We all know that character, that guy who knows how to dance, who knows how to talk to women ... someone who takes people under their wing and has a story to tell.... It's something Bruce Springsteen might be writing about. [laughs]

"The Pass"
D: This is my favorite. You just break it down for us, analyzing the many different ways the infamous "pass" comes about, between friends, strangers, people at airports. It made me reminisce about my own passes, thinking about how bad it went, and then I involuntarily reach for a cigarette and thank god it's in the past. Very hilarious story, though.

S: I want to grab people that aren't part of the converted. Y'know, not the people that are already reading ten, twenty books a year. I want to reach an audience like the guys I play poker with, who aren't regular readers but if you give them something good to read they will get it and be deeply affected. If you tell it well enough, they'll look at their own lives and say, "Oh yeah, yeah, I've been through that, too."

Writers as musicians
D: What gets you going when you write?

S: I try to write at home. I usually don't write in other places, it's got to be quiet, it's got to be alone, and I just hope that I find some story, voice, character that just keeps me pushing. I start with what I know, and hope I find something that I didn't know. I do play music all the time, I believe all good writers aspire to music, it's all about music, melody, phrasing.

Writers, the future, and everything else
D: What were some of your influences?

S: I was reading a collection called Voice of America by Rick Marinas, a person I was doing a story about in El Paso. It just astounded me, these stories. Also, rereading stuff I've read but never really fully understood how beautiful it was, like the Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, or y'know, Howards End. And Jesus' Son. I was very much influenced by reading Barry Hannah's collection Airships, and Lorrie Moore's stuff.... Stephen Schwartz, and I read some Rick Moody in Harper's, and just going, god, this is where the heat is, and I wanna try and do this.

D: Right, you gotta tell your stories.

S: Right, and thing is, it's very hard to do, and there's a big chance of failing ... worrying about what's the next thing. I'm delighted people understand Heavy Metal ... that makes me unbelievably happy and grateful, and yet it makes me think, what the hell am I gonna do now? [laughs]

D: Yeah, what the hell are you gonna do now? [laughs]

S: Well, I'm working on a couple new short stories, worked on a novel that I put in a drawer‹I'll come back to it‹working on a non-fiction that may become a book, but until I feel it's really solid, I don't feel like talking about it.... At some point, I'll be strong enough to make a good novel, not in like the next ten weeks, but I'll give it another try.

Last words
D: Any last thing?

S: Not much. Just find out whether I'm for real or not, you know what I'm saying?

Almond's My Life in Heavy Metal is in bookstores now, or you can buy it off www.stevenalmond.com and hear what it's all about.

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