How to Write a Novel in 30 Short Years: An Interview with Literary Veteran & Grub Debut Novelist Steve Almond
Steve Almond taught his first class for Grub back in 1998 as one of the organization’s earliest instructors. In the years since, he has taught hundreds of classes, not just at Grub but at Emerson, Boston College, and, most recently, Wesleyan and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s published twelve books, including the New York Times bestsellers Candyfreak and Against Football. His short stories have appeared in the Best American Short Stories, Best American Erotica, Best American Mysteries, and the Pushcart Prize; and his essays have appeared everywhere from the New York Times Magazine to Playboy. He’s a busy guy.
I’ve known Steve even longer than his Grub students. We met in graduate school, striking up a friendship that is now older than both of us were when we met.
Steve remains one of those writers who gets my attention because his work explores the big currents of contemporary life, as well as the enduring and human-sized issues. His first novel, All the Secrets of the World, has this kind of reach as well. It takes in politics, media scandals, the creep factor in men, class, bigotry against undocumented people, the mythos of California, the Reagan years, family dysfunction, and high school yearning.
The dizzying scope of the novel reflects the many roles Steve has played in the literary world. He’s done his time as an investigative reporter, political provocateur, media critic, amateur psychoanalyst, failed poet, and existential detective working for the Good. He’s an intrepid writer always going out on a limb for intelligent empathy. Am I a fan? You bet.
The reviews for his long-awaited novel have been equally glowing. The book has been hailed as “a breathtaking success” and “a dazzling magic trick” by the San Francisco Chronicle, and optioned for TV by 20th Century Fox.
Given our long friendship, these questions are just bits of a longer conversation we’ve been having for more than three decades.
David Blair: Back when you first moved to Boston in the late nineties, you wrote humor columns for The Boston Phoenix, really great ones about, say, Seamus Heaney responding to sample lyrics from contemporary hip hop artists. Humor is an element in all of your work and you’re again getting props for your wild wit in the early reviews of your novel. How do you understand the function of humor in your work and its relationship to how you see people?
Steve Almond: For many years, I got the comic impulse all wrong. I thought it was about a conscious effort to entertain the reader, to make them laugh. That’s just about the opposite of how it works. If you transcribed the material of any great comedian, you’d find that they are always dealing with feeling states that are essentially tragic: shame, disappointment, guilt, trauma, powerlessness. The same thing is true of great writers. Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five is a comic romp about the atrocity of World War II. (See also: Catch 22 or The Great Dictator.) Those columns in the Phoenix were a hoot. But the big breakthrough for me, creatively, was to realize that my sense of humor was a big part of how I dealt with pain, and that it should show up in my stories and novels. I stress this because for many years I thought the way to be taken seriously as a writer was to be serious. The result was a lot of dreary, lifeless work. I wasn’t being me. So if humor shows up in my work, it’s not to distract from painful truths, but to press deeper into them. The comic impulse, it turns out, is a form of forgiveness, of accepting that sorrow and anguish are a part of the human arrangement.
DB: When you speak to my students, you talk about characters in terms of their desires, and plot as a way of forcing characters to confront and act on their desires. How does desire function in your new novel?
SA: Yeah, what I try to emphasize is that plot is the mechanism by which characters are forced up against their desires and fears. But the thing about desire is that it almost always comes with a degree of internal conflict. And that internal conflict is often the true subject of your story. So, in the case of Secrets, my heroine, Lorena, is a thirteen-year-old girl who desperately yearns to be seen, recognized, even desired. She wants to become visible. At the same time, she’s been told all her life to remain invisible. This makes perfect sense because her family is undocumented. But it creates this tremendous inner conflict. The moment Lorena becomes visible, she endangers her family in ways she can’t foresee. I say all this, by the way, after 30 years of failing at writing novels. Those failures were not owing to any lack of effort. They were the result of my not knowing, and loving, my characters enough.
DB: Why is this book set in 1981? I know you’ve written about the pleasures and dividends of writing about the world before the Internet ate our attention spans.
SA: The first and most obvious reason is that I was the same age as Lorena in 1981, so I’m familiar with the rituals and rhythms of that era. Remember that time, Dave? Phones were pieces of plastic stuck to the wall. The big new Tech Miracle was the calculator. There was no digital world. We were all living in analogue. Which makes for much more dramatically satisfying scenes, frankly, because people actually went to each other’s houses. They interacted in person. The absence of technology was also crucial to the plot of Secrets because Lorena has to use her intelligence and her guile to figure things out.
As I wrote deeper into the book, I could also see that I was interested in the political zeitgeist of 1981, the dawn of the Reagan Revolution. As a president, Reagan was weaving this gauzy myth about America as a “mansion on the hill.” It was a kind of white supremacist fantasia. And Reagan knew how to perform optimism. But it was the underlying cynicism of his worldview that my novel explores. Reagan believed that government should basically let corporations run the show, except when it came to law enforcement and criminal justice. In those areas, he felt it was the state’s job to keep “certain” people safe from “certain other” people. What the Trump regime did was unmask, and even celebrate, this kind of institutional racism. I was actually finishing up the book in the midst of the Trump regime’s most despicable action: abducting traumatized refugee children from their parents. My novel essentially traces this atrocity back to its source.
DB: California has produced some great stylists, such as Eve Babitz, Joan Didion, and M.F.K. Fisher. But I actually think when we write about our places, we want to get to our own version of those places that others have not seen. What is your California?
SA: I grew up in Palo Alto during the Seventies and Eighties, so my California is a lot like the Sacramento portrayed in the book: a city that has the appearance of harmony—until something goes wrong. But one thing that was fun about the book was being able to explore parts of California that generally get overlooked, by which I mean the Central Valley and the desert. When people think of California, they think of the promised land: gold, orchards, the Hollywood dream factory. There’s lots of writing about those myths. But geographically, most of the state is unforgiving desert, terrain that is wild and stark. People tend to forget this part of the story, but the Promised Land is mostly desert. Human beings settle in the places where water gathers. But the rest of the earth belongs to the scorpions and the hermits.
DB: What did you learn about writing novels writing this novel, and what did you learn about writing novels by writing a number of novels that are as yet unpublished or unfinished?
SA: As yet. I love that you’re being so gentle. My previous novels all sucked. And for a variety of reasons I could not see at the time, but that have become increasingly obvious to me over the years. The first two were lightly veiled auto-fiction, in which the protagonist sits around passively observing the world and trying to impress the reader. Those books were without subtext. Or rather, the subtext was my ego. My third failure was a historical novel in which I really had no sense of the hero’s inner life. I just spent 800 pages pushing the guy around, hoping he’d bump into conflict, self-revelation, etc. He did not. My fourth failure had a more promising hero—a right-wing demagogue who decides to run for President. It had tons of velocity, but no real direction. So these books were falling short in two areas: character and plot.
With Secrets, I finally figured out that a novel requires scenes arranged in such a way that there is rising action. Many of the scenes in my previous novels were just me trying to figure out what should happen next. But scenes have to do work. They should reveal hidden depths, escalate tension, and instigate further action. You need a clear chain of consequence. And the external action has to be driven by the conflicts within the characters. That probably sounds simplistic, but I just hadn’t figured that out.
The moment Lorena came to me—in all her intelligence and ambition and yearning—the novel jolted to life. I didn’t have that feeling of just pushing her around. It was the other way around: she was acting on her own, kind of pulling me through the book. The more trouble she got into, the larger her world became. And as she came up against other characters, I found myself curious to understand them, their motives and their secrets.
DB: Years ago, you took a break from fiction and wrote and read a ton of poetry. I remember that you found huge and profitable connections between poetry and the sentences and style of Saul Bellow and Denis Johnson. Do you still think that fiction writers should read poetry and try to write it?
SA: Absolutely. I was pretty awful as a poet (though you and others were kind enough not to tell me this too bluntly). But what I learned from reading poetry was the art of compression and perspective. That is: the poet had come to the page to say something. But she felt called to do so in a precise, immediate, concrete way. No abstractions. No extra words. I had to do a lot of world building in Secrets, and a lot of plot work. But I tried to heed the lesson of poetry, too, which is to slow down where it gets confusing and dangerous. That’s where the juice is. That’s where you get to sing what you came to say.
Steve Almond is presenting All the Secrets of the World in conversation with GrubStreet Instructor Jane Roper in-person at Porter Square Books: Boston Edition on Monday, May 2nd at 7:00pm. Register here to join us in-person or virtually on Crowdcast.
David Blair is the author of two books of poetry. His first book Ascension Days was chosen by Thomas Lux for the Del Sol Poetry Prize in 2007, and his second book Arsonville will be published in the spring of 2016 by New Issues Poetry & Prose as part of the Green Rose Series. Blair's poems have appeared in Agni, Boston Review, Fence, The Harvard Review, Terminus, storySouth, Ploughshares, and Slate Magazine, and they have been featured in the anthologies The Best of Lady Churchhill's Rosebud Wristlet, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, and also in Devouring the Green: Fear of a Human Planet from Jaded Ibis Press. He has twenty years experience teaching creative writing and has taught at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, the New England Institute of Art, and in the MFA Program in Writing at the University of New Hampshire. A Pittsburgh native, he lives with his family in Somerville, Massachusetts.See other articles by David Blair