Steve Almond

 

 

 “…funny and beguiling and completely original.” — Lorrie Moore

 

Steve Almond is the author of My Life in Heavy Metal (Atlantic/Grove, 2002), The New York Times bestseller, Candyfreak (Algonquin Books, 2005), and God Bless America (Lookout Press, 2011).  His short fiction and essays can be found in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, The Wall Street Journal, Tin House, Playboy, Zoetrope, and Ploughshares. “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” was selected for the Best American Short Stories 2010 and has been optioned for film by Spilt Milk Entertainment. He regularly teaches at Grub Street in Boston and the Tin House Writer’s Conference.  In 2011 he was the keynote speaker at Conversations & Connections, Washington D.C., held at The Johns Hopkins University D.C. campus. We want to thank Mr. Almond for taking time to be our Fall 2012 Centerfold and talk with our Editor in Chief, Rae Bryant, on the crafts of storytelling and spanking.


We had no idea you had a thing for spanking. How did you begin with paddle spanking? So David Bowie sexy.

SA: I don’t spank and tell. At least not until there’s money on the table.

Do you have other fetishes of which your readers are not aware?

SA: Yeah, but I don’t think of them as “fetishes.” I think of them as “future marketing opportunities.”

Writers generally learn to accept failure and rejection as a necessary evil to our craft; however, you seem to have embraced it and taken it to an artistic level. Tell us how you came to this practice of failure and nose-picking Zen.

SA: I guess I just took a long, hard look at my talents and decided that betting on failure was in my own self-interest. It was odd at first, having to wish for rejections. But at a certain point something just clicks, and you see that little envelope and tear it open and there’s this little passive aggressive form letter telling you how much you suck and rather than getting all defensive and grief stricken, you realize, Hey, whoever sent this is right. I do suck. Rather than fighting the pain, you lean into it. It’s like getting spanked in that way, I guess.

In your collections title story, “God Bless America,” protagonist, Billy Clamm, seems to more than “lean into” this sense of defeat, but rather embrace his stage actor dream turned Boston tour guide reality:

It was a pity that so much of the country was now run based on convenience. Or, more than that, it was really ironical. But now that Billy had hitched his wagon to the right dream, he felt much more connected to history, much more like a pioneer, though he was just starting out on his long journey west, and might someday starve and even be forced to eat another person, not literally, but metaphorically. He hoped he would never have to eat another person metaphorically. At the same time, he was aware of that possibility. (8)

How hopeful would Billy Clamm be of the recent and current political and economic failures/climates?

SA: Actually, Billy Clamm is pretty much a walking example of the “independent voter” they round up for those post-debate panels: he doesn’t think with his brain. He thinks with his heart. This is a virtue when it comes to romantic comedies, but it’s not a very smart way to elect a President. Billy Clamm is, like most Americans, a decent, hopeful guy. But he’s also incredibly wounded and gullible. And that’s what the worst candidates prey upon. They’re salesman who seduce guys like Billy without actually caring about them.

Your fiction and nonfiction delve into socio-political topics of national and diverse interest, sometimes with personal intentions and consequences, namely your take this job and shove it up Condoleezza Rice’s ass essay. Where do you lie on the fiction versus nonfiction debate? Is all fiction really nonfiction? All nonfiction really fiction? 

SA: People try to complicate the fiction/non-fiction debate, usually because they want an excuse for lying to people. It’s not complicated. Non-fiction is a radically subjective version of events that objectively took place. Period. Any time you consciously make up stuff — without telling readers — you’re making fiction. Which is fine, great, blessed. Just be honest about it.

What upcoming projects do you have that you’d like your readers to know about?

 SA: I’m hoping to put out more DIY books, a series of six little books of dirty stories.

 


You can read more about Steve Almond and his works at stevealmondjoy.com, and you can buy a copy of God Bless America at the following locations:

IndieBound (Your local bookseller)
Powell’sAmazon.com (USA)
Amazon.ca (Canada)
Amazon.co.uk (UK)
Barnes & Noble

 


 

 

    

 

Biography | Ernest Hemingway

ERNEST MILLER “PAPA” HEMINGWAY

Born: July 21,1899, Oak Park, Illinois

Died: July 2, 1961, Ketchum, Idaho — Suicide

 

Ernest “Papa” Hemingway is the expatriate writer we love to hate and hate to love. He is the superhero/antihero equivalent of literary greatness with a Royal Quiet de Luxeon at his hip and a bottle of “grog” in his hand, shirt ripped open for the world to see his big, manly, hairy chest. Journalist, world traveler, fighter, marrying man, decorated WWI Italian army volunteer, sportsman, fisherman, big game hunter, Hemingway’s bravado made him infamous and a fine dinner guest. His contributions to the community of letters is unattested, bringing an understatement and simplicity of style to the modernist canon like none before him. John Updike and Joan Didion, and many more, claim him as a major inspiration. As likely to carry a urinal home from Sloppy Joe’s, his Key West bar hangout, as he was to write major literary works, Hemingway, the man, was sometimes larger than his work and made him the media eye candy of his time.

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

— Ernest Hemingway, The Art of Fiction No. 21, The Paris Review
A Conversation with George Plimpton in a Madrid Café, 1954

Hemingway is arguably the patriarch of the Paris expatriates with Gertrude Stein his matriarch and F. Scott Fitzgerald his chum. Rest in Peace, Papa.


HEMINGWAY’S FIGHTS

Hemingway vs. Wallace Stevens (1936) Street fight, Key West, Florida
Hemingway vs. Max Eastman (1938) Max Perkins’ Office, Scribner’s, New York, New York

 

HEMINGWAY’S FAVORITE BARS

Sloppy Joe’s — Key West, Florida
Floridita Bar, San Francisco, Cuba
Dôme, Paris, France

 

HEMINGWAY’S WIVES

Elizabeth Hadley Richardson (1891 — 1979)

  • Married 1921
  • Divorced 1926

Pauline Marie Pfeiffer (1895 — 1951)

  • Married 1927
  • Divorced 1940

 Martha Ellis Gellhorn (1908 — 1998)

  • Married 1940
  • Divorced 1945

 Mary Welsh Hemingway (1908 — 1986)

  • Married 1946
  • Widow

 

HEMINGWAY’S NOTABLE WORKS

“Indian Camp” (1924, Transatlantic Review)
In Our Time (1925, collection)
The Sun Also Rises (1926)
Death in the Afternoon (???)
“Hills Like White Elephants” (1927)
Men Without Women (1927)
A Farewell to Arms (1929)
“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (1935)
“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936, Esquire)
The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories (1938)
For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
Across the River and into the Trees (1950)
The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
A Moveable Feast (1964)
Islands in the Stream (1970)
True at First Light (1999)
More Books…

 

HEMINGWAY’S AWARDS

The Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (Finalist, 1941) For Whom the Bell Tolls
The Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (1953) The Old Man and the Sea
The Nobel Prize in Literature (1954)

 


 

SOURCES

Heller, Nathan. “Hemingway: How the Great Novelist Became the Literary Equivalent of the Nike Swoosh.” Slate Magazine. March 16, 2012.

Lost Generation. “Ernest Hemingway Biography.” n.d.

Nobel Lectures. Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969.

Plimpton, George. “Ernest Hemingway: The Art of Fiction No. 21.” The Paris Review. May 1954. n.d. 

Rich, Frank K. “Hemingway.” Modern Drunkard Magazine. n.d.

 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

www.hemingwayhome.com

www.hemingwaysociety.org

www.pen-ne.org/news-noteworthy/penhemingway-award

 


 

 

Matt Bell

Matt Bell is the author of How They Were Found, a collection of fiction published by Keyhole Press in 2010, and Cataclysm Baby, a novella forthcoming from Mud Luscious Press in 2012, as well as three chapbooks, Wolf Parts, The Collectors, and How the Broken Lead the Blind. His fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Gulf Coast, Willow Springs, Unsaid, and American Short Fiction, and has been selected for inclusion in anthologies such as Best American Mystery Stories 2010 and Best American Fantasy 2. His book reviews and critical essays have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, American Book Review, and The Quarterly Conversation.

He works as an editor at Dzanc Books, where he also runs the literary magazine The Collagist. He teaches writing at the University of Michigan.

MMR: How They Were Found is a collection of 13 stories, with a subtle, organic progression between one story and the next. Albeit tangentially, there is usually something that ties them together—a knife, a birth, an inventory of life. Yet each story also interplays with the title—How They Were Found—in vastly different ways. In the first story, “The Cartographer’s Girl,” the relation to the title is one of wry humor from an obsessive romantic; but as we progress, the characters are ‘found’ in increasingly more complicated situations. Did you have this intent, the dynamic nature between title and stories, in mind when selecting these pieces? Or did the title ‘make itself known’ only at the end?

MB: The title came out of the very end of the process: I’d written all of the stories before I ever tried to collect them or order them. It was a difficult book to title in some way, and it actually ended up coming from a title that was given to two parts of The Collectors, which were previously published at Wigleaf, under the title:  “How They Were Found and Who They Were That Found Them.” That seemed to fit the obsessions of the book in a variety of different ways that I found pleasing; and that, as you pointed out, grew more complex as the book went on.

MMR: When reading these stories, I was amazed at how fluently and convincingly you transition between such varied voices. In particular, I was surprised by how accurately and movingly you conveyed women. In “His Last Great Gift” and “Her Ennead,” you capture a range of emotions that I thought were purely feminine—the hope and uncertainty, strength and weakness, of birth and labor; the altruistic submissiveness required for comforting another. Were you raised among many sisters? Was it your wife Jessica who taught you so well? How is it that you came to know the feminine mystique so intimately?

MB: I do have two younger sisters, and of course I’ve spent a lot of time with Jessica, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that these qualities come from anyone in specific. Mostly I never think of writing women characters any different than I do of writing men: I don’t think the differences between the genders are so extreme as to require a different approach. For instance, while “Her Ennead” is obviously centered around a woman’s fears of pregnancy, I wrote it out of my fear of the future, fear of loss—I don’t have to be a woman or a parent to know what it’s like to be afraid of a coming change, of losing what I’m sworn to protect, or of hurting the ones I’d love even though I’d do anything to keep from hurting them. It’s those kinds of emotions that I went to for those characters, and really, they’re part of me as a man as much as they are any conception of what I think it would be like to be a woman.

MMR: “Dredge,” one that made my skin crawl and my heart ache, features a protagonist, Punter, who seems to be a combination of Norman Bates and the main character from Slingblade. The tension is severe, and the main character—despite all logic or events—is somehow still emotionally compelling and innocent. Then, in “Hold On to Your Vacuum,” you use metaphor to turn our all-too-human struggle inside out.  The effect creates a disturbing dark comedy of self-reflection.  In “Wolf Parts” and especially in “An Index Of How Our Family Was Killed,” you use a postmodern approach rather than conventional narrative. You’ve been published in over 70 literary magazines and included in best-of anthologies of mystery and fantasy. Do you love to experiment with form and style? Do you have a favorite, or does the story itself determine which form it will take?

MB: I grew up as a reader of mostly genre fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, so elements of that definitely still pervade my fiction, which accounts for at least some of the range. For the most part, I rarely start with an idea for the structure of a story (with, perhaps, obvious excepts like “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed,” which was form first and content second. Mostly I start writing without any idea at all of what I’m going to be writing about, and then things take off once I find the voice: I mostly just try to expand a story one sentence at a time in the first draft, seeing where the voice is taking me. So for the most part, all these different forms and genres in the book came out of the voice I found, and what that voice had to say. It’s a fun way to write, because I get to experience the thing first as a new story being told, uncovered as it unfolds.

MMR: There are two stories, “The Receiving Tower” and “His Last Great Gift,” that were so provoking and complex that I’d like you to unpack them a bit more. In “The Receiving Tower” you paint a grey dystopia marked by forgetting; where soldiers can no longer distinguish between who leads and who follows, nor tell whether their memories are their own. Is this a commentary on life? The slow death of memory as the prerequisite for living? Or was this a reflection of war, of the endless sacrifices that ultimately remake a person in war’s image?  Where the only escape or comfort is in death? Or what?

MB: One of the themes I didn’t realize I had running through my stories from this period until after I started to collect them is that my characters often take on roles to start the story: They become a detective, or a parent, or a cartographer, and that somehow their fulfillment or failure of this role is what makes the story go. In Maon’s case, his fading memories means that in his role as the protector of the men in the tower he has to constantly make decisions from an unstable understanding of the situation: It was interesting to see how he’d react at each stage of the story, based on what information was and was not available to him, while keeping his essential character—his goodness and concern for the men—fairly static. And I think out of that emerged some of the themes you’ve mentioned, which hopefully have enough ambiguity to them to make them morally useful to the reader.

MMR: “His Last Great Gift” is epic; it felt like a Steampunk nativity tale of the Electric Messiah. An Old-West world inhabited by the spirits of our forefathers, the Electricizers; a Priest tasked with building the New Motor—an engine that will run on the energy of this new Messiah. This world-building and the Priest’s human struggles are magnificent, but I was surprised by the character of Maud Trenton. She, this New Mary, was so inspired; so unexpectedly holy. With her you untangle the great difference between religious hubris and real spirituality, and through her thoughts and words we see a huge love for and reverence of the divine. Is this true? Can you speak to your motivations and inspiration for this story?

MB: “His Last Great Gift” is based loosely on the life of John Murray Spears, a nineteenth-century spiritualist minister and medium, who did build his New Motor in the years before the Civil War. I’ve taken an immense amount of liberties with the story—only his character (and those of the Founding Fathers) are based on real people, and even then only loosely—but I was very much drawn to his writings from that time. He was part of a movement characterized by a sort of spiritual American exceptionalism that I think dates back to the founding of the American colonies, and continues today: There’s a sense in his work that America is the shining city on the hill, and that we’re somehow meant to be an example or a guiding light for the rest of the world. He really did seem to believe that his work, including the New Motor, would kick off an age of enlightenment in America that would result in a better, more just society, and it’s that belief—and the bizarreness of the New Motor and the New Mary—that obsessed me. I first starting thinking about writing about him about a year before I did, and it took a long time to find the voice to make it go. And then I got lucky again with the emergence of Maud Trenton: She’s one of my favorite characters in the book too, and I didn’t know anything about her until she first showed up in Spears’s office, and then started to take charge of the scenes she was in. Definitely one of those incredibly lucky occurrences that comes from sitting in the chair and working carefully.

As far as my own beliefs: I was raised Catholic, was extremely devout for two decades or so, and am an atheist now. But when you believe in something so strongly, it never fully leaves you. I’m an ex-Catholic in a way that is perhaps most like being an expatriate: I may have moved away and renounced my citizenship, but I haven’t lost my old accent just yet.

MMR: “The Collectors,” is a chapbook-length story based on the real lives of the Collyer brothers who lived in Manhattan and died as a result of their hoarding and isolation in 1947. Since then, there have been several attempts to tell their livesby playwrights, through film, even E. L. Doctorow’s speculative fiction. But what makes your rendition so unique, and has earned you such praise throughout the literary world, is your art. You tell this story of two hoarders in a way that actually mimics their living conditions—the details and tangents around and within them; you recreate an entire world within their home, which both shielded and then killed them. Your narrator is powerless to stop it, and powerless to look away. A tale of obsession told by the obsessed. What was it that made you want to recreate this tale? Was it the brothers themselves, their tortured lives? How long did it take you to find your way around their story? And did you edit or change anything in its telling from your original publication?  

MB: I can honestly say I hadn’t seen any of the other takes on the Collyers before I published mine, although certainly I was aware of some of them while doing research. (But not E.L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley—that came out six months or so after “The Collectors” appeared as a chapbook.) I first read about them the summer before, in a book I found while visiting my mother: It was actually a daily devotional kind of book she had lying around, and they were an example of what happens to people who don’t learn how to let go of things. But that little summary of their life intrigued me, and I started thinking about them quite a bit: It’s really a fantastic tragedy, and all the elements of a good story are sort of pre-existing in the truth. At the time, I was writing a novel draft, so couldn’t stop to focus on a new piece of writing, but I decided I’d write a little bit about them every day, as a warm-up exercise. So after a couple months, I had sixty sections of their story, without any real shape to the manuscript or idea of how to put it together. I spent another couple of months tinkering and revising and trying to find my way toward what eventually became “The Collectors,” with the major new addition being the development of that first-person narrator, obsessed and also uncomfortable with his obsession.

It did change somewhat between the chapbook version and the book in How They Were Found, but in mostly sentence-level ways—a collection shouldn’t just be a gathered pile of recently published work, but should cohere as a book in some way, and that required revisions of all the stories, to make them come together as a whole in a more satisfying way.

MMR: Lastly, we understand that you are two-parts writer, one-part editor and teacher, and another three-parts avid reader. Time must be a rare commodity for you. What projects are you working on now that you’d like to share?

MB: I am involved in The Collagist, and with Dzanc as a whole—I’ve worked full-time there since last July, and remain incredibly excited to be a part of the company. We’ve got some great books coming out right now—the next two are amazing collections by Peter Markus (We Make Mud) and Pamela Ryder (A Tendency to Be Gone), which I can’t recommend enough. As for my own writing, my second book, a novella titled Cataclysm Baby, will be out in April 2012 from Mud Luscious Press, and I’ve just finished the final draft of a novel, which will hopefully follow sometime in the next couple of years.

Thank you so much for your time, and your great questions. It’s been a pleasure to answer them.

MMR: Thank you, Matt. The pleasure was all ours.