Smoking with Steve Almond

Read the Story September 15, 2007
story art

Everything in this story—the women, the toasts, the setting—is desperate and frenzied. But change one aspect, one word, and that tension falls away. If the women weren’t “late to somewhere else,” if they weren’t “throwing toasts like punches,” if they weren’t sitting in an airport bar, this story would be remarkably different. Four women sitting on a living room settee, for example, just doesn’t have the same impact. How much of your writing is deliberate, or do ideas and images pop into your head and you go with them without a great deal of conscious thought?

Airports are incredibly depressing places. I spend too much of my time there, and I think the loneliness inside me just gets activated. Why do people do all this flying around, anyway? What are they after? Something they can’t get at home, I guess. For me, this scene was a transcription of something I’ve seen a hundred times, these women in transit throwing themselves against their wishes so loudly you can hear the thuds.

126 words. That’s brevity. 126 words and a complete story! That’s genius. Tell us the secret to becoming a genius. Just kidding. But truly, are there any tricks to achieving succinctness of language without losing the essence of story?

The only trick is to write a shitty poem, then convert into a somewhat-less shitty story. That’s where virtually all my short shorts come from: failed poems. Poems force you to cut away every single word that’s inessential. It’s an instantaneous medium. No throating clearing. No table setting. Just life in extremis.

“…and tried to remember the last time their naked bodies felt a part of God.” That’s a beautiful line, one which I could imagine jumpstarting this story. How did this story arrive? What was its genesis?

It was just a matter of seeing these women in an airport, over and over, and trying to transcribe with fidelity what they were saying to each other, and the words beneath those words.

Your new book, Not That You Asked: Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions, is forthcoming from Random House on September 11, 2007. Give us the scoop on it, and give us a hint as to what might come afterwards.

It’s a nutty book, a collection of essays about Kurt Vonnegut and sexual shame and getting punked by a Reality TV show and getting mauled by Sean Hannity on national TV and the potential redemptive role of literature in a nation that has lost its moral bearings. The best thing to do is just to go to my dorko website (candyfreak.com) and read the excerpts.

As for what comes next, I owe Random House another book of non-fiction. Then I hope to publish a much smaller book of flash fiction, with some brief essays on writing. Then I want to get back to the bigger failures that await me.

Since this is my first issue with SLQ, I thought it’d be appropriate to discuss firsts. Writing firsts. First time you called yourself a writer, first publication, first check. Those sorts of things. So, dish. What is your most memorable writing first?

Probably just writing my first short story. I was working as a reporter in Miami and reading a lot of short stories, and I just said to myself: why the fuck not? I wrote this awful thing about some failed boxer. Totally narcissistic and wretched. But it was exhilarating to be writing under my own sail, rather than because someone else asked. Also: losing my virginity. That was a big one, too.

About the Author:

Steve Almond is the author of the story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, the novel Which Brings Me to You (with Julianna Baggott), and the non-fiction books Candyfreak and (Not That You Asked). His most recent book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, came out in spring 2010. He is also, crazily, self-publishing books. This Wont Take But a Minute, Honey is composed of 30 very brief stories, and 30 very brief essays on the psychology and practice of writing. Letters from People Who Hate Me is just plumb crazy. Both are available at readings. In 2011, Lookout Press will publish his story collection God Bless America.