Steve Almond

God Bless America

Reading Steve Almond’s short fiction collections in relatively rapid succession is a little bit like listening to your favorite band evolve over the course of several albums. The movement from Almond’s My Life in Heavy Metal to The Evil B.B. Chow to his latest, God Bless America, is akin, for example, to listening to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sergeant Pepper in the order they were recorded. All of this is a complicated way of saying that as good as each of Almond’s fiction titles is — as honest, as compelling, as attuned to the mysteries of the human heart — the next still manages to break new ground and go new places. Almond, in short, is still capable of not just wowing his readers but of surprising them as well.

What’s especially striking about this collection is that it sees Almond exploring and at times pushing the boundary between the real and the surreal. Early on, he presents the story of a would-be tax preparer whose love of acting gets him tangled up in a Boston-tea-party-themed drug ring. Elsewhere, a dying patriarch takes cues from a hallucinatory bird as he struggles to offer fatherly advice to his mostly estranged son. And then, of course, there’s the American accountant who finds himself all but trapped by a Sheik in a luxury hotel in the United Arab Emirates. Given the current political and cultural landscape in the United States, the odd turns in this collection feel entirely appropriate: surreal times call for surreal fiction.

Although things tend to take a turn for the strange throughout God Bless America, Almond’s characteristic fondness for humanity and its myriad competing desires continues to drive his fiction. Indeed, the author comes of first and foremost as a student of the human condition. Throughout the collection, he depicts a wide range of characters doing their utmost to do well by each other — the mother struggling with her son’s PTSD, the young waiter trying to keep an unhinged customer happy — while simultaneously trying to eke out a small modicum of happiness for themselves. In this sense, the book is highly realistic.

We are a hopeful species, Almond is at pains to illustrate in each story. More to the point, however, his stories suggest that our hope, despite all evidence to the contrary, is actually warranted. Life is strange and frequently challenging, but on the whole, life is also ultimately good.

-Review by Marc Schuster

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This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey

This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey distills in its purest form author Steve Almond’s literary aesthetic by collecting a series of micro-essays on the ins and outs of writing and then exemplifying those ins and out with a brief selection of flash fiction. The result is what may be the most concise and helpful book on how to write fiction ever published — a pocket-sized catechism for writers at every stage of the game.

Early on, Almond offers a definition of writing that calls to mind the advice Grady Tripp offers his students in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. According to Almond, “Writing is decision making. Nothing more and nothing less. Where to place the comma? How to shape the paragraph? Which characters to undress and in what manner? It’s relentless.” From here he goes on to discuss the various decisions that writers need to make with respect to plot, style, point of view and a host of other issues.

In the shortest of his “essays,” Almond offers a one-sentence definition of plot: “Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.” In the event that this definition needs further elucidation, he goes on to offer a supplemental essay on the subject titled “A Quick Survey of Where Your Plot Went Wrong.” (Hint: it probably has something to do with your characters and how you treat them.)

Elsewhere, Almond proffers such invaluable pieces of advice as “Metaphors Almost Always Suck,” “Excessive Emotional Involvement Is the Whole Point,” and “Slow Down Where It Hurts.” He also asks a pointed question: “Who Wants to Play with a Headless Doll?” As these titles suggest, the author pulls no punches when describing the difference between good writing and bad, yet he’s also quick to admit in a piece titled “This Is Just My Bullshit” that the dicta he has on offer are purely subjective.

As with all books on writing, the best the author can do is provide guidelines for writing the kind of fiction he likes to read. Fortunately, Almond’s tastes run a fairly wide gamut, and his talent as a fiction writer — as evidenced not only by the flash fiction included in this brief volume but also by his excellent short story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil BB Chow — renders his an opinion worth considering.

If you’re a writer, buy this book. If you’re a reader, buy this book. If you have either writers or readers in your life, buy all of them this book.

– Review by Marc Schuster

A Few Words with Steve Almond

A lot of readers probably know Steve Almond for  his fiction collections The Evil B.B. Chow and My Life in Heavy Metal (published by Algonquin and Grove respectively) and his nonfiction titles Candyfreak (Algonquin, 2004), (Not That You Asked) (Random House, 2007), and Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life (Random House, 2010). Yet while maintaining a high level of success with works from major publishing houses (including a forthcoming fiction collection due this Fall), the author has also gone the do-it-yourself route with his most recent titles Letters from People Who Hate Me, Bad Poetry, and This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey. With these DIY endeavors in mind, Almond recently took some time to answer a few questions about self-publishing and the effort that went into his labors of love.

You’ve published three DIY titles—Letters from People Who Hate Me, Bad Poetry, and This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey. What led you to publish these titles on your own rather than seeking a more “traditional” publishing arrangement?

Initially, I did it because I sensed that it didn’t really make sense to partner up with a corporation to make these little, idiosyncratic books. The editors I spoke to didn’t get what I wanted to do, or how it was supposed to make money. They were probably right about the latter. But now that authors can make books pretty easily, I just said, The heck with it, and did it myself. Here’s a more lengthy explanation: Presto Book-O (Why I Went Ahead and Self-Published)

I love the dimensions and overall design of This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey. The book has the feel of something religious zealots might hand out on the subway, or something meant to be concealed due to its subversive content. It also gives off a strong pulp-fiction vibe. How much of a hand did you have in the design? Was there dialogue between you and book designer Brian Stauffer? What was your process like?

Oh, totally. I always had in mind a book that would fit in someone’s back pocket, that folks could carry around. We experimented with a smaller size, then a bigger size, and finally settled on 4.5″ by 6.5″, which feels perfect. Brian’s a genius, so I let him do the interior design and covers. But I did talk with him a lot. It was a real artistic collaboration. As an example, in one early version of the cover for Minute, Honey, the lady in black is holding a “marital aid.” We both felt that was too overt, so Brian made it a whip instead. Much better.

Along similar lines, did you seek any outside help with editing your DIY titles? With marketing?

I show the manuscripts to my wife and three or four friends, all writers, all sharp editors. And I look over the inaugural edition of the book. As for “marketing,” I don’t do much other than look for opportunities to read from the books, and talk about them.

I notice your DIY books don’t have ISBNs. Was there a reason behind this decision?

Mostly sloth. But I also want the books to be regarded as artifacts more than commodities, and that ISBN number, with a serial code, is one of the things that signals that something is for sale.

Do you regard your DIY titles any differently than the books you’ve published through established houses?

Well, yeah. I think of them as much more personal and idiosyncratic projects. My intention isn’t to create a bestseller, but simply to find readers who might dig them. It’s a huge relief to set the bar a little lower in that way, to detach the work from the sales numbers.

Did you learn anything from publishing these titles on your own? Any advice you can give to authors or would-be publishers who might be thinking about doing the same?

All I’d say is that writers in the early stages of their career should really focus on the work, on making the best decisions they can at the keyboard, and not on how a book is going to move into the world. Those are separate issues. Also, as much fun as I’ve had with the books (a lot), it’s been a lot of work to take on the duties (design, printing, distribution, etc.) that a traditional publisher would handle.

To keep up with all of the latest news on Steve Almond, you can visit him on the web at stevenalmond.com. You can also click on the following titles to order copies of his DIY work: Letters from People Who Hate Me, Bad Poetry, and This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey.