NAKED & FIZZING WITH LUST
"People have two central dreams: to fall in love, and to become famous. What I'm writing about is the conflation of those two dreams: to become famous by falling in love. Because, among the aspects of falling in love that we don't discuss too much, is how narcissistically gratifying it is. We become stars! Movie stars! Porn stars! In the eyes of our beloved. At least for the first three months."
Andrew Gallix asks Steve Almond a string of pompous questions.
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3AM: How and when did you start writing? Were you influenced by any authors in particular?
SA: I remember reading Henderson the Rain King in college, and it just about blew the top of my head off. Those sentences ! That pure, driven energy! So definitely Bellow. Nobody writes sentences like his. Nobody. My dad turned me on to E.M. Forster, whose genius also whacked me to high heaven. At this point, I'm inspired by a new book about every few weeks. Last week it was Awake by Elizabeth Graver. Fucking brilliant. This week, Project X by Jim Shepard. Unbelieveable. Reading is like food for writers. You don't eat, you don't write.
3AM: Do you feel close to other twenty- or thirtysomething writers?
SA: Not sure what you mean by close. Like, do we make out? I'm 37, so I'm not sure how much I'd be hanging with the 20 sumpthins. They'd be like, Yo, what's up gramps? Why all the gray hair? But I really don't think of writers in age terms, or demographics. That's all marketing shit. Gen X. Gen Y. Total idiocy. I've had students who, at 20, are wiser and more human than a lot of codgers. But I will say that I have tremendous respect for the writers who are for real - folks like Karl Iagnemma (On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction). He's a pal of mine, but he's also a true believer. You read it in his prose. He just knows how to write, how to put you there with his people and make you feel what they feel.
3AM: You've become something of a sexpert with your regular contributions to Nerve or Playboy: how did that come about?
SA: Calling me a sexpert is a little like calling George W. Bush an intellectual. It would be nice to think so, but the facts just ain't there. That said, I do write about sex, obviously, which, I guess, is one of those things like: Well, if you can't have sex, at least you can write about it. Actually, only a small percentage of my stories have what we in the literary game call "hanky panky". It just so happens that most of those stories were published in my first collection. File Under: Sex Sells. But it's true that I still write stories that deal with sexuality or genitalia or whatever. Cuz they occupy a lot of my thought space. And, frankly, that's true of most people. It's not polite to say, particularly in the dainty pastures of high art, but people think about sex and their bodies and the consequent and related fears and desires a great deal of the time. I'm not sure this should come as a shock. And, in fact, it's a testament to our generalized cultural neurosis when it comes to sexuality that people would fix on the sex in my work. To me, sex is interesting emotional terrain, dangerous terrain, which is where I want to be spending time as a writer. Writing that doesn't feel dangerous on some level frankly isn't very interesting. But, just to be clear, I'm always aiming for the place where a character, or characters, are in emotional danger, and this happens much more when they're naked and fizzing with lust.
3AM: You write very convincingly from a female perspective. "Geek Player, Love Player" (in My Life in Heavy Metal) is a good case in point with the protagonist's mixture of sexual attraction and intellectual repulsion -- a typically-female take on the age-old body/soul dichotomy. I know you claim to wear female undies for inspiration, but, seriously, how do you manage to pull it off? What feedback do you get from female readers? More importantly, perhaps, who's underwear do you slip into?
SA: Recently, I've been spending a lot of time in Madeleine Albright's underwear, which has been really creatively lucrative for me. She wears the sort of bulky, heavily cosseted underwear typical of women who are a bit older. And at first, I found her stuff really confining. The straps were cutting into my skin. It didn't feel like my skin could breathe. But recently, I've felt a real sense of agitation, of tension, in her underwear. And, as I said, it's producing some interesting work. So there's that.
The next collection has three or four stories with female leads. Cuz basically, women are more inclined to ask the sorts of questions that make for good fiction: How am I feeling? Why am I feeling how I'm feeling? What went wrong? Was it my fault? They're just more alive to their internal lives than men. Not to say men are all clods. But, basically, more of us are clods.
As for how women react - I don't really think about my stuff in terms of reader reaction. I concentrate as much of my energy as I can on whether I'm really with my characters, emotionally, putting their feet to the fire, and listening to them yelp and, hopefully, providing them the balms necessary to forgive and survive.
3AM: The aforementioned story is written in the brash, breathless chick-lit style of women's magazines and is reminiscent, from this point of view, of James Joyce's debunking of sentimental fiction in the "Nausicaa" episode of Ulysses. Another possible reference point is Madame Bovary: the twist here is that it's the heroine's sarcastic tone which is subverted. Finally, there's Lolita, but although the protagonist dresses as Nabokov's nymphet, the true Lolita is the "Geek Player". Were these conscious influences and deliberate reversals?
SA: Not really. Just wanted to capture the bravado and the fear that was living beneath the bravado. To be honest, I'm more influenced by the people in my life than by books, I think. Not to say I don't get jazzed when I read great books. But I don't really think, as I'm writing a story, Wow, this is sort of like (Insert Book Title Here). I'm busy trying to stay with the characters.
3AM: If geeks have mutated into Greek gods, a similar evolutionary process seems to be at work in the literary world. Do you think it's healthy to sell books on the strength of looks?
SA: I'm going to refer readers to my story "Valentino", which speaks to this issue of the Beauty Gradient in our culture more eloquently than I can. Obviously, our hatred of the ugly is profound and sickening.
3AM: To come back to your reputation as the poet laureate of sex, what is interesting is that in many of your stories lust ends in tears and redemption seems to lie in romance or feelings of tenderness. Sex is usually transcended; humanity smiles wanly through animal passion. In an interview you gave to Identity Theory, you state that "the really interesting part of sexuality" is its "emotional vulnerability", "the feelings that lie behind people's desires": your characters are "desperately seeking a path from loneliness and desperation, and so they throw their bodies before their hearts". Similarly, in your infamous Poets & Writers article, you explain that you deal with "sex as a means of exploring heartbreak". (Your reaction to the "Dick Lit" epithet is also significant in this regard.) Your work has been described as obscene by puritan critics who can't read, but have you ever been accused of "sentimental obscenity" (to use Roland Barthes' expression) by intellectuals who often find feelings far more outrageous than sexuality?
SA: I'm sure I have. And they're probably right. I happen to believe that the most interesting ideas are emotions. Lots of people don't agree. Feelings are too squishy for them. That's fine. It's their life.
3AM: On a similar note, there is a decidedly moral tone to your work. The eponymous story of your first collection, "My Life in Heavy Metal", has many of the traditional ingredients of farce -- a love triangle, burlesque bawdy (of an aquatic nature!) and a didactic, detumescent sticky end: "These are the things I did. And I was punished for them, as we are all punished, in the end, for the degradations we inflict upon those we love". Boccaccio meets Feydeau; farce with a human face and a warm heart: are these definitions you can live with?
SA: Sure. Actually, the story "Heavy Metal" was inspired by the Old Testament, specifically the Song of Songs, specifically the chapter in which the lover betrays the narrator. Read the whole thing. It's the best sex writing ever written, and it's also exquisitely moral.
3AM: A recurring theme in your stories is the "theory of beautiful gradients" ("Valentino"), the feeling some of your characters have that there has been a "dramatic error in the accounting" ("Run Away, My Pale Love") -- a physical mismatch… Another very interesting theme is that of loss of identity through love. It is mainly developed in "Run Away, My Pale Love" in which the attitudinizing male protagonist is "ravenous for a love so grandiose as to obliterate (his) life"; he thinks that his girlfriend -- who makes him "feel different from (himself), heroic" -- has been "sent to rescue (him) from the dull plight of (his) life". Tell us more about the dissolution of one's prosaic identity in grandiose, heroic love.
SA: People have two central dreams: to fall in love, and to become famous. What I'm writing about is the conflation of those two dreams: to become famous by falling in love. Because, among the aspects of falling in love that we don't discuss too much, is how narcissistically gratifying it is. We become stars! Movie stars! Porn stars! In the eyes of our beloved. At least for the first three months.
3AM: You believe that artists and writers should take on the function that the church used to play and fullfil some social role. Two things: hadn't literature already become a substitute religion at the end of the 19th century? Don't you agree that if the 20th century taught us something, it's precisely that the humanities don't humanise?
SA: History is way too complicated to teach simple lessons. By which I mean, I tend to take stuff on a human, case-by-case basis.
3AM: How do you convey how important literature is to your students (to articulate "what it means to be human," according to your Poets & Writers article)? Do you think some of your current or former students will become great writers? You once attended an MFA program yourself: how important has it been for your writing? What's it like to be on the teaching side now?
SA: Let me just say that I already have former students who are great writers, and many more to come. I'm astounded by the talent I've encountered. I sometimes hear writing professors whining about the lack of talent they see, blah-blah-blah. But honestly, I've had some of the most remarkable students, and I've been crippled by envy and awe when reading their work. And, even if their prose isn't amazing, their effort to create art, to explore their insides, to express themselves, kicks ass.
3AM: To return to the gender issue, isn't it a little unusual for a man to be obsessed with candy and chocolate?
SA: No, it's unusual for a man to broadcast his obsession publicly. We're all freaks. All of us.
3AM: In "Among the Ik", the narrator states that Rodgers, the ageing widowed academic, "was trying to remember why he had started this story": why did you write such a beautiful tale of loss?
SA: I just got lucky. I happen to find a way to express a lot of my deepest human concerns.
3AM: Your first collection of short stories is entitled My Life in Heavy Metal, you used to be a rock critic and you publish a music webzine on your site called The Tip: to what extent does music influence your writing? Why do you believe that most writers are frustrated musicians? What kind of music do you listen to? Do you go to many gigs?
SA: If folks wanna see what I rock to, best to check out The Tip. But I will say that I don't have a TV, and instead, I listen to music about 10 hours a day, including while I write, and it keeps me alive. Musicians are writers with less editorial control and more guts.
3AM: You have written two or three "failed" novels. Why were you unhappy with them? Will you try to rework them one day?
SA: I wasn't with my characters. Didn't love them, and didn't know them deeply enough. It's the kiss of death. I may return to them. But not for a good, long while. I'd have to figure out why I loved them in the first place and reconnect to that.
3AM: Tell us about this novel you co-wrote with Julianna Baggott (Which Brings Me To You).
SA: Actually, we're still working on the book, so I'm going to refrain from saying too much more. Only that it was incredibly exciting to feed off of Julianna's energy. She's a poet, in addition to a novelist, and her sentences just crackle with vitality.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Andrew Gallix is one of 3AM's Chief Editors. He lives in Paris and has recently married.