PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A CANDYFREAK
"A lot of this is really about how frightened we are, as a culture, of pleasure. We always have to make it something dirty and hidden. So one agenda of the book, in that sense, is to allow other freaks out of the closet."
Our first interview with Steve Almond by Amy Cox Williams
Copyright © 2004 Advance, the Ingram Book Magazine
3AM: How did your candy obsession begin and when did you realize your fixation was on a freak level?
SA: I'm not sure I had a moment of revelation, exactly. But it was one of those things where, when I looked back at my childhood, it was so incredibly obvious I was a freak, because so many of my memories were associated with candy. It really was my best friend in the world. I dreamed in chocolate. I'd spend hours thinking about candy, going to buy candy, stealing candy. I spent half my time lying on my bed, fondling candy. Because candy was the only permissible form of self-love I could find back then. It was only later, as an adult, talking with other adults -- who were happy to listen to me, but often a little alarmed -- that I realized the extent of my fixation.
3AM: You've published lots of short stories in various literary magazines, as well as a collection of stories called My Life in Heavy Metal. What inspired you to write Candyfreak?
SA: Honestly? Failure and depression. After my story collection was done, I spent a year trying to write this big, important novel. It was a total bust. I didn't love the characters, I didn't know them from the inside out. I was just pushing them around, hoping they'd bump into meaning. So I didn't know what to do. I got bummed out. And, as usually happens when I'm bummed, I started eating all this candy, and thinking about candy, and a few of my friends -- the ones who weren't terrified -- said, maybe you should be writing about this. I resisted the idea for a while, because I thought, you know, how can candy be deep? How can it be a subject worthy of my writer angst? The thing that tipped the balance was touring the factory where they make Necco wafers, which is near my house. It was like a religious experience. To an embarrassingly large extent, the book -- which was just in my head at this point -- was an excuse to get me into more factories. But the larger lesson here, for me, is that I do best when I write about my obsessions. Most writers do, I think.
3AM: What defines a candyfreak?
SA: It's definitely not a quantity thing, just eating a lot of candy. It has more to do more with being conscious of what you're putting in your mouth, thinking about the flavors and textures, the mouthfeel, of a particular piece. And I do think that most people have a freak streak in them, some particular candy, or snack thing, or whatever, that haunts them (in a good way).
3AM: What was the strangest candy bar you discovered while researching the book?
SA: That's a tough one, because my specific interest was in all these little, obscure regional bars, which tend to be much stranger than the national brands. But I'm going to go with the Idaho Spud, which is just totally bizarre and wonderful on so many levels. To begin with, it's shaped like a half potato. The inside is this special marshmallow that's made with a seaweed derivative called agar agar, rather than gelatin, and has a tofu-like consistency. The marshmallow is flavored with maple and cocoa, which gives it this grayish color, which a lot of folks find disconcerting. The filling is enrobed in chocolate, then sprinkled with coconut. Even stranger: the Spud used to be shaped like a whole potato. The two halves were stuck together with milk chocolate. The old timers around Boise, where the bar is made, still complain about the new fangled half spud.
3AM: While on your candy tour across America, you discovered a not-so-sweet side of the candy industry today -- the realization that the big candy companies are devouring the small, regional ones. This seemed to be a depressing notion. Could you elaborate on this and offer your personal forecast for the candy industry?
SA: I don't really know enough about the candy industry to give out any stock tips, but the trend in confection -- like virtually every other industry -- is toward consolidation. The big guys get bigger. The little guys get gobbled up, or go under. It's really just the American way. The free market system is all about maximizing profits, which means getting everyone buying the same kind of soda pop, or tennis shoes, or candy bars at the same store (read: Wal-Mart). What's lost is a sense of regional and civic identity, the idea that the good people of Saint Louis or Chapel Hill or Troy have their own local bakery, or confectioner, their own idiosyncratic little specialties. I do think that some of the little companies I visited will survive, because they make so little money that the bigger companies aren't interested in buying them out. But others, I expect, will give up the ghost, particularly when it comes time to hand the business to the next generation, who might be too busy shopping at Wal-Mart to tend the kettle.
3AM: You write about "freak fetishes" -- strategies by which people consume candy. What's the most outstanding example you've encountered in your research?
SA: I was at this party last weekend and this woman gave me a great one. Her dad is a huge fan of Peeps, those little marshmallow chicks. But he doesn't like them fresh from the box. He likes to let them get a little stale (I guess this could be thought of as curing them). So she's telling me this, and another guy in our conversation circle says, "Everybody does that. Peeps are only good if you age them a week". Then a third guy says, "Actually, I like to let them age a month". So it turns out that there's this whole culture of people out there who age their Peeps. We're all such freaks.
3AM: Your descriptions of eating candy and witnessing it being made border on sexual. Do you see a correlation between candy and sex?
SA: I certainly try to. After all, both are very primal sensual pleasures. They're also frequently treated as forbidden pleasures. Part of this is basic: your folks don't want you getting cavities, or, a little later on, getting pregnant. But a lot of this is really about how frightened we are, as a culture, of pleasure. We always have to make it something dirty and hidden. So one agenda of the book, in that sense, is to allow other freaks out of the closet.
3AM: If you could make your own candy bar, what ingredients would be in it and what would you call it?
SA: It's hard to limit me to just one. Let me offer a few I've been thinking about:
- The Huckleberry Hound: a purple huckleberry nougat wrapped in dark chocolate. I'd never tried huckleberry before I visited the Idaho Candy Company. It's incredibly fruity and intense.
- Just Minted: light cookie wafers stuck together with mint and enrobed in dark chocolate. There's just not enough mint in our candy bars. You need a dark chocolate to balance the mint, which has a strong flavor.
- Witch Hazel: crushed, roasted hazelnuts on a bed of dark chocolate mousse, surrounded by milk chocolate. Uh-huh.
- Expresso Yourself: a milk-chocolate bar infused with a buttery, French roast-flavored coffee cream.
I could go on. And on.
3AM: If you were stranded on a desert island with only one candy bar -- what would you choose?
SA: The now-extinct Caravelle. It's like a 100 Grand bar, but 1000 times better. (This would make it a 100 Million bar, I guess). The caramel in that bar was mind-blowing, so fudgy and supple.
3AM: What's your opinion of non-chocolate candy?
SA: I love it. Though I love fine chocolates, I do think some people go a little over the top with the gourmet single-bean, caviar truffle type stuff. For me, a box of Hot Tamales or Red Vines can be just as satisfying as the hoity toity stuff.
3AM: I'd like to include a "sidebar" of your picks and pans (MWMs) --could you offer a short list of each?
SA: Sure. Here's an abbreviated list, with a little mishnah (commentary) on each:
Mistakes Were Made (MWMs)
Twizzlers: not just a horribly artificial flavor, but a texture that falls somewhere between chitin and rain poncho.
Chuckles: a fruit jelly the consistency of cartilage. Explain.
Circus Peanuts: a marshmallow pretending to be a legume. I'm baffled.
White Jellybeans: I defy you to tell me what flavor white is supposed to signify. Pineapple? Coconut? Isopropyl?
White Chocolate: this stuff is, in fact, not chocolate (as it contains no cocoa) but a scourge visited upon us by the inimical forces of Freak Evil.
Lime Lifesavers: The Lifesavers people haven't figured out by now that no one likes this flavor?
Bless These Freaks (BTFs)
Kit Kat Dark: the darker coating tastes like a fine chocolate pudding, with hints of coffee. Drool city.
Big Hunk: a chewy taffy that tastes like vanilla cake batter, shot through with fried peanuts.
Butter Rum Lifesavers: I was addicted to these suckers for most of high school. I love that Lifesavers got away with putting rum in a flavor.
Hershey's Cookies N Mint: Hershey committed a crime against freaks when they discontinued this sublime bar.
Haviland Thin Mints: once you try these, you'll never be able to stomach another York Peppermint Patty.
Raisinets: wonderful flavor and texture. Finally: a way to enjoy raisins.
3AM: Now that you've discovered delicious positions like "chocolate engineer", do you plan to abandon your writing career for the candy industry?
SA: I wish. I doubt I could keep any such job. I'd eat all the work product. Also, working in the industry, being around all those sweets, might kind of diminish their holiness. (Actually, I don't think this will ever happen. But I have to tell myself this, so I don't quit writing.)
3AM: If you are, in fact, sticking with writing, what's next?
SA: A story collection, tentatively titled The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories. My hope is that Algonquin will put that out in Spring 2005.
3AM: Anything else you'd like to add?
SA: Just that if people want to read an excerpt of the book, they can go to my site. Also, I've set up a Freak Testimonials section on the site, so people can share their candy memories/fetishes/quandaries. And also, I'd just like to say that I really appreciate anyone who's involved in the bookselling business, particularly the independent guys. They do the work of angels in this heedless culture (along with librarians, of course).
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Amy Williams began her career in publishing in New York, but the call of her southern roots drew her back to Nashville, TN, where she currently lives with her husband and dog. Her work days are spent writing and interviewing authors for Ingram Book Group Inc., and her free time is filled with reading, painting, knitting, and running.
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