DIY In Your Pocket: Steve Almond on Self-Published Humor, Hate, Advice & Sex
Letters from People Who Hate Me (self-explanatory)
Bad Poetry (and how)
This Won’t Take a Minute, Honey (short shorts and writing tips)
Writs of Passion (hot-blooded & tied in silver—better than a date with Foreigner)
Propeller: When I first heard you read from Letters from People Who Hate Me, at a writing event in Denver, I thought, He’s someone from my generation. I understand him—I know why he wants to confront the haters explicitly...yet it’s not like they’re going to buy this booklet for five bucks. Part of the book is a response to your letter, published in the Boston Globe, describing why you quit your job in May, 2006, as an adjunct professor at Boston College to protest the school’s choice of commencement speaker, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. After the letter was published, it went viral on the Internet and got 800 e-mails. Did you get personal e-mails, or were they sent to the paper?
Steve Almond: All the letters came directly to my e-mail. I’m pretty easy to find. And a bunch of right-wing folks posted my info on their sites, so as to help the nuts find me. America!
Propeller: Why do a DIY with the hate letters—and not just post online? What is appealing to you about DIY? Is it partly nostalgia? A male version of making artisan pickles? (I joke!)
Steve Almond: I just dig books. As in: the physical object, with the cover and the words and its one app called “Read Me, Stupid.” That’s the whole thing. In my crazy little fantasy world, I see these little books as gateway drugs that will get a bunch of teenagers to put down the iCrack and pick up other books.
Propeller: Did you send responses to the original writers? Did they write back? For instance:
You sorry piece of shit,
Fuck you pansy asshole.
Dammit. Now I’ve got a hard-on again.
Almond: There’s that one example of an e-mail exchange in the back—which pretty much explains why I didn’t actually send these letters.
Propeller: The back cover is very funny, too:
What they’re saying about the author!
“Please commit suicide with a hammer, or a nail gun.”
“I hope you don’t mind, I have submitted your name for sphincter research, their office said that donating your body would cover their needs for the next 100 years.”
It feels like you’ve embraced the Larry David or Louis C.K. approach to life. Do you hate the narcissism that goes into authors hyperbolically blurbing each other’s books, or what Spy magazine mocked in its brilliant “Logrolling in Our Time” column?
Almond: Actually, those guys have made a fortune off their self-loathing. I’m still plodding along.
Propeller: Who are you arguing with these days? Do you feel worn down by dealing with haters, or do you feel you can just keep going, a la Christopher Hitchens (who even had to contend with Christian haters while dying of cancer)?
Almond: I’m arguing with my children. And they’re winning.
Propeller: You also apply that condemnation to your poetry (and yourself) in your DIY book Bad Poetry: (A Book). You publish poems you wrote when you were young and then critique them. I read it on the plane, and I was laughing so much that I was interrupting my husband to read parts aloud. He was trying to ignore me and read reviews of guitar effects pedals. In response to one poem’s line “pigeony shoppers” you write, “Ah, the portraiture of the Bad Poet! Is there nothing this brilliant young man doesn’t notice? No brow he cannot crowd with thought, no finger he cannot web, not shopper he cannot, uh, pigeon?” Do you feel like you’re bullying yourself when you rip apart your early poems?
Almond: Not bullying myself at all. Just looking back and trying to get a grip on my bad decisions. It’s really more an act of self-forgiveness.
Propeller: With Bad Poetry, you have control over the humor because you’re analyzing your past attempts at literary pretentions. When do you feel vulnerable as a writer? Do criticisms affect you or can you distance yourself?
Almond: Oh, I’m happy to criticize myself. It’s part of how I inoculate myself. But I’m furious and heartbroken when other people criticize me. Years ago, I wrote a long piece about this blogger who kept slagging me. I made some good points, but in the end a lot of my motivation was revenge. I’m too insecure as a person not to get rattled by criticism. Ultimately, the best revenge is writing well. But I can’t always do that. So grievance is something I struggle with. Mightily.
Propeller: How do you teach students whose attempts might be even “worse” than your poems? In writing workshops I’ve been in, if someone hands out a “bad” story, the atmosphere is always pain of the sort that could create hemorrhoids (which, by the way, I just had to check the spelling online, so now I’m sure my computer cookies are extra potent).
Almond: I was in some truly shitty workshops in grad school, and the main thing I realized was that bad teachers foster an atmosphere where students feel empowered to be critical. It’s very Lord of the Flies. But a good workshop should be about looking at every story as a chance to learn more about how and why stories can succeed. In some sense, I’m more excited about a story that’s weak, because it offers more to learn from. As a person, I struggle with generosity and grace. But as a teacher, I think it’s everything.
Propeller: When I was in grad school, some people handed out the same story, with slight revisions, three or more times because they feared handing out something new. Do you ever have students write freely (the dreaded writing prompts)? How do you break students out of the idea that a story should have x, y, and z, when that’s what they’re taught in high school or even a lot of undergrad classes?
Almond: Actually, one of my favorite things as a teacher is to give folks a clear rule (“manuscripts need a STRONG narrator”), give them a bunch of great examples, then set them loose to try their hand at it for 15 or 20 minutes. People tend to do AMAZING work. And specifically because they’re not crushed by pressure. As for “rules”—my take is that a lot of the creative writing dogmas out there (“show, don’t tell”) are applied in a sloppy way. That’s a lot of the reason I wrote This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey—to give aspiring writers a very basic, no-nonsense sense of the common mistakes they’re apt to make.
Propeller: In addition to your DIY books, I have some self-published books from Creativity Explored, a studio in San Francisco for developmentally disabled adults. I love Childhood Experience of Michael’s Life and Fears of Your Life by Michael Loggins and Whipper Snapper Nerd by Robert Margolis. I can project onto these books a sense of honesty and lack of pretense, though maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m like the people in that King of the Hill episode who praised Peggy’s art only when they thought she was mentally disabled. Do you have writing students who still have that guilelessness, or is it rare?
Almond: Oh, I think it’s pretty common. People are natural storytellers. That’s how they make meaning from the rush of experience. The problem is that when people become “writers” they get self-conscious—and that’s the death of art.
Propeller. I was curious how you feel about Amazon and the book biz, considering you have books out on major publishers, yet you also self-publish presumably apart from the Amazon blitzkrieg. In an interview, Amy Goodman asks Dennis Johnson of Melville House what his feelings are about Amazon and about Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post:
DENNIS JOHNSON: ... The other thing to remember about Amazon is it’s a company that feels no pain. They’ve, as far as I can tell, never made money. Their quarterly statements are consistently [showing that] sales are up—they’re astronomical numbers; they made $15.7 million last quarter alone—but their losses are up every quarter, as well. It’s a phenomenal track record, where—and, you know, in the retail market, how do you compete with that? How—in the book business, how does Barnes & Noble, how do the little indie booksellers compete with a company that can consistently lose money like that? Well, they can’t. They just can’t.
Do you feel you have to hold your nose and publish through any and all outlets these days? Would it be foolish to boycott Amazon?
Almond: Huh. The truth is people can make their own decisions about publishing. To the extent your talent and patience allows, you get to CHOOSE what kind of publishing experience you want to have. Amazon is just a huge corporation. It’s about making a profit from the stuff it sells. Some of its stuff is books. Period. It’s not their “fault”—it’s their nature. The reason I do my little DIY thing is because it feels like a more authentic way to put art into the world. Just cut out the corporate middle-men. But I do enough teaching and reading that it makes sense for me. It might not make sense for other folks.
Propeller: What were your thoughts when you heard about the purchase of the Washington Post (especially in light of Amazon’s business connections with the NSA)?
Almond: Like I say: Amazon is just part of the larger late-capitalist machine. The larger point to make is this: people should live their values, to the extent they can. Period.
Propeller: People Who Hate Me also seems like a corollary to an essay you wrote for Salon about confronting a bully, “Facing Down My Eighth-Grade Tormentor.” When I interviewed the comic artist Dan Clowes about a year ago for Propeller, I’d read your essay and some others in that series. I asked him via e-mail what he would ask a bully from his past. He wrote:
At a certain point, I realized that virtually everyone who’s ever done anything bad to me wound up having a miserable, unfulfilling life. It almost feels like I made some kind of pact with the devil and then had it erased it from my memory. I can think of nothing I’d want to do less than ever see any of them again.
So, Steve, how did you feel after writing that essay and confronting your bully? Did it have the effect you wanted?
Almond: Yeah, it did. It helped me feel empathy for the guy who bullied me, and to revisit a painful part of my past. Felt worth it to me.
Propeller: A few years ago I checked out a former middle school bully of mine (how nice to claim him) on Facebook, after he added me. He’s working in southern Virginia at a yacht club and was a fan of Sarah Palin. I don’t think there would be any point of asking him why he bullied me. I know why: it was because I was a “brain butt.” Do you ever feel it’s futile to argue against people opposed to your liberal, rational viewpoint?
Almond: Sure. And often it is futile. But bullies don’t always go away when ignored. Sometimes you have to confront them. Doesn’t always work, but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong approach.
Propeller: Now that you’re a dad, do you feel like a bullying cycle will continue for them, despite schools’ efforts to clamp down on it?
Almond: Oh, I think bullying is just a part of what damaged people do. And since we’re all damaged to some extent (except for Buddha!), we all, in our own way, bully. It’s all about how you manage your feelings. That’s what I hope my kids will be able to do. (Better than me!)
Propeller: What is your next DIY project?
Almond: Actually, I did a bunch of little erotic books called Writs of Passion. Filthy stuff. People can check ’em out, and order ’em, on my website.
Propeller: With this project you packaged it with silver pipe cleaners shaped into a heart and each book can be joined together to make a larger image. Do you want to package more conceptual books like this in the future, or was this just special?
Almond: Yeah, not sure what I’ll do for the next DIY project. But this one was a lot of work. Of course, it would have been more work if I’d stuck with my original idea, which was to include a condom and a piece of dark chocolate with each set of six books. I was going to call it, “The Literary Date Night.”
Propeller: You’re a very funny reader. Have you tried something like The Moth Radio Hour where you speak extemporaneously? It’s a rush to read funny material aloud. Do you have performance anxiety or just go for it?
Almond: I never get nervous before a reading, or storytelling thing. I’m a natural ham. But I tend to beat myself up afterwards for not doing better. Ah, Judaism!
This Won't Take But a Minute, Honey
Letters from People Who Hate Me