Steve Almond is a short story writer and essayist. He has published ten books of fiction and narrative nonfiction, three of which are self-published. His narratives make great use of traditional plot structure, and in this straight forward, generous interview, he discusses his use of this construction in a surprising way: “The truth is I don’t do a lot of elaborate plotting. It’s not my strong suit. And it doesn’t have to be for a short story, which can ride out one overriding desire.”
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Interview: Steve Almond
Your stories make great use of traditional narrative structure. By this I mean: a strong tension builds until they reach a climax. A few stories from God Bless America—the title story; “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched”; “A Jew Berserk on Christmas Eve”—come immediately to mind. Do you plot out your stories? When you begin planning/writing, what is your starting point?
My conception of plot is primitive: you basically figure out what your protagonist wants and what they’re afraid of and you push them towards that. The stories you mention seem to have a “strong” plot because the characters have strong wants. Billy wants to become an actor. Dr. Oss wants to gamble. The Jewish college kid wants to have sex. But the truth is I don’t do a lot of elaborate plotting. It’s not my strong suit. And it doesn’t have to be for a short story, which can ride out one overriding desire. But in the case of novels, you do need to do some planning or, like me, you wind up with failed novels.
What are some of your favorite short story collections?
I love Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. Those stories are almost all about women at the end of their tether and they really don’t have strong plots, but Moore is so deep inside their anguish, and so funny, that I can’t put it down. Airships by Barry Hannah just blew my doors off when I first read it. The language is just wild, raw and elegant and precise and unexpected. Jesus’ Son is an absolute monster. Flannery O’Connor’s stories for sure. I loved Stacey Richter’s “My Date with Satan,” and not just because I published that story as a magazine editor. Oh, and The Palace Thief by Ethan Canin is a stone-cold masterpiece. I could go on.
In the workshop I took with you, you emphasized the importance of being close to your characters. Your stories have a lot of interiority—you fully inhabit the characters’ minds’—and yet the personalities you depict are so varied. I guess my question is, how do you achieve this? How do you establish these perspectives?
Yeah, I don’t know. We all contain multitudes, I guess. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that we all worry about the same stuff, carry around the same sack of regrets and wishes. With short stories, you’re really just trying to get into that one person’s head and heart and see them through a pivotal moment or two in their lives. There are other sorts of stories that are more ambitious. But that’s how mine tend to go. A lot of it really boils down to imaginative empathy—how well you can imagine what it’s like to walk around in somebody else’s shoes.
You’ve written many, many short stories (as well as works of nonfiction), and coauthored one novel. Would you ever consider writing another novel, solo (I seem to remember you saying that you wouldn’t, but I could be wrong) or do you favor stories? What is it about the short story form that you think is exceptional/unique?
I’m a failed novelist. Let’s start there. I’ve tried to write four or five and I wind up crashing them. Then I turn back to some form that suits me better—stories or nonfiction usually. Since I taught you, Sadye, I’ve actually started two additional novels, and looked back at another old one. But novels require a mastery of plot and organization, of sustained attention and architecture that is, at the moment, beyond me. That being said, I’ll probably keep whacking away at novels, just to make sure I never get too happy or self-satisfied. It’ll be my Ahab.
I also know that you have your own philosophy on flash fiction. In your class I workshopped a series of flash stories and you wrote in your comments, of the form: “I think of them as little bursts of empathy, stories in which traditional notions of plot are not abandoned, but rendered with radical brevity.” Would you care to expand on that? What do you believe a work of flash, at its best, achieves?
Flashes, to me, are like stories that land with the impact of poems—they have a compression of language, but still in the service of story. A lot of narrative is really about setting things up (the poet Lynn Emanuel calls this “getting Raoul into the elevator”) and there are certain stories where you’re really just looking for that one moment, with the set up being as abbreviated as possible. To me, you can’t just wander around in a flash—it has to be about an instant, a feeling, a revelation of self.
Interviewed by Sadye Teiser