Other Voices/OV Books is happy to launch a new mini-interview series, in which some of our favorite writers discuss the role of independent publishing in today's literary climate, as well as share their war stories about getting published, and make recommendations of their favorite all-time novels and stories.
Steve Almond was gracious enough to answer these questions during a long wait for his plane in Austin, after the AWP conference. His usual articulate self, we wouldn't have even been able to tell he'd just come off three days of partying, OR that his brain was under the influence of . . . um, Texas. (Okay, I know Austin isn't THAT Texas, but still . . . )
We hope you'll enjoy a few moments with Steve. Look for Lisa Glatt (A Girl Becomes A Comma Like That; The Apple's Bruise) next week!
OV: How would you describe the current publishing climate? What do you see as the role of the independent literary press today?
SA: Publishers are desperate, for which they can’t really be blamed. Fewer people are reading, in particular serious literature. So the publishers are left to flail around in search of some kind of hook that will make a book relevant to the masses, who don’t consume entertainment unless it involves a remote control or a mouse. It’s pretty easy to get pissed at the big publishing houses over crap like the James Frey mess, but that’s just the symptom. The disease is semi-literacy, the dwindling of people’s imaginative capacities.
As for the independent literary press, well look, more power to them. Anyone who puts books – particularly literature – into the world today is doing the work of angels and fools.
OV: Can you tell us how your fiction first broke into print, how you got your first book published, and what, if any, barriers you encountered en route to publication?
SA: Oh Christ, I’d need a week to answer the second part of this sucker. In brief: I wrote lots and lots of stories, which sucked for a long time. Slowly (s-l-o-w-l-y), they started getting published by various lit mags. Five years of this. Got an agent, who tried to sell my first collection. Twenty rejections or so. She gave up. I gave up. Then an editor at Playboy, of all places, told an editor pal of his at Grove/Atlantic about my work and the collection finally got bought. A mere eighteen months later, the book hit the shelves. Total time from initial send-out to publication: 3.5 years.
Welcome to publishing.
OV: How do you juggle teaching with writing? Does teaching enrich your work, or is it simply essential to pay the bills?
SA: I don’t teach to pay the bills, and I’d strongly discourage others from doing so. Unless you’ve got a great, tenure track job you’re going to become part of the academic underclass, an adjunct who teaches four classes to get by and doesn’t have time for your own creative work.
So I teach one class per term, maximum. Any more than that and I start to resent my students. I make money in other ways, such as journalism and drug sales.
That said, I love to teach. I learn more from my students than they learn from me.
OV: Do you believe writing workshops are necessary to the development of a young writer? If not, what are other ways you recommend young writers expand their craft?
SA: Workshops are like any educational opportunity: what you put in is what you get out. Period.
I was happy as hell to do an MFA, because I had no idea otherwise how to escape from my office gig. I love that welfare states for artists exist.
OV: What are your five favorite novels of all time?
SA: Stoner by John Williams
Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald
Slaughterhouse 5 by Vonnegut
Howard’s End by Forster . . . and Pride & Prejudice too.
OV: What are your five favorite short stories?
SA: “Beverly Home” by Denis Johnson
“The Barber’s Unhappiness” by George Saunders
“The School” by Donald Barthleme
“Love Too Long” by Barry Hannah
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver
also: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates
OV: What is the most important book you’ve read in the past year?
SA: Just finished The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo by Peter Orner. Tore my head off with beauty. Astonishing.
OV: What is the worst thing a professor, agent, editor or reviewer has ever said about your fiction?
SA: Pretty hard to narrow that down. I think the most damaging thing, overall, was a review of my first collection in the NYTBR by Claire Dederer. She didn’t just dismiss the book, she totally mischaracterized it. Even more disappointing, her dipshit editors let her do so.
But hey, them’s the breaks. You can only control your part of the equation, which is the writing.