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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Almond brings joy to reading of stories

Published: March 25, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

almond joy Author Steve Almond read excerpts from his short stories and essays on Wednesday. He recently began independently publishing some of his works.
photo by alan tran/the hoot

Author Steve Almond read excerpts from his short stories and essays on Wednesday at an event sponsored by the creative writing department. After the reading, he discussed his approach to his frequently comic work and his decision to begin printing some of his works outside the world of mainstream publishing.

Almond has had six of his books published professionally, including three books of essays and two short story collections. In addition to his writing, he frequently writes for The Boston Globe and previously served as an adjunct professor at Boston College. He famously resigned his professorship through an article published by The Globe in which he criticized the university’s decision to invite Condoleezza Rice to be the university’s commencement speaker.

Almond began the event by reading “Summers of Love,” a sun-drenched story of summer love that was touching in its frankness, laying bare the physical and emotional mechanics of a relationship destined to die young. He did not confine himself to his fiction; he also read excerpts from his self-published “Letters from People Who Hate Me,” a collection of letters he received from readers angry with his articles. He included humorous responses to each one as part of the work.

As a writer known for his humor, Almond discussed humor writing at length. He cautioned aspiring writers against believing that all comedy is superficial and that all profundity is the domain of more serious fare.

“That’s a real false dichotomy. The comic impulse is directly linked to the tragic impulse,” Almond said.

He described the two as being interconnected, with tragedy revealing causes for sorrow and comedy in turn giving instruction in how to best deal with sorrow.

“You have to grant a moment of forgiveness,” he said. “That’s what a joke is.”

He also noted the important role of comedy in forwarding the dramatic agenda, turning to “King Lear” for an example.

“The Fool gets to speak honestly to the king,” Almond said, also citing Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as modern equivalents.

Almond also discussed the role of politics and sex in literature.

He defended writers like Kurt Vonnegut who incorporated political themes into their work, noting that all people should cultivate something of a political stance. He made the point that all writing is, in a sense, political, as good writing should “make you feel more than you did before.”

He also bemoaned the reluctance of many artists to incorporate sexuality into their works.

“That’s where a lot of interesting, human things happen,” Almond said.

Almond also described his own writing process.

“I usually stay very close to what my obsessions are and try to examine them,” he said.

When it comes time to actually write a story, he cited the value of precision and then beauty.

“It doesn’t matter how pretty it sounds if it’s not precise,” Almond said, noting that writers must carefully select the language most appropriate for their work.

“If [the words] are really true, then usually it’s beautiful,” he continued, later cautioning that “self-consciousness is the death of art.”

Almond also spoke at length about his recent involvement with independent publishing.

Having had six books released by major publishing houses—with his most recent, “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life,” having hit shelves only last year—Almond is hardly against traditional publishing, which he characterized as “an artist go[ing] into a partnership with a corporation.”

“I have nothing but gratitude for them,” he said, “but that world is contracting.”

Realizing that he was having trouble enticing publishers to print “certain weird, idiosyncratic books [he] wanted to put in the world,” Almond turned to nontraditional avenues of publishing.

Using the Harvard Bookstore’s Espresso Book Machine—a device which allows customers to print their own works—Almond has printed three books: the aforementioned “Letters from People Who Hate Me;” the essay collection “This Won’t Take a Minute, Honey”; and “Bad Poetry,” which collects some of his worst poetry in a single volume. He sells these works exclusively at his book readings.

Thus far, he’s enjoyed his sojourn into independent publishing.

“Writers can create smaller, more personal books that serve as artifacts rather than merchandise,” he said.