Steve Almond is the author of ten books of fiction and nonfiction, including the New York Times bestsellers Candyfreak and Against Football. His new book, William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life, comes out in June and is about reading and writing and the struggle to pay attention to our lives.
Almond will appear at Hugo House on May 21, 2019, to give a Word Works: Writers on Writing lecture on rendering the interior life. In anticipation of the event, Almond gave us some insight into his obsessions, the novel Stoner, and why writing sex is so important—and so hard to do well.
Perhaps as with all great novels, people either seem to love or hate Stoner. Tell us a little bit about why it grabbed you (and after 20 years, continues to grab you—so much so that you wrote a book about it!).
I first read Stoner in grad school and it was clear, from the first page, that it was going to be unlike anything I’d ever read. The author, John Williams, had done away with all the standard lures, the garish prose and lust-riven heroes. Instead, he had written this quiet novel about a completely unheroic academic. And yet, I couldn’t put it down.
I read it in a single night, and by the end I was steadily weeping. I honestly had no idea WHY I was so devastated. But it eventually dawned on me that Williams had zeroed in on the precise moments when this guy’s inner life was thrown into tumult.
In your New York Times Magazine piece on Stoner, you write: “The deepest lesson of Stoner is this: What makes a life heroic is the quality of attention paid to it.” I love this statement because it separates the heroic from most of the things we associate with heroism—achievements, moralism, outward-facing courage—and instead turns it inward. But how do you define high-quality attention?
Honestly, I think most writers (myself included) focus on the heroic as a crutch. We tend to forget that the deepest and most consequential experiences we have as humans are intensely private. They occur within us.
Stoner has endured as a novel—has become a kind of holy text to many of us—because it so purely honors that truth. The author simply focuses his attention on William Stoner’s life and documents every moment that matters with ruthless and tender precision.
Your last book, Bad Stories, was a literary investigation of what happened to our country in 2016; at the same time, you were hosting the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed, using great literature to help letter-writers with their deepest struggles. In both, you were grappling with the story’s power to influence our thoughts and decisions. How have these experiences impacted your approach to writing fiction?
Dear Sugars affected my approach to life more than fiction. I came to realize that what really drives our lives are the stories we tell about ourselves. I may have known that intuitively. But reading thousands of letters from people in crisis, you figure it out pretty quickly: when people tell bad stories about themselves, and about the world around them—stories that are fraudulent or cruel or willfully naive—they always get bad outcomes.
We focus too much on bad outcomes—but every bad outcome is engineered by a bad story.
You often talk about your books in terms of “obsessions.” How do you know when an interest or obsession has the potential to become a book?
Writers are always writing about their obsessions, whether consciously or not. That’s what a writing career is, I think: a kind of ad hoc transcription of the writer’s obsessions. In my own case, the obsessions I write about are the ones that won’t go away.
People ask me all the time, “What should I write about?” and I always say the same thing: “Write about what you can’t get rid of by other means.”
You’re teaching three classes at Hugo House this month, including one on How to Write a Hot Scene Without Shame. What is it that makes writing good sex scenes—or sex scenes at all—so difficult?
People get performance anxiety, plain and simple. They get self-conscious and insecure—and every bad decision you make at the keyboard is the result of insecurity.
What happens most frequently is that writers simply avoid sex scenes altogether. Which is kind of nuts, because one of things that all people have in common is an erotic life, kinks, desires, anxieties. And there’s nothing more thrilling than when characters get naked, because it’s such a dangerous situation, so shot through with hope and shame and desire.
Folks also tend to flog the language, or fall into cliche. But the truth is that sex scenes are interesting mostly because they offer writers the chance to undress their characters emotionally, to see them at their most vulnerable and ecstatic.