Becoming Pillars of Salt: A Q&A with Steve Almond
New York Times bestselling author Steve Almond will be featured at Night of Vonnegut on April 30, 2016, at 6 p.m. at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center (450 W. Ohio Street). Tickets are available online.
Almond’s 2004 book Candyfreak won the American Library Association Alex Award and was named the Booksense Adult Nonfiction Book of the Year. In addition, Almond co-hosts the popular Dear Sugar Radio program with author Cheryl Strayed. Almond’s 2014 book Against Football is available for purchase now, and you can find him on Twitter (@stevealmondjoy).
In preparation for his visit, we had a phone call to discuss his love for Kurt Vonnegut’s work, lessons he has learned and his biggest regret of his writing career.
Vonnegut Library: When did you first encounter Kurt’s work?
Almond: When I was in high school, I read all of his books ten times, kind of like my daughter with Harry Potter. Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, even Sirens of Titan. He’s my literary and secular humanist hero.
As a teacher, what lessons can you learn from his writing style?
I always give my nonfiction writers the opening pages of Slaughterhouse-Five, which I think is one of the finest pieces of nonfiction that’s ever been written. It doesn’t matter when I come to it. I’m always absolutely flabbergasted his imagination and the assurance of his narration.
What Vonnegut was saying all along is that writing boils down to telling truths about the things that matter to you in the most direct way you can. There are certain people who are able to somehow run all of their emotions and their moral concerns through this powerful imaginative combine. Vonnegut did that. All of his preoccupations and all of his sorrows and astonishments and insights into beauty just got sucked into this incredibly powerful imaginative combine. Out of the chaos and ruin of his experience as a young man in World War II seeing the firebombing of Dresden, you get this miraculously strange and moving science fiction tale about Billy Pilgrim and this whole meditation on the nature of time itself. It’s a kind of transcendental myth sitting inside a pulp science fiction novel. It’s mind-blowing.
I think his training as an anthropologist caused him to step back and empirically try to understand how storytelling functions. People tend to view science and art as somehow antithetical, just like they mistake tragedy and comedy as somehow being opposites when they’re, in fact, kind of twins. You can’t separate the two. I think that’s true in somebody like Vonnegut. His mind works scientifically, but what’s driving science is curiosity. You want to know what happens next. What if, what if? That’s the basis of every experiment.
What lessons can you learn from Vonnegut a comedic writer?
All comic writers are, at the bottom of it, heartbroken about the human arrangement that we consent to. We know that we should, and can, do better and be more cognizant of the moral suffering of other people. That was the drum Vonnegut banged so eloquently for his whole career.
The comic impulse is not a tool that a writer uses, it’s actually a bio-evolutionary adaptation human beings need in order to survive. Our ancestors understood their mortality, the many ways in which they and the people close to them might die. This allowed them to plan ahead and not die. The second thing they were burdened with was a conscience. We know that we have to control our aggressive and sexual impulses and we feel guilty and ashamed all the time. Those things are part of the human arrangement, but they’re really tough to live with. That’s what our big brains have given us.
In order to survive that bad data, we develop this other thing, this capacity to forgive ourselves. That’s what the comic impulse is. It’s the thing that allows you to contend with tragic feeling states: shame and anxiety and disappointment and rage and so forth.
Every great comic piece of work from The Divine Comedy through Tristram Shandy and Catch-22, the other great World War II novel … All of those works are efforts to contend with feeling states that are essentially tragic. That’s what Shakespeare’s comedies are doing. That’s what Aristophanes was doing two thousand five hundred years before Jon Stewart was doing it; they are trying to express moral outrage without being moralizing.
That’s what great comedians of whatever sort do, is they just get to the truth at a higher velocity than the rest of us.
What was it like writing your essay on Kurt in Not That You Asked?
It was toward the end of his life and it was at a time that the country, I think, had gone in a very dark direction, toward the end of the Bush years, the second Bush presidency. There was a sense that we had, as a nation and as a citizenry, kind of lost our way. I kept thinking about Vonnegut as this prophetic figure who had been preaching about the chaos and insanity of war and the inequality of wealth for his whole life.
It may be the central regret of my writing career, although I have a number, that I didn’t write a full book about Vonnegut that allowed me to write everything that I wanted to write about his career. I wound up writing an eighty-page essay that’s the centerpiece of Not that You Asked.
Truthfully, I should have written an entire book about him because I believe he’s not just a literary figure but a major moral figure in our history.
In your opinion, what is the first book a new Vonnegut reader should take on?
I’d probably suggest that people read Cat’s Cradle. Why? Something about that book is so enchanting, even though it’s totally apocalyptic and has all this dread about technology and what it might do to us. It’s also got this utopian spirit to it. He invents an entire creed, an entire philosophy and religion and vocabulary, which is astonishing. Just think about that. Who the hell does that?
It’s amazing what he does in that book, and just how entertaining it is. I think that’s the reason that people miss what an important artist Vonnegut is: because his erudition is so goddamned entertaining. It’s wrapped in these beautiful fables.
What’s your favorite Vonnegut-ism or quote from his books?
It’s the epigraph on Slaughterhouse-Five, “Lot’s wife, of course, is told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.” That, to me, that’s Vonnegut at his best. He’s retelling the whole story, turning this minor character into the hero. And if you want to get deep into it, we’re all going to be pillars of salt. That’s what it is to be a human being, is to turn back and feel regret and sorrow and recognize that you lost something precious. That’s what we’re up to, actually. I love that quote.
Jess Walters spoke at VonnegutFest a couple of years ago, He had shared his interview moment with Vonnegut and the question he posed to him, “What would be the advice you’d give to a young, aspiring writer starting out?” So, I’d ask that to you as well.
I’m such a fan of Jess Walter’s work. Brilliant as an artist, but also at the moment you meet him you go, ‘that’s a decent guy.’
To answer your question, as I’ve said before, a writer’s job is to tell the truth as simply and directly as you can. That’s it. People try to dress it up. There’s all this talk of craft and point of view. Those things can be important. But to me, the central job is to speak about the things that matter to us the most deeply, whether it’s in fictional disguise or not, whether it’s run through that imaginative combine, as so much of Vonnegut’s work is. I really do say that all the time and it’s virtually stolen from Vonnegut, like so much of what I say.