Steve Almond, the author of the short story collections "My Life in Heavy Metal" and "The Evil B.B. Chow," was one of the guest authors at the 2009 UND Writers Conference in Grand Forks. He has written the novel "Which Brings Me to You" (with Julianna Baggott), and the non-fiction books "Candyfreak" and "(Not That You Asked)."
His most recent book, "Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life," which comes with a 'Bitchin soundtrack' (http://tinyurl.com/y2wtc29), was published April 13. He's doing readings from his latest book and planning a short story collection, "God Bless, America," due out next year. Here's a recent interview with the author, edited for length.
Q. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
A. I can remember listening to the Stevie Wonder song "Village Ghettoland" at age 10 and bawling my head off at the line about families buying dog food. It's not that I was some little saint -- I was a pretty typical suburban brat -- but the music made me feel this crushing sense of the world's deprivation, which no doubt lived inside me.
Q. Your ideal brain food?
A. Readings. When I first got to Boston, 12 years ago, this was all I did at night. I saw Saul Bellow and John Updike in the same week. People think of readings as these quiet, boring affairs, but that's total nonsense. Literature consists of the ravings of mad men and women! It's where the perpetual din of marketing falls silent and the darkest feelings get expressed.
Q. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?
A. I managed not to kill my daughter during her first 72 hours of life. Here's the thing they don't tell you about newborn babies: They are really fragile. And if you've been waiting for, like, 20 years to finally have a kid and idealizing the experience the whole time, supposing that babies are just these kind of complicated accessories, it comes as a major shock that they're so little and helpless and ... breakable.
Q. You want to be remembered for ...?
A. Aside from being a parent who did not allow either of his two children to perish in his care, I'll say helping to stem this country's growing tide of hatred and idiocy. President Barack Obama and Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow have all done way more than I'll ever do, but the writers I admire most -- from Kurt Vonnegut to George Saunders -- are the ones who recognize that artists are also citizens, and that we have a responsibility not just to create art, but to awaken mercy. That's what all art is for, actually: it's meant to make us feel more than we did before.
Q. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?
A. At the risk of being mocked, I'm going with Vonnegut. He spent his career trying to speak plainly about the things that mattered to him the most deeply. He did so, for the most part, without descending into didacticism -- my chosen vice.
Instead, he simply reminded his readers of what Jesus Christ preached in his Sermon on the Mount, that we should care for one another unconditionally, that the poor and weak should be exalted, not reviled, and that the suffering of others should be felt by all of us. It was Vonnegut who warned that our species will perish if we stop engaging with acts of imagination. This has never seemed more true to me than it is today.
Q. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
A. Several years ago, my dad urged me to get into psychoanalysis. My dad's point, as he patiently explained, was that I was unhappy and wasn't getting the things I really wanted in life, and he wanted me to get those things.
Two years and a fairly serious depression later, I relented. I spent half a dozen years on the couch, and there wasn't some big dramatic breakthrough, like you see in the movies, but I did gradually stop hating myself so much, and this allowed me to do better work and to treat the people in my life with more compassion and slowly but surely I did start to allow myself the stuff I'd been denying myself, chief among those things being a patient wife and two fragile-but-gorgeous children.
Q. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
A. Put a little fire in your belly. Honestly, Obama. I realize there are a lot of corporate interests aligned against you, as well as a minority party whose stated aim is not to govern but to excite rage and grievance of their mostly aging white base. I get that.
What Americans want in a leader, however, is someone who projects strength. Your predecessor got away with all sorts of idiotic policies because he projected strength. You've actually got good ideas for how to solve our shared problems. So howzabout advocating for them as if our lives depend on them, because they do.
Think of this as your own Civil Rights battle. Only this time it's not just about ending segregation, it's about safeguarding the fate of your children, and mine, and even those of the misguided citizens who compare you to Hitler.