Almond's joy got nuts
Author Steve Almond swaps candy for kink in his new short story collection
Candyfreak, the most successful book of Steve Almond's career, was something of a lark. The 2004 surprise smash hit is part travelogue of his visits to obscure candy factories across America, and part memoir, documenting his dependency on the sugary stuff. Almond's been known to dispense candy to audiences, as he did at last year's Printers Row Book Fair when he read from the book.
Almond, who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, returns to the fair on Sunday 12 to promote Candyfreak's paperback release and read from his new short-story collection, The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories (Algonquin, $22.95). The new book is a treat for readers with more adult tastes. With story titles like "The Idea of Michael Jackson's Dick" and "Skull," in which a stomach-turning sex act morphs into the ultimate expression of love, the book is a far cry from Candyfreak's gonzo confectionery journalism. Evil B.B. Chow is similar on theme to Almond's 2002 anthology, My Life in Heavy Metal, which earned him a loyal readership with its often irreverent tone and frankness about sex.
We spoke to the straight-talking author about candy (there's never enough), novel-writing (he can't get it right) and inspiration (creepy pillow talk).
Time Out Chicago: Were you shocked that Candyfreak took off the way it did?
Steve Almond: Yeah. I wrote that at a time when I felt very down. I started doing what I do when I get upset: I ate a lot of candy. I was feeling like I did when I was in school–overmatched, like a loser. I had friends say, "Well, you know a lot about candy, why not write about that?" So I started visiting factories and I said, "Whoa, I want to keep doing this. I don't care what it is, I just want to keep seeing candy in production." So the book is a number of different things at once, but it's very much a narrative of depression.
TOC: That's surprising. A lot of writers probably think you have a dream career.
SA: In some ways, maybe I do. I am writing stuff I'm very attached to. It certainly wasn't a dream when I was writing my two [abandoned] novels and failing at them. I'm not counting the current failure, by the way, which I'm about six months in on.
TOC: It's cool that you still publish stories on websites and in small magazines.
SA: You know, part of me is saying, "You dumb shit. Slow down and write one fabulous essay in six months and send it to one of these big places." The truth is, I just don't have the patience. So, I'm interested in getting the word out to young people who might become passionate readers.
TOC: I see you write reviews of your own books for newspapers.
SA: Yeah, and they're as vicious as vicious can be. Just by way of saying, "Look, man, don't think I'm not aware of my own bullshit."
TOC: In one of them, you called yourself "Somerville's crown prince of cock lit." Is it difficult to reconcile that with being known as the "Candy Guy"?
SA:Candyfreak was my UPN sitcom. It ran for about six weeks, and there were guest spots from Gary Coleman and whoever else. Now I'm back to short stories that are like Off-Off-Off Broadway. There's just a quantitative difference in the number of people who know me as the Candyfreak guy and the number of people who know me as the writer of these dark, sexually charged stories. But that's fine. If someone wants to talk about Hot Tamales–and I love Hot Tamales to death–that's great. I can't just say, "No, I'm an artist. You have to interview me about my dark soul."
TOC: But calling yourself that is sort of like Louie Anderson doing fat jokes, right?
SA: Exactly. It's an attempt to preempt their contempt by displaying even more self-contempt.
TOC: Were you making a point by choosing "B.B. Chow," which has a female narrator, as the lead story?
SA: I wanted to show range. Though B.B. Chow follows the same arc [as Heavy Metal], it's about heartbreak. You know, the ages and the genders of the characters, that feels like furniture to me. I'm more interested in what the central character desires or fears. I was hoping people would think this isn't just boy lit, which obviously didn't work.
TOC: Is there ever a time when you're writing a story with sex in it and you say, "Nope, I can't do that"?
SA: No. There are things I won't write about, and that I'm blocked and frightened of, and can't do it. But sex isn't one of them. There's a lot of sex in my stories, because I'm a horn dog, sure, but also because it's a place where characters are exposed and they're emotionally laid bare. It's so hopeful and ecstatic and embarrassing and comical. "Skull" was the result of me sitting around in bed with my girlfriend, and she asked, "What is the sickest thing you could write?"
TOC: So she doesn't have a problem with your stories?
SA: She fucking suggested it. She dared me. If anything, she's an enabler.Steve Almond speaks at this weekend's Printers Row Book Fair's Good Eating stage Sunday 12 at 11am, and participates in "The Fiction of Heartbreak" panel discussion at the Algren stage later that day at 3pm.