“We’re the Fools in Charge of Forgiveness.” Steve Almond on the Task of the Social Novelist
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
Steve Almond is the guest. His new novel, All the Secrets of the World, is out now from Zando.
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From the episode:
Brad Listi: I have to believe—and correct me if I’m wrong—but as I was reading, I was like, this has to be the most fun Steve Almond has ever had writing. Like the Nancy Reagan passages—she’s a character in this book, and you draw her beautifully. And knowing what I know about your past books and political concerns, and generationally speaking the times that we’ve lived through, that had to be pleasurable writing.
Steve Almond: If you took a Venn diagram of let’s seat two people next to each other who will truly have a difficult time getting along, because the very core identity of who they think they are in the world is diametrically opposed, it would be like: “Seating chart. Steve Almond, let’s put him next to Nancy Reagan, that’ll be a car crash.”
But in a certain way, that’s what made it delightful. That’s the challenge: the social novelist is trying to get at everybody’s motives and incentives, and trying to understand not just, oh, there’s this one category of people who are powerless and they are automatically the victims and they’re noble and so forth, and then there’s this other category that’s powerful and they’re the villains in the story. That’s not how it works. We’re all corrupt to some extent or another. We all have ambitions, we all have narcissism, we all have forbidden urges. Nobody is fucking purely innocent or guilty, and it’s just a matter of what story we think we’re living and how we’re formed.
That’s the challenge for me, was to go into Nancy Reagan and not flatten her out. And say, if she’s going to play an important role in this story, as I think she does—she suddenly appeared and she started messing around with the fate of these other characters from a position of great power—I’m not going to leave unexamined what she thinks she’s up to, because that’s ultimately a failure of the moral imagination. The writer’s always trying to get the reader to think, hey, don’t write anybody off. We’re the fools in charge of forgiveness. That’s our gig. That’s what we’re supposed to be up to. And that applies to everybody.
So that for me was really exciting because I realized a social novel doesn’t have to be finger-wagging. It can actually be totally compassionate, because it’s trying to get inside everybody’s head and heart and understand why they’re behaving as they do.
Steve Almond is the author of ten books of fiction and nonfiction, including the New York Times bestsellers Candyfreak and Against Football. He teaches Creative Writing at the Neiman Fellowship at Harvard and Wesleyan, as well as Hugo House, Grub Street, and numerous literary conferences. His essays and reviews have been widely published in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, The Wall Street Journal, Poets & Writers, Tin House, and Ploughshares. His journalism has received numerous awards including the top national prize for feature writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. His short stories have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, Best American Mysteries, Best American Erotica, and The Pushcart Prize. He serves as a literary correspondent for WBUR and appears on numerous podcasts. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.