By David Duhr
I’m standing awkwardly on the dais steps between a seated Steve Almond and a line of fans waiting to buy signed copies of his three self-published books: Letters From People Who Hate Me, This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, and Bad Poetry. Cash only, with a heaping pile of the stuff on the table beside him. Calling to me.
It’s not like I want to steal from Steve Almond. I’m a fan of his writing, enjoyed chatting with him on the phone in advance of this piece, and had just met him in person at the recent Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference after his panel entitled, “The Road Less Traveled: How to Be a Writer Without a Full-Time Academic Gig.” But Almond’s growing mess of fives, tens and twenties bubbles with promise, especially at a conference hotel where bartenders are trained to ignore customers for the length of a Cheers episode before presenting them a $36 tab for four domestics.
Besides, I feel like he owes me — days earlier Almond had pulled a Ms. Pac Man on my daytime minutes, gobbling up over ninety of them while asking that the juiciest stuff stay off the record. And minutes ago he informed the crowd that he had raked in $90k in 2010, Steve Jobs money for a writer of literary prose.
Steve Almond is like a rock star in literary circles. As the AWP discussion — with well-known panelists such as Ru Freeman and Cheryl Strayed — was coming to a close, the moderator said, “Someone needs this room, so let’s all mob Steve Almond out in the hallway.” Her words didn’t take. The moment the panel ended, attendees swarmed Almond at the dais. My wings were vibrating with the fiercest of them.
Almond, it seems, is happy to comply. He’s the author of two story collections, a novel, and three nonfiction books, most of them with big-house publishers. His last three titles, though, have been self-published through the Harvard Bookstore’s Espresso Book Machine in Cambridge, near to where he lives in Boston. He calls them his “D.I.Y.” books, and he takes a backpack full of them to readings and events.
This crowd is eating them up, the cash keeps rolling in, and my chance to get some one-on-one time with Almond is disappearing. “I gotta get to the Metro, man,” he mutters to me. “I’m gonna miss my plane.” His bookselling and signing is growing a bit frantic, his left-handed scrawl increasingly illegible. A quick hug for a former student, a glance at the time, then the waiting line, a pause while a friend of mine asks him to pose for a picture . . . and then a bigger pause when a young man tries to buy a $10 book with a $5 bill.
We’ve talked about kids like this before, when I asked Almond on the phone why he self-publishes these little books. “My hope,” he said, “is that some twenty-year-kid forced to go to a reading at school because the f**king English teacher is giving him extra credit, maybe he’s getting a C in the class . . . and he comes to a reading and I read my letters [Letters From People Who Hate Me, 2010] or some short short that for whatever reason gets him excited, and he says ‘Five bucks, ten bucks, I can afford that,’ and he buys it and starts reading it, and he just feels that it’s something accessible to him, that it’s speaking to him not from above down to him but at his level, and it encourages him as a gateway drug to pick up one of my other books, or just pick up any book . . . that’s what I’m aiming for.”
See? Ms. Pac Man. And that’s just one line. With two sets of ellipses. But it’s a sign of the genuine excitement Almond seems to get from attracting young readers.
This kid at the front of the line has picked up a copy of This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey and holds it out to Almond with a five and what looks to be a credit card. “I can’t do it, man,” Almond tells the kid. “It costs me $5 just to print this.” He points to the stacks of books. “But the other two are five each.”
The kid points to the credit card, which is now in Almond’s hands. “It’s a Visa gift card,” the kid says. “It’s got eight bucks on it. You’re getting thirteen dollars.”
Almond examines the card, for some reason holding it up to the light. He looks at the kid, and the gateway drug in his hands.
“You can use it anywhere,” the kid presses.
Finally Almond puts the bill and card in his (our?) pile and signs the book. “This is weird,” he says.
It is weird, but highlights the conflict in a man who can’t afford to devote equal amounts of love to literature and his family of four. “I’m a cheapskate partly because I’m the sole breadwinner,” he told me in an email. “Raising kids in Boston is expensive. As much as I hustle, we still spend more than I can earn.”
Much like his friend Stephen Elliott, Almond isn’t shy about discussing the financial and promotional side of publishing. “I filled out 39 different 1099s for 2010,” he told the AWP crowd, “but I give back a ton to the IRS — and the rest goes to health care.”
This is as close as Almond gets to delving into politics during his panel, but outside of insular AWP, he bombards the conservative right with a barrage of leftist salvos. These days it seems that as soon as something goes down in the political world, Almond is among the first to react. He’s a regular contributor to Elliott’s The Rumpus (for which he doesn’t get paid), and once put an open letter in the Boston Globe resigning from his teaching post at Boston College over the school’s decision to invite Condoleeza Rice to give the 2006 commencement speech. Letters From People Who Hate Me is comprised of hate mail and death threats from conservatives, as well as Almond’s retorts.
“I don’t wanna be just another voice shouting,” he said on the phone. “But that [political writing] is my way of trying to respond to this stimulation-for-profit media cyclone machine that strips every issue of its morality . . . for peoples’ emotions to be excited on behalf of the sponsors.”
Almond seems to derive joy from egging on the right (“Fox News viewers are ideal fiction readers,” he said, “because they’re so willing to suspend their disbelief every day”), but when I suggested that his political involvement probably helps his career by keeping his name out there, he bristled a bit. “I don’t really know what ‘career’ means,” he said. “We’re talking about morality here. Are you a rational moral actor in the culture or not? Because you’re a citizen before you’re a writer; before you’re even a parent.”
Citizen, parent, and writer. It’s a lot to take on, but Almond tries to fit it all in — which has in the past earned him a reputation for what’s been termed his “shameless self-promotion.”
“I understand that because I keep really busy I get that label,” he said. “But from my track record it’s clear that I’m never going to make much money from my books. So how do I make ends meet? Nobody goes into a Barnes & Noble and says, ‘Hey, I wonder what Steve Almond’s up to.’”
That can’t be true, judging by this AWP crowd, and the book line that, after fifteen minutes, is still several people deep. It’s clear to me that we’re not going to get a moment to chat in private, so I say my goodbye and head to the hotel exit to indulge a nicotine habit.
Outside I shiver in the D.C. cold, watching a stream of twenty-year-old kids filing in and out of the conference. How many of them are here because of a Steve Almond gateway drug?
I think about how I never got to meet my own pusher, Kurt Vonnegut, and what I wouldn’t give to have been able to chat him up at a conference like this one. Almond isn’t at KV’s level for me, but standing next to him in the spotlight of that dais gave me a tingle, and the news that he has a new story collection forthcoming from Lookout Press is enough to get the literature addict in me fiending. I suddenly have an overwhelming urge to go find the Visa gift card kid and ask him some questions. Is Steve Almond’s writing like a drug to him? Has it led him to discover other writers that he might not have explored otherwise? Was that gift card actually at a zero balance, and now the kid is at the bar waiting 22 minutes for a celebratory beer?
I’m this close to chucking my cigarette and going back inside to hunt him down when out of the hotel door bursts a stocking-capped Steve Almond, backpack of books and cash slung over his shoulder, tearing ass down the driveway toward the subway, weaving in and out of groups of starry-eyed future writers. I can’t help but wonder; $90k in 2010, hundreds in cash on his person, fears of missing a plane, and the guy is sprinting to get to the subway when a cab couldn’t cost more than $15.
I want to run after Almond and ask him about it, but I also want to go back inside and find that kid. I’m having trouble deciding which is more interesting, the pusher or the addict.
It’s a tough call, but by now both Almond and my lungs are too far gone. So I go back inside, get in line at the hotel bar, and crack open my freshly-signed Steve Almond D.I.Y. book [Bad Poetry]. By the time the bartender gets to me, I’ve read it cover to cover.
The book cost me $5, the beer $9. Thankfully I’m addicted only to the former.