Steve Almond is the author of eleven books of fiction and non-fiction, including the New York Times bestsellers Candyfreak and Against Football. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, and his fiction has been anthologized in the Best American Short Stories, Best American Mysteries, Best American Erotica, and Pushcart Prize. His new book, out this month, is called William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life , as part of the Bookmarked series from Ig Publishing. It’s about reading and writing and the struggle to pay attention to our lives. He lives with his wife and three children outside of Boston.
Curtis Smith: The history of Stoner, especially its ascent to fame long after publication, is a fascinating story. In your opinion, what is there about the book that made is resonate more now than it did when it was initially released?
Steve Almond: The book is essentially a sustained act of attention aimed at this one man’s life. And we’re living in an era in which corporations have realized that the most valuable commodity in a consumer culture is attention. So we’ve got all these tech and media companies designing devices and deploying algorithms specifically designed to hijack our attention. We’ve become convinced that getting others to pay attention to our lives is more important than paying attention to our own lives. In fact, corporations don’t want people to engage with their inner lives, because we’re better consumers if we’re in a persistent state of agitation. Stoner was overlooked in 1965, in part because the culture was focused on the upheaval of the Civil Rights movement. It was considered too quiet, too restrained, to traditional. But I see the book as way ahead of its times, as revolutionary, because it argues that an engagement with the inner life is the truest form of heroism.
CS: You’ve read Stoner over a dozen times, and after reading your take on it, I understand the book often meant something new to you with each reading. Can you address this a bit? Was this due to you appreciating/discovering more about the book? Or was it due more to the changes in your life and perspective that you brought into your readings?
SA: Actually, I think the two are in a feedback loop. Our favorite books are part of what allow us to peel back the layers of our own selfhood, to reflect on our experiences. The more we do this, the more we discover in those books. When I first read Stoner, I took it to be about literature as a form of redemption. A few years later, it was a book about how we engineer and escalate feuds. Then it was a book about the sacred mission of teaching, then the beautiful rigors of marriage, then the joys and terrors of being a parent, and finally a book about death. This is why I refer to our favorite novels as manuals for living.
CS: You look back at the book through a variety of lenses (more on this later), but the overreaching one is contained in the title—“the battle for the inner life.” Can you elaborate on this? Do you believe the state and health of our inner lives is in peril in our current culture?
SA: Yes. We’ve created a class of devices that simply annihilates human solitude. I take the subway in Boston and what you see these days is 50 people with their eyes glued to tiny screens. We are not, for the most part, musing, or daydreaming, or growing bored, or letting their minds wander. And we’re certainly not paying attention to the world around us. We’re simply staring into the tiny ionized horizon of our own distraction. And the effects are completely obvious: we’re more anxious and lonely, and less focused and content. And the sickest thing about all of this is social media companies have convinced us to put our lives on public display, including our inner lives. And the result isn’t a sense of connectedness and communion. Instead, corporations are using that data to sell us crap, and demagogues and corrupt politicians are using that data to stoke people’s primal negative emotions. They’re turning us against each other by turning us away from ourselves.
CS: You also look at the book through the frame of craft—especially its use of tone and pace. When you introduce Stoner to your students, what lessons do you hope they take from it? In general, what has the reaction been to Stoner?
SA: I say in the book that reading Stoner taught me more than any workshop I ever took, and what I mean is that I learned about the power of a strong, independent narrator from Stoner. That narrator is the mechanism of its enthrallment, because it focuses our attention only on those moments when William Stoner’s inner life is in upheaval. The pacing is relentless because he’s constantly slammed up against his own fears and desires. Some people react to the book badly. They find it too intense and depressing. Fair enough. You can’t force someone to engage with the inner life. But the general reaction, for those who stick with it, is quite powerful.
CS: Many of the chapters look at the book from different perspectives—Stoner as a parent, as a teacher, as a husband. One of the most interesting that I hadn’t considered before was viewing the story through the perspective of class. Can you tell us about that? Did this come to you right away—or did it only come to you after a few readings? Why is this aspect of the story so compelling in our current society?
SA: It took me a while to see it, because there’s so much else packed into the book, but Stoner is a child of poverty. He grows up on a subsistence farm where there is no life of the mind. And he manages to become a part of the academy. He lives through the Great Depression and he remains acutely aware of the poverty around him. He feels the shame of poverty his entire life. It never leaves him. I argue in the book that he courts and marries Edith, consciously, because she’s rich. And unconsciously, because he needs to punish himself for the sin of abandoning the farm he grew up on (and his parents). He never gets over that guilt. Stoner argues that those who grow up poor can never entirely escape the deprivation of their past, which is one of the fantasies that many social novels promulgate. The intrepid hero overcomes hardship to lead a life of plenitude—think Dickens, or Jane Eyre. It’s a wish fantasy, and Stoner calls bullshit on it.
CS: Was it always Stoner or nothing else for this project? If not, what were some other titles you considered?
SA: There are plenty of novels I could have written about. Anything by Jane Austen. Or The Visit of the Royal Physician by Per Olov Enqvist, or even The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth. Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore. Airships by Barry Hannah. I could go on. Every writer has their own storehouse of touchstones. But no other novel has had such a deep and lasting impact on me. I’ve read Stoner so many times, and I always wind up a grateful, blubbering mess. The book has also tracked my life so eerily, and it gave me the chance to write, as well, about the larger American delusions in which we travel.
CS: Some of your observations take us to pretty deep, personal places, especially in the realms of death and parenthood. I know you already knew the novel inside and out—but did any of these personal echoes catch you off guard? Or did you know this was territory you were going to explore from the beginning?
SA: I knew certain things I was going write about—the literary inspirations, the feuds, the stuff about teaching. But the later chapters, the really personal ones about raising kids and mourning the death of my mother—those really came as a shock. I hadn’t thought as deeply about Stoner’s apprehension of death, the way in which he forgives himself at the end for not being more of a “success.” There’s this amazing line: He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure—as if it mattered. It’s the most forgiving sentence in the English language. And I was also so elated to reach it. But the last time I read the book, just after my mother’s death, it just made me break down. Because my mom never reached that place. She was such a heroic figure, and she died thinking she was a failure. It was just awful, but awful in a way that I needed to face.
CS: Now that you’ve immersed yourself in Stoner for the better part of a year as you wrote this book, how do you think your relationship to it will be different the next time you come back to read it?
SA: Not sure. Every time I pick up the book, I always tell myself: this is just for pleasure. There’s nothing deep left here to mine. And I’m always wrong. Great literature—all great art—has this kind of staying power. It’s always doing more than just entertaining us. It’s implicating us, bringing us alive to certain truths that we knew but couldn’t quite acknowledge.
CS: What’s next on the writing front?
SA: Short stories, my first love. I have a collection that I’m finishing up. No idea when it will be done, or who might publish such a thing, but I’m enjoying being in those other worlds.
Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).