Author Steve Almond said the word “vagina” several times while reading from his latest book Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, about America’s devotion to the game and what it means.
(The author quoted professional football player Richie Incognito during his harassment of teammate Jonathan Martin in a 2013 bullying scandal reported by ESPN.)
As the audience laughed, I glanced at the white-haired couple sitting in front of me, wondering what they thought.
The husband’s jaw worked furiously, as though he were chewing gum. (Or tobacco. I have no idea.)
I think the wife smiled.
Almond, the acclaimed fiction and nonfiction writer, was in town March 3 as part of Colorado State University’s Creative Writing Reading Series to promote his latest nonfiction book, which Kirkus Reviews called “A provocative, thoughtful examination of an ‘astonishingly brutal’ sport…Comic, compassionate and thought-provoking.” He also co-hosts the podcast Dear Sugar Radio with Cheryl Strayed.
Almond also read from one of his self-published “little books,” about the size of your hand. He sells them at events for $5, cash only, “like a drug deal,” he said, holding up one of the books. “This is a nickel bag.”
The table on the side of the room featured many of his books printed by big-house publishers. But Almond said the cool thing about the little books is “I personally handed each one to someone.” So the books become souvenirs commemorating an event rather than a commodity.
The V word came up again when Almond read one note in Letters From People Who Hate Me that said, Steve, you are such a pussie. – Brian Holmes.
Almond’s reply begins,
“Brian, a couple of things. First, the word “pussy” is spelled “p-u-s-s-y” not “p-u-s-s-i-e” which I think would lead most people to believe I suffer from an excess of puss. I do not.
“Nonetheless, I get your point. You’re not saying I’m literally a vagina. You’re saying I’m a cowardly person. I’m not sure how the slang expression for female genitalia came to mean cowardly, but let’s leave that aside for now.
“Here’s the important thing. I’m not a pussy, or a coward. I’m a chickenshit. There’s a big difference, Brian. And us chickenshits don’t take kindly to being lumped together with all the pussies and cowards and wimps and wusses and scaredy cats and lilly livers and yellow bellies. Chickenshitery isn’t just some fad for us, some trendy lifestyle decision. I am deeply committed to running away from any physical conflict while shrieking in a womanly manner. It’s in my blood.
“The truth is, I come from a long line of chickenshits. My daddy was a chickenshit, and my daddy’s daddy, and his daddy before him…”
Early in his career, Almond would get upset over negative comments. But a friend pointed out, “Steve, you have a critic. Somebody shit on you. That’s success.”
Writers mislead themselves about their work, he said. “Nobody is interested in your good habits.” Readers would rather see doubt and uncertainty.
So he’s more philosophical and appreciate of hate mail now.
“These letters that people send me are honest documents. They’re more real than the b.s. on Fox News.”
Almond’s talk was a refreshing combination of laugh-out-loud humor (“The comic impulse is…a form of self-forgiveness”) and thoughtful musings, such as:
- “I think everyone is a storyteller…that’s how they pluck meaning from the world.”
- On his very short fiction and essays, some of which are one sentence long: “I love short shorts. They’re little bursts of empathy.”
- When he was younger, Almond thought writing was about describing pain. But he realized later, “Really, writing is about paying attention to the world…” not just to suffering “but also joyous moments.”
- “Every decision you make matters,” he said of the writing craft, even when you decide between using a comma or a semi-colon.
Those of us in the audience who weren’t familiar with Almond’s writing before the event quickly realized why he was introduced as someone whose writing is both real and surreal, who is like “a manic Columbo searching for details.” (He’s the son of two psychologists, so he is compelled to analyze “why.” About everything.)
During the Q&A session, an older gentleman pointed out the CSU was holding local residents hostage by building an expensive football stadium on campus. But Almond replied that all football fans in America are complicit in developing a culture that reveres a violent sport: “We’re not just fans, we’re sponsors.”
If residents are opposed to the stadium, he said, then their campaign needs civic-minded and engaged citizens: “We gotta get busy.”
I was first in line to get my books signed, and because the event planners forgot to set up a table for Almond, he sat in the front row of chairs, grabbing the little books from plastic bags and displaying them at his feet.
I looked at the three books, which all had bold, striking covers designed by his friend Brian Stauffer, and said, “That’s a cool idea. You have complete control of it.” He smiled and agreed.
“They’re all $5?” I asked.
“This one’s $10, a little more,” Almond said of his “craft” book This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey: Essays and Stories, which features writing advice, including one essay titled “This Is Just My Bullshit.”
I took a copy of all three. “Would you like these signed?” he asked.
“Yes, please,” I said, and asked him to dedicate one – Letters From People Who Hate Me – to an essayist friend.
He smiled and said, “You can read it before you give it to her.”
I opened the book later and read his inscription: “Mary! Love thy enemy.”
In Bad Poetry, he wrote, “Katherine! Write bad. Revise good.”
In This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, he wrote “Katherenine. [oops!] Love hard. Every day.”
Katherine Valdez pretended to carry only cash to this author event (Credit card? What credit card?) therefore spending a much more reasonable amount than at the other author event this week. Follow her @KatValdezWriter on Instagram and Twitter, on Pinterest, www.facebook.com/AuthorKatherineValdez and www.KatValdezWriter.wordpress.com/blog.
*Dear Readers – Next time, I’ll publish Part II of the post on V.E. Schwab, Brenna Yovanoff, and Emily Hainsworth’s writing insights, about finding a literary agent. Really. Thanks for your patience!