Although he’d worked as a journalist for several years before attending graduate school for fiction writing, Steve Almond arrived definitively on the literary scene in 2002 when his smart and memorable short story collection My Life in Heavy Metal was published. It was his second book, Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, however, that truly launched him as a writerly force when it became a national bestseller in 2004. Candyfreak is a funny, candid, well-researched memoir/journalistic nonfiction hybrid that offers vivid glimpses of Almond’s formative years in northern California, as well as dispatches from his travels to several independently owned candy companies across the United States. Almond’s voice is alternately wry and affable, confiding and melancholic. He’s like the droll and irreverent older cousin you wish you saw more often, the one who can be counted on for wise, uncondescending advice.
Along with Candyfreak, Almond has published three story collections; a novel coauthored with Julianna Baggott, Which Brings Me to You; and six other works of nonfiction—among them, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto and Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country. He also cohosts Dear Sugars with Cheryl Strayed, a popular advice podcast produced by the New York Times.
Despite what could reasonably be considered a polymathic writerly aptitude, novels have long been Almond’s first love, and, as he notes below, he wrote several before finishing the one that serves as his solo debut, All the Secrets of the World, which will be published this month by Zando Projects, a new publishing house founded by Michelle Obama’s Becoming editor Molly Stern. Stern has also edited other mega-selling books, among them, Gone Girl and Ready Player One.
All the Secrets of the World is an almost fiendishly engrossing, thrill-ride of a novel that likewise manages to be humane and erudite and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. Linguistically, Almond toggles between the hard-boiled and colorful (think Raymond Carver) and the vividly sensory: “Lo’s eyes scrolled an ocean of sand,” “She smelled smoke, the tang of his sweat…his limbs were thick and covered with hair.” It’s a complex, ambitious, deeply imaginative novel, and weeks after finishing it, I’m still thinking about it.
Christine Sneed: This novel is set almost entirely in California of 1981, the year Reagan took office and soon after was shot by John Hinckley Jr., and both events figure into the narrative of All the Secrets of the World. What drew you to this particular time in history?
Steve Almond: I lived it. As a California kid of the ‘70s, I remember that assassination attempt. It was one of those events that should have knocked some common sense into our government. As in: Hey, don’t make guns readily available to lunatics. But this is America, so instead it became the impetus for Reagan’s ideas about “law and order.” He believed that crime is not the result of social conditions but the inherent evil of “certain” people—brown people, immigrants, the poor. White people could only live in safety if the state protected them from predatory minorities and immigrants. You can draw a straight line from the Reagan Revolution to the eugenic psychosis preached by the right today.
So obviously, I had some things to say. But I also wanted to capture the rhythms of the era I grew up in, which felt slower and more personal, less numbed out by screens and devices. I really enjoyed being in a world where characters interacted face to face, where secrets spilled out in person, rather than online.
CS: You worked as a reporter at El Paso Times for a couple of years after college and I’m wondering how that experience informs this novel, which features major characters who are Latin American immigrants and in the case of Lorena Saenz, first generation Americans.
SA: Secrets is a direct result of that experience. I’d never lived on the border, or even thought about it. And suddenly, at age 22, after a suburban youth and four years at a liberal arts college in New England, I was living in an apartment that overlooked the Rio Grande. The reality of immigration was right in my face. I could watch the day maids sneaking over every morning from my balcony, as I sipped coffee. The maquiladoras were jammed with workers, mostly young women coming from the interior of Mexico and further south.
When you live on the border, the story of immigration becomes quite stark: it’s almost entirely about desperate people wanting a better life in a country where they can work hard, improve their lives, and give their kids greater opportunity. Our immigration system essentially criminalizes the American Dream.
CS: You write from several points of view throughout the novel—including Nancy Reagan’s and that of a first-generation Honduran-American teenager, Lorena, who is the one documented member of her family. Did you begin All the Secrets of the World with this shifting point of view or did it evolve over time?
SA: Definitely evolved. Early on, Lorena was the only point of view. But as the tale broadened, I got curious about the other characters. I wanted to figure out who they were and what their stake in the story was. The only way to do that was to get inside their heads. As I did this, the psychological thriller I’d been writing started morphing into a social novel about how the powerful and powerless collide. But I didn’t want to reduce my characters into villains and victims. Someone like Nancy Reagan makes for an easy target. The fashion obsession, the fatal naiveté. But she was also a true believer in her husband’s political destiny, and when he was shot, she behaved—as most of us would—like a hyper-protective partner. But if I’m going get inside Nancy, then I damn well better extend the same compassion to Lorena’s undocumented mother and brother, because they’re the ones in the most danger.
Obviously, there are real risks to writing about the disenfranchised from a position of privilege. I’ve never had to move through the world as a woman of color or an immigrant or an undocumented person. So if I get anything wrong, I’ll deserve whatever criticism comes my way. At the same time, my goal is to understand the inner lives of my characters, to empathize with all of them. To do that, I had to live inside them, to understand the story they were born into, and how they viewed the world.
CS: There’s a fascinating amount of information about scorpions, astronomy, police work and legal procedures, the Mojave desert, Nancy Reagan’s wardrobe (as alluded to above), among other topics, throughout this novel—how did you find all this information? I’m guessing it was more than just through Google.
SA: Some of that came from my reporting days. Down in El Paso, I did a feature story about a couple of scorpiologists, who took me into the desert and switched on a giant ultra-violet lamp. I still remember watching the sand light up with the glow of a thousand scorpions. They told me that nobody understood why scorpions fluoresce and I remember pondering that mystery, too. Later on, in Miami, I worked as an investigative reporter, which involved a lot of reporting on police corruption. But there were other aspects—Nancy Reagan, astrology, the transmigration of Mormons—where I did use the Google machine. In the past, I’ve had a tendency to get obsessed with research as a way of avoiding my confusions about the story I was telling. But with this novel, I knew the story, so the research was just about making sure I got the details right.
CS: Your first book, My Life in Heavy Metal, was a short story collection, but you’ve since published as much nonfiction as fiction. Despite your pre-graduate school employment as a journalist, was fiction your first love as a writer?
SA: For sure. As a kid, the books I returned to again and again were all novels: Where the Red Fern Grows, Lord of the Flies, Cat’s Cradle. But I never thought about writing fiction until much later. My family had a lot of creative people, but no real artists. So, I figured I’d become a journalist. That was my way of sneaking up on my artistic inclinations. I was nearly 30 before I finally screwed up the courage to leave journalism and get an MFA. I wrote short stories because those felt manageable. I could finish them without panicking. But as a short story writer, you figure out pretty quickly—usually via agents—that the world wants novels, not stories. My entire career has been spent slugging away at failed novels and bouncing back by writing nonfiction books and short stories. I wrote the novels partly because I wanted to prove I could “be a novelist.” It was an ego thing. And like most ego things, it collapsed pretty quickly under the weight of its own anxiety. But there was also a part of me that genuinely longed to create the kind of immersive imaginative experience I’d had as a kid reading novels.
CS: All the Secrets of the World is being adapted for television by Jon Feldman. Before I knew about its acquisition for the screen, I kept thinking about how cinematic it is. Did you also imagine it as a film or limited series as you wrote it? What do you see as the primary challenges of adapting it for the screen?
SA: I wasn’t thinking about a visual treatment of the novel at all as I wrote. I was totally preoccupied with shaking their secrets loose and pushing them into danger. But there was a lot of action in the book—scenes of temptation, violence, natural wonder. I spent a lot of time trying to envision those, so I could describe them on the page. Early readers told me they felt like they were watching a movie. Which makes sense. There’s a lot happening, plot-wise: teen rebellion, sexual predation, an alleged murder, a media circus, an FBI interrogation, a police cover-up. And that’s before you get to crazy old Nancy Reagan. I’d taken to describing the book to friends as a mashup of Jane Eyre and The Wire. So, yeah, I can see why the book appealed to Jon Feldman and the folks at 20th Century TV.
As for the adaptation—that’s really up to Jon. We had a long talk and he clearly understood what the novel was about at the deepest levels. But the truth is, I’ve made my artistic decisions as a storyteller. Now Jon and his team get to make theirs. TV involves a level of financial investment—and potential commercial reach—that is almost beyond my imagining. But it’s also a different art form. So I’m super excited to see what they create, while also completely uninterested in trying to control the process.
CS: In the acknowledgments, you mention that writing All the Secrets of the World was a long process. Would you speak to this experience? Did you start over entirely at any point? I ask this in part because of the present fervor for life hacks. Fiction writing skills aren’t easy to develop, and beginning writers usually have to work through many false starts and wrong turns before they write something interesting and alive.
SA: I didn’t start over, exactly, but I wrote the book in two shifts. I started in 2014 and got 200 pages down. Then the 2016 election happened and, like a lot of people, I went berserk. What was happening in the real world felt too urgent and distressing to ignore. So, I wrote a book, Bad Stories, in which I tried to explain what was happening to America through the lens of literature. By the time I returned to Secrets, in 2019, I discovered two things. First, that I was still really invested in Lorena and her fate. And second, that her story had become far more urgent. Because families just like hers were now being ripped apart at the border, by agents of the U.S. government. There was no question in my mind that I was going to finish the book. But not because I needed to prove I could write a novel. I was genuinely committed to the characters and curious what would happen to them.
That’s what you need if you want to write a novel: you have to be more interested in the characters and their struggles than your own ego need. That’s the central takeaway I can offer. It took me five failed novels to get to Secrets. I’ve spent a lot of time kicking myself around for being so inefficient. But in healthier moments, I can see that all of those failures were a part of the process. As a writer, the real question isn’t whether you’re going to fail or not. It’s whether you can learn from those failures and outlast your doubt.
CS: What are you working on now, if you don’t mind saying a few words about it?
SA: My hope (and it’s just that at this point: a hope) is to publish a craft book and another collection of stories called Songs for the Infidel. The craft book would be a way of gathering up all of the stuff I’ve been saying to students—and myself—for the past 30 years. For instance, I think the show-don’t-tell dogma has been a disaster for a lot of aspiring writers. But I’m mostly interested the psychological and emotional dynamics that keep people from doing their best work. That’s where I think most craft books fall short. The reason writers give up isn’t because they don’t understand the intricacies of point of view. It’s because they lose faith in themselves, and the stories they’re trying to tell. What they need isn’t technical advice, but straight talk about how to contend with the doubts and anxieties that hound most of us when we sit alone in a room trying to chase down the truth.