Catch Steve Almond at Books & Books Monday, March 26.
Catch Steve Almond at Books & Books Monday, March 26.
Courtesy of Steve Almond

With Bad Stories, Steve Almond Explores What the Hell Just Happened to America

Author and journalist Steve Almond found himself struggling to wrap his head around the election-night results of 2016. The result of that journey is his latest book, Bad Stories: What The Hell Just Happened to Our Country. He'll discuss it Monday, March 26, with Books & Books owner Mitchell Kaplan.

The California native moved to Miami in the '90s to take a job as a staff writer at Miami New Times.

"I came to New Times when Jim Mullin and Tom Finkel were the editors," Almond says. "I worked with a bunch of amazing writers: Eva Rodriguez, Jim DeFede, Ben Greenman, Kathy Glasgow, Kirk Semple, Sean Rowe, Greg Baker. Just an amazing collection of talent. It was a strange and exciting time because South Beach, where I lived, was being converted from a forgotten neighborhood to a kind of glam capital. Lots of developers, lots of greed, lots of South Florida corruption."

He took the gig at New Times for the opportunity to write long-form journalism. But during his time at the alt-weekly, he discovered another passion.

"Working at the New Times, I started reading more, and that was my gateway drug to creative writing. I still do some journalism but also write fiction and a column for the New York Times , as well as a podcast called Dear Sugars with Cheryl Strayed. I live outside Boston and teach at the Nieman Fellowship too."

Almond isn't new to covering the state of American politics.

"I’ve been writing about our civic and political dysfunction for a couple of decades now. I did some of that work at New Times, and since then, I’ve written essays for various venues, from the New York Times Magazine to the Washington Post, etc. I’ve struggled to make sense of the American story in my fiction as well. In fact, I wrote a whole novel, back in 2011, about a racist, sexist celebrity demagogue who runs for president. So Donald Trump, or someone like him, has been on my mind for years."

Thus, it wasn't that Almond was surprised by Trump's election win. It was the why and how that troubled him.

"I know a lot of people were shocked by his ascension to the presidency. I wasn’t. But I was really distressed. I wanted to explain how it happened or at least begin to explain. And the conclusion I came to is that Trump is really just a bad outcome that results from bad stories that Americans have been telling for a long time. Those stories range from hallowed fictions such as 'All men are created equal,' which was written by someone who owned other men as property, to more modern myths, such as the idea that our devotion to sports unifies us. It doesn’t. It makes us more tribal and cruel."

Almond says his latest work, Bad Stories, is a literary investigation of "what the hell just happened."

"I look to writers such as Baldwin and Orwell and Melville and Vonnegut to make sense of it all. Writing the book was basically my best option, given that the other option was lying around in a pool of my own dread."

At the very least, the book has gotten him out of yet another snowstorm and back to sunny Miami.

"Miami is always changing with the tides of development and traffic. It’s not really one city. It’s about 20 little weirdo villages with some dangerous highways in between. There’s a kind of cultural chaos and natural beauty and sense of reinvention that’s pretty timeless."

With his event at Books & Books, he gets to revisit that beautiful chaos. And that's not the only reason he's looking forward to his conversation with Kaplan.

"I’m superexcited that I get to talk about Bad Stories with Mitchell because, without him, the book wouldn’t exist," Almond says. "Long ago, I wrote a long story revisiting the political conventions of 1968 (they were both in Miami), and Mitch was one of my main sources. He gave me a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death by the cultural historian Neil Postman, and it blew my mind. It basically predicted everything that’s happened in America over the past 35 years. Reading that book was, in a way, the first step that would lead to me writing Bad Stories. Postman’s basic argument is that Americans have turned everything into entertainment, that we’ve transformed ourselves from a citizenry into an audience. And when everything — from religion to media politics — becomes a form of entertainment, you end up with reality TV, not a government. Ow."

Kaplan himself is excited about both Bad Stories and having Almond on hand to discuss it.

"It’s a brilliant book that I hope will generate a thoughtful discussion about how we approach the seriousness of our time," Kaplan says. He too recalls Postman's work and says there's no reason Bad Stories shouldn't prove to be as provocative today as Amusing Ourselves to Death once did. "Serious discourse is suffering, and we need to not normalize what is happening. A good bookstore has a responsibility to be a community center, providing a safe zone for readers to be exposed to all manners of thought. Meeting and probing an author who presents a book filled with ideas is invaluable to readers and furthering a serious discourse."

And it is this kind of considered discourse that Almond says we need more of to navigate our current political climate.

"It’s important that people not get their heads stuck in the blender of the news cycle," Almond says. "Trump has figured out that saying and doing inflammatory stuff always baits the media into panicky coverage. But if we’re going to get out of this mess, it’s going to be because enough of us step back and recognize that we’ve got a lot of real problems to solve — such as, say, Miami Beach winding up underwater, or providing for our sick and needy, or keeping our children from getting gunned down by an assault weapon. Trump is the capital city of Bad Stories. But Americans are figuring out that bad stories always lead to bad outcomes. We’re going to start telling better stories — kinder, more hopeful ones. I believe that. I have to, because I’ve got three little kids to look out for."

Steve Almond. 8 p.m. Monday, March 26, at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; booksandbooks.com. Admission is free.

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