In the 20 years since the publication of his story collection My Life in Heavy Metal, Bay Area native Steve Almond has rarely taken the predictable road. He’s written creative nonfiction (including Candyfreak) and social polemics (2014’s incendiary Against Football), and he’s even self-published. But the one thing Almond hasn’t done is write a novel.
All the Secrets of the World fixes that. The book begins in Sacramento, just before John Hinkley Jr. shoots Ronald Reagan. Thirteen-year-old Lorena Saenz finds herself enamored with her new friend Jenny Stallworth and her scorpiologist father, Marcus, a man of many secrets, most of them no good. Almond spins the novel down the length of California, across the Salton Sea, and into Mexico, creating a saga of missing persons—real and imagined—violence, social justice, and political satire.
California, 1981: a fun-house mirror of today.
It’s been 20 years since your first book, and you’re just now coming out with a novel. That can’t be by accident.
All the Secrets is the fifth novel I’ve written since Heavy Metal came out. The other four remain mercifully unpublished. After many years of whining and therapy, I started asking what I might learn from all these failures. And what I learned is that I really suck at plot. My novels were stuffed full of voice-driven speeches and set pieces, but there was almost no rising action. Weirdly, it was Aristotle who helped me grasp this. “But most important of all is the structure of the incidents,” he writes in Poetics. What readers want is story, a chain of consequence, this happens and therefore that happens. This, I think, is why Secrets feels so unexpected. It’s got this supercharged plot, almost like a thriller. It certainly felt different in the writing, as if I was racing to keep up with the characters rather than pushing them around.
You write from several perspectives. Is that a case of content dictating form or a vestige from your past as a short story writer?
The main reason for the roving point of view is that I wanted to get inside all the characters and understand their stake in the story. I didn’t want anyone to get flattened into caricature. Not even Nancy Reagan. I had my own feelings about Nancy. But the more I wrote from within her point of view, the more complex she got. So yes, she was this Gucci-drunk Barbie Doll who believed the solution to drug use was to “just say no.” But she was also a wife whose husband had been shot and nearly killed, and she wanted to keep him safe. It felt even more vital that I get inside the story’s most vulnerable characters. The simplest way to say it is that I wanted to understand everyone I was writing about, so I could forgive them.
The year 1981 was such a peculiar time in California. The hippy, free love culture had morphed: co-ops into cults, evangelists into killers, performers into politicians. This was also a time when child abductions became front-page news, serial killers plagued the beach towns and suburbs, and the state was choked with pollution. What a moment to grow up!
There’s definitely something about the California of our childhoods that’s glittering and sinister. That’s how I see the Reagan Revolution. On the surface, there’s all this happy talk about America as a shining city on the hill. But then you have to ask: Who’s living in that mansion? Who’s cleaning that mansion? Who’s protecting it? Reagan was a charming guy. But his vision of America was incredibly dark. He believed that the state’s given role was to protect rich white people from poor people and brown people and undocumented people. He got elected governor, then president, by sowing this kind of moral panic.
I wasn’t thinking about any of this stuff as a teenager. But later on, I had a bunch of experiences that woke me up. I worked in El Paso, Texas, and saw the reality of immigration, which consists of poor, vulnerable people seeking refuge in America. As an investigative reporter in Miami, I spent years documenting how police and prosecutors use the powers of the state to frame suspects. Writing Secrets allowed me to revisit the world of my youth, but it was really a way of dramatizing what was happening to people like Lorena and Tony Saenz during those years, which was the criminalizing of the American dream.
You’ve always been political. Did writing a novel allow you a different kind of discourse?
Yes, thank God. My distress over the state of the world is understandable but frankly tiresome, even to me. Writing this book allowed me to step off the soapbox and tell a story. The story does have a moral, of course. I am interested in how systems of power shape individual will, and tracing the historical roots of our current eugenic psychosis, and blah blah blah. But as I wrote, I became more interested in tracking Lorena, this indomitable young woman, and figuring out whether she was going to survive. Which is to say, I trusted the story and gradually erased the big-mouth narrator I’d deployed to make sure the reader “got the point.” Any book built to last has to travel beyond its own intentions, or it becomes a kind of rhetorical puppetry. The goal is to lead the reader deeper into moral confusion, not to impart a lesson.
After years doing the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed, does anything surprise you regarding humans?
The most amazing part of hosting that show—along with getting to hang out with Cheryl—was reading the letters. We got thousands. Nearly every one was written by a person whose profound pain was, essentially, a secret. The whole reason they were writing to us was because the weight of that secret was killing them. They needed to unburden themselves. And as we read the letters, we could often tell that the writer was keeping secrets from themselves as well. Secrets such as I don’t feel safe in this marriage. Or I need to leave, but I don’t know how. So that played a big role in shaping my novel, realizing the tremendous struggle we’re all engaged in, every day, as we try to hide the scariest parts of ourselves from the world. Nothing really surprises me about human beings. But I remain bewildered by our capacity to hide so much from one another, to carry it all alone.•