When asked if South Florida in general -- and Miami Beach specifically -- served as an inspiration for the ticky-tacky resort setting of his "The Last Single Days of Don Viktor Potapenko," one of 12 short stories in his just-published collection My Life in Heavy Metal (Grove Press), Steve Almond nods his head slightly and smiles. "Oh yeah, I feel a powerful attachment to the place," he admits. "The landscape and the ocean, the sort of poetic squalor of it, the beach town a little bit down in the mouth that has this kind of cheap, trinkety allure and glamour. All the images in that story come straight out of swimming out at dusk into the ocean and lying there and looking at the strip, the neon, and the glow of it."
No stranger to the peculiar SoFla gestalt, Almond spent 1991 to 1995 working as a staff writer at Miami New Times, where his stories won a peck of local awards, as well as the 1995 national Society of Professional Journalists prize for feature writing for "The Canyon," a deft, detailed charting of the ebb and flow of daily life in economically depressed Liberty City. The experience primed him for the transition to fiction. "[Journalism] is the best training in the world," he contends. "You hear people's rhythms, the way they speak, their intonations, their gestures -- and the way that certain stories come out the way that they didn't even mean to come out, the subterranean story. I hope that gives me a good ear for dialogue."
Now 35 years old, Almond began writing fiction in his spare time in 1994, upped the ante by attending a weekly workshop at Florida International University, and then audited two classes at the school. After being accepted into the University of North Carolina at Greensboro's two-year MFA program in 1995, he committed to fiction full-time: "I needed the training wheels of the MFA program to get me off of journalism and into the fiction." Currently, he teaches creative writing as an adjunct professor at Boston College.
Steve Almond discusses and signs his short-story collection
Barnes and Noble Booksellers, 2051 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale
7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 18. Admission is free. Call 954-561-3732.
Mostly, though, he writes, with about 60 stories published to date, in magazines as high-profile as Playboy and as low-profile as Boulevard. Many, including the bulk of Heavy Metal, chart the mating rituals and romantic entanglements of young adults: from the intraoffice lustings of "Geek Player, Love Slayer" to the title story's two-timing, hair-band-appreciative (Warrant! Skid Row!) pop-music critic.
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But if his protagonists, primarily male, suffer through relentless relationship dysfunction, Almond undergirds his stories with a glimmer of hope, often filtered through the distorting prism of memory. "I'm fascinated by the idea of the past as a receptacle of regrets," he notes. "You love somebody way more after you've been with them, because you just choose out those moments that suggest how beautiful they were and how kind and how sweet and devoted, and you ignore what it was really like. Nostalgia just burnishes all of those wonderful, shimmering moments -- and you forget that you were restless and bored and it wasn't right."