Steve Almond is no stranger to tough subject matter. But it’s tempting to say the former Miami New Times staff writer’s 30-plus-year career arc as a journalist and author has been pointing toward the upcoming release of his first novel, All the Secrets of the World.
It’s no coincidence, then, that the journey began back in the 1980s, when the story takes place.
Opening in Sacramento, California, at the dawn of the Reagan Era, Almond’s edgy, retroactive thrill ride follows 13-year-old Lorena Saenz, who finds herself paired with classmate Jenny Stallworth for a science-fair project. Though the two girls come from vastly different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, Lorena is welcomed inside Jenny’s home where her parents, Marcus and Rosemary Stallworth, open their doors to a world of privilege. Within those walls, however, lie closets filled with skeletons and dark impulses. Wealth, power, influence, race, America’s broken criminal justice system, and a cameo by Nancy Reagan all play significant parts in this examination of buried truths, prejudices, class structure, and morality.
The story Almond tells in All the Secrets is fictional, but the issues the author tackles are by no means made-up. Before arriving in Miami, where he spent the first half of the 1990s exploring the city’s sybaritic underbelly as an investigative feature writer, Almond had been observing injustices during his stint as a rookie journalist at the El Paso Times in Southwest Texas. Living adjacent to the U.S./Mexico border, Almond would sip coffee on his balcony while witnessing unfair treatment of laborers as they crossed back and forth in search of work. Those observations deeply affected the Palo Alto native. His eyes widened as his outlook began to change.
“When I came to El Paso, I wanted to be a young reporter and rock critic,’’ Almond says. “I wanted to see Metallica and my name in print. But then I started to see the people coming from the border and began to wonder what kind of lives they lived. They go work menial jobs that no American would do, then go back over the border to take care of their families. As a kid who grew up in the Reagan era, the idea was: ‘If you work hard, you’re going to succeed’ — the white dream of how America functioned. What I saw in El Paso was not the American dream. There was a relationship between poverty, immigrants, and criminal mentality. And kids are still being taken away from their families today.”
By the time he landed in Miami in 1991, Almond was increasingly targeting his reporting radar toward underserved and disenfranchised citizens whose lives were directly affected by the powers that be. “A lot of where the book came from was being a reporter in Miami,” he says. “I did a two-part series on the Bird Road Rapist, who was a Cuban-American immigrant — a fry cook who basically looked the part and he was essentially framed.”
In a pair of longform stories, Almond delved into the legal process that had led to the wrongful conviction of Luis Diaz in 1980. (Diaz would remain incarcerated until 2005, when DNA evidence helped to exonerate him.)
“The idea was: ‘If you work hard, you’re going to succeed.’ What I saw in El Paso was not the American dream.”
Reflecting on his four years at New Times, Almond says he became increasingly frustrated at the injustices he encountered. “That story is a common story,” he says of the Diaz case. “That stuff seeps in when you look from the inside at how the criminal justice system works, and how the media clamor for ‘getting’ the suspects really does lead to an incentive system that’s almost invisible to the people perpetrating it. That’s what I’m trying to get across in the book. All these characters — I move into all their points-of-view because they all have different incentives acting on them.”
Almond’s years of reporting experience went into his depiction of All the Secrets’ lead character Lorena and her complicated family, whose roots trace to Honduras. “I’ve written plenty about myself and middle-class white life,” the author says. “I wanted to talk about two families: one white, powerful, and have money, and another more vulnerable.” In order to ensure accuracy, Almond referenced cultural experts and other journalists, as well as novelist Jennifer De Leon, a leading Latina voice.
Almond emphasizes that veracity was crucial when writing about a culture not his own.
“I have to be very precise and as careful as I can so they’re not flattened out,” he says of his characters. “I understand, especially as a white male — if you get it wrong, you should be called out on it. That’s a risk you take and I’m well aware of that. I’d be delighted to hear people say, ‘This is the undocumented experience, and here’s how it is.’”
Almond may be taking a gamble at a time in our culture where we’re continuously debating who has the right and the authority to speak on behalf of groups –– particularly those that are underrepresented and underserved. But in writing a social novel, he takes his responsibility seriously and views the book as an opportunity to offer enlightenment.
“If you’re only writing about your own experience and perspective, you’re not asking the reader to empathize with people who live in the same world as you,” he explains. “The stories of disenfranchised people must be told by themselves, I agree. But the job of the novelist is to try to imagine themselves in the lives of the characters and have sympathy for them.”
In February, months before the novel’s official May 3 publication date, All the Secrets of the World was optioned to Disney subsidiary 20th Television. Screenwriter Jon Feldman has signed on to write the adaptation and serve as showrunner.
Almond’s evolution from journalist to novelist wasn’t achieved overnight, but rather through years of personal and external exploration. As readers, we’re presented with the accumulation of his talent for intricate storytelling, his skillset as a reporter, and his lifelong compassion for all human beings, no matter their flaws or shortcomings. The result is epic.
All the Secrets of the World. By Steve Almond. Zando Projects. 2022. 416 pages. Hardcover, $28. Read an excerpt at pw.org.
All the Secrets of the World: An Evening with Steve Almond and Tom Finkel. 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 6, at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 305-442-4408; booksandbooks.com. Admission is free with RSVP via eventbrite.com.