The Raw Naked Urge Of Just Being Alive: A Conversation With Salvatore Pane

Salvatore Pane was born and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania. His novel, Last Call in the City of Bridges, will be published by Braddock Avenue Books this fall. He is an Assistant Professor of English Creative Writing at the University of Indianapolis. His fiction has been nominated or shortlisted for the Pushcart PrizeBest of the Web, and Wigleaf’s Top 50 [Very] Short Fictions. More at http://salvatore-pane.com/.

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Used Furniture Review: Last Call in the City of Bridges feels like a real old-fashioned type of story: one guy coming of age and figuring out just what the hell life is about. Where did this story come from?

 

Salvatore Pane: From 2007 to 2009 I was writing a very terrible eco-novel about Scranton, Pennsylvania. It focused on the abandoned mines of Centralia—do you know about Centralia? It’s a small Pennsylvania town that was completely evacuated because the mines underneath it caught on fire—and at the end of the book, Scranton literally sunk into a giant hole.

To sum up, it was a complete and utter disaster. I showed version after version to my mentor, the wonderful and patient writer Cathy Day, and one day she took me aside and told me I could do better, that I didn’t know anything about this world, that it showed on the page. Deep in the background, however, was Michael Bishop. He was barely in the Scranton book, but Cathy said he was the most memorable character, the truest, and I honestly had the most fun writing him. I cut everything about the first book—the setting, the plot, the tone, everything—and moved Michael to Pittsburgh where I was living at the time. My closest circle of friends had just moved away, and I was spending a lot of time thinking about how and why that happens, how people try to stay connected through Facebook and the Internet and how depressing all that chatter can be.

I guess what I wanted to do was capture exactly what it felt like to be in your mid-twenties at the dawn of the Obama age. I wanted to take all that narcissism, all that idiocy, and even the raw naked urge of just being alive and somehow get it onto the page.

 

UFR: In the same vein, Michael has a lot of both nostalgia and guilt regarding his past. Can you speak to how past and present collide in the novel?

 

SP: This generation seems to be more nostalgic at a younger age than previous generations. When I was in college, my friends and I bought Ducktales on DVD. We spent hours drinking forties and just analyzing the shit out of this simple show from our childhoods. We watched an episode where Scrooge fires all these old people who work for him because they’re too slow and replaces them with robots, and for days, we talked about how Scrooge was a Reagan analogue and how Ducktales was this total mirror to the greed and materialism-gone-crazy mentality of the 1980s. We re-watched Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons. We pored over old issues of Amazing Spider-Man and X-Men. I sought out the Nintendo Entertainment System games I had as a kid, and today I own half of all the games ever produced for it. And I’m not the only one doing this. There are Nintendo games that fetch well over a hundred dollars on eBay because there’s this huge market of twenty-somethings who want to own all the crap they had in childhood. My buddy Amy Whipple owns just about every Babysitters Club book that’s ever been published. She blogs about them. My buddy Katie Coyle tears up if she thinks too much about the final Harry Potter book.

My point is, can you imagine your parents obsessing over minutiae in Brady Bunch episodes? Can you imagine your grandparents spending hours discussing the finer points of space travel in Buck Rogers serials? I can’t. They were fighting wars. They were sending men to the moon. What’s wrong with people our age that we’re so consumed by all the experiences we had as children? Why do so many of us want to re-consume those same media experiences again and again? I wanted Michael to display all of those tendencies, but I also wanted him to have this really traumatic, really terrible thing in his past. There’s a tension in him between totally worshipping the experiences of his childhood and wanting to bury everything that happened to him deep down where he’ll never have to think about it again.

 

UFR: How did you come up with Sloan’s counting for her “fans” on the Internet? How does that function in both Michael’s world and the larger world of the novel?

 

SP: I knew pretty early on that I wanted each character to deal with social media in some character defining way. Michael is out there drawing his web comic. Oz relentlessly updates his Twitter about his in-class experiences. Noah posts YouTube videos of basketball drills. Ivy abstains from everything except for Facebook. And Sloan records videos of herself counting to 250,000.

Sloan is easily the smartest character in the cast. She’s come up with this nihilistic project knowing that people will watch her videos even if there’s no subtext, no real attempt at meaning, even if they’re just hour-long recordings of her counting into the void. I see so many people adopting these disaffected, I-talk-in-real-life-like-I’m-on-gchat personas, and I just think it’s crap. They know exactly what they’re doing. They’re pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes. Sloan is a dangerous character. She was my favorite to write by book’s end.


UFR: In a broader sense: is our generation the worst?

 

SP: I really hope not. I really hope that this is just a phase, and we’re not going to be sitting in old folk’s homes tweeting about Kanye songs like Michael envisions in the novel. I want to believe that we can acknowledge that everything is really fucked up, that global warming will probably destroy the planet, that the economy will probably never recover, and yet we can still go out and attempt to be positive forces for good even if it’s on a local scale. But I’m not convinced yet. I see four guys sitting around a table at a bar on a Friday night all staring into their iPhones, and I think we’re doomed. I watch a YouTube video of some skater kid in Idaho ripping off his fingernails just to do it and think we’re doomed. I get drunk and livetweet playing Home Improvement on Super Nintendo and think we’re doomed. When my dad was my age he had a mortgage, a wife, and a son. I spend my weekends plotting trips to flea markets so I can find Sega Genesis games for cheap. How did this happen?

 

UFR: Why does Michael fall for Ivy? What is it about this girl that makes him eventually hit rock bottom?

 

SP: Michael is what so many of us are at twenty-five: a dumbass narcissist. I think he’s drawn to Ivy because in many ways, he sees a reflection of himself. She’s evasive, sarcastic, but he senses a tangible goodness just beneath the surface. They both have these really awful things in their pasts, but they responded to them in totally different ways. Michael refuses to even think about spirituality, and Ivy draws closer to her father’s honest faith in Jesus. I think Michael secretly wishes he could believe the way Ivy does. How comforting that would be. He wants to be better than he is, and he naively believes that somehow Ivy will fix him. But he can never reconcile her religious side with his inability to believe. They’re compatible on so many other levels though, so I think he tries to overlook this for as long as he can. It’s not a good strategy.

 

UFR: Is there any scene or part of the book you had a lot of difficulty writing or getting to work? Do you have a favorite moment?

 

SP: I had the toughest time writing the scene near the end when Michael confronts Keith’s mother. I had to rewrite it a good dozen times, and each version was radically different from the last. It just killed me every time I wrote it. I didn’t want to put any of the characters through that. And it just took me so long to get inside the mother’s head.

My favorite moment was actually writing the first scene. I’d never written Michael in first person before, but the moment I started, it just felt so right. The prologue that’s in the finished book is almost identical to the one I wrote back in 2009. It was one of the few times in my writing life when the material just flowed out. I was finally freed from the turgid prose of my eco-novel, and it was just so utterly wonderful to be inside a voice that seemed to have this energy to it right from the very first line. He became real to me in a way no other character of mine had before.

 

UFR: Moving onto your life as a writer, I know that you used to teach in Pittsburgh and now you teach in Indianapolis. How are they different? The same? Is one city better for your writing than the other?

 

SP: Man, I’m not even going to compare the two jobs, because I was an adjunct in Pittsburgh, and I’m full time in Indianapolis. I keep trying to write essays about what it’s like to adjunct, but they just keep devolving into tirades. All I’ll say is that the treatment of adjuncts in this country is utterly absurd, and I’d like to applaud my old friend and roommate Josh Zelesnick for forming an adjunct union in Pittsburgh.

As for the cities’ impact on my writing, I’m not fully sure yet. In so many ways, Pittsburgh is just a bigger, nicer version of Scranton where I grew up. Living in Pittsburgh for five years allowed me to continue to focus on the working class characters and settings I loved before, but being part of an alienating, upper class university left me often feeling confused and out of place. Indianapolis isn’t like that at all, but I’ve only been here a month. I still don’t completely understand the city. Everyone here is so nice. The thing I have noticed is the amazing literary scene. Vouched is here. And it’s just so amazing to be able to go to a really high class reading every few weeks. Roxane Gay and James Tadd Adcox have already been through town. Amber Sparks and Scott McClanahan and Matt Bell will all be here this fall. It’s amazing.

 

UFR: What are you working on now?

 

SP: I’m working on my second novel. I’m not sure on the title yet—it took me two years to get Last Call—but it’s a love triangle between fallen superheroes set during the summer of 2001. I’ve just finished a draft, and as I’m waiting for feedback, I’m working on a collection of bizarre stories about my favorite New York Knicks.

 

UFR: What are you reading now?

 

SP: I have a much longer commute than I’m used to, so I’m listening to a lot of audiobooks. I just started Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel which is pretty good so far. I find it difficult to listen to fiction while driving. I need nonfiction. At nights, I’m reading Nabokov’s Pale Fire. It’s one of those books that’s so good it makes you want to quit writing. It’s just amazing and totally blows up what a novel can be, and it was written decades before you were born. It can be paralyzing if you let it be.

 

UFR: And to round everything out: Does Kanye West function as a kind of Jesus figure in Last Call?

 

SP: Kanye DEFINITELY sees himself as a Jesus figure. He pretty much said so. In an interview he said he would be a character in the Bible if the Bible had been written today. I also think Michael sees him as a kind of Messianic figure. I’m not sold either way just yet, but I’m leaning toward Jesus figure. The dude sums up everything narcissistic and voyeuristic about this entire generation. I just love the guy and his work endlessly. I’m not kidding when I say I consider him a genius and the most important artist of our generation so far. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy will endure.

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This interview was conducted by Joellyn Powers (Books Editor), who will be entering the MFA program for fiction at American University this fall. Her work appears in BluestemTwelve Stories and Metazen, among others. You can follow her on Twitter @hipsternonsense, or on her blog about nothing at especiallyfreeing.tumblr.com.

 

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Comments

  1. Welcome to Indy, Salvatore!

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