Interview: Salvatore Pane

By Dan Kirk

To meet Salvatore Pane in person is to be engaged. Friendly and spirited, he fills the room with a devil-may-care but darn-I-like-people attitude. On a recent winter evening, he and other writers met in a room above a bar in Pittsburgh.

Salvatore comes off as a hipster who would be comfortable being labeled a nerd, and that is no slight. He seems to be welcome in the world of intellectuals and creatives who are often mislabeled. But he is very serious about writing.

His spike-ledge hair compliments a gray sweater pulled over a black button-down, the modern professional/city-dweller look. Pane’s work has appeared in PANK, Annalemma, and Weave, among others.  Pane is a former lecturer at Chatham University and his novel, Last Call in the City of Bridges, was published by Braddock Avenue Books on November 6th.

The Fourth River: At the end of “Man of Ego, Man of Hubris, Save us From The Sun,” you wrote a defense of the story. How important is biography in connecting with readers?

Salvatore Pane: That story was published in a great online journal, FRiGG. They run extras at the end of their pieces. I don’t think these extras are absolutely necessary for a story to be good or even for an issue of a journal to be good, but there’s so much potential with online magazines that it seems foolish not to exploit it. Hobart does this cool thing where they put bonus material from their print issue on their website, cool trinkets from amazing writers: a great essay about Metroid by Mike Meginnis, a fun map from Aubrey Hirsch, a video of Brian Oliu reading his work. If their stories weren’t good—and in this case I guarantee that they are—none of that would matter. It always comes back to the work, but if a journal has the capability to do stuff online, they should capitalize on that.

FR: In the same story, Nixon is alive in the age of Twitter. How might you answer critics who say that is too far-fetched?

SP: Fiction is the realm where anything can be believable if the writer does their job and makes everything feel true enough, real enough. I don’t care about readers who don’t want to read my work because things are occasionally impossible. That’s not really the type of reader I envision, and I don’t have much interest in defending experimental work to readers who prefer realism or vice versa. I used to be the type of reader who would scoff at anything experimental or any story that had too much plot, but I have to tell stories the only way I know how.

FR: How does the setting open the creative process for you?

SP: I’ve always been obsessed with setting. I had a great fiction teacher in college, Gary Fincke, a wonderful writer. He came into workshop one morning and complained that too many stories take place in a vacuum, that he wished more work was situated somewhere. It is a fundamental building block of fiction, and I’m surprised when writers don’t take fuller advantage of it. It’s right up there for me with character and plot. I don’t care if the settings are necessarily real or not, I just usually get turned off when stories or novels are set in bland vanilla suburbs that seem to exist outside of history, sealed off from the rest of the world.

FR: How would you react if someone labeled your writing as “Sci-Fi Noir?”

SP: Labels don’t matter that much to me anymore, even if I would never consider what I do to be Sci-Fi Noir. What people often forget is that literary fiction IS a genre, but the one with the biggest canvas; it can support elements from all other genres. Look at what amazing writers like George Saunders, Alissa Nutting, and Matt Bell have been able to accomplish. They’re considered literary writers even though they use ghosts or outer space settings or post-apocalyptic tropes. I’ve always believed that literary fiction is about complexity, nuance, a deepening of feeling. Sci-fi elements can certainly be used to accomplish those aims. A lot of writers master one type of story and tell it over and over again. I don’t want to be that kind of writer. I want to try it all and develop as much range as I can.

FR: Can you talk a little more about your writing process, especially considering the limitless realm of contemporary fiction and online journals?

SP: It really hasn’t changed all that much. When I’m writing, I never think, “This will work for a print journal but not online.” In the last few years, the playing field has leveled out between online and print journals, and much of the most exciting work I read comes from these places (Metazen, The Collagist, FRiGG). I’m a meticulous editor. I’ve been working on a novel for two years and can’t tell you how many times I’ve cut 50 or 100 pages. This past month, I cut 70. I tell my students about it when they complain about cutting two pages. I only got to this novel by spending two years on a terrible book that no one will ever see. I’ve always been a big believer in revision. I don’t trust my first drafts. There’s a hollowness to them, a falseness. The important work of writing always comes in revision for me.

FR: What is the appeal of flash fiction?

SP: I think flash fiction takes a lot of cues from prose poetry. When I’m writing flash, I’m not as concerned with arc or narrative as I am when I’m working on a novel or longer short stories. I’m more interested in emotional truths or really small moments.

FR: In “The Ballad of Happy Hands,” you honor Updike’s Rabbit character. Tell me about that.

SP: I’ve always been a fan of Updike, especially Rabbit, Run. When I started this piece and realized it was going to cover Busy Hands’ life, a structure fell into place—youth, success, death—and I used the Rabbit novel titles as placeholders until I came up with better section titles. When I finished the story, I really liked the way they flowed and decided to keep them as an homage. Also, basketball IS Americana for me. That’s what Updike’s all about—the American experience. It felt natural to connect the two.

FR: How does your teacher/reader social side conflict with your private/reflective writer side?

SP: It all comes down to being a complete person, meeting as many types of people as you can. I was influenced growing up being around my father and grandfather. My dad ran an auto body shop and my grandfather was a plumber. Their jobs required them to meet different people and they honestly enjoyed it. They love telling stories. I guess that’s always stuck with me. The people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had inform my work in some meaningful way. I’m skeptical of writers who seem like total shut-ins. I want to see a range of voices and life experiences.

Dan Kirk is an MFA candidate in Chatham University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. He lives in Pittsburgh.