The Theory of Salvatore Pane: An Interview with Curt Smith

author photo - Sal Pane.JPGSalvatore Pane is the author of the novel Last Call in the City of Bridges in addition to Mega Man 3 from Boss Fight Books. His work has appeared in Indiana Review, American Short Fiction, Hobart, and many other venues. He is an Assistant Professor at the University of St. Thomas, and his second novel, The Theory of Almost Everything, is forthcoming this winter.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on The Theory of Almost Everything. I’m always interested in a book’s journey. How did you come to hook up with the folks at Braddock Avenue?

Salvatore Pane: I met Jeff Condran and Robert Peluso eight years ago when I was adjuncting in Pittsburgh. They were well known in the city’s literary scene, and both of them are spectacular writers, editors, and patrons of the arts. When they started a press and asked to launch my debut novel, Last Call in the City of Bridges, as their first book, I was floored. We trusted each other, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

CS: I find myself drawn to novels that pit a character often flawed or lost or conflicted against a larger, often dangerous background. Can you take us back to the story’s origins and tell us what came first—your Dr. Copeland or the vision of a world on the brink? How did these strains—the story of one man and the larger story of an unhinged world—come together?

SP: It was Copeland first for sure. I wanted to write the story of a man whose wife died of leukemia and how he weighed that loss against climate change and the inevitable end of everything. I’d just moved hundreds of miles away from all my friends and family, and one of my best friends from childhood died, and I was pretty depressed. So, I was reading all of these melancholy books about Robert Oppenheimer and climate change and nuclear war, and then I stumbled onto Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku, this bright nonfiction book about wormholes and other realities and parallel dimensions. I found myself drawn to the idea of taking these big, comic book concepts and applying them to a quiet story about loss and the poison of nostalgia.

CS: Can I assume from the topics addressed in the book that you have a fondness for the sciences? I’m intrigued by the artistic intersection of left- and right-brain worlds. What do you think us writer types can take and use from the realms of math and science?

SP: I’m always surprised there aren’t more thinly veiled autobiographical novels that put scientists or coders front and center. Usually, when writers opt for stand-ins, they plug in painters or musicians or something else that feels stereotypically artistic. But there are so many similarities between writers and coders or scientists or what have you. These are people who spend so much of their days alone in front of machines massaging their creations to life. That’s so relatable to me, and I think writers can explore so much about creativity by coming at it through a seemingly indirect way. I find myself writing about game designers or engineers over and over again. There’s something endlessly fascinating to me about how their work feels like a funhouse mirror image of my own.

CS: Your vision of what might happen is stark and sadly recognizable. Yet there is a lot of humor here. As a writer, can you address that balance? How important was it to your story—and was it there from the start? How hard was it to maintain?

SP: Sarcasm is baked into my voice, and so many of my favorite writers—Lorrie Moore, Michael Chabon, Percival Everett, George Saunders—seem to have that wink and a nod sensibility throughout so much of their work. For me, humor is the key to achieving emotional resonance. I’m trying to lower the reader’s defenses with every joke, every ridiculous line of dialogue. I want them to feel at ease so that when the moment’s right, I can twist the emotional dagger without them sensing it’s coming. It’s what all my favorite writers do, and it’s the foundation of what I’m attempting in almost every project.

CS: This is your second novel, correct? You also write stories and poems and have collaborated on a graphic novel. Can you talk about process a bit—how different is your approach to these different genres? What are their challenges? Their rewards?

cover Sal Pane.jpgSP: After my first novel was published, I stupidly thought I’d figured it out and that everything would be easier after that. But for me it just got harder. I doubt myself now more than ever, and my first attempt at a second novel was a complete disaster. What I’ve learned is that each project has its own process. I rewrote The Theory of Almost Everything from scratch two or three times. My nonfiction book about video games came completely out-of-order, and then I had to figure out how to best orient the reader. For me, I never go into a book with too much of a plan. That kills the project. I like to know about the characters and a few scenes, and then I let the project lead me as best I can. I tell my students it’s like playing with a Ouija board. At the end of the day, you know you’re in control, but you have to let it lead you as much as you can.

CS: We share Pennsylvania roots—do you find a portion of your work rooted in the state—if not directly stated then at least in your mind as you write? What unique offerings can PA bring to a story?

SP: I grew up in Scranton, and I moved out when I was eighteen, but mostly I feel like I’ll never truly leave it. That working-class culture is ingrained very deep. It’s in everything I write, even if the story or essay isn’t specifically about class. It’s always the heart of the matter or right below the surface just waiting for an opportunity to emerge. When I started writing Theory, I don’t think I was quite ready to write about Scranton. I hope I’m almost there.

CS: The book’s press release talks about living in the “age of anxiety.” Do you think this is true? What do you think are the societal factors that have contributed to this?

SP: I’m part of a generation that was told from childhood that if the world doesn’t end in our lifetimes, it’ll die right after. Climate change, nuclear war, the end of social security, the slow erosion of the New Deal. The baby boomers got everything, and we ended up with their leftovers. That anger is very much at the heart of this book. I see it everywhere, and it almost always ends up in my writing no matter how much I try to push in different directions. I’ve finally learned to stop pushing and to just listen.

CS: What’s next?

SP: I’m working on a third novel, but it’s a little early right now. Hopefully a break is next!

Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).

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