JD: This week Joseph Salvatore's debut collection of stories,
To Assume a Pleasing Shape comes out. Salvatore, the founding editor of LIT magazine is a pleasing scribe to talk prose with as you'll see ...
JD: Voice is such a strong component of your stories. How long does it take you to find that voice? What's your process like?
JS: The concept of voice in fiction is, for me, one of the most seductive, beguiling, difficult, and fascinating aspects of the work. So many elements of the craft come into play: character, narration, point of view, plotting, and, of course, language. Although I love a “good story,” I am most drawn to fiction in which the voice takes me up and convinces me of its authority in some impossible to explain way. The way Humbert Humbert convinces. The way Nick Carroway convinces. Ishmael, Huck, Marlowe, Calliope. But those are all first-person narrators. And although I have several first-person narrations in TO ASSUME A PLEASING SHAPE, I’m more drawn to how voice gets achieved in third person, a technique sometimes referred to as “free indirect style.” Third-person stories like “Whatever, Forever,” “Practice Problem,” and especially “Reduction” were more challenging pieces for me—challenging, but also a bit more rewarding. Achieving voice in a third-person narration,
I love it when the grammar, syntax, diction, tone of the author/narrator take off, rise up, and then merge with the grammar, syntax, diction, tone of the character; that’s when the reading experience becomes something I can only describe as oceanic – a feeling of going under, letting go, giving over, drowning in the language-depths an author creates, its many currents and moon-pulls.
In terms of process, it usually takes me a while to achieve voice in my work; but once I do, I know it, and it’s at that point that a lot of other problems begin to get solved. In middle school, I had a brief period of being able to do the entire Rubik’s Cube. With the Cube, you want to align certain rows first; once you’ve done that, the rest falls into place a bit more easily. The solution to the Cube reminds somewhat of my process of finding that certain voice in my fiction — once the voice arrives, the story concerns begin to seem anchored to that voice, and seem to solve themselves in quicker ways.
JD: You mix in the esoteric and academic with some very poppy references (like the Flintstones). This reminded me of Haruki Murakami, actually. How do weave these disparate influences together? What ends up on the cutting room floor?
JS: Tons of stuff, of course, not just the pop stuff, end up on the cutting room floor. I know I’m not alone in that. Even longer stories like “Reduction” or “Man on Couch” were at least double their length originally. The use of pop cultural riffs has less to do with being contemporary and hip, than it does with my own attention deficit disorder and solipsistic indulgence, my pleasure, that is, at the cost of finding the story — which pleasurable indulgence, if it works out (and as I said so often it doesn’t) can lead to something I never could have anticipated. When I’m getting along in the work day and the writing is starting to feel like it’s waiting for that Hemingway moment of the-unfinished-sentence bail-out, I’ll sometimes start riffing on this or that tangent; sometimes it’s pop references, sometimes it’s some other tangent, sometimes it’s pure sentence-fetish; but whatever it is it’s often my own thing and not the story’s. But I find I need the originating story to launch the riff. And I often end up going down roads that I should have turned back on long before I finally do. Sometimes that yields productive material (at least in my opinion) like The Flintstones in “The Subjunctive Mood” and the Saturday Night Fever references in “Man on Couch,” but more often it yields clutter on the cutting room floor.
Murakami has some fun bits; but I really love the pop culture stuff in the work of someone like Cutis White, his Memories of My Father Watching TV or, like, the riff on Casablanca in Robert Coover’s A Night at The Movies. In those examples the references seem to be in the service of several things at once: such as tone, atmosphere, plotting, character development.
JD: One of your stories is called "The Subjunctive Mood." You teach the mechanics of writing at the New School. What effect (not affect!) has this had on your writing?
JS: I created the course “The Mechanics of Writing” for The New School in 1997, when I was teaching at Parsons, where some of the most talented students I’d ever worked with couldn’t read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. When I asked why, they said they couldn’t understand the sentences. I told them I could sympathize; his sentences could be wildly labyrinthine; and then I asked them if we could just try to identify subjects and predicates, start there maybe, see what we could accomplish, just locate some predicates. I was ready to work with them on a single page; and these intelligent and hip art students, paint-splattered and charcoal-fingered, were like, “The hell’s a predicate?” So when I told this story to Robert Polito, who directs the writing program, he said, “What do you propose?” And I created the "The Mechanics of Writing" course.
Since then I’ve researched and presented conference papers on the pedagogical relationship between grammar and writing, and created a new course called “Tools, Not Rules: Rhetorical Grammar for Writers.” The spirit of the course – and my own feeling about good writing – is that one needn’t know grammar to write “correctly” (whatever that means), but that one can use the rules to make choices that achieve specific effects (not affects!) For me, writers like Pynchon and Vollmann and Woolf and Faulkner really opened up when I could understand their sentences not only semantically but syntactically. There was a period where I felt like Neo in The Matrix where everything looked to my eyes like sentence patterns and syntactic bits and parts seeming to the uninitiated like a whole organic text. A story like “Practice Problem”—a 10-page long sentence—while not a new effort by any means (see: the classic in the field: Barthelme’s “Sentence”) was written during a period when I was obsessed with my sentence-fetish.
JD: What's your writing practice like?
JS: My writing practice feels to me like a summer electrical storm. Brief moments of lightening, followed by stretches of staring up at nothing and waiting for the next flash. I try to write everyday, but as full-time faculty member with all of the duties and responsibilities of that job, I find it hard to work everyday. So I end up going on a two-day, four-day caffiene-fueled binge, and then spending whatever time I can after that re-drafting. The bulk of the stories in ASSUME were written while I was on a most-generously bestowed sabbatical, when I moved back to my mother’s house, the house I grew up in, slept in my old room, and wrote everyday. I never believed such a thing was possible. I’ve gone searching for that feeling ever since.
JD: What are some of your favorite books and who are you reading right now?
JS: Favorite books are so many, of course. The short list runs thus: Moby Dick, Gatsby, Dubliners, Dalloway, Lolita, Jane Erye, Villette, Mice and Men, Wide Sargasso Sea, Beloved, Corrections, Break It Down, Disgrace, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Atonement. Currently reading Dracula, LeFanu’s Camilla, 'Salem's Lot, Twilight, and Judith Halberstam’s book on gothic horror and the technology of monsters. (I’m teaching a course on reading the vampire this spring at The New School.) Thanks for these wonderful questions. It’s been a delight!
JD: Thanks so much, Joe. And for more on the craft and practice of writing take a look at my book,