Features / Fiction / Interviews

The Pivot Point at Which Life Becomes Completely Different: Q & A with Steve Kistulentz

by Ericka Taylor

In Steve Kistulentz’s debut novel, Panorama, a commercial airliner crashes on its approach from Salt Lake City to Dallas, killing everyone on board. Among the victims is Mary Beth, the older sister of cable- news talking head Richard MacMurray. With her death, Richard becomes the sole living relative of Mary Beth’s six-year-old son, Gabriel.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgWhile this event is central to the novel and Richard is its main character, Kistulentz recognizes that tragedies of this scale tend to ripple outward. Consequently, he populates the story not only with the people most directly affected by the disaster, but also with the characters whose connection to the event is more distant. Thus the reader follows Gabriel’s babysitter, Richard’s ex-girlfriend, Mary Beth’s boyfriend, first responders, airport employees, and an array of others as their lives approach and then recede from that fateful day. This results in a narrative that contains, in truly panoramic fashion, multiple settings and subplots, while remaining true to its exploration of how “huge public events have a personal toll.”

Kistulentz is the director of the graduate creative writing program at Saint Leo University in Florida. He has previously published two collections of poetry, The Luckless Age, which won the Benjamin Saltman Award, and Little Black Daydream, an editor’s selection in the Akron Series of Poetry. He was kind enough to share some of his thoughts about Panorama and the writing life with Bloom.

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Ericka Taylor: You’ve said that the seed for Panorama was planted when your older sister asked whether you were willing to become your nephew’s caretaker in the event of her untimely death—a circumstance that the novel’s main character finds himself thrust into. That’s a defining moment for him, and the novel is as much an exploration of these defining moments as it is a testament to loss. How did these themes emerge for you?

Steve Kistulentz: I don’t think about Panorama as a book about loss, but I absolutely think of it as about moments. For every character, I wanted to show the pivot point at which their life becomes entirely different. That was deliberate. I was 21 when my father died, and almost every day since, I think of some way in which I am missing his presence and counsel. I tried to make sure that some of those pivot points did not revolve around the crash of a commercial airliner, which is the most obvious moment in the novel.

For most of us, those huge moments involve either tremendous loss or tremendous joy. But as often as those moments center around loss, so too do they involve choice; I wanted the novel to speak to that idea as well. Richard has to choose the kind of life he is going to try and provide for his nephew.

ET: Panorama is a truly expansive work, populated by over a dozen characters whose perspectives we follow. When did you realize you wanted to focus on multiple characters and how did you decide which ones would be more central and which we’d spend less time with?

SK: I fell in love with novels that attempt a type of emotional largeness. The novelist Edward Carey introduced me to The City of Marvels by Eduardo Mendoza, a messy and sprawling book about Barcelona between its two World’s Fairs. A lot of what ended up in Panorama, the movement between Salt Lake City and Dallas and Washington, comes from the old-fashioned idea of the picaresque. That geographic spread felt natural, and with the geography came the idea that people in all of the major locations of the book would feel the emotional heft of what happened.

At the same time, I’m a tremendous admirer of writers like Charles Baxter, Alice Munro, Edith Pearlman, and Rick Barthelme, those kinds of writers who seem to effortlessly inhabit the interior worlds of characters in quieter situations. The minor characters in Panorama serve as a reminder of the possibilities of those smaller stories.

ET: Your characters also come from a wide range of professions, from someone who sells airport security screening equipment to a television pundit, and you do a really good job grounding the reader in the details of their work lives. What was your research process like when you were learning about these fields?

SK: I am reminded of a story Jim Crace told my graduate workshop. Jim’s novel Being Dead follows a married pair of zoologists, Joseph and Celise, and we learn about Joseph’s research into the sprayhopper, an indigenous coastal insect. After the novel’s release, Crace received letters from scientists; the sprayhopper couldn’t possibly exist where Crace claimed it did.  This gave him great pleasure, because he’d invented the landscape, and most especially the insect, out of whole cloth. I took the same kinds of great liberties with some of the characters, particularly the airline employees who notify the next of kin about the crash. That’s purely made up stuff, for dramatic purposes.

Much of what I know about the working world, from politics and the media, got grafted on to characters in this book. When I lived in DC, people like Richard MacMurray were always in my orbit. I worked for the trade association that represents commercial airports, so I knew about the business behind putting explosive detection equipment into airports.

About the only true research I did for the book was into the specifics of the plane. And I read some old newspaper articles about plane crashes, and some various government reports, just to make sure I had a plausible cause for the incident.

ET: How did you go about structuring such a complex novel?

SK: Figuring out how to handle time and such a large cast of characters was an issue until Elizabeth McCracken suggested to me the image of a nylon rope: it’s really made up of a braid of a bunch of other little ropes, and it can unravel from either end, and that metaphor stuck with me. All the characters start as their own little strand, then become braided together by the events of the crash, and in the aftermath, unravel a bit into their own separate experiences of grief.

I wanted to try a construction where you could see both before- and after-images of characters as they exist outside the main events of the novel. So each character gets their moment where we see them act prior to the crash, and one in which we find out what happens to them—albeit sometimes in a condensed fashion—afterwards.

In the editing, I removed whole chapters about ancillary characters, such as Gabriel’s biological father and Richard’s ex-wife. The end result was a book much more centered around the crash and its consequences for Richard MacMurray. That was the intention I’d started with, that his story would become the most important strand of the novel’s theoretical rope.

ET: Most of Panorama is written in a close-third point of view, but periodically, as with the opening chapters in both of the book’s two sections, you step further back and use a purely omniscient narrator. Could you tell us about that decision and what you were hoping to evoke with that omniscient voice?

SK: To my thinking, the omniscient voice works in an almost operatic mode, evocative of the high drama that follows in the places where it appears.

The scene of the actual plane crash was probably the first or second piece of the book I wrote, and the omniscience there wasn’t intended so much as a voice of God-type narration, but rather as a voice that could go wherever it wanted, from seat 14B to 26C. I first thought of the crash as a kind of prologue or a set piece that starts the book. It wasn’t until I had a complete draft that I realized that I wanted the book to start on a quieter, more domestic note and build to those longer, omniscient riffs.

ET: Speaking of drafts, how many versions of Panorama did you work on or complete before it was ready to go out into the world?

SK: There were so many! After the first two, I shared the book with a pair of Iowa classmates, Tom McAllister and Kurt Gutjahr, and with the novelist Jennifer Vanderbes. The notes they gave me went into draft three, which was the version that I used to shop for agents. After I signed with my agent Wendy Sherman, I undertook a serious overhaul based on her feedback. Then, when the book went to market, the acquiring editor at Little, Brown requested more changes. But because of the episodic nature of the book, and the large cast of characters, I couldn’t really say how many drafts there were. If I had to give an answer in whole numbers, I’d say that all added up to five complete drafts. At least.

ET: Our readers are especially interested in writers whose first novels are published after they reach the age of 40. You spent nearly two decades working in national politics in DC. Could you tell us about your transition from politico to writer and what led you to make that shift?

SK: I always knew that writing is what I wanted to do. I simply had no idea how to get there. And that really concerns me, because so much of our literature is becoming produced by writers who come from backgrounds of privilege. I’m always aware that we may be inadvertently creating a kind of homogenized literature, one that excludes the economically disadvantaged, students who don’t know about assistantships and work-study and need-based aid. The 22-year-old me didn’t know about any of the nuts and bolts ways that people pay for graduate school. And that’s a direct consequence of my background.

My father was only able to manage college because of the post-World War II GI Bill. Any time I mentioned my artistic ambitions to him, his first question was always the same: how are you going to make a living? That’s logical, especially coming from a child of the depression.

A few things anecdotally pushed me to the point of looking for an exit from political work. The first was seeing on a daily basis how voters demand impossible things from our candidates. We expect them never to make the same kinds of human mistakes that we ourselves have made, which essentially gives them carte blanche to lie to us.

Whether you do issue advocacy or represent corporate clients or work on a campaign, it is a difficult and physically demanding life. On the corporate side, the workday when Congress is in session is often 7AM to midnight. That takes a toll.

But the final straw for me was September 11. By the time I finally decided to leave my office, just three blocks from the White House, the exit to my parking garage was blocked by a tank. I walked home at midnight, through a city echoing with the noise of patrolling fighter planes and helicopter gunships, knowing immediately that the world I knew had been changed forever.

A few weeks ago, my family went away for the weekend and our Uber driver claimed that no plane had hit the Pentagon. That kind of willful gullibility—about politics or vaccines or science or climate change—makes me furious, and I could see the sprouting seeds of anti-knowledge incubating along the political extremes even back then.

That being said, I’m an optimist about the American experiment. As the grandson of immigrants, I feel a certain obligation to roll up my sleeves and work to help make our country fulfill its best promises to all its people, not just one percent of them.

ET: In addition to being a novelist, you’ve also published two poetry collections. Do you see yourself as more of a poet or a novelist, or are you equally interested in both forms?

SK: I started as a fiction writer; all my graduate degrees involved the study and writing of fiction, so I suppose if I had to choose, that would be my answer. But I often say to my students that genre is a problem for librarians and bookstore owners, not for writers. I think of all the work I do as writing, trying to say something that is unflinchingly honest, that shares a little of how I see the world, and offers an invitation to readers to see the world that way too, if only for a little while. I’ve published essays, reviews of books and music, shorter portions of a memoir I’ve been working on, and I’ve written for television. I’ve also written speeches, corporate promotional materials, and campaign platforms and policy statements. That idea—inviting someone to participate in your thinking and maybe even to push back a little bit—is probably at the center of all of the disparate work I’ve done.

ET: How much did the process for publishing your poetry collections differ from publishing Panorama?

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgSK: Each book had its own wildly different path into the world. My first poetry collection, The Luckless Age, had been a finalist in seven or eight different first-book contests before it found a home with Red Hen Press. With Little Black Daydream, I was honestly surprised that the book was accepted when it was.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgIf I am being honest, the common thread through the publishing process for each book is anxiety. For an artist, I’m very type A, and the collaborative part of publishing isn’t a natural skill for me. With Panorama, I’ve been blessed by a great team in marketing and publicity, and their skill made it a lot easier for me to focus on that collaboration.

The real lesson I’ve learned is this: ask. Ask your publisher to outline exactly what they intend to do, and how, and what they expect from you.

ET: You’re now at work on your second novel. Is there anything about that you’d like to share?

SK: Next year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall. That was an event I never could have imagined. I’m a Cold War kid, and through my childhood, the Eastern bloc existed as a kind of permanent monolith, Reagan’s evil empire. But just a few years after the Wall fell, I found myself walking through Red Square in the heady days of what we thought might become a free and democratic Russia. Today, we are seeing exactly how naïve that hope may have been.

Our natural focus on the courageous dissidents of that era often comes at the expense of overlooking a more rarified group, those who fled the Eastern bloc in the immediate aftermath of World War II and made a life for themselves in exile in the United States. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many of those emigrés returned to their homeland, seeking to reconnect with their own history and reclaim family histories (as well as fortunes) seized from them during the Communist era. I am fascinated by that decision, its consequences, and the way it plays out between generations.

Bloom Post End

Ericka Taylor has served as the Assistant Fiction Editor and Assistant Managing Editor for the literary journal, Willow Springs, and is currently working on a novel.

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