Salvatore Pane’s novel, Last Call in the City of Bridges, has just been released by Braddock Avenue Books. Winner of the 2010 Turow-Kinder Award, Sal has published in many venues, including American Short Fiction, The Rumpus, BOMB Magazine, and Hobart. He is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Indianapolis and can be reached at www.salvatore-pane.com
Salvatore Pane: My Only Wife is told through a series of short vignettes doled out to the reader in a non-linear order. How did you settle on this format? In my work, I find myself drifting toward chronological A to B to C construction about 90% of the time, and the idea of structuring a novel in this way not only impresses me but terrifies me as well.
Jac Jemc: I started writing the first draft in a non-linear way, compiling memories the narrator has of his wife. I don't think I ever entertained the idea of putting them all in chronological order, because that's not how memory works. You don't sit down and think of a person from start to finish; you're prompted to remember moments with or features of that person. It's like getting to know a person, too: the more time you spend with them, the more holes you fill in about their history while you're simultaneously making memories and watching them change right there in front of you. Non-linearity feels more organic to me.
SP: How did you decide what order to put the vignettes in? Did you keep a master timeline to keep everything straight? Some writers seem so much better at internalizing this kind of information about their characters.
JJ: I changed the order of the vignettes in an attempt to create some suspense and surprises. I did work out a timeline for myself so I knew when events happened and that everything could work out chronologically if a reader went to the trouble of parsing out the order of things.
SP: The characters in My Only Wife for the majority of the novel are much older than you are now. Did you find it difficult entering the minds of characters approaching middle-age, or do you think that’s an artificial difficulty no harder than writing from the POV of the opposite sex, which you also do so effectively throughout the novel?
JJ: I don't think I really thought about it? Whoops! Someone at a reading recently asked what I did to learn to write from the male point of view, and I said, "Nothing, so he probably sounds like a lady." The characters might sound a little young, but maturity and age don't always match up.
SP: In the novel, the wife has an obsession with tape recording stories she coaxes out of strangers. Her husband, predictably, wants to hear some of these tapes that his wife spends so much time on, but she actively prevents him from doing so. I read this as somewhat similar to the way writers will devote so much of their time to writing, but then when their significant others wants to see a draft of what they’re working on, they often get possessive or temperamental. Am I reading way too much into this, or did you draw from your experience as a writer to craft the tape recording sections of the novel?
JJ: I don't think I'm too secretive about my writing, but my boyfriend might say different. I started seeing him right after the manuscript was accepted by Dzanc, and asked that he wait until it was a real book to read it, almost three years later. Otherwise, I usually want to read what I've written to other people immediately because I think it's awesome for about 24 hours after I've written the first draft, but I've learned that's a terrible idea. No matter what the reaction is, I'm never satisfied, and that can kill a story for me. So I usually wait until something's finished to share it. I don't know what the wife's deal was in the novel. She's a nut.
SP: Throughout the book, the wife remains a total enigma to her husband, the protagonist. Did you ever worry about the wife becoming too much of a mystery in the eyes of readers?
JJ: Nope, I'm not worried about her being a mystery. Good if she's a mystery. Readers get a ton of facts about her. They can make some decisions about who they think she is if they want to.
SP: The typical trajectory for young writers is to write a short story collection and then a novel. But this is your first book length work. Did that concern you? Many of the vignettes could be extracted from the novel and published as stand-alone pieces of flash fiction—some were. Did you ever consider structuring the book as a novel in stories or is that classification useless at best and harmful at worst? Do you think of yourself as a more natural novelist than short story writer?
JJ: I have a story collection ready to go, but I wrote the stories after I wrote the first draft of this novel. The novel just happened to come first. I know that most people put out a story collection first, but can it hurt to have a novel come out first? Is a story collection supposed to be the novel's hype man? Is it supposed to get people excited for the novel? I tend to love stories more than novels, so I get that that might be how most people think of collections versus novels, but it doesn't seem set in stone to me. I think the difference between a novel and a novel in stories, is that a novel in stories might tend to put the focus on the individual stories, while it happens there's also a through-line. A novel, though, even if told in many vignettes, asks you to look at the whole with a keener eye. What's the effect of the way things add up? I think in some ways, My Only Wife, is a novel in memories or stories (which I think are pretty similar in a lot of cases), but I like the idea of people thinking about the sum total more than the parts. I think if anything comes naturally it's never to spend too long on any one form before working a little on another. I like to try things on: poems, stories, long stories. I like to imitate work that I like to see what I can learn. Got to mix things up to keep it interesting.
SP: Some of the major trends in literary fiction these days seem to be a reaching for the absurd, a kind of lyrical experimentation, or a bizarre blog-esque examination of the self. My Only Wife is refreshingly throwback in its subject matter—staunchly domestic realism—while employing a more experimental structure. Basically, it doesn’t feel like so much of what I’ve been reading on the internet. Was this a conscious choice to move away from the prevailing modes of fiction published on the internet, or does that not even factor into your process? In some ways, My Only Wife feels like a book that might have been written fifty years ago, and that’s one of the aspects I love most about it.
JJ: All of these things are such nice things to say! I wrote the first draft of this novel 7 years ago, and I don't think I knew about writers on the internet yet, so I don't think that was a factor in the process. It seemed manageable to write a novel with two characters for my first attempt, and I'd started it with the phrase "My wife..." so there were the two characters. I'd made an attempt at the beginnings of a draft of another novel that was broader in scope and I got overwhelmed, so I pared it down. In regard to the story feeling like it could have been written fifty years ago, I think I have an aversion to including things that will date quickly in my writing. I've noticed that I avoid including computers, cell phones, pop culture references, etc. I think maybe it's because that stuff is so much a part of everyday life and so consuming that it's nice to create a world without that or where that's just implied. There are lots of people who write technology and culture really well. I haven't figured out how to do it yet, so I think a fair amount of my writing feels a little, blegh, unplugged. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before updates become unavoidable.