One of the best parts of running a lit mag is that you get to talk to about a million different writers and (unlike most readings and AWP conventions), they actually want to talk to you and not run fleeing from the fat loud crazed man with the mohawk.
Once upon a time I read this brilliant little piece for BULL called “Silence of Small Rooms” that began, “The elevator is full to bursting. Intolerably hot is how you would describe it, if pressed. Wall to wall. Elbow meet elbow.”
Immediately, I knew I was going to like this story. And here’s the thing about running a lit mag where people send you work they want you to publish, you can ask them annoying questions about syntax and they sorta, kinda have to answer you (and not run fleeing from the fat loud syntax crazed man with the mohawk).
And then it turns out a lot of people like Jesse actually don’t mind being asked such questions. And then you can ask them more questions. And since you don’t have friends in real life, you can pretend to have literary friends.
The long and short of it is this: I’m biased because I knew I’d like Jesse Salvo after three sentences. And then (and here’s where it gets awkward), he goes and writes a whole fucking novel of great sentences and it also has the wisdom of a tenth novel published by a NYT bestseller (but the good kind, not the shitty formulaic kind) and that’s where a petty man like me sorta gets jealous and sad that he will never write a novel that good in his life.
But then at the same time, you can’t really hate Jesse Salvo because he’s one of the kindest, humblest brilliant writers around (and because he regularly talks to me and I feel like not-in-a-completely-pitying kind of way.
Just so it’s clear that this is not just me blowing smoke up Jesse’s ass, here’s what fellow cool-ass writer Meagan Lucas said about his novel Blue Rhinoceros: “I was charmed and tickled, and then deeply disturbed. I cannot stop thinking about it. Salvo is a delight and a terror.”
Here’s what former BULL big wig JY Sexton said: “This is a remarkable achievement, and unlike anything I’ve read in ages.”
So anyway, you should go out and buy Blue Rhinoceros but first read this interview where he was kind enough to placate me:
BD: My first question is about the origins of the story (and the stories within the story). I know it’s kind of gauche to ask novelists what the story is behind the story, but I found myself thinking over and over again that these incidents seemed so hyper specific that they felt like they were coming out of a weird history podcast or a bunch of random rabbit holes on Wikipedia. That’s no slight on the sheer creativity of this–which is unquestionably, one of the true feats of Blue Rhinoceros. It’s more like I’m jealous and wondering if I could get a little peek behind the curtain.
JS: That’s really perceptive yeah. There’s a lot of Spanish history sort-of smuggled into the book. The 92 Expo, for example, really did occur in Sevilla. They created this massive costly Potempkin city complete with a life-sized space shuttle on the outskirts of town, then abandoned it to the weeds after. The narrator (Entrecarceles) is named for the street in Sevilla where Cervantes was imprisoned. A lot of people have correctly pointed out that one of the central set-pieces of the book mirrors the Boston Molasses Accident.
Speaking more generally, one thing I’ve always loved in my favorite books is the feeling of the world of the story being sufficiently indistinguishable from the research that went into it. James Michener when he was working on books, apparently used to go out and buy a full-sized door, lay it lengthwise on the ground in his house. When he’d covered every inch of the door in stacks of flash cards, then he felt like he was finished with his research and could start-in writing the actual book.
I’m not quite as disciplined as Michener and also I can’t afford to go buy a door every time I write something. The action of the novel is always going to be a facsimile of reality massaged for drama (and this book’s plot is particularly weird and discursive) so I feel like the thing we want most from the author, in that case, is the ability to convincingly rig the shell game, to maintain a beautiful illusion for as long as the book lasts. Otherwise, the contract is voided, and everybody goes home pissed off and hypertensive.
BD: My second question kind of follows from that and I was really tingled by the point of view and narration of this. I’m a sucker for meta-storytelling and love the forward and the little bits of breaking the fourth wall. But also the shifting from third person and the wry wisdom of that back to the first person with Entrecarceles. Was this all present from the get go or was it something that evolved with the drafting and revision process? Were there any times where you or others worried that you were “breaking too many rules”?
JS: I worried about it, absolutely. That’s always a risk with weird, cutesy Po-Mo bullshit. But one of the deals I made with myself early on, not knowing whether any publisher would touch the final manuscript, was that I would kind-of follow my feet and write something that I found stimulating or exciting on the merits.
You can’t be an experimental careerist. If I wrote 90,000 words of fiction and was completely dependent on external validation for my sense of self-worth, I’d drive myself insane. I don’t really mind breaking rules, but I never want the reader to feel like I’m wasting their time or just preening for the sake of high-concept exhibitionism. I don’t really care about reviewers, but I have a pretty acute anxiety about readers’ time being wasted.
BD: What about the place–both mental and physical–you were in while writing this? You start out the forward by saying that you are stuck inside in covid times during 2020. I also know that you have been living the last handful of years overseas–at the time of such political clusterfuckness back here in the States. Can you talk about the time frame in which you were writing this novel and how that all influenced the tone of the book?
JS: Of course! You already know I’ve been living in Spain, primarily in Andalucia, for going on five years now.
Starting in March 2020 the government here imposed a two-month national lockdown to combat a really bad surge in COVID hospitalizations. That meant no leaving your house for any reason, except to get groceries or go to the hospital. In Madrid they converted an ice rink into an overflow morgue. In Sevilla the streets of the entire casco antiguo were empty. That’s when I started working on the first draft. It took about 3 months to complete.
That was a rough draft, so it still had to be SWAT-teamed by editors over the following year and change (first by a friend named Patti Rice who was exceptionally generous with her time, and then two additional editors from my publisher, New Meridian) but the skeleton was there.
It was a bizarre time to be writing. It felt like all the economic and governmental structures that’d been running on fumes for the last 5-10 years were simultaneously collapsing or else verging on collapse.
Writing a piece of fiction, especially a book-length work, at that moment seemed almost pollyannish. It assumed a future reader, which necessarily assumed a future. But it was all I could think to do. I’d wake up every morning, boil cups of instant coffee and write for about four hours. I couldn’t go outside, but I could do that.
BD: I’m really curious as to the literary influences of this thing. You mention “plagiarizing” the works of everyone and everything from War & Peace to Sontag to Coriolanus.
JS: The acknowledgment page is a bit of a red herring, definitely. It’s also sort of table setting for the rest of the novel. What do you do when the first thing somebody tells you is ‘Hi, I’m a thief. I’m a liar. I’m going to lie to you.’ Of course we know intellectually that all novels are lies, the same way we know intellectually that people sometimes lie to us in casual conversation, but there’s something strange about hearing it stated plainly. Your guard is up, but I think you’re also sort of luridly fascinated. At least I am.
BD: Perhaps it’s the eclectic nature of this list that lends itself to a work that feels fully original and unencumbered by its influences. I know that I often feel like I’m plagiarizing my favorite authors in everything I write but thankfully my shortcomings as an author hide my literary theft. What was your relationship with the books you were reading when you were coming up with this novel and crafting the tone and structure of it?
JS: I think the novel has a lot of Marquez in it, a dime store potboiler version of Marquez. Plus Joseph Mitchell. The title of the book comes from a great play by Eugene Ionesco.
I think one thing that’s nice about essentially working within the constraints of genre like (in this case) a locked-room mystery is that structure is more or less taken care of. You’ve got this mystery, this busy-box, and you’re constantly trying different things to pop it open. That frees you up to take more risks, to follow your feet etc.
BD: As I mentioned earlier, I was in awe of the wisdom and craft of this book. It felt like it had come from a writer who’d been putting out great novels for years. People talk about the struggle with “surviving” the aftermath of first books a lot so I don’t think I need to go into it a whole lot detail, but from someone who took ten years between publishing my first book to my second, I was curious where you are at with all that and what direction you were aiming for moving forward. I remember another writer “congratulating me” on having gotten my first book accepted to be published and then immediately warning me that I need to have another book finished and ready to go by the time the first one gets out there (if I were to be a successful writer… which I clearly failed that test).
JS: That is a real compliment, and more than a little down to assiduous and unenviable work of the editors who labored over the novel manuscript.
I guess we’ll see about survival. You’re right that the writer who finally gets their first book published is kind of the Dog That Caught The Car in a lot of ways. I think analysis paralysis comes with the territory. I know Tom Wolfe, for instance, talked about how one of his sons, growing up, assumed his father’s job was to everyday type and erase three-sentences of a book called “A Man in Full.”
I haven’t written anything longer than a promotional email in months, and I’m looking forward to finally getting back to it. I’m pretty superstitious about talking about projects before they’re finished, but I’ve got a couple of ideas kicking around, and I’m hopeful at least one of them will hold water.
BD: You mention that you don’t care about reviewers/critics, but I’m always curious about the audience that authors have in their heads? Do you have someone’s voice in your head when you are editing, etc.? Is there somebody you are trying to make laugh, cry, say hmmm? Are you thinking of all the little Jesse Salvo’s out there in the world who need that one book to validate their existence? Or are you one of those, I-don’t-write-for-anybody-but-myself guys?
JS: It’d be incredibly pretentious to act like I’m writing only for myself. I don’t know if that writer exists. Maybe Cormac McCarthy or, like, Diane Williams.
I am writing for a specific person. I know I’m not for everybody. And I also know at the end of the day what we do is supposed to be enjoyed by people who don’t have a lot of time on their hands and could be watching high-production-value television, or getting high, or falling in love. That’s not me endorsing total pablum. I’m always trying to negotiate the tension between writing things that challenge the reader, and things that’ll thrill them, give them goosebumps or make them laugh.
I think I assume a high-waterline of loneliness. At the end of the day, somebody who’s taking the time to read my stuff is someone who’s chosen to sit alone in an empty room with words on a page. I know for me personally, the times in my life when I’ve been a better, more attentive reader have generally been those times when I was feeling heartbroken or sort-of blue. And I also remember what a salve certain books were for me at those times. I remember for instance, going through a pretty grim period around five years ago, picking up “Obituary of a Gin Mill” for the first time, and literally falling out of my chair laughing. For a second the whole world and all its affronts to earthly virtue, receded and it was just me and the voice of this dead person, this person who died around the time I was born, coaxing me out from the barricades. That’s not to say that the very next day my situation was fixed. But I remember the feeling.
BD: Last Question: How many times have you almost died while you were caught up thinking about all the weird, crazy shit that runs around in your head? (asking for a friend).
JS: Yeah, it’s a solid question. I’m pretty clumsy and I daydream a lot. I’ve broken my foot twice, sprained my wrist once. I bike a lot around Sevilla, and I’ve been hit by north of four cars in the past five years. I’ve also had my bike stolen twice. I ran with the bulls in 2016 and almost ate shit because I was wearing converse on wet cobblestone. I do a lot of thru-hiking and some winter hiking as well. Basically, the actuarial tables don’t look great, so if you want to invest in a first-edition prehumous copy of the book, strike while the iron is hot, consumer.