Web Exclusive Author Interview: Sal Pane

SalPaneJust in time for NBA playoff season, our May web-exclusive story, “John Starks” by Salvatore Pane, is here. And what a story it is. “John Starks” is a basketball story. It’s a tale of competition, regret, forgiveness. Folks, this is a story about NBA Jam and dunking in the face of life’s adversities. In other words, this is one you don’t want to miss. Read “John Starks” here, and check out our interview with the author below.

Bonus feature: Not familiar with John Starks and the 1993 Knicks v. Bulls NBA playoffs? Here’s a video to get you up to speed.

(UPDATE: Double Bonus: check out Sal’s Rap Genius treatment of “John Starks”)

1. Tell us about the genesis of “John Starks.” Where did the idea for the story come from?

At AWP this year, I was leaving a bar and I ran into Ben Tanzer—a writer I very much admire—and we got to talking about the New York Knicks. I don’t meet many NBA fans, and I pretty much never run into any Knicks fans, so I talked his ear off about my feelings on Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire and the squads I really loved back in the ’90s. Afterwards, I just kept thinking about our conversation, and I thought it might be cool to work on a project where each story is named after one of the Knicks and involves them in some substantial way. “John Starks” is the second one I wrote. I knew from the beginning that I wanted a story where Michael Jordan returns to torture the Knicks via a glitch in NBA Jam, and I’ve always felt that out of all the Knicks, Starks and Ewing hated him the most. Starks is more volatile, a kind of lovable lunatic. He’s the perfect fit for a story about obsession.

2. Was this a typical story for you, process-wise? Does your process change from story to story, or do you have certain strategies or rituals that come into play no matter what you’re writing?

My process stays mostly the same from project to project. I try to get up early and write every day until lunch time. I don’t write every single day, but I try to, and I usually feel bad about myself when I don’t. It’s easier to do when I’m in a novel, because there’s not a lull between projects where you have to come up with new characters and situations. From day to day, you know at least a little bit of what’s coming. Usually, I like to spend about five days a week generating new material, and two days on revision, but that depends where I am in a given project. Because “John Starks” is on the shorter side, I was able to knock out a draft in two days. But I easily spent triple that revising. I’m a big reviser. I never trust my first drafts.

3. The move the story makes at the very end—the sudden intrusion of tenderness—is unexpected, really wonderfully so. Did you know when you began writing that this was where the story was headed, or did the ending surprise you, too?

I was completely surprised. I don’t like to go into fiction knowing how it all ends. I think it robs the characters and the narrative of a choice that feels so vital in powerful fiction. All I knew when I started was that I wanted John Starks playingNBA Jam, and I wanted him to have found a way to make Jordan appear. I didn’t realize he was going to be an old man when I started, and I had no clue he was going to physically confront Jordan. The end was one of those really nice surprises you’re lucky enough to have once in a while as a writer. Starks confronts Jordan with this somewhat murderous intent, but I knew as soon as I arrived at that moment that he wasn’t going to go through with it. It didn’t feel right. The character of John Starks surprised me by opting for tenderness and nostalgia. I know that sounds weird, but I really believe you have to let the fiction and the characters lead you; it can’t be the other way around. Otherwise the fiction feels lifeless.

4. Imagine that you were commissioned to design a video game in which writers competed against one another in basketball, NBA Jamstyle. It’d be called AWP Jam. . . or something. Who would you want on your team? You can choose writers who are no longer living, if you like.

Wow. The first person I would not want is me. My dad coached my team growing up and we lost every single game for four years and I scored five total points. Total. If I had to pick I’d go with Ben Tanzer, Brian Oliu—he knows his basketball, and his chapbook Level End proves he’s got Nintendo skills—and Geoff Peck first. Peck has a bunch of really good publications, edits the lit journal Floodwall, and played basketball on the D1 level for Vanderbilt. Junot Diaz would probably make a good enforcer because he’s always cursing during readings, and then you’d need an unpredictable wildcard. How about Alice Munro?

5. True or false: writing is a lot like basketball.

True. With basketball, the people who make it are the ones who totally dedicate their lives to it and practically live in the gym taking a thousand free throws a day. Writing’s the same. I’ve seen so many really talented friends and students just stop over the years because they can’t put in the time. If you do something long enough, you’re eventually going to get better. Also, with basketball, it’s so much a confidence game. You can see it in games when players get on hot streaks. They just really believe they’re the best player on the court and that every time they shoot the ball it’s going in. I’m thinking of somebody like Kobe or ‘Melo. You need a bit of that swagger as a writer. One of my first fiction teachers told me writers are all egomaniacs because they’re the type of people who look at all the amazing books that have been written over the years and think, “No. That’s not good enough. I have something unique to add.” Now what he didn’t say is you also have to learn from criticism and be humble, but to an extent, I think he’s right.

6. Can you tell us a little bit about the photo you sent to accompany your story? 

For my birthday one year, my parents took me on a bus trip from Scranton to go see the Knicks play the now defunct Supersonics in Madison Square Garden. I’d been obsessed with the Knicks for a few years, but I’d never actually seen an NBA game live before. It was pretty stunning. I was in Knicks gear head to toe. There’s even a Patrick Ewing jersey under the Starter jacket. At one point, the video screen above the court said “Happy Birthday, Sal!” and that was probably my all-time favorite birthday moment ever. Like I said, I don’t know many people at all who really enjoy the NBA, but that moment solidified my status as a lifelong fan.

7. What are you working on now? What’s up next for you?

I’m really busy. I’m finishing edits on my novel Last Call in the City of Bridges and my chapbook #KanyeWestSavedFromDrowning, which are both forthcoming this fall [UPDATE! They’re out and you should check them out]. But I’m spending most of my time writing my second novel which is about a fallen superhero love triangle set in the summer of 2001. In my spare moments I write a web comic you can check out. Oh, and I’m getting ready to move to Indianapolis in August. So if you live there and want to listen to me explain why Reggie Miller’s the worst player in the history of the NBA, hit me up.

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