Steve Kistulentz talks about his novel ‘Panorama,’ plane crashes, politics and teaching

Published March 2 2018


Steve Kistulentz is excited about the publication of his first novel on Tuesday.

"Iím proud of the book," he says of Panorama, "and I hope it finds an audience, although I wouldnít recommend reading it at the gate before a flight."

Heís joking, kind of. The bookís plot revolves around a plane crash, although that catastrophe doesnít occur until more than halfway through the novel.

By the time it happens, the reader has a poignant and intimate understanding of the characters who donít survive ó and those who do.

He says, "I wanted to give readers a sense of what was lost."

Kistulentz, who lives with his wife and daughter in Safety Harbor, is the director of the graduate creative writing program at Saint Leo University in St. Leo. He has published short fiction and two books of poetry, but Panorama is his first novel.

At 51, he says, heís older than many debut novelists, but he came to writing as a second career. "I worked in politics for the better part of two decades," as a strategist and lobbyist in Washington, D.C., his hometown.

Growing up where "the national news is the local news," with a father who worked for the government, Kistulentz cut his teeth on politics. Thereís a photo of him taken during the Watergate hearings, he says, of "7-year-old me holding Pete Rodinoís gavel." Rodino chaired the House Judiciary Committee that oversaw the impeachment process against President Richard Nixon.

"To this day, Iíll correct Wolf Blitzer in my living room when heís talking about Watergate," Kistulentz says.

Itís not an autobiographical novel, he says, but his background vividly informs Panorama, and especially its central character, Richard MacMurray, described as a "moderately well-known television pundit, part-time gadfly, prized Washington cocktail-party guest, owner of more than a hundred neckties in a palette of screaming oranges and purples, forty-two years old and once divorced, a Capricorn, former defense attorney turned professional advocate."

The book opens on New Yearís Eve 1999 and moves between Richard and his sister, Mary Beth, who is vacationing with her boyfriend-boss in Salt Lake City and worrying about her young son, left with a sitter in Dallas.

Kistulentz, who earned his Ph.D. from Florida State University, will be participating in several events at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Tampa this week. (See story, 6L.) He talked about Panorama, teaching writing and more over lunch at a Safety Harbor restaurant recently.

Panorama is set in 1999-2000, and itís a little startling how different that seems from today. Why did you choose to set it then instead of more recently?

I knew I wanted to write about a plane crash. If you set it today, the readerís first thought would be terrorism. There have been surprisingly few terrorist incidents that involve aircraft. But when it does happen itís so grandiose and shocking that it resets our ideas about air travel.

I didnít want to write a novel where people learn about a dramatic event from a text message or an email. Thatís why I made Richard tell (his ex-girlfriend) in person (about his sisterís death).

After the crash occurs, why did you choose to show the reader not just Richardís reactions but those of many other characters?

While I was working as a lobbyist, I had the opportunity to hear some of the listening sessions with the families of people who died in TWA Flight 800, which crashed into Long Island Sound (in 1996). It happened so soon after takeoff that some of the family members heard it and turned around and drove back to the airport.

I wanted to show the human reactions, the different ways people found out about the crash. Itís awkward and messy and overwrought, and thatís real life.

In many ways, Panorama is also a novel about the news media. What drew you to that subject?

Iíve always been slightly afraid of the words "special report." I had a dream when I was 5 years old that (TV news) was reporting that the last glass of drinkable water had just been sold at auction to an Arab sheik.

While I was growing up, the news went from Watergate to the Pope John Paul assassination attempt to the Reagan assassination attempt to watching Challenger blow up live. That jolt is something that I wanted to write about, if only because I think itís almost gone now. Itís changed so much; weíve devalued the term "breaking news."

Why did you choose to make your central character, Richard, a media pundit rather than a reporter?

I knew people who did what he does. Itís not that different from the news today. I wanted to peel back the curtain a little bit. That scene with the split screen (where two commentators are on the same stage but framed as if theyíre in different locations), they do that all the time. I think most of the public discourse on TV is an elaborate charade.

Richard is kind of mercenary, and I think thatís typical. I donít think Tucker Carlson believes a thing he says on TV. Itís performance art.

After a fairly long career in politics, what made you switch to writing?

I always knew what I wanted to do, but I didnít know how to get there. My family on my dadís side were coal miners in Pennsylvania; my momís side were tobacco farmers in North Carolina. My dad went to school on the GI Bill. I was in my 30s before I realized that you could submit a good writing sample and a school would pay you to go.

One effect of 9/11 was that I decided not to let life happen to me but to have a better plan. That day, I couldnít leave my office in D.C. because there was a tank blocking the door.

I was using that other career as an excuse not to have to do the hard work. I wanted to write, and it got to a moment when there was more of a cost not to do it than to do it.

Do you regret the wait, or do you think it helped you?

In a weird way my path really helped me with teaching in a low-residency program. We have a lot of nontraditional students who have other obligations.

Philip Roth said once in an interview that there are so many bad novels about college professors because there are so few writers who have had real jobs.

You directed the University of Tampaís low-residency program for two years, then went to Saint Leo three years ago. Why the move?

I say Iím the only tenured academic ever to take a new job and not have to move house.

Saint Leo offered me the chance to build a program from the ground up. I like the low-residency model because itís more kind to the notion that writing is something we can all do. Itís a way for students to find encouragement. The traditional workshop model tends to focus on the writingís failings.

How does the low-residency program work?

Theyíre on campus for a week. From 9 to 7:30 each day, theyíre doing something writing-related: workshops, lectures, seminars, readings by visiting writers.

This summer our visiting writers that are confirmed are Adam Johnson (The Orphan Masterís Son), Beth Ann Fennelly (Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs) and Tom Franklin (Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter).

The rest of the time, off campus, itís half workshop hours, half reading in the genre they want to write. They each have individual plans of study.

We have an emphasis on war literature and writing by and for veterans. We have students who are veterans of every service except the Coast Guard in the program.

Youíre working on a second novel. Whatís it about?

My editor said, when are you going to write a political book? And I said, all politics is personal. The next one is a little more political, though. A large portion of it is about Mikhail Gorbachev. I have a friend who lived in Moscow, and he was struck by how quickly Gorbachev was erased from the modern history of Russia. And he was by far its most Shakespearean character.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected]
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