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

CHRIS URSO   |   Times Novelist Steve Kistulentz poses for a photograph Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018 in Safety Harbor.
CHRIS URSO | Times Novelist Steve Kistulentz poses for a photograph Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018 in Safety Harbor.
Published Mar. 1, 2018

SAFETY HARBOR

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

"I'm proud of the book," he says of Panorama, "and I hope it finds an audience, although I wouldn't recommend reading it at the gate before a flight."

He's joking, kind of. The book's plot revolves around a plane crash, although that catastrophe doesn't 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 don't survive — 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, he's 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. There's a photo of him taken during the Watergate hearings, he says, of "7-year-old me holding Pete Rodino's gavel." Rodino chaired the House Judiciary Committee that oversaw the impeachment process against President Richard Nixon.

"To this day, I'll correct Wolf Blitzer in my living room when he's talking about Watergate," Kistulentz says.

It's 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 Year's 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 it's 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 reader's first thought would be terrorism. There have been surprisingly few terrorist incidents that involve aircraft. But when it does happen it's so grandiose and shocking that it resets our ideas about air travel.

I didn't want to write a novel where people learn about a dramatic event from a text message or an email. That's why I made Richard tell (his ex-girlfriend) in person (about his sister's death).

After the crash occurs, why did you choose to show the reader not just Richard's 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. It's awkward and messy and overwrought, and that's real life.

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

I've 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 it's almost gone now. It's changed so much; we've 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. It's 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 they're 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 that's typical. I don't think Tucker Carlson believes a thing he says on TV. It's 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 didn't know how to get there. My family on my dad's side were coal miners in Pennsylvania; my mom's 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 couldn't 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 Tampa's low-residency program for two years, then went to Saint Leo three years ago. Why the move?

I say I'm 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 it's more kind to the notion that writing is something we can all do. It's a way for students to find encouragement. The traditional workshop model tends to focus on the writing's failings.

How does the low-residency program work?

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

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

The rest of the time, off campus, it's 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.

You're working on a second novel. What's 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 cbancroft@tampabay.com
or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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