Twenty-first century America visually consumes cataclysmic events. A shooting, a plane crash, a terrorist attack — these tragedies we process through videos captured by strangers' cameras, presented to us by newscasters or posted by unknown users online. Watching, we may feel pain or horror or shock, but also we experience a disconnect, pulling these moments into our minds via screens.
"We don't really encounter what we see on television news as being events that happen to real people," writer Steve Kistulentz told Spine. Kistulentz is the author of the novel Panorama, released last month by Little, Brown, as well as two collections of poetry. "I've always been interested in the idea of how news prioritizes some memories over others, and how it gives primacy to stories that have accompanying visual images.
"Most of the big stories of the latter 20th century stay with us because they have associated video — the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, the beginning of the first Gulf War, the terrorist attacks on September 11. What each of those stories neglects is that those are real things, happening to real people."
In Panorama, Kistulentz explores the spaces surrounding tragedy, public and private. The novel takes place in the 24 hours before and after a plane crash. It follows multiple people intimately involved in the incident, including first responders, passengers, victims' families, airline employees, and a guy who caught the whole thing on video.
Though he's been long interested in ideas surrounding public consumption vs. private experience of tragedy, Kistulentz can also trace the origins of the novel to a job and a phone call.
Kistulentz moved to Washington, D.C., after college and worked on Capitol Hill, eventually landing at a trade association representing large airports. When TWA Flight 800 exploded and fell into the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island, in July 1996, Kistulentz became part of a task force aimed at providing aid to families involved in aviation disasters.
"Prior to September 11, most airports had no significant contingency plans for dealing with grief-stricken friends and family members after a crash. We held listening sessions at the Federal Aviation Administration; after hearing those stories, I understood that there was the potential there for crisis, but also the potential for the beginning of the healing process. That was something that I probably wrote in my notebook that day. It's always been in the soup of things I think about," he said.
Around the same time, Kistulentz fielded a questioning phone call from his sister, making her will. Should she die, would he serve as guardian for her son, then six? "I said absolutely, of course, and then I hung up the phone," Kistulentz recalled. He took a look around his bachelor pad. "At the time I was single and living a very urban, professional life in D.C., and realized I didn't know any of the fundamentals about children. I had no idea where I would even live."
Holding on to these issues — parenting someone else's child, processing tragedy from multiple angles — Kistulentz eventually left D.C. to pursue a life of writing and teaching. After publishing two books of poetry, he turned to the concepts that had long been swirling around in his "soup."
Perhaps because he'd been thinking on the book, or the ideas behind the book, for so long, Kistulentz knew exactly where to begin his first novel: a plane crash. Wanting to place a tight timeframe around his characters, he planned to move forward from there, through the next 24 hours, but "realized pretty quickly there were obstacles." In order to fully express the emotional impact of the crash on certain characters, he needed to offer glimpses at relationships in place before the tragedy.
Having established his new timeframe – from 24 hours before until 24 hours after the accident, Kistulentz moved smoothly through the book, writing chronologically, inserting each character's voice when it felt necessary to representing the full impact of the plane crash. Centering his book around the central event, a big-picture story, rather than around a central character, is a technique Kistulentz adopted from film and television.
"I'm much more interested in films and high-profile television shows that tell grand stories with large casts than I am in three-camera network sitcoms. I think that pushing the envelope in terms of the way that stories are told is one of the unique things that films can do, whether it's a movie like Memento, which tells the story in reverse chronology, or whether it’s a television show like The Leftovers, where you have a character who is first among equals, but the main cast is an ensemble of a good ten people who can appear in various timelines and even on various continents. You spend substantial amounts of time with all of them. That's what real life is like."
The ideas in Panorama marinated for decades before Kistulentz sat down to write, but once he had a draft, he had a publisher. He sent agent Wendy Sherman the manuscript on a Monday, and by that Friday, he had signed on with Wendy Sherman Associates. Sherman had clear ideas for edits, and the book's eventual Little, Brown editors, first Amanda Brower and later Ben George, also had clear ideas for streamlining. So the draft became book.
In March the book arrived on shelves and e-readers.
Susanna Baird serves as Authors editor of Spine. She tackles her own creative writing and client projects from her dining room table in Salem, Massachusetts. When not working words, she helps lead The Clothing Connection, a local nonprofit getting new clothes to kids who need them. Find more of her writing at susannabaird.com, and find her (re)tweeting regularly on Twitter @SusannaBaird.