canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Salvatore Difalco

by Matthew Firth

[January 2008]

Fuck the clichť Ė Iíll start with the cover of Salvatore Difalcoís excellent new book, Black Rabbit and Other Stories (Anvil Press, 2007). You see, the thing is, thereís a white rabbit on the cover of the book. Maybe the designer couldnít conjure up the image of a black rabbit but I think thereís more to it than this. And I donít think Iím reading too much into cover because Difalcoís wonderful short fiction is rife with contrasts and juxtapositions. The white rabbit is a signal to readers. If that sly-looking bunny could hop off the book jacket and speak, I think itíd say something like this: "Hey, donít read these stories thinking you know whatís what. Thereís more going on beneath the surface than you might think. Pay very close attention to every word Mr Difalco writes." The rabbit might add, "Motherfucker," to keep it in the spirit of Difalcoís lively prose or maybe not, tough to call. But of course, outside of fairytales and hallucinogenic trips, rabbits donít speak, right. So, youíll have to take it from me instead when I write this: Black Rabbit and Other Stories by Salvatore Difalco is an extraordinary collection of variable and visceral short fiction that surprises with its mix of bluntness, cerebral insight and vivid imagery. Whatís more, Difalco lays it down line by line with precise, meticulous writing that makes every sentence sing. His fiction is the perfect marriage of muscle and intelligence.

So, specifically, what do you get in this book? Well, complex, yet recognizable characters, for one, such as Charlie the hit-man in "The Fishhouse" who has a nostalgic spot for anything to do with Christmas; Marty Bush, the youth counsellor in "Grassy Brook Trail" whose exaggerated sense of right and wrong turns him from counsellor to brute in a flash; Bert the biker in "Country Road" who goes ape-shit over an act of littering; and Rocco Schillaci, the father of several grown boys, who is still surprised and befuddled by his sonsí actions; and many other multi-dimensional characters. And itís not just the charactersí characteristics and actions; the cast of Black Rabbit is remarkably diverse: thugs, junkies, thieves, yes, but also a maudlin Maid of the Mist worker; a man mysteriously masquerading as very recent Italian immigrant; an obese man and his ever-shrinking wife in the surreal story "The Dog Went Out and Sat in the Snow" and the borderline psychotic Uncle Toto in the title story, "Black Rabbit".

Diversity, contrasts, surprises Ė Black Rabbit has all this and more. Lazy readers will gravitate to the violent stories in the collection and mislabel Difalco a one-trick pony. He can write about menacing rage and violence with convincing power, to the point where the reader can taste the metallic tinge of blood on their tongue as they read stories such as "Ham and Eggs" and "Alicia". But there is more to this book and to Difalcoís prose. He gives readers humour in "The Skunk", vulnerability in "Pink" and the blurry line between reality and dreams in "Miss Alligator". Moving through the book, from story to story, the reader doesnít know what to expect. Difalcoís work is not predictable in any way. He does not settle for the easy route, the soft path so many Canadian writers chose. Difalco challenges readers, dragging them into mayhem one minute and then bathing them in compassion the next. In one story readers are immersed in the goings-on of Italian immigrants in Hamiltonís north end, the next, itís all crackhead youth and their miscreant aspirations. There are twenty-one stories in Black Rabbit but each packs more pace, energy and depth than you get in the average novel.

I talked to Difalco about his new book Ö

MF: What should readers expect from Black Rabbit and Other Stories?

SD: Well, I pride myself in not working from a template, and giving each story its own unique flavour and measure, so perhaps, as trite as it may sound, a reader should expect the unexpected. I certainly havenít succumbed to any demands or aesthetic agendas of CanLit, so Iím coming from a different perspective, maybe a freer one. Also, a reader can expect that Iíve done my homework, literally, that Iíve lived through or intimately beside many of the experiences I delineate or use as stepping-off points for the stories.

MF: Whoís your audience? It seems to me thereís material in Black Rabbit that would appeal to a wide range of readers.

SD: Frankly, I have no idea who my audience is, or if I have a big enough readership to call it an audience. Iíd like to think that my stories would appeal to anyone who likes short stories, the short story form, and to anyone who enjoys a good, challenging read. I know that readers react to my stories, at times almost viscerally, and I think thatís a good thing. So Iím doing something that arouses emotions, good and bad, something that makes the heart race a little. All good things, I think. Also, because I write about characters from so many walks of life, trying in each instance to give them their proper reality and "voice" as it were, I think my stories would appeal to anyone, to anyone who enjoys reading stories, understanding of course that there are many people who do not. Iíve been published in so many formats, from university journals to underground zines, that I know Iím reaching a varied readership, if it exists at all. Sometimes I wonder.  

MF: But letís say, hypothetically, I guess, that some thug from the north end of Hamilton you knew growing up picked up the book and read it. What do you think heíd make of it?

SD: I was with my cousins and their spouses over the holidays, all good fellas and gals from the old north end, tough as nails, who donít mince words, and know nothing about CanLit and so forth. Iíd given them all copies when it came out and theyíd read the book, or at least a few of the stories, and not surprisingly, they loved some, especially ones about the streets and violence, or ones that had family echoes, but could only shake their heads at others. More importantly, what I found hilarious, and a little bit alarming at first, then gratifying, was that they had given their teenagers the book to read, and they loved it.

MF: I read an interview with Bukowski once wherein he bragged about his books being widely shared among inmates and that they refused to let the guards borrow the books. Similar to the last question: what do you think the kids you worked with would make of the stories about them? Flattered? Pissed? Not give a shit? Something else?

SD: Matt, one night Iím at Casino Niagara playing some Texas Hold Em. This young man with a sideways ball cap joins the table and after a sec says, "Hey, Sammy!" Sure enough itís this one kid, a real troublemaker back in the day. Anyway, to make a long story short, he made me feel terrific when he told everyone at the table about what a great counsellor I had been, how much I had helped him blah blah blah. He managed to stay out of trouble and is studying to be a pastry chef or something at Niagara College Ö So, I had copies of the book in my car and before I left I went out and got him one. I ran into him again at the Casino a week later and he had the book with him and was beside himself. I mean, I got the answer directly. Young people are likely more open to the language I use, and to themes about violence, drug abuse, family dysfunction, existential emptiness and confusion Ö all that. They have yet to cultivate false scruples about what they read. If it tickles them they like it.  

MF: You worked as a youth counsellor. How tough is it to write about these kids? Because you lay it down as it happens, no sugar-coating.

SD: I donít write about them anymore. I saw so much violence, horror, and pure human sadness Ė destroyed lives, and lives waiting to be destroyed, and the futility of trying to save some of those lives Ė that I had to vent some of that experience into the fiction or Iíd lose my mind. There were times, when I was working inside, and we were in the middle of an ugly restraint or bloody fight with these raging fucked-up heartbreaking kids that I really started to question things Ö my sanity, my humanity, theirs. Do Canadians think the stuff of those stories is made up? If anything, I couldnít touch some things Ė like the kid who beat his mother to death with a crowbar. For six months I played chess with that kid almost every shift I worked and got quite inside his head Ö You canít go to places like that without putting your own soul and sanity at risk. So the fiction was necessary, at the time.

MF: Dreams feature prominently in this book, often in the midst of blunt reality. Why? 

SD: I donít know, Matt. At times it seems to me that what we call reality can only be a dream, that it is only a dream, like the dream of the earthís or something like that, or the dream of some demented god. Not to sound too weird about it, but often things in waking life approach the seamless absurdity and fluid dislocation of dreams. And then there is the "dream" of the story itself to consider. A writer putting down a story from the flotsam and jetsam of his unconsciousness is really, in a sense, trying to orchestrate a dream that someone else can experience. Maybe the story itself Ė or "art" Ė is an interface for dreams and reality. I donít know. As a kid growing up in a dislocated and ostracized immigrant Sicilian family I sometimes had trouble differentiating between dreams and reality Ö

MF: Your stories are clearly set in specific places, mostly Hamilton, Niagara Falls and Toronto. Why, first off? And why are you so explicit about location?

SD: I guess Iím being as truthful as I can to the story itself, by setting it in certain places. I mean I couldnít have set my story "Maid of The Mist" anywhere but Niagara Falls. Very often place and character are intertwined and interconnected in subtle but profound ways that donít travel well. Though one always seeks universals, you have to start with particulars and work outward. It so happens that my characters are creatures of their physical, mental, and spiritual environments, yes, but mainly physical. Also, why not write about the towns and cities down in the Peninsula? People live there, real people, and they have their stories, rich, living stories that have yet to be told by anyone.

MF: How much do you mine your own past in your fiction?

SD: I mine everything and anything. Iím entirely and unapologetically promiscuous when it comes to using and abusing my past or anything else to create a story or make a story work. I donít give a fuck what anyone says either. Nothing is sacred. I fully exercise my freedom of artistic expression. Thatís not to say I consider myself an autobiographical writer. I donít write directly from experience. Itís often a case of choosing a lexicon, of selecting words, from that great pool of words that are markers or registers for your experience, be it lived, or studied, or deliberately cultivated. That sounds like such a crock, doesnít it, Matt? What I mean is, yeah, I use whatever works, including my past. But I donít write directly about it. Itís usually a fusion, collation, or collage of many things. 

MF: Your stories are written from a clear male perspective. First of all, I applaud this. Not because Iím a misogynist shit but because I donít think enough male writers step up and lay it down "like a man" Ė which doesnít always mean tough-guy fiction, it also means putting humour, vulnerability, as well as muscle front and centre. First off, is this accurate? Second, can you comment on the state of male writing in Canada?

SD: Yes, Iím a man, and Iím not going to pretend to be anything else. Although, let me tell you. During the nineties I was getting my poems and stories rejected wholesale by every journal in the country. This was at the height of political correctness when it was both hazardous and annoying to be a straight Caucasian male in Canada. So I started sending the same poems and stories out to the same journals as Margaret Gabriel and Gareth Wiggins and just about every one got accepted and published. Matrix magazine even fashioned a logo after one of my Wiggins stories Ö this Rastaman-lion. A true absurdity. Itís no longer the nineties but I still find myself pretty marginalized, I think, for writing about what I do in the way I do. Itís clear to me that Canadian literature and publishing is governed (literally governed) by agendas, and that everyone is so horny for the grant money that they all play it safe. But you know, I donít fucking care. Iím not competing with anyone. Iíll just write what I write and if people will publish it then Iíll continue. If they donít, Iíll still continue. I just read Cormac McCarthyís No Country For Old Men and I LOVED it precisely because it is so refreshingly hard and funny and horrible and masculine. As for the state of male writers in Canada, you know, for a nation of hockey players and hosers, we have, for the most part, a bunch of tone-deaf earnest pencil-necked eunuchs representing us, and thatís pathetic. 

MF: Thereís great variety among the stories in Black Rabbit. Is this something you were conscious of, of mixing it up, keeping the reader on his/her toes?

SD: I never want to be labelled as this or that kind of writer. Whatever story Iím executing, I try to be true to the demands and realities of that story. I donít write from a template. My influences are wide and varied. That being said, Iíd like to think that only I can write my stories in exactly the way I write them, that I wonít be confused with anyone else. Maybe they donít hang together well as "linked" stories, but I really believe a short story is an autonomous work of art and if it shares connections with other stories thatís fine, but if not thatís fine too. And yes, maybe that forces readers to slow down some. If they do with my work, I think theyíll be pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised, which as a reader I like very much myself. I hate predictable fiction.

MF: Are you wary of being cast as a writer of a certain type of fiction, of so-called gritty/urban stuff?

SD: Ah, I donít give a shit, Matt. Iím on the margins and will remain there but the minute I get labelled as this or that Iíll be writing something else that flies in the face of it.

MF: Why do you pay such close attention to single sentences and lines of prose in your fiction?

SD: Well, I started as a poet and my prose style evolved from that and I know that at times it makes my stories somewhat dense but I write one line at a time and try to coil each sentence with maximum power. Iím a real student of Beckett, Kafka, Hemingway, and Isaac Babel, guys who write fantastic, often compressed, sentences. Maybe that style is less effective for longer narratives, but I pretty much write everything with the same intensity and aim for compression.

MF: This is a shitty question Ė because comparisons are a pain in the ass Ė but where does this collection stand in relation to the general scope of Canadian writing?

SD: Iím proud of the collection. Brian Kaufman at Anvil Press did a fine job, and I wish readers would grab it. But I donít know how Black Rabbit, or I, fit into the Canadian literary landscape. Hardly at all, I imagine. I live in a nation where the game is rigged. My book has already been dismissed by some reviewers as too this or that Ė one clown from Edmonton said the stories sounded like the products of an obese, bullshitting warehouse worker (as if even he deserves to have his humanity denigrated, eh) Ė and the violence, well then thereís the VIOLENCE. Like we live in a pacific friendly egalitarian world where horrors donít abound. Just the other morning on a quiet residential Toronto street still bearing Christmas and New Years banners and decorations, they found a fourteen year old girl, the daughter of TWO police officers, stabbed to fucking death. So the violence and the way I portray it makes it different from other Canadian work Ö You know, Iíve lived a varied existence and put myself in extreme situations to get to some truth, or truths, and Iíve put my heart and soul into those stories and tried to make them cool and funny and terrible and interesting and if readers want slightly spicier fare than the bland pap theyíve been force-fed theyíre very warmly welcomed, if not what can I do about it?






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