Salvatore Difalco has worn many hats in his walk through life. Born in Hamilton, Ontario to Sicilian immigrants, and educated at Cathedral High and the University of Toronto, he has worked as a journalist, editor and translator, as well as counseling and mentoring at-risk youth. He is also the author of five books of fiction and poetry, including the illustrated microfiction collection, The Mountie At Niagara Falls (Anvil Press) and the novel Mean Season (Mansfield Press). His short stories, essays, articles and poems have appeared in journals and magazines throughout the English-speaking world. He currently lives in Toronto.
Sal's work appeared in Pond 69
Why do you write?
Hm. I’ve thought about that a lot lately. English is my second language and my fascination with it has proved bottomless. Writing satisfies my ongoing desire to master English, which is funny because I’ve never written anything substantial in Italian, my first language. That said, I don’t write for money or glory. Surely I would’ve starved to death or been diminished to a simpering little zilch long ago had that been my ambition. A kindly professor once told me that a writer’s life was hard and that I had to be prepared to eat a lot of shit if I pursued it. And he wasn’t wrong. But even the consciousness of almost inevitable failure never stopped me. I write, and have written most of my adult life, mainly as a way to create or to express myself creatively. I write because I love the medium of the English language. I write because I can’t draw or draught or paint or sculpt with any efficacy. I write because I can’t play a musical instrument. I cook and play chess and poker, which indulge me creatively to a degree, but I have to sit down and suffer through words and sentences and paragraphs in order to truly create—and truly feel alive. When not writing, I can honestly say I’m not happy—or at least, in the presence of company, I often go through the motions of conviviality and enjoyment while mentally plotting my next narrative or dwelling on some line I’ve written that isn’t quite right. I write because I love creating stories or poems or unclassifiable word objects that put a smile on a reader’s face or bring a tear to their eye or give their spine a little shiver or bristle their hackles a bit. You know, that kind of stuff.
What other creative activities are you involved in?
As mentioned, I can’t paint or draw. In primary school, when the good nuns of St. Lawrence Elementary dutifully observed that I could not contain my crayon strokes and scrawls within the black outlines of the coloring book, they vigorously dissuaded me from pursuing art in any form. Also, I had a splendid soprano singing voice back then, and sang in choirs and in school plays until the age of 12 when the onset of puberty leveled my voice to a pile of flinty gravel. And then, when I decided I might pick up the guitar to further my musical interests, my parents—given the onslaught of rock-and-roll, drugs, and long hair—thought the guitar was an instrument of subversion and devilishness. They opted instead for the humble accordion, which they felt would bring me renown in the Italian-Canadian community, especially if I became masterful enough to perform at weddings, bridal showers, baptisms and so forth. Needless to say, I rejected this imposition out of hand and fended off their urging by lying to them that I had no interest in music, not really, and that it would be a waste of their hard-earned money to force accordion lessons on me. So I took to writing, instead. Little poems and storiettes at first. My first positive writing experience occurred in the seventh grade, when Mr. Dowd had me read an absurdist science fiction story I’d composed during English to the entire class. My schoolmates laughed uproariously throughout my reading and applauded when I was done. I think from that point on I knew what I was going to do with myself.
Who is your favorite author and why?
This a tough one because I don’t have a single favorite author. But I have favorite books. Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman tops my list for the sheer lyrical beauty of the prose combined with the dark, mad absurdity of O’Brien’s storytelling. And I’d include Samuel Beckett’s Murphy right alongside it. I just love their mix of lyrical-scholasticism and madness. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis continues to have a deep impact on my psyche and my approach to fiction. Jonathan Swift’s Tale of the Tub, is a mad mad work of satirical genius that I’ve been rereading for years and recommend to anyone who loves satire and wonderful sentences. Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin is a hilarious, fantastically written masterpiece. Thomas De Quincy’s Confessions of an Opium-Eater dazzlingly demonstrates what can be done with the English sentence, as well as telling an odd, rather byzantine story. Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, a collection of intense, compressed stories, still haunts me. Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers taught me the art of caricature through description and dialogue. Farley Mowat’s (my favorite Canadian writer) Lost in the Barrens is just a good story, period, and quintessentially Canadian. The exemplary miniaturist Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories showed me the way with flash and micro. And Shakespeare has always been a touchstone; Dante to a lesser degree. Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium ranks an appearance because I started as a poet and fell under the spell of his scintillant language and imagery. John Ashbery’s perplexing The Tennis Court Oath blew my mind and changed my ideas about poetry, while also demonstrating the mixed fruits of high-wire risk-taking. I won’t go on for fear of sounding like a blowhard, but this is the gist of it.
Tell us about the mechanics of how you write.
I write one of two ways, sometimes a mix of both. My first approach is more journalistic or academic insofar as I have an idea or a story I’ve been thinking about ready to be penned. Then it’s just a question of gathering whatever research, whether written down or catalogued in my head, and sitting down and tapping it out. (By the way, I both handwrite and use the computer, depending on my mood.) The second approach usually happens when I have nothing in my noggin but feel compelled to get something—anything—done. A first sentence is written, then a second, and so on. Before you know it, you’ve accumulated many sentences with a vague idea of what you’ve written until you review it. Sometimes, by some miracle, you create a finished little gem; more often, it’s a blob of disconnected words and images that have to be hammered into some semblance of sense or beauty. Sometimes, they do not survive the process. Both approaches have worked for me, though admittedly my more surreal and speculative pieces have emerged from parts unknown in my psyche. And I can’t sit down with the intent of writing something weird or surreal. It just has to happen. But often I have a story I want to tell and after thinking about it at length, I write it down with very little interference from the darker goblins of my psyche, unless of course I invite them.
Finally, what do you think about Carp, the fish, not our website?
I grew up near the smoldering steel mills of Hamilton, Ontario, not far from Burlington Bay and its iridescent rainbows of toxic discharge. When I was a boy, my Uncle Joe used to take me for walks along the sulfur-and-fish-reeking harbourfront. One overcast day, we walked past the concrete pier to a stretch of gravely beach, and he led me right to the water’s edge. While the foundries belched gray and blue-black in the distance, yellowish pythons of foam lapped the greasy gray gravel, and a puke-green undulating slime encircled the entire beach. I don’t know what Uncle Joe was thinking bringing me so close to that water. I knew he’d been having some problems. We didn’t stay long. Last thing I noticed before we left was a fat, silvery carp bobbing dead-eyed in the slime and foam, its large mouth gaping obscenely, as if in outrage.