lue Rhinoceros, the story that follows a town’s quick and harrowing descent into madness in the wake of an industrial disaster, is Jesse’s Salvo’s debut novel. Though he normally writes short stories and captures the attention of literary magazine aficionados, Salvo takes a break from his normal prose to create a work of art that forces us to reckon with our shortcomings both as a society and at the atomized individual level. The audience, when reading, is invited to compare their own moral and philosophical standing to the sad, hapless cast of characters that populate the story. I had the opportunity to sit down with Salvo and discuss his novel in detail. Below are the ramblings of a genius, or perhaps a madman. I suppose only time will tell.
In your own words, how would you summarize your book?
“A whodunnit for the death of a species.” is what I sheepishly tell people at parties when they ask. In my experience, they are almost never impressed with that explanation.
What would you say was your biggest inspiration for starting the novel?
Great question! Depends what you mean. Stylistically, I always reach back for Joseph Mitchell’s nonfiction work. The prose is basically just me doing a Joseph Mitchell impression. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Raymond Chandler are influences (though strange bedfellows, I guess). Also a wonderful play called Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco.
Philosophically, different story. The book has a philosophical scaffolding that I don’t necessarily agree with, but my weakness as a writer is now, and ever shall be, structure, and I find once I commit in advance to a totalizing worldview, even one that I’m not 100% on board with, it clarifies a lot for me, and gives me some breathing room to explore character. From there, I can play around testing the fences of that philosophy. The ur-text that undergirds the whole book is a series of University lectures called The Variety of Religious Experience by William James. James chronicled the reported experiences of mystics, fanatics, people who’d experienced stigmata, etc. A great deal of the character Sairy is a sort of amalgamated, more sinister, version of James’ secondhand saints. The book also engages a lot with anarchist philosophy, especially through the character Robert Vicaray. I don’t come from a philosophy background so my understanding of some of this stuff was a bit callow, but to give the appearance of depth, I read some Murray Bookchin, David Graeber (who I’d already admired quite a bit) and a bit of Bakunin obviously.
How did Covid-19 affect your writing process? Your end product?
Well the whole of this novel was written over the course of about 3 months in Sevilla during the national confinement here. You couldn’t leave your house except to go to the hospital or get groceries. Every night people would bang pots and pans to support hospital workers. Other than that, it was silent. The Mercado de Feria, which had been operating every Thursday since the 13th century, ceased operating. After the confinement ended we couldn’t leave the country because the backup in the Immigration offices was such that they weren’t going to be able to process visas for maybe 6 months. So I had a bunch of unstructured time, I was kind of trapped like a lot of other expats. Australians, other Americans, etc. We were all living on savings in a nine person house in a pueblo near Valencia. Rent was 200 euros. We made communal dinners, and I ate a lot of canned vegetables. Writing at that moment felt like an act of such radical optimism. The idea that there would be another year, and a year after that, and that in those years someone might pick up a book and begin reading it for leisure. So I wrote a lot. It was all I could think to do. Now I’m a bit burned out from it, but hopefully the feeling will come back.
How did living in Spain influence the journey of this novel? From writing, to publishing, to promotion?
It had a big impact on the language of the book. Speaking Spanish every day changes your relationship to English whether you want it to or not. For me, it’s been a huge asset. It’s allowed me to experiment more on the sentence level.
Living here can also lend a bit of critical distance which is helpful sometimes in assessing the United States and U.S. political horizons. The obvious example is Europeans find for-profit healthcare barbaric.
I didn’t attend an MFA program, so I don’t have a real community of U.S. authors I belong to. I’ve heard a few writers over the years say something to the effect of: they want to find their Paris. As in Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound, or maybe as in Van Gogh and Lautrec. No offense meant, but that’s not really attractive to me. I have decidedly limited interest in surrounding myself with a bunch of other writers who are trading bon mots or whatever. Reading and writing are both solitary exercises. You have to be alone in a room with yourself. I’d much rather find my Arles. Stay out in the wilderness.
Did you always think or know the main animal for the book would be a rhinoceros? Were there any other possible options?
I think it was always a rhino. I had already tried the idea out as a short story, but in the short story format the killing of the rhinoceros felt like it overpowered everything else. I figured it was a failure, so I shelved it. When COVID hit, it sort of snuck back up on me. I think the idea originally sprung from reading the reporting about some of the last African white rhinos. In particular I think the podcast Radiolab had done a story about some rich asshole who’d bid at a conservation auction to basically go to Africa to hunt and kill an old white rhino. I remember how they described the guy finally killing it, and how almost banal the killing was. The rhino was just standing there, and the rich guy had bad aim, so he only wounded it first. There was no dramatic charge or clash between man and beast or whatever Kipling-adjacent fantasy the rich fellow had in his head. It boiled down to this sort of very slow, clumsy execution of one of the last members of a species.
Are there any events in the book that you took inspiration from your own life and adapted into the writing? If so, what?
Maybe some of Oscar Louder’s dourness, especially concerning elite universities. I’ve done some direct-relief work, though nothing like what’s described in the book. The 92 Expo, which in the book takes place in New York, actually did take place in Seville, and like in the book they created these massive white elephant structures just outside the city (including a spaceship) and then abandoned them all. It’s a very strange place to walk through.
At what point did you know you were done with the book? Was it part of a process? Or was there a final day of writing?
I finished it one day in the kitchen of that shared house in that pueblo. I don’t know how I knew it was done except there seemed to be nothing more I had to say. It was dreadful. Can’t wait to do it again.
What do you want readers to take away from your novel?
I guess if the novel had an actual project, it was to create a grammar for understanding and expressing just how grim manmade climate change is, and will be going forward. You can say 150 species a day, or 3 degrees centigrade, but fundamentally our brains don’t or can’t register that reality. So if the empirical reality has proved too overwhelming, or too abstract, I wanted to create a new emotional grammar. That is what the novel aims to do, especially in those last chapters, to create a new mode of expression since the old modes seem to come up short.
Do you see this project branching off into any other works? Will this remain a singular novel?
I can’t imagine returning to this world again. Maybe a character or two will pop up somewhere else, who knows. Dave Boggs I quite like, despite everything.
What plans do you have for your next big publishing project?
When I know I’ll tell you. I’m really superstitious about discussing anything prior to it being finished. I have one other novel MS kicking around. It predates Blue Rhinoceros by three or four years, so it might be fun to go back and see if there’s anything there.
What are you most proud of regarding the process of writing the novel and having it published?
I think the responses it’s gotten from readers who don’t know me at all. That’s really gratifying because you never know how the voice is going to hit someone who has no context for you. Friends and family are always going to read you more charitably, give you the benefit of the doubt. It’s been a thrill to receive positive feedback from readers who came to it cold.
What was the most difficult part about becoming published?
God, the editing is a nightmare! I´m not very doctrinaire about grammar, and editors, it turns out, are. But promotion is hands down my least favorite thing. Every time I send out another chain email I feel like I´m selling NFTs.
Do you have anyone you would love to give a shout out (that you already have within the book or that you couldn’t make room for on the back page)?
I feel terrible having forgotten him in the Acknowledgements, but my friend Pat Spagnuolo. Pat, I love you! My friend Adrian, in Spain, my only writer friend here. Also, Ben Drevlow at Bull who gave me my first fiction editor position. He is perhaps the most charitable person in the literary world, I honestly don’t know how Ben does it.
What character do you relate to the most in the book?
Yikes. I mean the correct answer is that they’re all me, right? Maybe BeeBop. I would say I have a lengthy intro where I implore readers not to confuse me for the narrator. Everyone in my life who read the book ignored that directive.
What part of the book was the most difficult for you to research and find information on?
The logistics of the maple flood. I took a long, long time trying to crunch numbers on what that would look like. That said, I recently got an email from a retired physicist who’d finished the book and said that he’d been skeptical. Then, after some back-of-the-envelope math, he determined that I’d mostly nailed it. That was nice to hear. That said the book´s not exactly striving for accuracy.
When did you first want to become a writer and why?
I can´t say when exactly. Maybe age 12, the first time I picked up The Hobbit. I also recall reading some quote from the novelist Tom Robbins about how half his family had been revival tent preachers, and the other half traveling soap salesmen, so you couldn't say he didn't come by his trade honestly. Something like that. The truth is, I´m not good for much else, in a practical sense. I despise honest work. This was the only club that would take me.
You can find Jesse Salvo’s novel, Blue Rhinoceros, on Amazon.
Jesse Salvo is a native New Yorker but now lives in Seville, Spain. His work has been published in over a dozen literary journals including Hobart Pulp, Maudlin House, Barren Magazine, Menacing Hedge, X-Ray Lit, others. Before that, he spent three years working for online comedy magazines. His first novel, Blue Rhinoceros, debuted in May 2022 courtesy of New Meridian Arts. Salvo serves as senior fiction editor and contributing columnist for Bull Magazine.