BY ANDI TALARICO
John Pivovarnick’s novel-within-a-novel Tales from the Back of a Bus tells the story of a young author handling the aftermath of his book’s publication. Jake Maldemer, a young writer in 1980s Los Angeles, writes a series of tales featuring a protagonist named Jack Moses as well as an ethereal, spooky man named Kobold. But when Jake hits the road to promote his book, a man claiming to be Kobold finds him, and things only get weirder from there. It becomes almost impossible to separate fact from fiction as we’re guided through a Dantean LA landscape and later in the piece, New York. The work speaks to the confusion of identity, cognitive dissonance, shame-based fear, and PTSD. Fans of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five or the film Jacob’s Ladder will feel right at home in these pages. I spoke with author Pivovarnick about the work.
I understand that you wrote much of this book some time ago, in the early 80s. What brought you back to it? What was the editing process like as you finalized this edition for print?
The story is pretty much as described in the afterword, moving that big honking filing cabinet and wondering "WTF is in here?" then spelunking in the monstrous thing.
The clincher, as it were, was finding those rejection letters talked about, too. The "its sooo good, no one will publish it" comments. "Too challenging." Too whatever.
The hardest part of editing was keeping it accurate to the timeframe. I hired an editor and he was like, "Did Jiffy Mailers exist in 1979?" and my answer was always, "They must have, because that's when that part was written."
There were also some characters I had a hard time not editing to fit today's standards. I had to let them stand [while cringing] because they were accurate and honest for the time.
What made you decide to finally move forward with the book's publication? Was there a moment?
The moment was getting similar rejection letters for Beneath a Glass Triskellion which Dave and I are still hammering away at. The thought being, let's learn this process so we're ready to go with these books when we're ready. There's quite a learning curve, as you can imagine. Luckily, I have a unique set of skills...
The story takes place in a city that both is and is not Los Angeles, in that it takes place in the physical and spiritual planes. What about Los Angeles made it available to you as a magical or ethereal realm?
I ran away to Los Angeles when I was 19, and it was both a magical/ethereal realm, and the drudgery of two jobs to make rent and no time to write. I took that bus ride to get that job. I ate at Ships a lot. Just the difference between growing up in Scranton, PA and finding myself in Los Angeles at 19 was quite the journey of discovery.
The act of writing is magical in the same sense the cards are magical or ritual is magical.
Your story is a frame narrative, a classic story-within-a-story, but because you also discuss this work being autobiographical, it's a actually a meta story-within-a-story-within-a-story...within a story? Jack is Jake is YOU, John. How did you handle the psychological gymnastics required to get within two characters that are both based upon your experiences?
Who said I handled them? I have a radio interview coming up next month, and my mind is blown about that.
Also, as a queer kid in denial, your life is all about getting in the heads of two characters that are both based on your experience. That's the closet in a nutshell.
One of the most potent aspects of the work is the main character's struggle over defining and understanding his sexual identification. What was it like, looking back upon those ideas in 2018 from a time when that was still a struggle for you? Do you identity as an LGBTQ author?
I'm an author who is gay, and my life informs what I write, regardless of characters, genre, or whatever. I always strive for representation in what I write, all the way around. I administer the Bechdel test to myself.
At Luna Luna, we're always interested in the cultural signifiers of witches and witchcraft. While Tales from the Back of a Bus doesn't deal directly with witchcraft, you've long been a tarot reader and witchy individual. Do you see a corollary between witchcraft and authorship in general? How does your craft or spiritual practice inform your work.
The act of writing is magical in the same sense the cards are magical or ritual is magical. They all bring about a state of mind that makes you open and receptive, to see. Ritual informs your being. The cards inform another person. Writing informs the readers. It's all the same process of seeing, understanding, and communicating. To me at least. My best writing happens when the characters take control and I'm reduced to just transcribing what they tell me--that's whether they're people, creatures, space aliens, or what not. That "divine madness" Plato was so hot about.
Anything else you’d like to let us know?
This is a weird, weird book. Even I'm astonished at how strange it is. But it's a pretty accurate representation of me and my mind and life process at the time, through a lot of transformative stuff--personal stuff, the Reagan era which was also the start of the AIDS crisis, coming out, shaking off my catholic school upbringing to embrace a wider mystical world. Mind blowing stuff that I was lucky to survive intact. Ish. Intactish.
More than any other element in it, I think it maps my transition from the childhood view that the world is safe and sensible to the more truthful world "red in tooth and claw" ready to chew up the unwary/unaware and spit them out. A simmering summary of this story, maybe, in which I come out transformed on the other side. My life is way stranger than the novelization of it.
Andi Talarico is Luna Luna’s book reviews editor, and a Brooklyn-based writer and reader. In 2003, Paperkite Press published her chapbook, Spinning with the Tornado, and Swandive Publishing included her in the 2014 anthology, Everyday Escape Poems.
She’s taught poetry in classrooms as a rostered artist and acted as both coach and judge for Poetry Out Loud. She also penned a literary arts column for Electric City magazine, and currently curates the NYC-branch of the international reading series, At the Inkwell. When she’s not working with stationery company Baron Fig, she can be found reading tarot cards, supporting independent bookstores, and searching for the best oyster Happy Hour in NYC.