Opposites contain their opposites: An Interview with Joseph Scapellato
In Big Lonesome, a collection of stories, Joseph Scapellato plays with the fabric of the American West, chronologizing a new era of grit and substance in an increasingly digital age. Scapellato’s America is magical, tragic, and, most importantly, real. Using recognizable markers of this fictional wheelhouse, the stories in Big Lonesome range from the grotesque to the deadpan and surreal, recalling the great, strange postmodernist writer Donald Barthelme as well as a host of grit veterans like Cormac McCarthy and Daniel Woodrell. With Big Lonesome, Scapellato expertly cannibalizes the West’s heroes, anti-heroes, and villains, spitting them out raw and rough around the edges. What tumbles out is something entirely new, and we can’t get enough. We are lucky to have Scapellato freshly represent fiction writers working in this vein, opening our West to, frankly, limitless possibilities. Nowhere is compassion, imagination, and humor more evident than in his writing and his gift for discussing the craft.
Joseph Scapellato was born in the suburbs of Chicago and earned his MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University. His fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Gulf Coast, Post Road, PANK, Unsaid, and other literary magazines, and has been anthologized in Harper Perennial’s Forty Stories, Gigantic Books’ Gigantic Worlds: An Anthology of Science Flash Fiction, and &NOW’s The Best Innovative Writing. He is an assistant professor of English in the Creative Writing Program at Bucknell University, and lives in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, with his wife, daughter, and dog.
I got to ask Joseph a few questions about the book over an entirely too long period as I figured out MFA thesis and job interviews, then moving from Michigan to Kansas. Thankfully he forgives easily. The conversation picked up where it left off, Joseph full of insight into his process and the Big Lonesome’s origins.
Jason Teal: Thanks for talking to me about Big Lonesome. First, do you see the book as an interrogation of western societies, and how did you decide on this very specific theme?
JS: Big Lonesome began in 2008, when I graduated from New Mexico State University’s MFA program and moved to central Pennsylvania with my now-wife. I went from the bright bigness of the high desert—young hungry mountains—to the shady mildness of the near-Atlantic—old low mountains. As I returned to writing, I found that every story that I was working on wanted to be set in the southwest. I began to feel a preservative urgency, a need to get something of the experiences I’d had in the southwest into my work. I wanted to hang onto what I’d felt when there, the big feelings you get in a big landscape. This was when cowboys started showing up in my stories. And through the cowboys came myth.
Myth is the one thing I’ve loved my whole life. It’s what I reach for when I’m in need of story-nourishment, when I’m story-starving. It sustains me as a living person.
As soon as myth arrived, it became more important than anything else. The stories in Big Lonesome started to be about more than cowboys—they started to be about American mythology. The myths of the American West. Myths of American masculinity. Myths of American identity.
In 2010, I had the amazing good fortune of having one of these mythic/cowboy stories accepted for publication by David McLendon in his outstanding literary magazine, Unsaid. In an email he suggested that I write a book-length work based on the cowboy character from the piece he’d published. I thought a lot about doing this, but wasn’t able to make it happen—I felt that this idea was close, but that the book, if there was one, was about other things, too.
Then in 2012, I started a PhD program in Literature and Creative Writing at University of Houston. My goal in that first year was to finish a draft of a project. Any project! I looked at what I had: a terrible dead novel that had resisted multiple terrible resurrection attempts, the beginnings of a hybrid-genre work that would require lots of research, and a dozen mythic western stories, most of which had cowboys in them. I put all of the latter into one document. I decided that I would start thinking about it as a collection.
That year, I directed every course assignment that I could towards the completion of this project. I tried to explore American myth, big feelings, and lonesomeness. And the stories suggested other stories. The project grew past cowboys, thankfully.
Because of this, I’d say that Big Lonesome attempts an interrogation of certain myths of American life, and of how we permit these myths to enlarge or reduce us—falsely or truly, slowly or suddenly, knowingly or unknowingly.
Did you draw inspiration from or was it difficult to break away from established western tropes? Your cowboys seem to straddle new storyscapes, undermining and reinvigorating old legends. Were you worried about the reader expectations?
These are great questions. I think I might be able to address them by talking about “Five Episodes of White-Hat Black-Hat.” With that story, I attempted to invert two “traditions”: 1.) the stages of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” and 2.) the gee-whiz squeaky-clean conventions of the “Golden Age” Western, particularly the “Golden Age” serial (Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger). This is why the white-hat cowboy ignores the “call to adventure,” fails “the trials,” doesn’t return in “the return,” and the like.
However, while working on this piece, I realized something: it was impossible for me to truly, thoroughly, and/or fully invert anything. Even though I was trying to evoke the opposite of every stage at every stage, I was still including every stage. The result was that the shape of the story could only wind up as the shape of the “hero’s journey,” not as some new shape. And the “opposites” didn’t exactly come out as opposites—although the white-hat cowboy rejects the call, he’s still dragged along on an adventure; although he doesn’t participate in the trials, the trials still happen to him; although he doesn’t return to where he’s from, it’s possible to read a metaphorical “return” in the ending.
Opposites contain their opposites! As every good myth tells us.
To me, the stories in this collection don’t intentionally grapple with any specific texts about the West. But many of them grapple with broad American ideas about the West, masculinity, and lonesomeness—broad American ideas that have been given great mythological power through film. For example, my hope is that “Horseman Cowboy” is a critique of a certain kind of choked-tight hyper-masculinity. This hyper-masculinity—so central to the way we’re encouraged to think about the West, and so dangerous—is a myth that American believers attempt to embody every day. Look at Donald Trump. Look at how he took a moment during the Republican debate to talk up his cock size. Look at how he took a moment after an interview to brag about grabbing women by the pussy. Look at how these actions of his, and endless others, were and are straight-up applauded by millions of American men and women.
Resisting these traditions is its own tradition. Plenty of aesthetically brave Westerns do it beautifully: High Noon, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Unforgiven, to name a few.
Does an international audience have the same stake in Big Lonesome as domestic readers?
I’d like to think that Big Lonesome doesn’t rely on an American understanding of American myth. What America means to people from other countries, after all, might be the most important, influential, and sustaining part of our mythology. It’s this meaning of America that brings immigrants—it brought my mom’s Polish family to the South Side of Chicago in the early 1900s and my dad and his Sicilian family to the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s.
Big Lonesome also doesn’t shy away from toxic masculinity, racism, gun violence, xenophobia, and sexism, where western convictions have revived these over and over for the sake of “story.” Particularly in “New West,” there is a brightness to your stories, as well a shift in convention, where the book makes a more rigid appeal to reader empathy. In other words: “Freedom is forgetting,” Y., a history graduate student, puts it, visiting Snake Canyon, owing to “Americans not knowing the history of American places.” But you don’t let readers forget, the stories don’t want to forget our maligned past. Can you talk more about your intention for “New West”?
One of my goals was for Big Lonesome to be a “concept album” story collection—I wanted the stories to feel in conversation with one another, for there to be thematic resonation and thematic dissonance. With this in mind, I played around with many different story order arrangements. (I’m deeply indebted to Jenna Johnson and Pilar Garcia-Brown, my amazing editors, for wise guidance on this.) In the end, I tried to make it so that the collection goes on a journey: the stories begin in a mythic west (a centaur cowboy, a cowboy who encounters a filthy monster-boy in a laundromat, a cowboy who can sing animals into easy dying), move to a contemporary west (a mother who buries her son’s gun in a desert, a hike that results in a snakebite), and migrate to the contemporary midwest (two troubled brothers in Chicago, an old man forced into a retirement home by his son). Along the way, the stories shift from the non-realistic to the realistic and from the rural to the urban. And certain ideas (American mythology, masculinity, lonesomeness) are returned to and riffed on in different ways. My hope is that the section titles—Old West, New West, Post-West—lend another layer of meaning to this progression, as a whole, as well as to the stories themselves, on their own.
Part of my goal in the New West section was to explore the complicated effects of the Old West’s mythic legacy on the people who live in its physical and cultural landscape, today. How have these old myths of the self and society bewildered, aided, and bludgeoned the people of the contemporary west? In “Snake Canyon,” the myth of the west encourages the annihilation of its past; in “Immigrants,” the west, continually new to newcomers, attracts and repels, repels and attracts.
I’m enamored with your storyworlds as they pertain to language. A lot is told through simple diction and repetition, usually for outstanding comedic effect. I’m curious if these moves stand out to you? I’m thinking of “Small Boy,” where the tall girl bops the small boy with her balloon, first on top of the head, then, after he asks another question, in his face.
At some point in my life, I was told by teachers to not repeat the same word in the same sentence. “It can be inelegant,” they said. But should you cut off your hand just because of the possibility of getting a splinter in your finger? Repetition has power. Repetition is rhythm: it can captivate, emphasize, entrance. It can evoke enormous realms of subtext. It can represent the way we actually talk, in life—if you’re like me, you have to say the same thing three times just to say it once. And repetition added to escalation can lead to humor. It’s how my favorite folktales work. It’s how almost every cartoon we watched as kids worked. Have you read Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales? In his introduction, he speaks brilliantly about the speed, concision, and repetitive power of the folktale. In some of my stories—especially the short ones, like “Small Boy” and “The Veteran”—I’m consciously trying to replicate these effects.
Since Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, or Mariner Books, is considered a big press, what are you most looking forward to as an author on roster? It’s amazing to see you land your collection with a big press (and a novel The Made-Up Man) after publishing with fantastic magazines like Kenyon Review and Post Road. Is there a story behind how the books were sold? How did the conversation differ from small presses posting stories online or sending proofs, or did it?
I still can’t believe that any press, big or small, is publishing my work! I mean that. I feel like I’m touching the mane of a unicorn. And it’s been a joy to work with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The entire team is smart and dedicated and experienced. My editors, Jenna and Pilar, who I owe so much to, have helped to make Big Lonesome way better than it was.
Here’s the story of how the book got bought: a few years ago, I finished a draft. I shot it off to a bunch of contests. I wasn’t planning on sending it to agents—I’d been told that agents weren’t interested in story collections—but my dear friends Claire Vaye Watkins and Derek Palacio encouraged me to give it a try. I did, and Eleanor Jackson of Dunow, Carlson, and Lerner offered representation, and I fell out of my chair. After I did another set of revisions, she sent the book to fifteen presses. No one was interested. Six months later, we tried with fifteen more presses—this time, though, I’d started work on a novel. There was some interest; when asked, I sent out an excerpt of the novel; there was bidding, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt bought the books the day before me and my wife moved out of our Chicago apartment and left for our honeymoon. I’ll never forget being on the phone with Eleanor, dumbfounded, packing my bags.
What can you tell us about the novel compared to Big Lonesome?
The Made-Up Man is about a man who knowingly puts himself at the center of a menacing performance art project, one that mines his personal life for material in increasingly sinister ways. The man makes this decision partly because he’s being manipulated by the lead artist (his uncle), partly because of a woman who’s just rejected his marriage proposal, and partly because he’s having trouble seeing that he’s being ground down by an identity crisis. It takes place in Chicago and Prague.
My goal is for The Made-Up Man to be a kind of inverted literary film noir—for it to warp the conventions of detective/crime fiction. It’s a departure from the west, that’s for sure, but both books investigate the myth of the self. In some ways, the narrator in The Made-Up Man is the narrator from Big Lonesome’s “Dead Dogs.”