Emptying in, Emptying out: Joseph Scapellato at Literati
Big Lonesome, Joseph Scapellato's first collection of stories, was published at the end of February. Divided into three parts -- "Old West," "New West," and "Post-West" -- the stories form a triptych, a landscape, a cave-painting; they begin and end and begin again, all-too-familiar and too new, digging into what we think we know about the American West.
The West, a central character in most of the stories, looms out and over, its flowers and cacti and creatures blooming, rustling the pages. This is a collection that follows a cowgirl, "born of a beef cow," of "ours"; follows a mutt-faced cowboy whose scar-smile brings him home to strangers; follows a man whose fiancée's dog sees and hears more than the man ever could. This is a book that deserves to be passed between friends, outsiders, enemies; to be shouted from on high and from on low.
Scapellato, an assistant professor of English at Bucknell College, earned his MFA from New Mexico State University. He will be in conversation with Claire Vaye Watkins on March 10 at Literati Bookstore. We spoke with Scapellato in anticipation of that reading.
Q: Throughout the collection, there's a theme of going in, out: "emptying in," "emptying out." It strikes the reader as a strange self-awareness -- of being aware of the space outside and inside yourself. Why does this theme appear so often, and how does it connect the various characters and scenes in the book?
A: This is such a great question. I think that the theme you’ve identified comes out of an attempt to honor the immensity of the Western landscape, not only in its physical sense -- the hugeness of its high deserts, bright skies, and jagged mountains -- but in its imaginary sense, too; the hugeness of its cinematically imprinted mythology.
When I lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, I hiked once a week at a place called Soledad Canyon. The trail takes you through a number of beautifully distinct micro-environments: fields of yucca, stands of scrub oaks, patches of cholla and prickly pear and ocotillo. Me and my buddy Nathan would go off-trail to climb rocky ridges. Being out there made me feel small, but at the same time, big. And it might sound crazy to say this, but there was something big about feeling so small, and something small about feeling so big. This is a contradiction I kept finding my way back to in the collection, especially through the three linked stories, “Big Lonesome Beginnings,” “Big Lonesome Middles,” and “Big Lonesome Endings” -- the mysterious relationship between the space that’s in us and the space we’re in.
A: Like that self-awareness, time pushes in from all sides, from 360 degrees. The past, present, and future mingle and disintegrate. How did you decide when to set a story? Why did you choose to incorporate various timelines?
Q: My goal was for Big Lonesome to be a “concept album” collection -- I wanted the stories to be in conversation with each other, for there to be thematic resonance and thematic dissonance. And I wanted this conversation, resonance, and dissonance to feel out the contours of what the old American myths -- about the West, masculinity, and lonesomeness -- have done and are doing to us. To explore this, I needed to set stories all over the place: the 19th-century stomping grounds of “Old West” legend, the 21st century “New West,” and the places in America where people might mistakenly think that they’ve moved past the wreckage and ruins of our myths.
My hope is that the different times and settings feel as if they belong together. To me, the choked-tight hypermasculinity of the centaur cowboy in “Horseman Cowboy” is the same choked-tight hypermasculinity that crushes the unnamed narrator in “Dead Dogs” is the same choked-tight hypermasculinity that drives Donald Trump to raise a wall of lies in an attempt to protect his fantasy image of himself as the toughest and biggest and manliest man around.
Q: While collecting and organizing the stories, how did you determine where to put them -- how did you divide them between old, new, and post-, and what do those divisions mean?
Q: I’m deeply indebted to Jenna Johnson and Pilar Garcia-Brown, the book’s brilliant editors, for the current story order. At some point, when we were discussing a draft, Jenna asked me what my goals were for the collection as a whole. I said that I wanted it to go on a journey -- I wanted the stories to begin in a mythic West, move to a contemporary West, and migrate to the contemporary Midwest. Along the way, I said, I wanted the stories to shift from the nonrealistic to the realistic, from the rural to the urban.
Jenna said, “That sounds great. Why don’t you reorder it so that it does that?”
She was absolutely right! The draft that we were discussing in no way reflected this goal, even though the goal was on my mind. Editors can see what writers can’t!
My hope is that the section titles -- "Old West," "New West," "Post-West" -- lend another layer of meaning to this progression, overall, as well as to the individual stories, on their own: from takes on old American myths to takes on new American myths to takes on Americans who might not feel under the influence of old, new, or dying American myths.
Q: You earned your MFA from New Mexico State University, and New Mexico shows up in a variety of ways. So does Pennsylvania, where you now teach. Though the differences between these locations are stark, your stories deftly thread them together. How were you able to navigate those diverse senses of place when writing these stories?
Q: Thanks for the kind words! When I started to write the stories that would become this book, I had just moved from New Mexico to Pennsylvania. I found that every story that I was working on wanted to be set in the southwest. When I realized that this was what was happening, 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 -- those big/small/small/big feelings that I was talking about earlier.
I’m not from the Southwest and I’m not from Pennsylvania. I’m from the suburbs of Chicago. But I’ve lived in Chicago, on and off, in six different neighborhoods, and I miss it. I miss my city.
What unites the separate landscapes in this book, if anything, is longing and lonesomeness, and hope and dread. How we can miss a place even when we’re in it. How every place we’ve been becomes a mythological place, whether we want it to or not.
Q: Claire Vaye Watkins commented that Big Lonesome is "like Wallace Stegner on peyote" -- big themes, big ideas, all woven together with a surreality more commonly found in myth. How did the surreal find its way into this collection? Where did it first show up in your work?
A: When I left the Southwest and started writing about it, cowboys appeared in my stories. And through the cowboys came myth. Once I figured out that I was moving into myth, I tried to write a few stories that are myths -- “Horseman Cowboy,” “Five Episodes of White-Hat Black-Hat,” “Cowgirl,” “We Try to Find the Spring in Spring Rock Park in Western Springs, Illinois” -- and that’s when the surreal, magical realist, and fabulist elements entered.
Myth was my first love. As a kid, I read as much mythology as I could, and today, it’s what I continue to reach for when I’m looking to recharge myself. What I love about myth is how it’s assertive and concrete, and at the same time, mysterious and abstract. To me, myth has always been a narrative that looks like a story but moves like a poem.
Q: Many of the stories contemplate the narratives of immigrants, settlers, and the colonized. They poke and rip holes in depictions of the West that have shown up in popular culture throughout the years. Why was it important to include these stories and these perspectives?
A: People in power often tell us that complex things are simple -- “America used to be great,” “We don’t win anymore” -- or that complex issues can be solved with simple solutions -- “Build a wall,” “I’ll make a deal.”
Art can fight this -- it can remind us that complex things are complex. This is something that I admire in the art that I love, so I tried to do it wherever I could in Big Lonesome, especially in stories that touch the political sphere, like “Small Boy,” “Immigrants,” and “The Veteran.”
Trump’s election has unfortunately intensified the need for art that honors complexity.
Q: Why -- or how -- do you think the West has, throughout centuries and centuries, maintained its myth and mysticism?
A: Sam Shepard wrote a one-act play "Gary Cooper or the Landscape" that addresses this question. In it, a European woman interviews Gary Cooper, not knowing -- or pretending not to know -- who he is. She argues that the power of the American Western film has absolutely nothing to do with would-be tough-guy actors like Gary Cooper, and everything to do with the majestic landscape of the American West. Without the landscape, every cowboy movie would be boring, boring, boring.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
A: Only that I’d like to thank three people who happen to live in Ann Arbor.
This collection would not have been published if Claire Vaye Watkins and Derek Palacio, two dear friends, hadn’t said, “Send your manuscript to agents.” I didn’t think that an agent would be interested in a story collection. They said, “Joe. How can you know that?”
And I also owe a lot to David McLendon, a writer, artist, and editor. He published three stories -- the “Big Lonesome” pieces that make up the thematic backbone of the book -- in three issues of his incredible literary magazine, Unsaid. After he gave me terrific notes on the first piece, he suggested that I try writing a book-length work about the cowboy character. He saw the heart of this book before I did.
Lauren Crawford is an Ann Arbor-based writer and editor.
Joseph Scapellato reads at Literati Bookstore, 124 E Washington St, Ann Arbor, at 7 pm on Friday, March 10. Admission is free.