With his debut collection of short stories, Big Lonesome, Joe Scapellato demonstrates a confident grasp of plot and character that is equal parts Larry McMurtry and George Saunders. Each story examines some facet of America’s West—its characters, environment, and mythology—and celebrates the peculiarities of the region with mordant wit. Publisher’s Weekly praised Scapellato as “an exceptional surrealist” while Kirkus Reviews singled out his ability to be “unpredictable, witty, and self-aware while remaining heartfelt.” Joe Scapellato spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on February 20th.
The stories in Big Lonesome all concern the West in some aspect, and I wanted to start off by asking what drew you to write about that area of the country?
I went to grad school at New Mexico Statue University, which is in Las Cruces, way at the bottom of the state. I was there for three years and then I moved to Pennsylvania to be with the woman who’s now my wife. I really missed the Southwest when I left and it started showing up in my work. I felt this urgency to get my experiences that I’d had in the Southwest on the page and figure out what they meant to me by doing that.
But my interest in the West started before that. I grew up with my mom always playing these Golden Era Western serials with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. When I got a little older, I started watching the more strange, genre-bending Westerns of the 60s and 70s—the Spaghetti westerns and the Sam Peckinpah films that were just as much about the Viet Nam War as they were about the West. Everything’s really sweaty and violent and strange. I fell in love with that.
And in some other sense, it’s all connected to my love of mythology. Myth was my first love. It’s what I always go back to reading when I need to recharge myself. So when I left the West, all of those things began to converge—my sense of the mythological west, my desire to somehow on the page approach American mythologies. And all these cowboys started showing up in my stories. It took me a couple of years before I realized I was trying to write a collection that was about that.
What is it about reading mythology that recharges you?
I think what I love most about mythology is how it’s a narrative that’s in the shape of a story but it moves like a poem. The myths that I love to read, the sentences are simultaneously incredibly assertive and concrete but also very mysterious and abstract. There’s this confidence in myth that’s so magnetic to me, confidence in this mysterious world. As a kid I read tons of Greek mythology, where I think a lot of people start. More recently I’ve read African mythology, Native American Mythology, Norse mythology, and then just about anything else that comes my way.
You’ve talked in the past how this collection of short stories is akin to a concept album. Can you talk about what you meant by that?
This is something that I heard from Keven McIlvoy, who I studied with at New Mexico State University, and it’s just stuck with me ever since. I feel that there’s this continuum of story collections, where on one side there’s the concept album and on the other side there’s the greatest hits collection. The greatest hits collection is where the writer puts the best stories they’ve written at that time in their life in the collection. And there are going to be thematic resonances and through the revision process the writer will try to bring those up. But on the concept album side, generally it’s something that you have in mind earlier on. That you’re consciously trying to write stories that belong together and resisting each other, that have resonance and dissonance. I love both kinds of story collections, but my very favorite story collections to read are on the concept album side. So that’s what I found myself trying to write.
Your book is divided into three sections: Old West, New West, and Post West. Were those categories you discovered when you finished writing the stories or did you ever find yourself writing to fulfill a specific category?
When I first started writing the collection I was just trying to cover as many aspects of the myths of the West as I could—the way that the West exists in our imagination because of cinema, the myth of the cowboy hero, this masculine myth. So I wanted to write about that in that mythological zone. So the stories that take place in The Old West are exploring the West in that mythological zone, stories like “Five Episodes of White Hat Black Hat” and “Cowboy Goodstuff’s Four True Loves.” So I wanted to explore that myth in that mode, in that zone.
I also wanted to explore how that myth lingers today and how it affects us today. So I feel that there’s a connection between “Horseman Cowboy,” which is very much about that dangerous masculinity, and a story like “Dead Dogs,” which takes place in Rogers Park, Chicago, and there’s a character who’s in some ways choked by his conception of what masculinity is supposed to be. So I kept trying to approach the West in all these different ways.
When I finished a draft, I was working with my editors. We tried to organize the book. They had some really good suggestions about story order. I changed it a lot of times, then those categories became clear to me afterwards. So I guess I was trying to do it as many ways as I could early on, and then I sorted out the mess with the help of my editors later.
Since you were introduced to the West through cinema, what was it like seeing the actual west in grad school?
I still miss it, man. It was really wonderful. I had these huge feelings in this big space. It was somehow way more than what it is in cinema. It just covers so much more. I think when I went there the myths of cinema were busted by the experience of actually being there. It’s like people who move to Chicago thinking Chicago’s going to be one way and then they realize that the city’s a much huger thing than its myth and encompasses so many different kinds of lives.
And then also I just lived in one tiny town in New Mexico, which is one slice of what is considered the West. Although I did live in Houston for one year. And even that’s totally different. Houston is basically Florida. Humid. There was a banana tree in the courtyard of the apartment complex where I lived. So you’d see the banana trees of the Wild West (laughs).
Knowing your background as a professor and as someone who’s lived in the area, it’s tempting to think that you’re writing about actual life experiences. Did you base your stories on things that actually happened in your life?
I would say about half of the stories in the book are in some way based on some experience that I had. But I’m a very big proponent of fictionalizing away from a place that you know, so beginning with some impulse or something that you’ve seen and then just going way way away from that. It’s strange but I’m able to write about the initial experience more truly by fictionalizing myself away from it.
The stories have a very lyrical quality and I was wondering what influence music has on your writing?
I’ve always loved music, but I don’t listen to it when I write because I fall into the song instead of what I’m doing. But it’s had a secondary influence. I recently wrote a piece for Largehearted Boy where I made a playlist for my book. I included artists who I think have an overlap in aesthetic sensibilities. And some of those people have influenced me—Modest Mouth, Neko Case, Tom Waites, Caliphone, Andrew Bird—writers who are either writing about the West or they’re writing about loneliness.
And finally, what role has the public library played in your life?
An enormous one. I grew up in Western Springs with the Thomas Ford Memorial Library. I was always there as a kid, checking books out. In junior high I worked there as a page and led things in the kid’s program. Just the way that a public library creates a space that makes it okay to love books—it’s this doorway to wonder. You know that you can go in there and read books and talk to book people and everything will be okay.