(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)
A couple of years ago I was living in Chicago with a commute that could take anywhere from an hour and a half to—on a really bad day, when the buses were all bunched together and I’d missed a connection—three hours. That year Joseph Scapellato was subletting a place in Lincoln Square, not far from the Brown Line stop where I’d change from a train to a particularly unreliable bus. More than once I’d get to that point in my trip and decide I’d had enough. I’d text Joe and we’d find our way to one of the German bars nearby or grab some beer and Kielbasa from Gene’s Butcher Shop and take it back to the place he was subletting, which was right on the river and had access to a dock, and we’d talk about what we were reading or working on or how Joe’s banjo lessons were going. Joe’s one of the best folks I know to talk writing with—he’s an experimental writer who’s thoroughly unpretentious, consumed with a curiosity about books and the world but super chill about it. Eventually I’d finish up my beer and make my way back to the bus stop for the final leg of my commute, feeling like a human being again. I honestly believe that a couple of times that year Joe might have saved me from some sort of transit-related hemorrhagic stroke.
I’ve been a fan of Joe’s work for years, in magazines like PANK and Gulf Coast and The Collagist, and have had the honor of publishing work of his in Artifice Magazine and a very strange anthology put out by the now-defunct press NAP called The Anthology of Etiquette and Terrifying Angels with Many Heads. “Horseman Cowboy,” the first story in his collection Big Lonesome, wasn’t one I’d previously read, and it thrilled me with the strangeness and music of its first line: “Called, horseman cowboy clops over to old man foreman like he isn’t.” Reading the collection felt like taking part in a good conversation: at turns surprising and comfortable, sometimes returning to hash out big ideas like Place and Masculinity and America, sometimes rushing forward into the new.
James Tadd Adcox (Rail): Thanks for agreeing to talk some about Big Lonesome, and congratulations on the book’s publication. It’s a great collection—haunting, funny, strange, heartily vulgar, by turns or often all at once. Two places dominate these stories—the West, almost as a sort of archetype, and Chicago. Obviously, from a biographical perspective, you’ve spent time in both: you did an MFA in New Mexico, and you’re from Chicago originally. But I was hoping that you could talk some about what these places mean in your work, and how you see them going together (or not) in this collection.
Joseph Scapellato: Thanks for the really kind words about these stories, Tadd. It’s true: I grew up in Western Springs, a suburb of Chicago. I’ve lived in the city on and off, mostly on the North Side, mostly over summers and winters. My folks are South Siders—they grew up in the Back of the Yards. We root for the White Sox.
But Big Lonesome didn’t begin in Chicago, or even in the West; it began in Central Pennsylvania, in 2008, when I moved there with my now-wife after graduating from New Mexico State University’s MFA program. My life had shifted—geographically, professionally, existentially. I admitted to myself that I missed the southwest. As I returned to writing, I found that every story that I was working on wanted to be set there. 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.
Hemingway said that you can’t really write about a place until you leave it. That’s not true in a literal sense, of course, but I do think that once you leave a place, the place becomes imaginary. When you return to that imaginary place by writing about it, you participate in the re-creation of it, and through this process, you open yourself to the possibility of being newly surprised by what the place meant to you, means to you, and might continue to mean to you.
This was when cowboys showed up in my stories. Cowboys who actually work as cowboys, as in “Big Lonesome Beginnings” and “Cowboy Good Stuff’s Four True Loves,” but also cowboys-in-name-only who drive pickup trucks and act tough, as in “Mutt-Face” and “Thataway.” Pretty soon, the stories ventured into multiple zones of American mythology: myths of the American West, of American masculinity, of American identity.
The figure of the cowboy, in other words, almost immediately offered him/herself up as a vessel for mythology. (And I think that’s what the cowboy does for most Americans, today.)
It took me a while to think about these stories as belonging together in a book, but when I did, my goal was to write a “concept album” collection. I wanted the stories to feel like they were in conversation with one another—for there to be thematic resonance, thematic dissonance. I revised stories with other stories in mind. I wrote stories in response to stories—“Cowgirl,” for example, is a kind of counterpoint to “Horseman Cowboy.”
And this finally gets me to the nature of the relationship between the West and Chicago in the book: it’s my belief that old American myths about the West, masculinity, and lonesomeness have been given great and lasting power through storytelling, music, literature, and film. What I discovered was that Big Lonesome, as a concept album collection, wanted to explore the longstanding effects of this mythic power—not only in this power’s “Old West” manifestations (a story about a cowboy who can sing animals into easy dying, a story about fourteen murderous cowboys), but also in its contemporary manifestations, whether in the “New West” (a story about a mother who buries her teenage son’s gun in the desert) or the “Post-West” (a story about an old man taken against his will to a retirement home).
I guess what I’m saying is that although there hasn’t been “a cowboy” in Chicago since the 19th century, “the Cowboy” left his big fat beautiful stinking blood-streaked shit-smeared spit-shined bootmarks all over the goddamn place. The choked-tight hypermasculinity of the centaur cowboy in “Horseman Cowboy” feeds the legacy that feeds the choked-tight hypermasculinity of the contemporary Chicago narrator in “Dead Dogs.” You don’t have to look far to see it in this country. Look at Donald Trump. Look at how he felt the need to boast about the size of his cock during the Republican debate. Look at how he felt the need to boast about grabbing women by the pussy. Look at how sensitive he is about his small hands. Look at how almost every single one of his many lies is an effort to protect an image of himself as the toughest and manliest and successful-est dude among dudes. And look at how the millions of American men and women who voted for him love him not necessarily for what he does and doesn’t do, but for what he stands for, what he’ll continue to stand for.
And the West and Chicago are married in another sense: historically speaking, the contemporary midwest used to be “the West.” I tried to explore this idea a little in “We Try to Find the Spring in Spring Rock Park in Western Springs, Illinois.”
Rail: In the move from the mythic to the post-mythic, and from the West to the Mid-/Former West, there seems to be a stylistic change in the stories themselves. Overall, the stories in the first part of the book tend to skew more formalist and language-driven, while the “Post-West” stories towards the end of the book tend more towards literary realism.
Scapellato: When I wrote about the West, my goal was to upend its myths; in many cases, I tried to make new myths to do this. That’s where the stories that operate on language-driven dream-logic come in. To me, myth has always been a narrative that looks like a story but moves like a poem.
When I wrote about Chicago, my goal was to explore the modern legacy of the West’s old myths. How has the mythological cowboy affected the contemporary man’s masculinity? I think that’s why stories like “Dead Dogs” and “Company” lean toward realism: with them, I wasn’t making new myths, I was trying to trace the ripples of the old ones.
There might be a bigger reason, though: the gravitational pull of Chicago’s distinct mythological sphere. Chicago, according to its own myth, is the City That Works. A brisk, innovative, commerce- and art-friendly market. A city of tough, frank, practical people, whether they’re “on the make” in finance or theatre, comedy or restaurants. The city that reversed the flow of its filthy river. The city that rebuilt itself after its Great Fire. Chicago is a world-class city, there’s no question about it, but as any Chicagoan will tell you, it has its share of world-class problems: political corruption, racial segregation, police brutality. The devastatingly high murder rate is currently the most visible symptom of these problems.
Being a Chicagoan means having a bruised pride about being a Chicagoan. The City of Big Shoulders is also the Second City.
A few years ago, at a friend’s wedding in Ravenswood, I met an aide to an alderman. We discussed the universally agreed-upon reputation of the alderman as a shamelessly corrupt city official. I asked him what percent of that image was correct. He sipped his Scotch and thought about it—he seemed to be tallying criminal offenses. “Sixty percent,” he said.
For reasons that I can’t completely explain, it’s experiences like this that nudge my Chicago work toward literary realism.
Rail: Do you find that you approach these two kinds of stories—let’s call them the “myth” stories and the “realist” stories—differently in the writing process? I can almost imagine a myth story like “Horseman Cowboy,” which is driven by language and syntax, to be a process of feeling out one sentence after another until a pattern emerges. Whereas a realist story like “Snake Canyon,” about a young man trying to drag his dying friend to help after an accident in a mountain, strikes me as something that might have been more intentionally plotted, early in the process.
Scapellato: On the sentence level, no matter the mode, my approach to composition and revision is the same: serious play. The kind of play that makes adults look like kids and kids look like adults. I write a bunch of bad sentences—“shitty first draft” sentences, as Anne Lamont would say—but I’m searching with those sentences, I’m banging around. I’m looking for what’s lively to me. And what usually ends up being lively to me are sentences that are in some way assertive and mysterious at the same time, just as abstract as they are concrete. I try to let these sentences tell me what the work wants to be.
Kevin McIlvoy, an incredible writer and a mentor to me, says in an introductory essay to his story “The people who own pianos,” in the anthology The Story Behind the Story, that as a writer, he places his “first trust” in language. I do too.
That said, I’ve got to admit that the difference in process that you’ve imagined in your question—between “pattern” and “plot”—is on point. When I was writing “Horseman Cowboy,” I had no idea where it was going, event-wise. I played. I tried to find a structure-making rhythm, and then I tried to make that structure-making rhythm honor horseman cowboy’s experience of being alive.
But when I was writing “Snake Canyon,” I knew, early on, that I was writing towards an accident: one of the characters was going to get badly hurt. I didn’t know how I was going to get there, and I didn’t know what was going to happen afterwards, but there it was. Can I call that a “plot”? In revision, I did what I could to make the form enrich this content.
Rail: I’d like to ask you about names. You tend to avoid them in your work, I’ve noticed. This seems like a natural move to make in the myth stories—you’re dealing with archetypes, the Cowboy, the Veteran, “old man foreman,” and so on. But you avoid names in the realist stories too, sometimes in ways that call attention to themselves, such as the use of initials instead of names for the characters in “Snake Canyon.” What is your relationship to names, or the lack of them, in your fiction?
Scapellato: In the more mythological stories, the idea was to work with conventions common to folktales, fairy tales, and myths, where characters are “named” by how they look or what they do. Which, of course, is “realistic” in the sense that it’s representative of our everyday experiences. When we have a noteworthy encounter with a stranger whose name we never learn, and we rush home to tell the story of it to our significant other, we refer to this stranger as “the old lady,” “the bouncer,” “the skinny cop,” etc. Their role or appearance is most of who they are to us.
In Big Lonesome’s realist stories, the reasons for avoiding names varied. Either I hoped that the lack of names helped to suggest the dominance of the familial dimensions in the characters’ relationships, as in “A Mother Buries a Gun in the Desert Again” and “Company,” or I felt that the narrator wouldn’t think to say their name, whether it was because they were rushed, as in “One of the Days I Nearly Died,” or because they were repeatedly drunk and consistently heartbroken, as in “Dead Dogs.”
“Snake Canyon,” where the characters are named B. and Y., is a different case. In the earliest drafts, I was hoping to give the story a faux-historical feel, as if the characters were individuals whose identities were being protected. (The characters are graduate students studying history, after all.) But when I look back at it, what stands out to me is how the story hurtles B. and Y. into high-stakes transitional states. They’re forced to transform. Something about how they only have the beginning of a name resonates with that in a way that I can’t completely put my finger on.
Names are meaning-machines! I’m fascinated when I meet Americans who aren’t curious about what their names mean and have meant. Though I suppose that’s one effect of the “melting pot.” So many Biblically derived common first names have been completely severed from their original meanings, at least in mainstream American culture. For example, “Joseph” means “God Shall Add.” I didn’t grow up with anybody who thinks of the words “God Shall Add” when they see the word “Joseph.” That said, the name “Joe,” of course, has all sorts of culturally accumulated implications: “Average Joe,” “Ordinary Joe.” My last name means “Without a Hat.” God Shall Add Without a Hat.Ordinary Without a Hat.
What do your names mean?
Rail: Well, the internet’s telling me now that Adcox is an Anglo-Saxon surname connected to “Adam,” which itself comes from a Hebrew word for the color of mud. And James comes from “Jacob,” which means “he who follows the heel” or “supplanter.” Muddy supplanter. I had no idea. Okay, last question: What have you read recently that you love? Anything you’d like to shine a light on in the literary world right now?
Scapellato: In fiction, some books I’ve read recently and loved in a big way are Intimations by Alexandra Kleeman, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, The Mortifications by Derek Palacio, Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capo-Crucet, The Loner by Teddy Wayne, Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta, and The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George. And although I’ve read them before, I’ve been returning to Diane Cook’s Man V. Nature, Melissa Goodrich’s Children of Monsters, and Douglas Watson’s The Era of Not Quite, for teaching purposes—terrific story collections. And I’m right in the middle of enjoying Marie-Helene Bertino’s Safe as Houses and Allegra Hyde’s Of This New World.
In poetry, I recently read J.D. Schraffenberger’s Waxen Poor, Lisa Ciccarello’s At Night, and Shara McCallum’s Madwoman. Each of these books is a blazing spellbook. Next up is K.A. Hays’ Windthrow!
And in nonfiction, aside from baby books (I’m a new dad), I recently read Boy Erased by Garrard Conley, which broke my heart, and The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, which blew my mind. And I’m in the middle of Laurent Dubois’s The Banjo: America’s African Instrument, which is brilliant.