Fiercely inventive and bringing classic themes of the American West into a modern literary mindset, Joseph Scapellato’s stories will chew you up and spit you out in the best possible way.
Shelf Unbound: Big Lonesome is filled with a nameless cast of drifters beaten up by life. What interests you in writing from such a grim outlook?
Joseph Scapellato: This grim outlook, I think, is a result of my attempt to write about two things: 1.) the West that I imagined as a kid—the West of cinema, the West that’s a crucial part of our national American imagination, and 2.) the contemporary West that I saw when I lived in New Mexico and Texas.
Here’s a little background: In 2005, I moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico, to earn an MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University. As a Midwesterner (I’m from Illinois), I was wowed by the high desert’s dramatic landscapes. I spent as much time outside as I could, hiking and staring and meeting strangers. After I finished my MFA in 2008, I moved to Central Pennsylvania with my now-wife, where I found that every story that I was working on wanted to be set in the West. 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 a bunch of beaten-up-by-life cowboys drifted into my stories. I welcomed them. I tried to figure out what they meant. And because the cowboy is a vehicle for American mythology, the stories started to want to be about certain myths of American identity—the “When America Was Great” myths that encourage us to tell simple stories about complex issues.
To challenge these myths, I tried to write about characters who’d been damaged by them, knowingly or not, like the hard-luck cowboy in “Thataway” who destroys his memory, or the mutt-face cowboy in “Muttface” who wants to be bigger than he is, who shrinks himself with the lies he tells himself. And I guess that I was drawn to these kinds of characters while writing Big Lonesome because I’ve known these people—people who are “drifters,” metaphorically, who can’t connect to who they are, whose painful lived experience doesn’t square up with the stories they were raised on.
Shelf Unbound: The cowboy icon is prominent in these stories, but instead of a hero, he is largely an insignificant failure. Why create this twist?
Scapellato: The cowboy has consistently been portrayed as a “tough guy” who might be a “little rough around the edges,” but who, when presented with a crisis, “does the right thing.” This is the quietly noble figure immortalized by the “Golden Age” Western serials and films of the 1940s and 1950s. The cowboy hero is competent and moral.
But these values that are so central to our national hero—competence and morality—are at odds with horrifying realities of American history: the systemic genocide of Native Americans, the systemic enslavement of Africans.
My attempt to complicate the cowboy-as-hero-stereotype, particularly in stories like “Horseman Cowboy” and “Five Episodes of White-Hat Black-Hat,” is part of Big Lonesome’s larger effort to turn American mythology inside out. I’m certainly not the first person to try to do this! The figure of the cowboy has been challenged many times, brilliantly—in film, some of my favorites are Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and in literature, Michael Ondaatje’s The Complete Works of Billy the Kid and Larry Watson’s novel As Good as Gone.
Shelf Unbound: You write about the American West as a place, and about masculinity. Can you talk about the association of these two in your stories?
Scapellato: One of my goals was to critique a certain type of choked-tight hypermasculinity, the kind that thrives in Western films but that’s still present, today, in our everyday lives as Americans. The man who feels that it’s unmanly to talk about his feelings. The man who thinks that it’s unmanly to think. The man who’s sure that it’s unmanly to listen to anyone who suggests that his behavior is damaging to women, other men, and himself. This dangerous brand of hypermasculinity—so central to how we’re encouraged to think about the West—is a myth that American believers work to embody every day. Look at Donald Trump. Look at how every one of his many lies is an attempt to preserve his image of himself as the toughest and manliest man around. And look at how his whiniest verbal attacks and counterattacks are enthusiastically applauded by (at the time of this interview) 38% of Americans.
I was specifically trying to explore these issues through the raging centaur cowboy in “Horseman Cowboy,” the wandering born-of-a-cow girl in “Cowgirl,” and the lonely repressed Chicagoan in the contemporary/realist “Dead Dogs.”
Shelf Unbound: Did you grow up reading Western writers/novels and if so who were some of your influences?
Scapellato: I didn’t read many Western novels growing up, but I watched plenty of Western films and serials, especially the “Golden Age” productions from the 1940s and 1950s: Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy. I watched them with my mom, who has always loved them. When I got older, I discovered the gritty, sweaty, and morally complex Westerns of the 1960s and beyond, and was absolutely enthralled—there was a 10- year period when I watched Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly once a year. That film has marked me, aesthetically, in ways that I don’t think that I can track.
Since then, I’ve been catching up on Western writers. I just started Thomas McGuane’s Crow Fair. And I was utterly floored by Claire Vaye Watkins’ incredible story collection, Battleborn, and incredible novel, Gold, Fame, Citrus.
Shelf Unbound: You teach Creative Writing at Bucknell University. What lessons or skills do you most try to impart to your students?
Scapellato: Thanks so much for this question. I want to teach my students to teach themselves to write the sort of fiction that they actually want to write—not the sort of fiction that they think they ought to write. As a young writer, I spent more time than I should have (form-wise and content-wise) writing what I thought I was supposed to write.
I try to do this by providing as much variety in the readings as possible, and by encouraging my students to follow the “story’s intention”—what the story “wants” to be about—instead of sticking closely to the “writer’s intention”—what the writer initially wants the story to be/be about. If discovery and surprise and delight are part of the process, I believe, then it’s more likely that discovery and surprise and delight will be in the product.