Tag Archives: Big Lonesome

An Interview with Joseph Scapellato

18 May

Joseph Scapellato’s debut collection, Big Lonesome, has been called “unlike anything else you’ve ever read” by Robert Boswell.

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 OnlineGulf CoastPost RoadPANKUnsaid, 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. Joseph is an assistant professor of English in the Creative Writing Program at Bucknell University.  His lives in Lewisburg, PA, with his wife, daughter, and dog.

To read the story “One of the Days I Nearly Died” from Big Lonesome and an exercise on finding the right emotion for a story’s beginning, click here.

Michael Noll

This story is able to fit a tremendous amount of information into a small space. For example, there’s this bit from one sentence: 

“I didn’t think of my brother who didn’t at the time go to our family’s weekly Family Dinner Nights because he was way away in another state (Texas) with a woman we all liked (she liked him) and he for some reason didn’t…”

Another writer in a different story might have slowed down and given Texas its own sentence (Texas’ ego certainly believes it’s worth its own sentence!), but you blast past that piece of info—and then do the same thing again with “she liked him.” Did this sentence actually come out in a rush, or did you condense it from many sentences?

Joseph Scapellato


I happen to have one of the first drafts of this story!  Here’s that same passage, early on:

I didn’t think of my brother who didn’t go to weekly family dinner nights because at the time he was in Texas with a woman we all liked and he for some reason didn’t…

It looks like that part of the sentence definitely began in a rush.  But as you can see, it’s a blurry rush—it’s not doing much to tag its separate parts in a trackable manner.  There’s a greater risk of the reader missing things.  In later drafts, I tried to add more clarity while still preserving the crowdedness.  My goal was to enact the verbal spillage of a narrator telling a brush-with-death story, and at the same time, to suggest the “everything happening at once” experiential density of a car crash/near-car-crash.

Michael Noll

The story contains a lot of specific detail about place and people but leaves out at least one really important detail: what the narrator and his wife were arguing about when they said all those big ugly things. In this story, those left-out details don’t matter, but I’m curious about the process that led to this story. What’s your internal guide for what details to include and which to leave out?

Joseph Scapellato

This is such a great question.  It’s also a tough one to answer accurately, I think.  For me, I’m always trying to include details that firmly root the reader in the world of the work, so that the reader can see, feel, and smell where the character is at, coming from, and headed; however, I also want to include details (or half-details) that move the reader into the openness of the world of the work, an openness that is the same thing as mystery, the sort of mystery that permits the reader to understand the story on their own terms.

It’s almost as if there are two separate but complimentary ways for a reader to be immersed in a work: immersion through knowing, and immersion through mystery.

Practically speaking, this means that I read a draft over and over, imagining what it would be like to be a reader.  Would a reader be intrigued?  Would a reader be lost?

Michael Noll

You have published a lot of pieces, both fiction and nonfiction. When it was time to put this collection together, how did you figure out which stories would go into it and which would not?

Joseph Scapellato

Joseph Scapellato’s debut collection, Big Lonesome, has been called “gobsmackingly original prophecy” by Claire Vaye Watkins.

Kevin McIlvoy, an amazingly gifted writer and teacher, once told me that he thought of story collections as being somewhere on a greatest hits album/concept album continuum.  On the “greatest hits album” side are the collections that are made up of the writer’s very best stories at that moment in the writer’s life.  There’s going to be thematic resonation between these stories—they’re going to speak to one another—but this isn’t necessarily the most important guiding principle when the writer is putting together the collection.

On the “concept album” side are the collections where thematic resonation is the most important guiding principle—the stories very consciously complement and complicate one another.  They seem to have sprung from each other, like songs in a concept album.

I tried to put Big Lonesome on the concept album side of the spectrum, to make it so that the stories, when considered together, go on a journey: they 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.

At a certain point, I looked for thematic gaps (aspects of the American West that the stories weren’t investigating) and for possible pairings (ways to connect stories, directly or indirectly).  For example, the story “Cowgirl,” which is about a human girl born out of a cow, is a sister story to “Horseman Cowboy,” which is about a centaur cowboy who goes around smashing things and having sex.  Initially, I wrote “Cowgirl” to be in conversation with “Horseman Cowboy,” to explore the same brand of damaging hypermasculinity from a different point of view.  It very quickly became its own story—with its own set of intentions—but it grew out of the thematic center of “Horseman Cowboy.”

“One of the Days I Nearly Died” is in conversation with “It Meant There Would Be More,” the story that immediately precedes it, in an even more direct way: the narrators are brothers.  They refer to each other in their respective stories.  After finishing “It Meant There Would Be More,” which is one of the longest stories in the book, I thought it might be fun to follow it up with a very short one—to shade one story with the world of another story, and to play with “dynamics.”

May 2017

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Turn Emotions into an Existential Threat

16 May

Joseph Scapellato’s debut collection, Big Lonesome, was called “gobsmackingly original prophecy” by Claire Vaye Watkins.

Writing teachers have a lot of ways of saying basically one important thing about story beginnings: set the stakes and break the routine and put a gun on the wall and show your character’s desire. All of these instructions are trying to get you to give your story the sense, from the first lines, that something big is about to happen—the literary equivalent of basketball players setting up for an inbounds play with the game on the line, or sprinters lowering into their stances as the starting gun is raised. The audience knows something is about to happen, something intense and worth pausing everything else to watch. That’s the kind of opening a story needs. You can find plot ways to do this—putting a gun on the wall or starting in medias res during an airplane crash—but there are other methods as well.

A great example of one of them can be found in Joseph Scapellato’s story “One of the Days I Nearly Died.” It appears in his new collection Big Lonesome, and was first published in Green Mountains Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

As the title indicates, the story is using the same sort of plot hook as, say, the television show Lost. Something really is about to happen. But that’s not really what draws us in—or, it’s not the only thing. Here is how the story begin:

When it was happening I was alone. I didn’t think of my wife, of how her and I suspected she was pregnant (she wasn’t, but by the time the period came we’d both said a brace of big ugly honest things that had made the other think, These big ugly honest things you’ve said are who you Really Are, when really the big ugly honest things were only who we’d clubbed each other into becoming for a one-month spell inside a six-year spell that up until then had us living on Logan Boulevard in Logan Square thinking we’d be local, organic, and happy right up until we died blissful simultaneous deaths in the final scene of the epic film of our active old age, or at least that’s how I remember it out loud when I apologize, and when I see my ring on my finger in a mirror, and when I slam dishwasher drawers and shout, Listen! You aren’t listening!), and I didn’t think of…

What the story really begins with is an argument, a bad one full of “big ugly honest things” and the word clubbed and slamming drawers. It’s an argument that gives its participants the sense that “These big ugly honest things you’ve said are who you Really Are,” which suggests that this newly discovered reality isn’t desirable. Maybe they’d be better off somewhere else, with someone else. In short, it’s an existential argument. The way that it’s resolved will determine basic, essential details about the characters’ lives. These emotions matter. This isn’t to say that some emotions don’t matter; of course they do—in life. But in stories (in narratives, no matter the genre), everything, whether it’s setting or plot or character, must be geared toward wrenching the story forward. This is why we immediately suspect happy characters of being like chickens who don’t see the farmer walking up with is axe. It’s why Tolstoy wrote his famous line about happy and unhappy families. One makes for a better story.

If you read all of “One of the Days I Nearly Died,” you’ll find that the entire story isn’t about that opening argument, at least not directly. It’s about a series of potentially life-changing moments. The opening argument sets the stage for them, telling the reader, “This is the mental space this story will inhabit.” Once that space is created, the story moves forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create existential emotions using “One of the Days I Nearly Died” by Joseph Scapellato as a model:

  1.  Set up a particular moment. Scapellato’s a sophisticated writer, and so he actually does this in multiple ways. There’s the literal moment of the story (the day the character nearly died) and also the general frame of the thing he remembers (the potential pregnancy) and then the immediate moment of the argument. If that seems overwhelming to attempt, don’t. Instead, shoot for one moment. Start with a basic phrase like “It was the day that…” Or start general and move to the specific, like this: “It was those days when…and it all came to a head when…”
  2. Give the moment a particular conflict. Scapellato gives his character a potential pregnancy. It’s the reason they’re arguing. But the pregnancy isn’t actually the key issue; it’s simply the key that unlocks the door where they’ve been keeping all their troubles. So, give your characters a conflict, but the resolution of this conflict shouldn’t necessarily resolve the troubles they’re having.
  3. Move from the conflict into the bigger issue. This is what the characters are actually feeling emotional about. Notice that we don’t actually know what the characters say in this story. We only know that they say terrible things. You can keep it vague, as Scapellato does, or you can dig into the details. Either way, you’re aiming for a moment when a character is so wound up that he or she slams a drawer and says, “You know what?” and what follows is the sort of statement that is very difficult to take back, a statement that can change the course of a life. Of course, we all make these sorts of statements at some point or another and manage to recover, but there’s always a split second where you think, maybe this is it. Find the emotion—the stress, the trouble, the inner conflict—that would push your character into saying something that might be a deal breaker, whatever the deal is.

The goal is to hook your readers by showing them something that might be broken by the characters holding it.

Good luck.

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