An Interview with Joseph Scapellato

Conducted by Kathleen Grennan, Katya Horne, and Clara Howard.

Joseph Scapellato lives in Lewisburg, PA with his wife and daughter. In his most recent novel, ​The Made-Up Man (2019), he mixes humor with an alluring plot line that enthralls the curious, self-reflective mind, and reaches the heart of what it means to ‘know oneself’. Scapellato is an assistant professor of English at Bucknell University, working within the Creative Writing department. He has also written other works, including his debut novel,​ Big Lonesome (2017), and a wide variety of short stories published throughout various literary journals including ​Gulf Coast​, Green Mountains Review Online, ​Kenyon Review Online, and North American Review, and LUMINA.

I: Is Stanley’s journey in your novel The Made-Up Man in any way autobiographical?

Joseph Scapellato: Thankfully, no! I’ve never been the subject of a sinister performance art project; I’ve never KO’d an artist on the street; I’ve never dropped out of an archaeology program; my family is much, much, much kinder than Stanley’s. That said, the novel did initially emerge from my own experiences. In 2005, when I was 22, I backpacked through Europe for a month with my buddy Andrew. (His dad’s graduation gift was tickets for him and a friend to go abroad—I got to be the lucky friend who went with Andrew.) We toured cities we’d already heard of, but also decided, on a recommendation from Andrew’s dad, to go to Prague. It was a place we knew nothing about. When we arrived, we were entranced. Prague was gorgeous and strange and cheap. Andrew and I agreed that Prague would be a spectacular place to shoot a film noir. At some point, we started to co-narrate our Prague experiences in an over-the-top film

noir/detective voice. I don’t remember the specific jokes very well—things like: “That building sure is old.”/“Yeah, a little ​too ​old.” But I know for sure that we found them funny only because of how we told them: in that faux-gritty, goofily elevated, “hard-boiled” voice. As soon as I returned to Chicago from this trip, I prepared to move to Las Cruces, New Mexico; I was about to begin an MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University. Larry Watson, who I’d studied with in undergrad, had said that it might be wise to start a new writing project before I moved southwest. Something to maybe use for my first workshop. With this advice in mind, I wrote a few pages of a piece based on the voicey film-noir inside joke from Prague. That was the earliest draft of what eventually became ​The Made-Up Man.​

I: What drove you to write so extensively about Performance Art, an artform which, arguably, isn’t discussed or known as much as others; have you ever experienced or done a performance art piece yourself?

JS: I’ve always been interested in performance art—I love the bravery, strangeness, transgression, and surprise that’s so prevalent in the best of it. Although Performance Art isn’t as “mainstream” as other forms of art, there are quite a lot of smart and fascinating people saying smart and fascinating things about it. It’s widely discussed in art circles. In fact, that’s something that I really enjoy about performance art; how it lends itself to discussion, how it aggressively invites a reader to make meaning out of it. I’ve never done any real performance art, myself, though I’ve gleefully participated in activities that, in a way, have some proximity to it. In high school, for example, I pulled a number of elaborate public pranks for a radio show; in college, I regularly orchestrated the same sort of thing for an improv comedy group that I was a member of and for the TV shows that I was involved with. I’m not calling any of that pranky stuff performance art—definitely not!—but it employs some of the same techniques, and it certainly goes for some of the same effects (especially the way that the audience doesn’t know that they’re the audience, at least not right away).

I: In your collection of short stories there’s a bit of a focus on American Western culture, what is the significance of that for you?

JS: I grew up watching Golden Age westerns with my mom—Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Neville Brand, Randolph Scott, Claude Akins. The good guy dudes who do no wrong, who shoot the guns out of the hands of the villains.Much later I started watching the stylistically wild and violent films of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Perhaps because of that, I’ve always loved the mythology of the West. When I realized that I was writing a story collection about the west—when cowboys started showing up in my work—I started to consciously investigate and challenge that mythology.

I: How did writing and publishing the collection of short stories compare to your debut novel? How were the creative processes different for you?

JS: On the most fundamental level, the writing of the two was very similar—as a writer, I’m always trying to find the emergent intentions of the work. I want to be surprised by where it’s going, on the level of the sentence, on the level of the passage, on the level of the narrative shape. As far as publishing goes, I feel that there’s more respect and prestige for novels, in general. Not many people read story collections. Next time you’re at a family party, ask everyone when they last read a novel; then ask everyone when they last read a story collection. I can guarantee you that many people will tell you that they’ve never, ever read a story collection.

I think that story collections are harder to read than novels. As my editor once pointed out to me, with a story collection, you have to start over with every story. You get that initial period of readerly disorientation over and over again. For the record: writing a story collection and writing a novel, for me, are equally challenging, and reading them is equally rewarding.

I: Most of your stories occur in regions far from your place of origin and where you currently live, do you travel a lot in order to gain inspiration from places? If so, what part does traveling play in your writing?

JS: Most of the stories in ​Big Lonesome t​ ake place in the west/southwest, that’s true, but there are a good number of Chicago stories in there. And half (or perhaps more than half) of ​The Made-Up Man t​ akes place in Chicago/Chicagoland, where I grew up.One thing that makes sense

to me, though, is that as soon as I’m away from a place, I feel more permission to write about it.For example: I started writing ​Big Lonesome​not when I was in the southwest or Chicago, but when I moved from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. As soon as I moved, I found that every story that I was working on wanted to be set back in the southwest. 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 (I think?) 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.

I: In The Made-Up Man, you focus on self-discovery. In what ways have your life experiences influenced the ways in which you understand the world as a writer, and how do you go about implementing your discoveries into your writing?

JS: I think that as a writer, you can write towards yourself or you can write away from yourself. You can also do both (in the same project). What I mean by this is that you can start a story or a scene or a moment with your life experiences—a seed of something that you actually experienced—and fictionalize ​away ​from those experiences as you proceed, allowing yourself to change character, setting, occasion, theme. Or you can start a story or a scene or a moment with completely fictional situations and write ​towards ​little embedded (and slightly modified) fragments of your own life experiences. For me, this helps keep the process surprising, interesting, and true.

I: Finally, a broader question: what drew you to writing as a career and what is the most important skill or bit of wisdom you’ve gained from putting thoughts to paper?

JS: Just a quick note of clarification: writing is only indirectly my career. Being a professor is directly my career. That’s what gets me my salary. However, to be a professor of creative

writing, I need to be a published writer. So maybe it’s most accurate to say that writing is not my career, but it supports my career. But writing is also the thing that I’ve been doing for much, much longer than I’ve been teaching. What drew me to writing is unknown to me. I’ve simply always loved it. I’ve been writing since before I could write—when I was a little kid, I would draw comic books, make a big space for the words (because I knew comic books needed words, even though I couldn’t read them), and then I’d dictate to my extremely patient and kind mother what words should go there. What drew me to teaching: when I went to get my MFA, I taught classes as a graduate student. (This is how you go to grad school for free.) I’d always been interested in teaching—my dad was a gym teacher at a K-8 in Chicago—but I wasn’t sure if I’d be any good at it or enjoy it. I ended up enjoying it immediately. I realized that, just like writing, it was a life’s work—that it was worth devoting my life to learning how to do it as best as I could. The writerly wisdom that’s been most important to me is the idea of the writer’s intention vs. the work’s intention—that whenever the emergent, surprising intentions of the work are in conflict with your initial intentions for the work, you need to abandon your initial intentions and revise towards the work’s intentions, because the story is smarter than you. It’s a way of following what is most alive in the work. I am very grateful for this teaching. It continues to guide me.