Joseph Scapellato, author of the deft story collection Big Lonesome, brings his debut novel, The Made-Up Man, to McNally Jackson’s new Williamsburg outpost—which has been a long time coming. Scapellato’s genre mashup, which the marketing language calls an “existential noir,” concerns a young American who jaunts off to Prague to take part in his uncle’s performance art project, which promises to turn dangerous. NPR’s Gabino Iglesias calls it “a bacon-topped doughnut—a mixture of incongruent elements that somehow work well together.”
Originally from the suburbs of Chicago by way of an MFA in New Mexico, Scapellato teaches at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania—read: far enough away, just close enough—though he’s engrossed in the NY scene enough to contribute to both Electric Literature and the Brooklyn Rail. Scapellato presents his work in conversation with another Joe, Joseph Salvatore, who’s well known as the Books Editor at The Brooklyn Rail and the founding editor of the literary journal LIT.
Scapellato admitted to us via email that he’s never been to Williamsburg before, making his lack of nostalgia envious.
Your latest work seems as inspired by Pirandello or Ionesco as by classic noir. You called it an “inverted literary film noir.” How did these influences come together for you?
The Made-Up Man began as an exploration of an over-the-top film noir voice. I’ve always admired film noir for its voicey-ness—for the dark wonder of it, for the way that it gleefully paints characters, settings, and dramatic situations in broad, colorful strokes. In some of my favorite film noir works, every line feels like a gritty proverb.[In this book] I included some film noir staples: the slangy language, the moral/amoral philosophizing, the exploration of obsession, alienation, and class, and the way that acts of crime can provide an opportunity to pose unsolvable existential questions.
When it came to the character roles/types—the detective, the villain, the sidekick, the femme fatale—my goal was to invert, subvert, or challenge expectations.
At a certain point, however, I realized that the inversion of a trope is often just a different side of the same trope. For example: does the “femme fatale” betray or save the “detective”? There are plenty of examples of excellent noir in which either happens.
As I went through more and more drafts of The Made-Up Man, the book started to spill over the edges of its film-noir shape. It became more than an intellectual exercise in form; it became about the narrator’s emotional and existential crisis of the self. It became about interior mystery.
In July of 2005, when I was 22, I backpacked Europe for a month with my buddy Andrew. We planned to visit the famous places we’d heard about (London, Paris, Berlin, Florence), but before we left, Andrew’s dad suggested that we take the time to go to Prague. It was beautiful and mysterious, he said, and unlike any other European city.
We went to Prague for three days. We were absolutely charmed. Every night, we wandered the winding medieval alleys. We agreed that these alleys would be a spectacular place to shoot a film noir. As a joke, we started to co-narrate our experiences in an over-the-top film noir voice. We said things like, “That building sure is old. A little too old…” This was where the idea for the novel began—in this playful co-narration.
I haven’t been back to Prague since 2005. While I was writing The Made-Up Man, I did some research and spoke to friends who’ve been there more recently. For a little while I worried that the fact that I’ve only been to Prague once, for three days, would limit me. But limitations can be enabling—I didn’t feel the temptation to load the novel up with tour-guide exposition about the city’s extraordinary historical layers. And it helps that the narrator of the novel is only in Prague for three days, like I was. He’s also not very interested in exploring the city—his main concern is to make things right with his ex-girlfriend.
You’re very much involved in New York, and live close enough to visit, but you live comfortably outside of the “literary capital,” with all that connotes, from the comraderie to the competition. Do you think that’s helpful?
I live in Lewisburg, PA, about three and a half hours away from New York. My wife teaches dance and theater, with a special focus on musical theater, so we try to make it out to New York at least once a semester to see a show, have a great meal, go to a bookstore.
If I lived in New York, it would make certain things about being a writer easier or richer. I’d be able to go to more readings and events, hang out with writer friends, and meet up with my agent, editor, and publicity team more often. I’d be able to participate in the thriving literary community of the city.
But living in a small college town has its advantages, too, outside of affordability. Because we have to, we make our own communities. I’m very fortunate to teach in a program with a robust reading series. We invite writers—including writers from New York—to come to us.
I love the idea of thinking about social media as a kind of everyday performance art. We use it to perform public versions of ourselves. There’s not necessarily anything unnatural/wrong about that, it’s just that social media interactions are missing the rich, context-clarifying depths of person-to-person interaction. And in that gap, a lot of assumptions can be made.
The brilliant Rachel Fershlieser said something to me that I won’t forget: Facebook is how you connect with people you know, and Twitter is how you connect with people you don’t know.
You were just at the Associaion of Writers and & Writing Programs Conference (AWP) in Portland. Do you think AWP is important for networking, career-building, etc. — or just a fun hang? Is it the South by Southwest of books?— for better or worse?
Early on, it was hard. I wandered around the book fair not really knowing how to approach it; I went to lots of panels and felt a little overwhelmed; I went to off-site events where I didn’t know a single person. Over the years, though—as I started working for literary magazines, and publishing work in literary magazines—I began to meet people in organic, unforced ways. And after I graduated from my MFA and moved away, the conference became the one time a year that I would see my dear MFA friends, mentors, and former students.
For me, AWP is now a marvelous, experience-dense sequence of reunions. I get to catch up with people from so many different parts of my writing and teaching lives. On top of that, this wonderful thing happens where you bump into a friend, and while you’re talking, a friend of your friend shows up; you meet your friend’s friend; sometimes, your friend’s friend becomes your friend, too.
The thing to remember about AWP is what you have in common with everyone who attends: a love of the written word. That’s a good starting point for conversation and/or for friendship.
“The Made-Up Man: Joseph Scapellato with Joseph Salvatore,” April 2nd, 7pm, at McNally Jackson, 76 North 4th Street, Williamsburg.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Bradley Spinelli is the author of the novels “The Painted Gun” and “Killing Williamsburg.”