Tucker Leighty-Phillips interviews Joseph Scapellato
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 Online, Gulf Coast, Post Road, PANK, Unsaid, 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. He is the author of The Made-Up Man, which was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2019, and Big Lonesome (2017). He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Bucknell University.
He and Managing Editor Tucker Leighty-Phillips caught up about his new novel, The Made-Up Man, in July.
Tucker Leighty-Phillips: There are a number of very clear forms of performance from each character in this book; T as an actor, Lech as a performance artist, Torrentelli in her prior performance of maleness, and Stanley, who is concerned about who he is or isn’t performing as himself. What is the role of performance in your book? (Without getting too meta-fiction, I also want to ask about how you made each character perform their sense of performance in a way that benefitted you in writing the novel and having the story come together cohesively).
Joseph Scapellato: I don’t remember exactly when this happened, but at a certain point in the writing process, I realized that The Made-Up Man wanted to be about the performance of the self. It kept drifting, in action and in theme, to the issue of how we consciously and unconsciously perform our many selves—the self that we think we’re projecting, the self that we’re actually projecting, the self that adapts to what we think our audience wants, requires, or deserves.
As soon as I realized this, I tried to use characters and actions and relationships and developments—whenever it felt organic to do so—to enact questions about the performance of the self. Uncle Lech’s art projects provided a lot of opportunities for this exploration, as you might imagine, what with the many reenactments from moments in Stanley’s life. And as a composition/revision technique, the pursuit of questions related to the self was also a way to add thematic layers to just about any scene, through individual issues that are important to other characters—for instance, when Stanley and Torrentelli are hanging out for the first time after Torentelli’s transition and they talk about the performance of gender.
But for the most part, at least for me, this question was grounded in Stanley. In some ways, I hope, he’s a recognizable figure—the just-about-to-turn-30 white man who doesn’t know himself/his self, who repeatedly jams himself into the hard mold of what (again, to me) is a very Midwestern brand of hypermasculinity. In my understanding of Stanley, he’s accepted some very toxic tenants—a real man keeps his feelings to himself, a real man represses himself. He knows that he should talk to family and friends about the bad decisions that he’s making, but he doesn’t. He keeps his problems to himself because a.) he’s perhaps not brave enough to share them, and/or b.) he’s perhaps convinced himself that keeping them to himself is, in fact, brave.
All of this is a self that Stanley performs. On some level, he knows this. How much of this performed self is his actual self?
What I’m saying, I think, is that I know a lot of people like Stanley. Men who choke themselves into silence. Men who choke others into silence. Men who will never, ever go to therapy. Men who, because of this repression, will damage themselves and others, all in the name of a performance.
Leighty-Phillips: There is a point in the novel where Lech’s artistic theme is explicitly referred to as “exploitation.” While reading The Made-Up Man, I couldn’t help but feel the sort of cat-and-mouse relationship that exists between horror movie villains and victims in Lech’s relationship to Stanley, where a shift in tone could dramatically change how the book could be read. Did you feel at times that the subject matter/relationship might have been much more ominous than the book was letting on?
Scapellato: I love the idea of a “horror movie read”—Uncle Lech has a villainous obsession with Stanley, or if not that, then a villainous obsession with launching a project in which he is required to have a villainous obsession with Stanley. That said, to me, Uncle Lech is genuinely trying to help Stanley (in his own extremely unacceptable way), just like Stanley’s brother, Stanley’s father, Stanley’s mother, and T are trying to help him (in much more acceptable ways). (This was something that the great Victor LaValle advised me to keep in mind—that it would make the relationship much richer if Uncle Lech honest-to-god felt that he was doing the right thing. I’m deeply grateful to Victor for this wisdom.)
In my reading of the book, the book signals that the Stanley-Lech relationship is dangerous. When Stanley first arrives in Prague, dread and fear and panic hit him, and he experiences a kind of disassociation of the self—to a certain extent, he knows that what he’s getting into will very likely destroy his relationships with everyone he cares about.
At the same time, I tried to write a novel that permits the collision of the comedic and the tragic. My hope is that these two modes overlap—that the novel contains moments that some readers will find humorous, that some readers will find disturbing, and that some readers will find to be both.
Leighty-Phillips: The relationship between Stanley’s narration and the chapter-head narration was sometimes at odds — how did the chapterheads function for you both as a character/narrator in the story but also potentially as an outlining tool in the process of writing the book?
Scapellato: Initially, I included the chapter titles simply because I’ve always liked the old-timey convention of them. Chapter titles/summaries remind me of playful novels from previous centuries that I read as a kid. (If you’ve ever read an old adventure novel, you’re probably familiar with the formal convention of including chapter summaries right beneath the chapter titles, summaries that say things like, IN WHICH OUR HERO FALLS INTO A WELL, or TROUBLE AT TINA’S LAUNDROMAT.)
Above all, I appreciate the challenge that this convention sets for a writer—if you tell the reader what’s about to happen, can you still make it interesting and surprising?
The more that I wrote, the more that the chapter titles entered into a conversation with the book’s themes. For example, I was excited by the tension that they created when they contradicted Stanley—the chapter titles are in 3rdperson, and the chapters themselves are in 1stperson (Stanley’s voice)—I found that the chapter titles occasionally wanted to correct Stanley’s claims. It also became clear to me, at some point, that the chapter titles function as “labels” to the individual “exhibits” in Stanley’s life—that they echo the set-up of Uncle Lech’s art installations.
With all of that said, I never really thought of the chapter titles as being a character or a narrator, though I think that’s a great interpretation. Although I didn’t use them to outline the book, they came in handy at a critical stage of revision, when I needed to add layers of family/friend backstory—they gave me permission to leap back to Chicago, from just about anywhere in Prague.
Leighty-Phillips: I’ve been really interested in atmospheres of art lately — if the atmosphere of your book had a family tree, what would it exist alongside?
Scapellato: I love this question! The Atmospheric Family Tree of Art of The Made-Up Man would include TheIsle of Youth by Laura van den Berg, Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek, The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector, The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman, Hunger by Knut Hamsun, a number of Lydia Davis stories, Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz by Russell Hoban, countless old-time radio detective shows, Chinatown, Police Squad!, this piece of performance art by VOINA, “FEEL.,” by Kendrick Lamar, a few Marilyn Manson songs, “Hejnal mariacki,” and an assortment of Jean Dubuffet’s paintings, particularly his portraits and his series of women.
Leighty-Phillips: You mention chapterheads giving you “permission” to leap back to Chicago—one of the two primary settings in this book (the other being Prague). From a craft perspective, did it feel different to write in one setting versus the other? Did elements of characters shift based on place or did anything come more naturally in one environment than it did the other? Did you find yourself more comfortable writing in one of the two settings?
Scapellato: Sadly, it wasn’t any easier to write the Chicago sections than the Prague sections. (I wish it had been!) However, the decision to set so much of the book in Chicago brought its own set of special pleasures—to get to write about my favorite city, the city I’ve moved into and out of for most of my adult life, the city I wished I lived in right now. It felt great to get to stuff the novel with some favorite Chicago places (Huettenbar, Moody’s, Big Star, Half Acre, The Den, Sox Park, the late Chicago Brauhaus), some favorite neighborhoods (Lincoln Square, Rogers Park, Pilsen), and a favorite theatre company (The Hypocrites), as well as with attitudes and interactions that I fondly associate with the city’s vigorously unpretentious people.
Leighty-Phillips: I can certainly see the connection between Stanley and the style of stoic masculinity that is often imprinted on men from an early age, and your book seems to confront that style of masculinity, but in a way that prods more questions rather than providing confident answers. This book seems like one that may have taught you lessons in the process of writing it rather than aiming to reach for some grand, overarching message. Do you feel that this book taught you anything in the process of its creation (about writing, masculinity, something else)?
Scapellato: This is a great question—thanks for asking it. I think that everything that a writer completes teaches the writer something. Most of what it teaches you, at least in my experience, is how to finish that one thing. (Unfortunately!) But it does teach you, at the very least, that you are capable of finishing what you started, which is something that a writer needs to keep teaching themselves over and over and over again.
In a limited way, the process of writing The Made-Up Man taught me how to stay with a first-person voice for a long time—how to trust my patience with that voice—how to believe that, with the help of writerly discipline, a voice could continue to surprise me, could continue to wind itself into and through and out of new fields of mystery.
If you don’t mind me asking—I’m curious to know what you see in the book that makes you feel that it taught me something?
Leighty-Phillips: Forgive me if I’m being too bold, or projecting onto the book too much, but the relationship between Stanley and Uncle Lech feels like a very interrogative one (both in narrative and in craft), one ripe with possibility and questioning. Lech’s placement in the power dynamic feels almost parabolic at times, and writing that relationship feels like it could be a very exploratory one. I think that’s where my initial feelings came from, trying to write the relationship between performer-artist, uncle-nephew, tenant-traveler, and the others ways in which their relationship manifests. Does that make sense?
Scapellato: The works that I enjoy the most, across genres, are the ones that enact questions—seriously but playfully, playfully but seriously—from surprising starting points. Lech’s position as an experimental artist means that our tastes meet on this issue. He’s not interested in delivering straight answers because he doesn’t believe in straightness or in answers. And neither does Stanley. Though I think he’d like to.
For all of the joy that writing The Made-Up Man brought me, Stanley’s voice wasn’t always the most pleasant one to sit with. Sometimes it pointed down the street, out of the book, in the general direction of some of my own sources of anger, repression, and self-deception. My life, like lots of other people’s lives, has been a slow progression towards being more and more honest with myself about myself. It’s possible that spending so much time in this novel made me more aware of some of the ways in which I am like Stanley, but it’s hard to say, truly, and on top of that, knowing those sorts of things isn’t very helpful. Writing may be therapeutic, but it’s not therapy. Just because you’ve put something that you live with in a book doesn’t mean you’ve kicked it out of the house.
Leighty-Phillips: What’s next for you?
Scapellato: I’m working on a novel about early American presidents. I wouldn’t describe myself as a history buff, but I’ve always loved reading history, and this project gives me a chance to follow the joy of that interest. It’s been challenging, not for any reason related directly to the project (that I’m aware of!), but because I’m so used to being near the end of a novel. It’s like I’ve just come from installing cozy furniture and hanging cozy paintings in a big cozy hall—the fireplace is going, there’s a table with hot food and drink, good friends keep dropping by—to the hard dirt of a new construction site. I’m the only one there. It’s raining. I’m holding an old shovel. And what I need to find, and keep finding, is a way to love to dig.
Tucker Leighty-Phillips is the Managing Editor at Hayden’s Ferry Review and second-year MFA candidate in Fiction at Arizona State University. His work has been featured in or forthcoming at Smokelong Quarterly, Hobart, Whiskeypaper, West Branch Wired, and elsewhere. He can be found on social media at @TheNurtureBoy.