with Kevin McIlvoy

Three remarkable books of unconventional fiction that are simply like nothing else published recently have created excitement that is growing all on its own: Lynette D’Amico’s Road Trip (Twelve Winters Press, 2015); David Rutschman’s Into Terrible Light (Forklift Books, 2017), and Joseph Scapellato’s Big Lonesome (Mariner Books, 2017). No sustained promotional effort has been launched, giving these books the long exposure that such works of fiction must have in order to gain greater attention from our U.S. reading audience, an audience always resistant, at first, to the unfamiliar. Wishing for Scapellato and Rutschman and D’Amico to stand in the light a little longer, I contacted the authors about doing this intrioview. Over a period of three months, I asked them to address three broad topics specifically relevant to their books: boldness, aspects of scale, and estrangement. The format is demanding, since it requires that each author must address the topics through comments upon the works of the other two; each then must address, as in a normal interview, comments upon her/his own work. I have tripled the labor for this trio of writers. They have responded with selfless enthusiasm.

Cover of Road Trip       Cover of Into Terrible Light       Cover of Big Lonsome

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Joseph Scapellato, on Boldness

In Road Trip, Lynette D’Amico commits a cardinal “sin” of contemporary literature: the gleeful evocation of the “unlikeable” character. The reader is invited to be compelled by Myra, the haunted narrator, and Pinkie, Myra’s hilariously exasperating friend, for the qualities that make them complex — their wicked honesty, their social and existential failings, and the true-to-life messiness of their relationships to each other and to themselves.

Because of this, the novella is rich in “tough love” passages, moments that twist together honesty, comedy, and tragedy. Take this example from early in the work, when Myra recalls first meeting Pinkie in a public bathroom:

Pinkie went in one of the stalls and pulled down her pants. She was whistling or humming behind the door. I got the feeling like when you’re watching a contestant on a game show who just doesn’t have a clue and everybody else gets it before they do and then slowly they start waking up to the fact that they are too stupid to live and you can see it happening right before your eyes on national television, right in your own living room: the collapse of an individual consciousness. (6)

Myra is just as brutally clear-eyed about herself. At one point, she wonders why she’s so cruel to Pinkie “when all [Pinkie] wants is for me to like her.” And in a particularly revealing passage, she provides a blunt assessment of the dark logic that sustains their friendship:

Pinkie worked with the men who rape and fuck up the girls and I worked with the girls the men rape and fuck up. Bad Boys and Doormats. What happens when you put two helping professionals together is they both think they’re due; they’ve been paying out and paying out, and now it’s their turn to collect. It’s a situation that can leave both parties a little short on generosity. (8)

This novella mounts a multimodal exploration of the nature of conversation. We watch Pinkie’s chatterbox monologues (her attempts to win love, anybody’s love), Myra’s fascinating self-conversation (her musings, her memories, her self-haunting), and, most ambitiously, a conversation between narrative forms — threaded throughout this first person novella are third person “family history” passages. They range from obituaries to tall tales to memories that begin to include Myra. These short forms subtly complicate one another, resonating thematically, and charge the present action — the road trip — with new meanings. Everything is in conversation with everything else.

In one family history section, the narrator (who may or may not be Myra), reveals that Myra’s brother died young. Then there’s a shift; in it moves an old grief:

When Mike died, Myra took pictures of him laid out in his coffin. You’ve seen those dead baby photographs from the turn of the century? The dead infants dressed in a white christening gown tucked into a tiny, white satin-lined white coffin? People included these dead baby photos in their family photo albums. When company came to call, you’d sit down and open the photo album and there’d be all these dead baby photographs maybe with a curl of dead baby hair alongside the stiff family portrait in front of the new barn, the men sitting on the dining room table chairs that had been dragged out of the parlor, live children on their knees or at their feet, the women looking wrung out and somber, dead baby ghosts in everybody’s eyes. (18)

The “interruption” of the histories, in other words, “interrupts” our understanding of the narrator, enriching it.

With Into Terrible Light, David Rutschman boldly defamiliarizes beloved short narrative forms — the folktale, fairytale, fable, aphorism, allegory, koan — through electrically vivid language, structural innovation, and a deeply heartfelt attention to characters’ consciences. He bends, breaks, and layers these forms in astonishing ways. He challenges narrative limits, and at the same time, delivers emotionally satisfying fiction.

In “The Hog, the Sow, The Wind,” one hog abandons his siblings to starvation. Many folktales would stop there, after the betrayal, with the “moral” implied. In Rutschman’s hands, however, the guilt-stricken hog isn’t off the hook — we stay with him through a daring narrative shift, as he struggles to understand what he’s done, as he’s haunted by the wind:

The wind carried the voices of his brother and sister, his parents, of all the generations of hogs — that massive, endless symphony of voices — but even that wasn’t it, wasn’t all of it. There was still more. Something caught in his throat. His mind spun. […] In the wind’s song he thought he heard the old age of his brother and sister, and his own death in the pen. It blew through his bones. Their lives could’ve gone that way — they really could’ve — but they hadn’t, they hadn’t. The wind sang the song of all the hogs who’d ever been and might have been: hogs dead early, hogs never born, hogs who failed to live up to their own deepest potentials. What sort of deepest potentials do hogs have though, really? The wind said it knew, and sang them, sang of the genius of hogs, the profound understandings possible for hogs, the complex and delicate sensations available to hogs. (29)

In story after story, Rutschman retools formal conventions in exciting ways. But just as impressively, in other stories, he works within those conventions, resulting in sparkling homages to ancient forms. Lively language and searing wit give these pieces freshness, as in the example of “The Devil’s New Red Axe”:

One summer day the devil appeared to a simple woodcutter and offered him a new red axe. The woodcutter, dazzled, accepted the axe, which was lighter and sharper than any he had ever seen. That morning, he chopped and stacked over a week’s worth of wood; that afternoon he chopped and stacked even more.

His sons eyed each other carefully.

His wife brought her hand to her mouth.

At the tiniest motion of his wrist, the axe lashed out. A few minutes and the thickest trunk crashed to earth. The man shouted with joy.

Behind him, the devil was turning his wife into a poplar, and his sons — his three beautiful sons — into pines. (173)

What I find most ambitious about Into Terrible Light, however, is Rutschman’s exceptional commitment to capturing high-stakes abstractions — existential crises, spiritual and/or intellectual revelations, philosophical concepts — in concrete, grounded, and stunning ways. These abstractions are built brick by brick. No shorthand, no shortcuts.

Rutschman achieves this effect in many pieces, but have a look at this moment from “The Rooster in the Thorns,” in which an old rooster, reeling from the horror and trauma so common to folktales, bumps right up against a moment of transcendence:

He stared at the young rooster, stared at the chickens, and as he stared he seemed to feel a line dividing him from them. Not a line, precisely. A gap. A distinction. He looked at that distinction, focused on it, and somehow as he held it in his mind, as he looked at it, it seemed to him that he could rotate that distinction, could make it turn. He could make it wider or thinner, could stand it on its side. This was all in his mind, he understood this, it was something he was able to imagine doing. He imagined turning the distinction from side to side, and then he imagined making it begin to dissolve. It was a trick of the mind, a story. He watched the line — the gap, distinction — between himself and the young rooster begin to thin and blur, and he seemed for a moment to become the young rooster, to be standing on young legs in the middle of the coop, looking through the wire towards the house. And he let the distinction keep blurring, imagined that the line would keep blurring and it seemed to him now that he became one of the hens, and then another one, and he seemed to feel the colors of their minds, the blues and greens and reds, seemed to feel those colors washing in his own mind, behind his own old rooster eyes. (158-59)

It’s this balance of the concrete and the abstract, of the intellectual and the emotional, that makes Into Terrible Light such a bold and enjoyable read.

A fellow writer 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 made up of the writer’s very best stories at that moment in the writer’s life. There’s going to be thematic resonance and thematic dissonance 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 resonance and thematic dissonance are the most important guiding principles — the stories very consciously complement and complicate one another. They seem to have grown out of each other, like songs in a concept album.

I tried to make Big Lonesome a concept album: I wanted the stories, when considered together, to seem to 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.

One of my goals was to upend American myths about history, heroism, and masculinity. Many of these myths — nailed to a simplified story of the “settlement of the West,” and reinforced by decades of cinema — still have a powerful hold on our imaginations, today. These are the myths that encourage us to forget or excuse the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Native Americans. These are the myths that encourage us to consider American goodness, rightness, and fairness to be self-evident, since and for forever. These are also the myths that encourage American men to act like characters played by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

To address these myths, I tried to make new myths. In some cases, I wrote stories that operate on the language-driven dream-logic common to mythology. In “Five Episodes of White-Hat Black-Hat,” I attempted to address the image of the sanitized “Golden Age” good guy cowboy of 1940s TV serials:

The white-hat cowboy sat on a caved-in well at the edge of town. A ways away, near mountains, the wind was bored with sheets of dust. It was noon. The sun had put its foot down on everything.

Waiting, the white-hat cowboy tried to look like he wasn’t. He tried to look like no one living could recall a time when anything could come for anyone. He jiggled his toes inside his boots.

Noon stayed right where it was. The wind yawned. (45)

But in every case, with all of my writing, my main goal is to write sentences that engage me. It’s the same in composition and revision: I write a bunch of sloppy sentences, sentences I use to knock around. I look for liveliness and heart. What ends up having liveliness and heart, for me, are sentences that are in some way assertive and mysterious at the same time, just as abstract as they are concrete. In such sentences I hope to find myth: the narrative that looks like a story but moves like a poem.

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David Rutschman, on Boldness

On page three of Lynette D’Amico’s vivid, unforgettable Road Trip, there’s an old-fashioned black and white photograph of a middle-aged woman with an expression that’s just . . . inscrutable. I’ve stared at it over and over now. Her mouth for one thing: at first glance, it’s a straight line, but actually it curves slightly up on one side, slightly down on the other. Is she smiling? On first impression, she looks approachable, relaxed, but as I look more, I’m less sure. Her eyes seem to be pointing in two different directions. And what’s a photograph doing here anyway?

D’Amico’s boldness manifests like this, in the way she juxtaposes, intersperses, braids. She doesn’t stay in one place long. She makes me double-take, look again, look harder. Road Trip is an exploration of a difficult friendship, but it’s also a century-long family scrapbook filled with death, which means it’s a ghost story, or maybe two ghost stories, or three, or honestly maybe even four — there are ghost stories within ghost stories — but it’s also hilarious. It’s a book that keeps swerving.

There’s a boldness, too, in the voice itself, in its rhythms and lyricism. It can be no nonsense, stark (get it?) but it can also be musical, ornate, surprising. The zigs and zags of the larger structure are reproduced at the page level in the zigs and zags of the paragraphs themselves.

Listen to a passage like this:

This is the cheese and porn stretch of Wisconsin highway. Cheese curds with that peep show? Eating cheese curds produces a pornographic sound not unlike the sound of a squeaky bed spring. Squeaka squeaka squeaka. Pinkie and I had known each other so long — but she peed with the door open, she wore loud print Hawaiian shirts, and for a mental health professional, she missed a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle cues, like: the line forms here, no entry beyond this point, and no means no. (14)

Hear the swerves?

On page 35 there’s a picture of a collapsed house. On page sixty-two, there’s a picture of an elephant pulling a wagon.

This sentence from Joseph Scapellato’s story “Cowgirl” is bold in the way that so many of his sentences are bold. Listen:

The cow cowgirl is born of moos, saying: Ours?

Can you feel the way your mind twirls, trying to make sense of the thing? Here’s the slow-motion replay. The cow. Sure, subject of the sentence, noun, I know what a cow is, no problem. The cow cowgirl. Hiccup, mind-stumble. Is cow an adjective now, modifying cowgirl? Or is cowgirl modifying cow? The cow cowgirl is born. Maybe we’re back on track. Something — whatever a cow cowgirl is — is born. We’re all born, right? The cow cowgirl is born of. Hiccup again, not born, which is about a baby, but born of which is about a mother, who moos and asks a question.

Hiccups, stumbles, reversals, flips — these sentences delight. They’re dense, musical. They repeat, turn in on themselves, explode into fireworks.

And then there’s the Wild West thing, the comic-tragic and tragic-comic playing with the tropes and symbols — everyone’s wearing cowboy hats, twanging guitars around the fire, working under the blazing sun. I’m reminded for some reason of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons — like Larson, Scapellato is willing to take the premise and run with it, to push the joke out into a wide, unfamiliar space, to let the strangeness in.

But that isn’t all. These stories move in and through and around and back out of the comic mode, and some of them, like “A Mother Buries a Gun in the Desert Again” or “Company” or “Father’s Day,” are just heartbreakers, pure and simple.

I’ve learned some things over the years about letting myself be the writer I am, and maybe there’s some boldness in that for any of us, in being who we actually are.

I’m willing to stop dead, first of all, where another writer might go on. Many of the stories in my collection are a page long or less; some are only a few sentences.

The flip side of that is true, as well, although it took me many more years to learn: I’m willing to go on where another writer might stop. In “The Hogs, The Sow, The Wind,” for example, the wind starts to blow, and it doesn’t let up for a long time, many pages.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, I’m willing to write outside of a realistic mode. I can’t overstate how powerful it’s been in my life to gradually allow myself the permission to write into and out of storytelling traditions other than psychological realism, to let a story tell me whether it wants to work as realistic fiction or move instead as parable, fable, koan, poem, joke, dream.

To describe my own work as bold sounds brassy. What I’m talking about here is much more humble: acknowledging that, for better or worse, these are the kinds of stories that happen when I set out to write. I can’t help it. Like a donkey braying: I don’t know any other way to sing.

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Lynette D’Amico, on Boldness

A friend once wrote to me about my work, “There is extraordinary boldness evident in every single revised page of Road Trip.” I didn’t know what he meant at the time, but as we worked together, as I’ve pursued my own path as a writer and a reader, I have a better understanding of what boldness means, why as a writer I want to apply it to my own work, and why I seek it out in the work of other artists.

The only time I have ever watched TV “talent” shows like American Idol and The Voice was a couple years ago when my then twenty-one-year-old goddaughter was living with us in Boston while she went to grad school. All her friends watched The Voice; they all knew all the contestants and all the songs they sang. I knew nothing, except the show bored me so deeply; the feedback, the runs, the vibrato, the falsettos, the song selections, the emoting. Boring, boring, boring. Perfection is not interesting, nor does it demonstrate boldness.

In his 39 Microlectures: In Proximity of Performance, Matthew Goulish talks about the difference between the “informed” artist and the “ecstatic” artist. An informed artist may create from a vocabulary that conforms to “understanding, recognition, and … familiarity,” while an ecstatic artist/performer may “step outside of the language to the extent that such an action is possible.” An informed artist/performer comes to the page, to the performance, already knowing; an ecstatic artist/performer is willing to be surprised and to surprise readers — to know how narrative is supposed to work and then to step aside from that knowing and ask: how to start.

I am honored and humbled to look at the work of Joseph Scapellato and David Rutschman--two writers whose work boldly invites surprise — and to consider my own writing in their company.

Joseph Scapellato writes about the American West — Old West, New West, Post West — as the sections in his collection of short stories Big Lonesome are named, but Scapellato’s version of the American West doesn’t quite line up with our well-worn American mythology.

This is brash, heartbreaking, breathtaking work; bold in syntax, the use of folkloric elements, and the comic impulse.

In a lecture about the sentence (“The Sentence Is a Lonely Place,” The Believer, January 2009), writer Gary Lutz said,

The words in the sentence must bear some physical and sonic resemblance to each other.

Writing about guitar playing, Scapellato works a little alliteration and assonance: “fingers and strings and frets.” He turns up the volume with repetition of “four,” “loners,” and “team,” hits the long o sound in the neighborly words “loners yoked,” and “folks,” and accelerates into the second half of the sentence and brings it home with the back to back t sounds in “nighttime”

When he played outside himself, with fingers and strings and frets, he made it sound like there were four guitars showing up, inside the one, and all four were loners, loners yoked into a team, a team that listened to itself and got on well with other folks and animals and any kind of nighttime sky. — “Big Lonesome Beginnings” (1-2)

In the following sentence, every word is monosyllabic, which sets up a rhythmic expectation of inevitability. The languid l sounds in “left” blade,” and “light,” work so the hard consonants of the t in “left,” the d in “blade,” and the d in “door” (twice) are emphasized. The effect of the sonic and syllabic similarities of the words in this sentence, is to highlight the intention of the sentence.

She left: the door, a blade of light, the door. – “It Meant There Would Be More” (118)

We are stabbed by her leaving; darkness falls.

Kate Bernheimer, who has published several collections of modern fairy tales, in “Fairy Tale Is Form, Form Is Fairy Tale,” from The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House, has defined five aspects of fairy tales as: flatness, depthlessness, everyday magic, abstraction, and the sublime. Many of the stories in Big Lonesome display these characteristics. In “Horseman Cowboy” a centaur like cowboy rides the range, joins a circus, eats a railroad baron, “fucks a wolf, a cougar, a bear,” “fucks a road, an avenue, a boulevard,” “fucks art until art fucks him back,” and grows old. Like “Cowboy Good Stuff’s Four True Loves,” these are stories in which the characters are flat abstractions or archetypes. The action seems fated. We trust Cowboy Good Stuff’s losses, that precede other losses because it makes an intuitive and lyrical kind of sense.

Scapellato’s use of humor diffuses emotional content and reduces sentiment and sincerity. He can also poke a little fun at the Old West tropes. In “Five Episodes of White-Hat Black-Hat,” the white-hat cowboy, is the hero who fails at rescue, redemption, who isn’t tragically attractive, or heroically lonely — just a loser who in the end loses even his hat.

The thing that is both known and unknown, the most unknown and the best unknown, this is what we are looking for when we write. (Helene Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing)

Rutschman’s meditative and quiet stories are bold in knowing and unknowing, and bold in the use of animal spirits.

There are stories that are grounded in time and place, such as the disturbing “Voices of Smoke” in which a substitute teacher in Chicago and his girlfriend come together briefly to bury a dead dog before separating for good, and in “Boom-Boom Whoop,” a nurse and her shaky house painter neighbor mix and mingle and swap roles following an accident with a truck full of watermelons — these are stories of the known. The accumulation of details — “The dog was smaller than he expected, bloody, fur, broken ribs sticking out. (44). “That morning it had taken her two hours to decide which sweatshirt to wear…A blue one, a gray one” (88) — builds a known world that we get comfortable with until we look away and discover we don’t know what we thought we knew. Known to unknown, uncertainty to greater uncertainty, creates an exquisite tension in the text. From “The Emperor’s Swans,” the stories of unknowing “are a distillation of something else, a vagueness made precise” (59).

I think it is a bold choice to incorporate animal characters in story. One wrong move and you’ve got Disney. Lydia Millet, in an interview, has said that losing the subject of animals in our work impoverishes our imagination. There is no such lack in Rutschman’s imagination. Reading stories about talking sows, donkeys, chickens, a dead dog, swans, white tigers, horses… What is the difference between us and these animals, between people as complex, interesting characters and our nonhuman mooing and braying counterparts? Nothing.

There is a video from 1981 of a young Stevie Nicks getting her makeup done for a photo shoot and spontaneously breaking into a song as a piano and drum pound out accompaniment. Nicks and an off camera singer launch into the chorus again and again. It is a magical convergence of youth and beauty and talent; a slide eye to a world where we remain on the other side looking in with terrible longing. I’ve watched the video again and again: a breeze is blowing through an open window, Nicks is blonde and tan, the song is irresistible, and everything that I ever wanted in life is in the arch of her eyebrow, in the pause as she sings, “how to start”?

Road Trip started with a car crash, with a book of photographs of abandoned Midwestern farm places and a collection of photographs by the nineteenth century photographer Charles Van Schaik taken in the city of Black River Falls, Wisconsin. The images cast a spell, for the writer, to enter the story I’m telling and for the reader, I hope, to act as a sort of counterpoint to the text, sometimes reflecting the story, sometimes opening up another version.

It started with a red-headed ghost with a bottomless purse, a Casper the Friendly Ghost stuffed doll, and a direction toward death: “One day him, the next day her. Everyday, somebody. Someday, everybody.”

It started with a writing friend telling me that I was writing a ghost story. I think there is a version of boldness between writers that is manifested in the work together. What I will say about that is from Allen Ginsberg: “Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord.”

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David Rutschman, on Aspects of Scale

What’s the size of Lynette D’Amico’s Road Trip?

6 x 9 x 1/4 inches. 77 pages. 153 grams.

No, but what’s the size, like the scale? Like how big is the story?

Time: The Stark family stories go way back, to 1891, but much of the action takes place in what feels like the present. The book was published in 2015, so let’s call it 124 years. (2015-1891=124.)

That’s not what I’m asking . . .

Space: There’s a lot of driving around here — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois. Pinkie drives out to Colorado. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of miles for sure.

That’s not what I mean and you know it. Like what’s the actual scale of it as a literary work?

Road Trip has two complex, developed characters, and an ocean of other characters who drift in and out, trailing their own complex stories. It has a dynamic confounding central love-hate relationship that grinds and bothers and gets under the skin. It carries the weight of its ancestors, carries its ghosts. It’s a haunted book – a book about being haunted, by family, by death, by longing and anger and love. I’d say it’s a small book that weighs a lot. Is that what you were asking?

Yeah. A book that weighs a lot. That’s exactly what I wanted. Does it weigh as much as an elephant?

Maybe so. Definitely as much as a car.

What’s the size of Joseph Scapellato’s Big Lonesome?

5 5/16 x 8 x 1/2 inches. 180 pages. 166 grams.

You know that’s not what I mean. How big is it?

Time: Many of the stories in the book’s opening section (“Old West”) take place in a sort of mythic time, a schoolkid’s Wild West that never really existed. So they’re outside of time in one way, although the particular mythology they’re playing around with is certainly historically bound: the phrase “manifest destiny” seems to have been used for the first time in 1845.

On the other hand, most of the stories in the book’s final section (“Post West”) take place in the present, a contemporary moment where the myths are more fractured.

So let’s say this book is set between 1845 and 2017: 172 years long.

You’re being a smart-ass . . .

Space: The stories here all take place in the West and Midwest. I looked at a map, and the distance from El Paso to Chicago is 1,508 miles. So maybe about 1,500 miles north to south, and 2,000 east to west. Does that answer your question?

Of course it doesn’t. How big is this book? What’s its actual size as a work of art?

It’s focused — the West (including the Southwest and Midwest), the cowboy, the masculine myth. It’s not a book that sprawls. All the stories circle the same profound American concerns: individualism, masculinity, violence, fear. Maybe one way to say it is that this book isn’t wide, but it’s deep.

Like a well?

Like a well, yeah. Or a mineshaft.

What’s the size of Into Terrible Light?

5 1/2 x 7 1/2 x 3/5 inches. 199 pages. 249 grams.

Always with the jokes. What’s the size of it?

Time: A lot of the stories are in the present. One important set of very short pieces happens in 1979. Some of them are in mythic time.

But . . .

Space: The realistic stories are mainly American — Chicago, New Mexico, California — with one set of very short pieces set in Buenos Aires. (I lived a few hours outside of Buenos Aires as a kid: moved there from Uruguay, where I was born, when I was still a baby.) The fabulist stories are set somewhere else, although I’m not sure where exactly that somewhere else is. Chicago to Buenos Aires is 5,596 miles.

Listen, buddy, I’ve had about enough. How big is this book?

There are a lot of stories here — 39 of them — and a wide range of voices and concerns. A lot of modes and tones. In some moods, I think it’s like a kaleidoscope.

Isn’t that a lot to ask of a reader?

It’s a lot to ask of a reader.

Why should someone bother?

It’s bigger on the inside.

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Lynette D’Amico, on Aspects of Scale

One must go beyond logic in order to experience what is large in what is small. (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space)

This past November it never occurred to me, sipping champagne with friends and watching the election returns on TV, that we would wake up to a different world. We were the hogs in David Rutschman’s “The Hogs, The Sow, The Wind,” who were brought food every morning until the old man who cares for them dies. “It had never occurred to any of them that one day there might not be food” (11). It had never occurred to me and my friends that truth and tolerance would not win out, or that millions of Americans would not share our value for experience, intellect, and leadership; that Donald Trump, a failed con man, second generation racist, and self-proclaimed sexual predator would be elected president. When the food doesn’t come, the hogs are shocked and perplexed, then angry, hungry, scared. I know how they feel.

With food, everything else had clicked into place: the sky and pen, the grunting of the other pigs, the wheel of days and seasons. But without food, all the familiar objects of their life became unrecognizable … Without food, the ground disappeared, and there was only falling, or a feeling like falling. (12)

By elevating the infinitesimal to the infinite and the infinite back again to the infinitesimal, the scale of the story is redefined. The contained, controlled, predictable pig pen stands in for the universe. Change one factor, and order disintegrates into disorder, rules are broken, fairness becomes a dream, a joke; truth is realized to be the inevitability of death. Following an escape from a pig pen or the morning after a devastating national election, we wake up to remake our world again.

Personifying an inanimate element — the wind — with animate characteristics is another way of changing the scale of a story. The constancy of the blowing wind, “something that had been hunger, and something that had been terror” (15), continues to blow even after the surviving hog is out of the pen and no longer hungry. It blows grief and shame and guilt. “Sometimes it was a gentle wind…sometimes it was so furious… (22). As time passes, the wind shifts and becomes larger, expansive. “The wind was all the hogs who might have been…the potential hogs (23). The wind sang the song of all the hogs who’d ever been and might have been” (24). The wind was more vast than destiny, than time, and as time passes the wind shrinks again to follow the hog’s last breath.

One of my favorite stories in Rutschman’s collection that operates the opposite of Russian nesting dolls and introduces timelessness in 67 words is the diminutive “Tree, Bird, Spoon.” Instead of discovering smaller and smaller mirrored elements within the story, the story opens and opens, into “the endless hot bright afternoons” (32).

In addition to narrative structure, animating the inanimate, and nesting elements, setting can change the scale of a story. In Scapellato’s story “Snake Canyon,” the physical setting moves a story about friendship and life choices between grad school friends into a consideration of who lives and who dies. There is the evocative title of the story, “Snake Canyon,” which foreshadows the snakebite to come. There is the “road without a name” (94), the lack of road signs, the abandoned housing development “skeletons of homes” (94). Here is the approach to the canyon:

The car took the steep bend toward it, juddering — the development vanished; on one side, the rise of sheer rock and broken ridges, and on the other, the open desert bristling in heat and haze all the way to the horizon. … Fat bugs spattered the windshield. They passed smashed animals, the buzzards that slow-flapped into flight away from the bodies, and the entrance to a private drive, its black gate shut. (95)

Where are the characters B. and Y. going as civilization disappears from view and the landscape becomes increasingly hostile, insects die, buzzards fly, and black gates allow no entrance? To hell? Or at least to an encounter with the limits of friendship and mortality.

States of disassociation in story — fugue states, trance, drinking, drugging, going “beyond logic” — can redefine scale in story. There’s a lot of that going on among Scapellato’s characters.

The hard-luck cowboy in “Thataway” is high for weeks on end, “cooking himself into something slow and wooden, something proofed against surprise” (13). The influence of mind-altering chemicals allows for the reader’s acceptance of the grotesque brown boy, “made of sticks and sludge…his mouth an oily pulsing hole” (21). In “Driving in the Early Dark, Ted Falls Asleep,” Ted is driving with his girlfriend from Arizona to Chicago and trying to stay awake. The story is grounded on the highway, Ted is driving in near hallucinatory exhaustion, thinking of his brother’s wedding, his former job, the death of a friend, anticipating breaking up with his girlfriend — his whole life behind and ahead of him.

In writing from another era, as I attempted in Road Trip, it is possible to redefine the scale of a story. To write from a time period not my own, from the perspective of a Minnesota farm family from 1891, is to discover the possibility of the continuity of the past in the present.

Like states of disassociation in story, the introduction of unreal elements, such as the butterhead doll, can also shift the scale of a story: from unreal to real or at least to casting doubt on unreality. There is permission for readers to disbelieve — she’s made out of butter and cheese, her teeth are sharp pointy nails, but she’s oozing in the hot sun — an example of a vivid detail that entices or repulses readers to suspend disbelief.

Finally, that Road Trip is queer in subject and form affects the scale of the story. For those of us who have struggled to name ourselves in our families, and our communities, and in our work, we distort boundaries in our writing to distort what is familiar or seems “normal” in an effort to make space for ourselves and to expand the very scale of what a story can be.

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Joseph Scapellato, on Aspects of Scale

Road Trip is teeming with “small-scale” moments that glide, ghost-like, into “large-scale” moments, revealing this novella’s characters’ doomed longing. Here’s one of those moments, when Myra is recalling the peak of a previous relationship:

We stopped at a bar for a nightcap. We saw everybody we knew there. We could feel that everybody thought we looked good together. We looked good together. And we should have stopped right there. That moment of getting off on everybody looking at us together. Her knee pressed against my knee, her body curved toward me. Everything opening to some future that was already happening between us. Where nothing happened. (20)

In this passage, we’re grounded in the tactile — in the characters’ bodies, which are touching — but by springing off of this, D’Amico takes us into the distinctly non-tactile: an imagined non-future, a “nothing” that Myra knows she can’t have.

At another point in the novella, after describing the day-to-day strain of her job as a social worker, Myra turns inward:

I used to wish that I had my own chair. A chair in my mind. It was my chair. Not a fancy, insubstantial stick chair. Not a too soft, too big, cushy chair that I couldn’t climb out of. Just a chair. Mine. I could go sit in my chair and be quiet. (16)

This peaceful, timeless, beyond-scale space — “a chair in my mind” — is the zone that every event in Road Trip prevents Myra from entering.

In Into Terrible Light, Rutschman uses “small-scale” narratives to punch through to “large-scale” concerns, often accomplishing this through his extraordinary command of short form fiction. But he also makes this move in his more “realistic” stories, where certain characters, presented with the finite, glimpse the infinite.

In “Baby,” a man named Billy, who hasn’t yet told his daughters that he’s been diagnosed with cancer, goes for a walk in a park and spots an abandoned baby. He attends to this baby, and while doing so, has a vision:

Billy looks hard at the baby’s face, and as he looks the face seems to shift in some fashion, to reconstitute itself within his gaze, and Billy has the feeling that he is looking at the face of an old man, a tiny old man, no teeth. It’s a funny feeling, a reversal. Billy is older than this baby, but this old man is older than Billy, and Billy wonders if there’s an old man inside his face that is even older than the old man staring at him from inside the baby, and he almost sees, or almost feels, the succession of old men in each of them. His father is there, and his grandfather, and the father and grandfather of the baby. […] This baby is an early version of something like Billy Harper, just as Billy Harper is an older version of something like this baby — so the cancer in him is just a later version of the cancer-pattern in this baby, the latent cancer, the cancer not yet developed. The series of men in him greet the series of men in the baby, and the cancers in him, the succession of various cancers in him, greet the cancers in the baby. (193-94)

What appear to be discrete static facts (Billy, the baby, Billy’s cancer) explode into a multiplicity of dynamic truths. This moment is a kind of involuntary meditation, one that annihilates Billy’s sense of scale.

Sometimes, the bigger the subject, the shorter the story. For me, this was the case with “The Veteran.” As with some of the other stories in Big Lonesome, I used folktale conventions (characters named by their roles, quick leaps in time, phrases that function as structural refrains) in an attempt to condense a big subject into a small space. My goal was to write about one particular veteran, and at the same time, the idea of a veteran. Here’s the opening:

The soldier was told, Go home.

He went home. On the way he became a veteran.

At home the veteran found sameness. This sameness was the same sameness he’d known before he’d left home for the base the base for the war. Only now, the sameness no longer fit him. He tried to make the sameness fit him by tugging and squeezing it. He tried to fit the sameness by tensing and relaxing himself. Family, friends, girlfriends, and strangers tried to help him by declaring that the sameness fit him just fine, that he fit the sameness just fine, or by admitting that neither fit the other, not yet, and that if they could help, or help him help himself, please, let them know, tell them when or where or how. (115)

I tried to honor the “large-scale” invisible mystery of the veteran’s state of being (his inability to fit with the sameness) through visible “small-scale” actions (tugging the sameness, squeezing the sameness). My hope was that this combination might be specific enough for readers to imagine the veteran as an individual, but broad enough for readers to imagine the veteran as a destabilized representative of an archetype.

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Lynette D’Amico, on Estrangement

In Eudora Welty’s “The Wide Net,” the character William Wallace Jamieson finds a note from his young pregnant wife Hazel that she has left him to drown herself in the river. William and a group of locals drag the river to recover Hazel’s body. As the group readys the net, William stands on the bank of the river and says,

What is the name of this river?’… there was a mystery in the name of the river they all knew so well, the same as if it were some great far torrent of waves that dashes through the mountains somewhere and almost as if it were a river in some dream. (176)

This is the river William Wallace had known all his life and it is a mystery and a dream; something unknown and new.

Flannery O’Connor maintained that “the greater the story’s strain on credulity, the more convincing the properties in it have to be.” Stories that incorporate both real and unreal components, utilize techniques and elements of estrangement, that employ distortion, can arrive at an authentic sense of something strange and truthful.

For example, juxtaposing fantastical and realistic elements in a story is one way to introduce estrangement. David Rutschman’s “The New Bear” perfectly illustrates this approach. A cigarette-smoking crusty old-timer circus bear talks to a green newcomer at the circus. It’s a circus, they’re dancing bears in tutus that itch. The kid confesses to the old-timer, “I don’t know how to dance” and the pro responds “Of course you don’t know how to dance…You’re a bear” (79). Get it? Bears don’t dance, the old bear reminds the youngster — and us — but we go right along because Rutschman has set up the strange so well with the familiar.

Another example: in Joseph Scapellato’s “Cowboy Good Stuff’s Four True Loves,” a story that tracks a cowboy’s relationship to music through his life where he sings doors open and sings dogs to easy death, and then finally meeting his own death listening to his last love, a radio. Concrete details such as “…all the punchers pushed the herd the hell away from there, dust churning up in banks, cowdogs barking, the sun hanging high,” (26) aid readers to go along with the more unrealistic components of the story.

In the same way, the emotional details of a story that bucks against realism must also be true to the author’s fictional world. Again, in “Cowboy Good Stuff’s Four True Loves,” singing the “nowhere dogs” to death feels authentic to the experience of encountering stray dogs anywhere: “he’d knead their necks and ears, their boils and sores and burrs, and the dogs, unfeeling even in their rawest wounds, turned their bodies to invite still more” (32).

Estrangement is also achieved by defamiliarizing the familiar. Scapellato’s “It Meant There Would Be More” is a familiar breakup story in which the narrator, Angelo, is tripled “behind myself and upon myself and beyond myself” (119). Angelo’s three selves note omens — fallen ceiling tiles, broken keys, car crashes — that may or may not be leading him to back to an old girlfriend. These odd shifts and turns among his three selves distract and intrigue and keep us interested in a well-worn premise.

In the essay “Engineering Impossible Architectures,” from The Writer’s Notebook II, Craft Essays from Tin House, Karen Russell says, “When doing something weird, you can trust your reader to make adjustments if you hit the ground running” (211). This is a practice Rutschman uses in story after story. Here’s the first line of “Poor, Lonely Donkey”: “The donkey waits at O’Hare for a connecting flight, pacing the long, brightly lit airport terminals, their smooth floors. He stares at people” (74). No long-winded windup, just a donkey walking around the airport, waiting for a plane. Like with “The New Bear,” from the first line, we trust these nonhuman characters. We’re good to go wherever the author leads us.

When writing Road Trip, I often used photographs to enter the story. The use of images and photos is another way to distort narrative by embedding strangeness into the structure of the text. Although the images in Road Trip are fiction, and often don’t correspond to the time period of the Starks’ story line, they are intended as a way to save the dead.

Defamiliarizing the familiar was part of my own practice in Road Trip. What is more conventional than the buddy road trip trope? Two friends in a car going somewhere and along the way stuff happens. The notion of the road trip immediately inspires a sense of the unknown. Travel removes us from the known to the unknown.

Road Trip was often an uncomfortable book to write, but I was writing about the uncomfortable and complicated relationship between Pinkie and Myra and I wanted to put that discomfort on the page. Myra says about her relationship with Pinkie, “Being too close to her was likely to infect me” (25). My intention is that readers succumb to that infection.

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Joseph Scapellato, on Estrangement

D’Amico artfully unfolds Myra’s layers of existential alienation, especially her estrangement from other people (her best friend, her lovers, her clients) and from herself (her unachievable desire to quietly sit in the chair in her mind). But what I find most impressive is the way in which estrangement has been woven into the structure of the narrative itself — the novella’s commitment, in form, to enacting Myra’s state of being “stuck on the line”:

You know how a comic book has text and pictures in boxes and the boxes are made out of lines? That’s what it’s like. I’m in one box with one set of words and images and then I jump to the next box — different pictures, different text — but it’s the same story. When I land on a line, I’m not in one box or the other. I’m stuck until I get unstuck. (21)

The reader is not just told about this state; with skillful use of voice, language, and structure, the reader is made to feel this state. The more conventional narrative elements (character, plot, conflict, theme) are all in service to this effect. This is the principle that animates the novella, that gives it ghostly power. And the reward for the reader is perfectly captured in the narrator’s own words:

I liked the surprise of coming back to myself, of thinking back to whatever had happened, whatever I’d experienced, coming to me in flashes like a scene caught in the corner of your eye as you drive past a lighted window in a house on a dark road. You are already past, and the image forms in front of you.

There can be beauty, this novella demonstrates, in this form of self-estrangement.

Rutschman portrays characters who stumble into depths they didn’t know they had, as in “Hog, Sow, Wind,” or into depths they didn’t know reality had, as in “Baby.” But Rutschman also manages to playfully and productively estrange the reader — to challenge the way we’re imagining the story.

In “Poor, Lonely Donkey,” a donkey wanders an airport, waiting for a flight that’s more and more delayed. Although he exhibits human behaviors — drinking coffee, admiring how marvelously sexy everyone in the airport is — he’s described as having hooves. One would presume, then, that in the world of this story, the donkey looks like a donkey.

Near the end of the story, this question of donkeyness is addressed, but not in an expected way:

He really is a donkey. In some way, for as long as he can remember, he’s known. The miracle of it — donkey born to human parents, donkey assuming human form. Many people in his life have not recognized this important fact, have not seen clearly, and even he, often, for long stretches, years at a time, has been able to deny his essential donkeyness, but now, today in this sex airport, he feels himself swelling towards a real understanding. There are so many ways to say this. In the beginning was the donkey, donkey made of song, of mud and dung and sunlight. What was his name then, before there were names? Old Donkey, First Donkey, Donkey Okay (beautiful and thin, going at those windmills.)

He watches the crowd in the airport. He has never been so happy. (99)

As he does in so many other stories, Rutschman delivers the reader to a gratifying greater mystery. The physical question of the donkey’s nature, we’re shown, is nowhere near as vital as the metaphysical question of the donkey’s nature — a question we can learn from.

When I was getting close to my first complete draft of Big Lonesome — when I needed a few more stories — I was living in Chicago. One night, I went to dinner at my parents’ house in the suburbs, in Western Springs, where I’d grown up. I poked around on the bookshelves and came across Western Springs: A Centennial History of the Village, 1886-1986. I read it.

I was amazed and ashamed by all of the things I didn’t know about my hometown. I felt profoundly estranged not only from what I had thought of as my hometown identity, but from the desire to know about my hometown that, for some strange reason, I hadn’t had until right then.

Why hadn’t I known that I should want to know about where I was from?

This is where the story “We Try to Find the Spring in Spring Rock Park in Western Springs, Illinois” comes from. I tried to write a story about communal estrangement — a plural narrator wanting to know the built-over plowed-under force-faded history of the land he/she/they is on, of the attempt to touch that history, to re-experience it through retelling it:

We try to find the spring in Spring Rock Park in Western Springs, Illinois and we can’t. We can’t remember. We can’t remember where it isn’t anymore.

We stomp out of Spring Rock Park and we cross the train tracks where we’re not supposed to cross and we pass the new train station made to look like the old train station and we get right up to the Western Springs Water Tower. The first floor of the Western Springs Water Tower houses the Western Springs Historical Society, we remember. We knock on the door and we try to open it and it’s locked — we all try one at a time, once — and we try the windows, all of them, all of them locked. We cup our faces to peek through the windows: inside it’s dark, the darkness looking thick and poured. Outside where we are it’s summer afternoon, linked ponds of light, earthy-cool islands of shade. We sit in the grass of the Western Springs Water Tower Green in the Western Springs Water Tower’s bending bridge of shadow. We sit in an arrangement that would like to be a circle. We’re thirsty. (139)

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David Rutschman, on Estrangement

Synonyms for estrangement, according to Merriam-Webster: alienation, disaffection, disgruntlement, souring. Souring — I love that one. As a reader, I’m drawn to work that dynamically pulls me in and pushes me away, that moves me from distance to intimacy — or from intimacy to breathtaking intimacy — and then back out in the other direction. Work that sweetens, work that sours.

Lynette D’Amico’s Road Trip alternates 1st person and 3rd person sections. A careful reader figures out pretty easily that the 1st person voice is that of Myra Stark, whose old family stories are told in the 3rd person sections. But “pretty easily” is not “very easily” and I note a quality of estrangement in the way D’Amico never makes it explicit that it’s Myra speaking in the 1st person sections. I admire her restraint there — a more obvious writer, a more tentative writer, a writer less committed to exploring the possibilities of estrangement, would have done something awful like: “’Well, Myra,’ Pinkie said, turning toward me . . .”

Aren’t you glad she didn’t do that?

I note too a quality of estrangement — of souring, of pushing away — in the book’s complex central relationship. Myra and Pinkie are friends, yes, but not in a simple or clear-cut way. Over the years, their friendship has thickened into something heavier and more tangled, dirtier, angrier, more marked by resentment and irritation. As Myra says in the book’s crucial opening passage, “I didn’t know how to escape our friendship any more than I knew how to escape my own family.”

So if that’s what pushes away, what draws a reader in? For me, it’s the qualities of this narrative voice more than anything — its intelligence, humor, music. Push and pull. I’d follow that voice anywhere.

I find a quality of estrangement in Joseph Scapellato’s willingness to chase down and bring into language emotions that are confusing, difficult, vague, hard to explain. As in this passage, from “The Veteran:”

At home the veteran found sameness. This sameness was the same sameness he’d known before he’d left home for the base and the base for the war. Only now, the sameness no longer fit him. He tried to make the sameness fit him by tugging and squeezing it. He tried to fit the sameness by tensing and relaxing himself. (115)

The characters in both the fabulist and realistic stories in The Big Lonesome wrestle with feelings that are out on the edge of what they can put into words, and part of the thrill of the reading experience, for me, comes from Scapellato’s careful attention to their struggle.

The sentences themselves, too, especially in the fabulist pieces, simultaneously push me away with their density and pull me in with their clarity and wildness. Like this one, from “Horseman Cowboy:”

Refined reformer woman, principled and accomplished, scalpel-faced, sitting in the sitting room of her sober mansion, she says to horseman cowboy in a letter-to-the-editor voice, “Taught, you shall teach the multitude of needy others.” (5)

Sentences like this keep me at arm’s length for a few moments as my mind takes the time to unwind and track them. There’s the distancing effect of the flattened, cartoon-like images. But they’re also mesmerizing, engaging, hypnotic in their sound, their glorious rhythms and music. They reward re-reading, and reading out loud.

Finally, this book, on each of its pages, estranges in that it makes strange, taking the familiar, well-worn image of the cowboy — standing there in the saloon’s doorway, dust on his boots and hat — and insisting that I look with fresh eyes.

Here, in its entirety, is “The Emperor’s Kitchen,” from Into Terrible Light:

I’m the baker’s assistant, but I got plans.

And the baker’s getting old. (79)

I wasn’t thinking about estrangement when I wrote this one, of course, but looking at it now, I can sure imagine a reader feeling pushed away. It doesn’t give you much, does it? Just these two lines, the faintest hint of a voice and a story. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I can imagine a reader thinking, a particular kind of reader.

On the other hand, I think of my work — even “The Emperor’s Kitchen” — as tender, I really do. I’m interested in genuine emotion, in human connection and closeness and vulnerability, and for me, at least, and maybe the kind of reader who’d be willing to ride with me on a story this tiny, there actually is enough in that baker’s assistant’s two sentences. Reading the story — is it a story? — again now, it seems to me that there’s a whole world there, a whole way of being.

Maybe another way to think about estrangement is to think about difficulty. As I reflect on it, I think that every writer I’ve ever loved, from Aesop to Dogen, from Robinson Jeffers to Angela Carter, is difficult in some way. Clarice Lispector is difficult. Julio Cortazar, Doris Lessing, Isaac Babel. Even Tillie Olsen. Even Tolstoy. I literally can’t think of a single writer I’ve ever been impacted by who doesn’t have some quality in their work that scrapes back against me.

I just looked it up. 1000 grit sandpaper has an average particle diameter of 10.3 micrometers. 24 grit has an average particle diameter of 708.

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Road Trip
by Lynette D’Amico
Twelve Winters Press, 2015
96 pp., $12.00 paper

Into Terrible Light
by David Rutschman
Forklift Books, 2017
222 pp., $16.95 paper

The Big Lonesome
by Joseph Scapellato
Mariner Books, 2017
192 pp., $13.95 paper


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