Vincent Scarpa has a BFA in fiction writing from Emerson College. His fiction has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Baltimore Review, and Plain China: Best of Undergraduate Writing 2011. He is the 2012 recipient of the Norman Mailer College Fiction Award.
Ian Sanquist: What do you feel is your responsibility as a writer of fiction?
Vincent Scarpa: Well I see you’re easing into the hard questions. If I have a responsibility—and I’m not totally convinced that I do—I think it has everything to do with telling the truth. Which is a pretty vague charge. But I do think that can be considered the primary duty of fiction writers: to tell unequivocal truths about the way we are and the things we want and don’t want.
Ian: How do you go about uncovering those truths?
Vincent: Pam Painter, whose class I was lucky to take at Emerson, called it “stalking life.” (She may have appropriated that from someone else, of course, but I attribute it to her.) Just keeping your eyes peeled. I think I go through periods of data gathering where my internal antenna is up and I’m listening and watching and thinking and then when I feel like I have enough, I just shut it down.
Ian: Tell me about your methods of gathering data.
Vincent: Well, there’s a lot of eavesdropping, but it also comes organically in meeting new people, meeting strangers. I was on a flight to Boston earlier this year, and gave a cigarette to a woman outside the airport that ended up being seated right next to me. I’d overheard her yelling on her cell phone outside, presumably to a husband/boyfriend/significant other, and she was just totally fucking frazzled by the time we boarded. I mean, crying, mascara down her face. She was having a shit day. After takeoff, she turns to me, totally out of the blue, and says, “My boyfriend—he couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if there were instructions on the heel. What he knows about women couldn’t fill a thimble.” And, because I listened to her story for the entire three hour flight, even though Country Strong was the in-flight movie, I felt like I could probably borrow some of her life for a story. So I ended up modeling a character in one of my stories after her. The story takes place in airport. And I lifted that pour-piss-out-of-a-boot line, because it was golden.
Ian: Do you take notes while you’re out? How do your stories develop?
Vincent: The only notes I take when I’m away from a computer are for stories I’m already working on or at least thinking about. I usually enter them in a note on my iPhone. A lot of first sentences in there, or just some concepts to play around with. “Daughter goes to bereavement camp; breaks arms.” Stuff like that. As far as how they develop, I’m not really sure. In pieces, certainly. I’ll think about them in the car. Talk some things out to myself. The thing I have a lot of difficulty with—which, if I can overcome it, means I’ll write and finish the story—is figuring out motivation. I can think of some pretty clever concept that certainly could warrant a story, but it’s the figuring out why that takes some time. But once I understand why a character would want to do this strange or cruel or beautiful or terrible thing that I’ve come up with, that’s when I really feel like I can get to work.
Ian: So what came first when you were writing the story “I Hope You’re Wrong About Scottsdale”? [read Vincent’s Norman Mailer Four-Year College Fiction Writing Award-winning short story here]
Vincent: The first line. I can’t remember where or why I thought it, but I wrote it down and worked from there. And, for the most part, the rest followed pretty easily.
Ian: How long did that story take you to complete?
Vincent: About a week or so. It was for a workshop deadline, which will light a fire under your ass.
Ian: Did you put it through much revision?
Vincent: None, except for a singular word choice. I used the word “palimpsest” and the class agreed that, though the narrator was emotionally intelligent, she didn’t seem like the kind of person to use a word like that. So I changed it to “sketch,” which I like better anyway.
Ian: Sketch is a good substitute. More evocative, I think.
Vincent: Definitely. I think I just liked the idea of saying “palimpsest.” I’ll get it in somewhere.
Ian: Use it for hangman.
Vincent: Terrific idea. My guy will live to die another day. What a terrifying game we teach to our children. I mean, how grim is that? It’s saying, Here’s this guy whose life depends on your vocabulary!
Ian: Lives have been ended over lesser miscommunications.
Vincent: So silly. Someone needs to update that for the next generation.
Ian: To what, lethal injection man?
Vincent: I’m starting to think this is an untapped well for the GOP: start ascribing nationalist narratives to children’s games. Make the man being hung an evil terrorist from a place you couldn’t point out on a map. Although doesn’t that incentivize losing?
How interesting that the government would institute a practice that would result in a loss.
Ian: What do they call it, mutually assured destruction? They could call the game MAD Man.
Vincent: Whatever they call it, it isn’t “hot load of bullshit.” It’s not what’s written on the tin.
Ian: So, you won the Norman Mailer College Fiction Award for your story “Scottsdale.” Can you tell us about that?
Vincent: Sure. Well, as I mentioned, I wrote that in my final workshop at Emerson. It was well-received and I thought it was a pretty strong story, so I submitted it to their annual contest. They called to tell me they chose my story in August, which was about four months after I had completely forgotten that I’d entered. So, it was a shock and an honor and lots of other words.
Ian: Had you been planning to submit a story to that contest?
Vincent: No, actually, I hadn’t heard of it until right about that time. Submissions were still open, so I figured, what the hell.
Ian: Smart choice.
Vincent: Yeah, I’m glad. My self-confidence was unusually buoyed for a few weeks there.
Ian: Tell us about how the story, “Dead Reckoning,” which is appearing in the first issue of Swarm, came to be.
Vincent: So, about five years ago, my father’s house actually did burn down, as the protagonist’s house does in the story. And I knew I’d probably end up writing about it eventually, because it’s such a crazy thing to have happen. And the town in the story is very much like the one I grew up in. Lots of gossipy neighbors, city politics. Frank isn’t my father, though, and most of what happens in the story is of my own invention. But the general premise was ripped from my own experience.
Ian: How important is location to you in fiction?
Vincent: Oh, it’s crucial. Dorothy Allison has a great essay called “Place” in The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays From Tin House that will explain it far lovelier than I can manage, but place is what grounds your reader. More than character, more than plot. Knowing where we are in a story is instant pathos, and I get really frustrated if I’m reading a story and two, three, four pages in, I still have no sense of where in the world this is taking place.
Ian: Do you ever write stories set in locations you’ve never visited?
Vincent: More often than not, yes. For the first eighteen years of my life, I’d only really been to the tri-state area and Florida. I’ve only been out of the country on cruise excursions. So, it’s necessary. But I do a ton of research about the places—read the local paper, look at Google Maps, look at Yelp reviews of the local bars.
Ian: Do you have a preference in terms of climate for where you set your stories?
Vincent: Not that I’ve noticed, no. I imagine if I was writing something longer, it’d have to be set in a place that experiences four seasons.
Ian: We’ve spoken often about movies. How has film influenced the way you write fiction?
Vincent: Well, you watch a Noah Baumbach movie, or a Nicole Holofcener movie, or a Tarantino movie, and you have a great lesson in dialogue. And they can also be great character studies. Especially if it’s a small cast with a very prominent lead. Sometimes that means two full hours with a character, and that’s powerful.
Ian: I’m curious if there are any lessons from watching movies that you feel you’ve applied especially to your writing.
Vincent: Friends With Money is a film that I really love; it’s this sort of character study of four profoundly unhappy women, all of whom are terribly unlikable. And yet, you love them, you know them, you are all them. I think movies like that—Leaving Las Vegas is another—just gave me permission to write about tremendously flawed people. I never felt like I had to worry about whether or not my character was “likable,” and that’s in large part a response to these movies.
Ian: Right. I’m curious, also, if you were watching these heavy, heady films before reading the authors that have been influential to you?
Vincent: Absolutely. Way before. I watched a lot of movies.
Ian: What are some of the authors that have been influential to you?
Vincent: Let me look at my bookshelf! Amy Hempel. Joy Williams. Ann Beattie. That’s my trifecta. But so many more, like: Joan Didion. Lorrie Moore. Harold Brodkey. Kafka. Richard Yates. Joyce Carol Oates. Grace Paley. Alice Munro. Laura van den Berg.
Ian: Tell me what you like about some of the writers you named.
Vincent: They’re all so different, but they end up on the list because I like what they do with language. That’s a reduction, of course, but it’s true. Specifically, though? I love Hempel’s first sentences. I’m crazy about Joy Williams’s plots. Ann Beattie’s dialogue. Didion’s insight. Moore’s humanity and attention to detail. Brodkey’s young narrators, especially the one in “The State of Grace.”
Ian: And what was your earliest literary influence?
Vincent: Sylvia Plath. Isn’t everyone’s?
Ian: I’m not sure, I’ve managed to avoid reading her thus far.
Vincent: Criminal that you haven’t read Plath. Criminal.
Ian: Do you linger at bus stations for pleasure?
Vincent: There are no bus stations in my town. It’s pretty tiny. Plus, I can drive.
Ian: Some pretty down-and-out people at bus stations. You could probably find some good dirty realist stories there if you went looking.
Vincent: My entire town is down-and-out. I can just go to the mall. Or Wawa.
Ian: If you had a monkey, a wolf, a bear, and a flea, which one would you write a fable about and why?
Vincent: I’d pick the one that’s most often around humans, so my fable could be really heavy-handed. So, flea. It would just be this flea that annotates a marriage.
Ian: Has anyone you know ever recognized his or herself, or perceived his or herself, in one of your stories?
Vincent: Not that I can remember, no. Which means they aren’t reading closely.
Ian: Have you ever given a character that wasn’t at all based on a person that person’s name, then showed them the story?
Vincent: Oh, wait, I have to amend that answer. I just asked, yes, someone has.
Ian: Do tell.
Vincent: Ha! I’m afraid she’ll read this. But she’s right. And in response to your second question, I’ve never done that, no.
Ian: You should try it sometime.
Vincent: I have a friend named Bakara, who is also a writer, and I’d love to use her name.
Ian: Do you think it would be possible to separate this fictitious Bakara that you would create from the actual Bakara that you know? On that note, how important is a character’s name to you?
Vincent: Probably not. I love Bakara, so I’d probably write a story where nothing bad happens to her, and who wants to read that. Names can be very important to me, but that’s usually not the case. I’m not particularly attached to any of my character names. Though, when I workshopped “Dead Reckoning,” the story that’s in Swarm, someone mentioned that Frank is also an adjective meaning open and honest, especially when dealing with unpalatable matters. Which was unintentional, but has a certain resonance, I think.
Ian: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
Vincent: The best book I read this year was NW by Zadie Smith, and the best movie I saw was Beasts of the Southern Wild. You should buy both.
Ian: Thanks for talking with us, Vincent.
Vincent: Sure thing!
Vincent’s story, “Dead Reckoning,” will appear in Swarm’s Winter 2013 inaugural issue.