Haunted by Her Hometown: An Interview with Margo Orlando Littell

littellInterview by Eva Langston

Margo Orlando Littell’s debut novel Each Vagabond by Name is steeped in its setting: a small coal-mining town much like the one where Littell lived until she was eighteen years old.

The book opens with a band of young travelers who have arrived in the quiet town of Shelk, Pennsylvania, and are robbing homes in broad daylight. Though each chapter begins with a detailed description of another theft, the story really belongs to Zaccariah Ramsy, the local one-eyed bartender, and his former lover, librarian Stella Vale. Ramsy forms a precarious friendship with one of the so-called gypsies, and Stella believes that her long-lost daughter might be among these strangers who are now hiding out in the hills. As tensions rise between the residents of Shelk and the newcomers, Ramsy and Stella must decide where their loyalties lie and whether they will take this opportunity to make change in their lonely lives.

Each Vagabond by Name is the winner of the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize and winner of a Gold Medal for Regional Fiction (Mid-Atlantic) in the 2017 IPPY Awards. Bustle named the book one of “15 Great Appalachian Novels that Reflect the Unique Culture of the Region.” Each Vagabond by Name was published by UNO Press in May 2016.

In the following interview, Littell talks about how the novel came to be and why her writing continues to be haunted by her hometown. You can read an excerpt from the novel here.

You say Each Vagabond by Name was inspired by a series of home invasions in southwestern Pennsylvania in the early 2000s, committed by thieves that people called “gypsies.” What made you want to write about this?

I didn’t set out to write about itinerant thieves. When I began this novel, I was living in New York City, writing about two characters—Ramsy and Stella—who’d appeared to me more or less whole. They were so alive, so vibrant, but I couldn’t get their story right. Draft after draft, they meandered along on the page, not doing much to interest anyone.

Then, one day, I heard about the gypsies during a phone call with my mother, who lived in my hometown in southwestern Pennsylvania. She told me thieves had arrived in town and were using creative lies to distract homeowners, then sneaking inside to steal money and jewelry. These gypsies and their intrusion into my hometown stuck with me. Not long after this, while working on my novel one day, I imagined Ramsy at his mountain bar, looking out at the blazing maples, and I thought about his quiet life, the quiet life of his remote coal-mining town, and I knew I needed to turn that world upside down. It was an ordinary fall until the gypsies came. I wrote, and my novel was born.

So how much of the real events did you use in the novel?

I didn’t use many specifics from actual events for my novel. The strategies these thieves used to gain entrance to homes—such as asking a homeowner for a glass of water while another thief slipped in a back door—were drawn from real life, but that’s all. More pertinent to my story was the pervasive fear and anger, and the reflexive labeling of these thieves as “gypsies” simply because they were outsiders and strangers.

Each chapter of the novel begins with a short vignette from the perspective of one of the thieves as they rob a home. How did you decide on the intimate specifics of each home?

I spent the first eighteen years of my life in a town much like Shelk, and the homes I saw during my childhood, as well as the many glimpses of strangers’ lives I stole through lighted windows, inspired these intimate settings. I’ve always been fascinated by other people’s homes—their version of comfort, what they surround themselves with, the tchotchkes that have so much meaning, or none at all. There is virtually no emphasis on design or Pottery Barn-style decor in these homes. They’re utterly modest but also personal, warm, and inviting. My upbringing helped me define the general atmosphere of these homes, and I got a lot of ideas for specifics from looking at real estate listings from small towns. The photos generally aren’t staged at all, and people’s intimate lives are on full display. I find them absolutely compelling.

How is your hometown similar to the town of Shelk in the novel?

My hometown, Connellsville, is a former coal-and-coke boomtown that once was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country. The old mansions are still standing, barely, most split haphazardly into rentals, many for sale by owner for under twenty thousand dollars. Some have become actively deteriorating safety hazards and are slated for demolition. There’s a lot of former glory in Connellsville, a lot of faded grandeur.

Shelk, the town in my novel, is in Pennsylvania coal country, too, but it’s never had a moment in the sun. It’s much smaller, more remote, and more destitute. The economic struggles are similar to my hometown’s, but, in general, Shelk is a great deal rougher around the edges.

The specific aspect of my hometown that inspired the creation of Shelk is the sense of community and continuity—people spending their entire lives in one place, with little desire (or means) to leave. When your roots are that deep, you’re rewarded with a kind of insider-ness that no one else can ever acquire. People who weren’t born there but who’ve lived the bulk of their adult lives there are still outsiders in many ways, an idea that was key to developing both Shelk and Ramsy.

You say that growing up in southwestern Pennsylvania has inspired nearly all of your fiction, even though you haven’t lived there since you were eighteen. Why do you think this place has made such a lasting impact on you?

A piece of conventional writing wisdom I’ve heard is that all writers have one story they write over and over again. Different characters, different details, same heart. In my case, this is true; everything I’ve ever written has at its core a leave-taking. Many, many people in small towns like mine never leave, and staying is the expected thing. The fact that I was encouraged to leave, and did, has given me a different perspective on home.

My view of southwestern Pennsylvania has changed so radically over the years, and the further away from it I get, the more I seem to understand it, and the more interesting to me it becomes. At eighteen, and even more so in my early twenties when I was living in New York, I saw my hometown as a cultural no man’s land, unrefined and unremarkable. I didn’t meet a lot of coal-country natives in Manhattan, and the details I selected to share—such as the fact that the first day of deer-hunting season is a school holiday—were exotic, almost incomprehensible against that urban backdrop. The quirkier the story, the better for cocktail-party conversation.

But that changed. What had seemed staid and colorless slowly took on new texture and depth. The ruin of the old downtown, the poverty rate, the perverse glare of the new Walmart—all of it became less of a personal affront and took on the shape of a real place, with real people. My fascination with the people who spend their entire lives in one place—that specific place—took root and never faded. I can’t imagine knowing another place well enough to see inside it. I wasn’t getting anywhere with my work all those years I pushed it away. My novel came alive only when I claimed that place as mine.

Your characters Ramsy and Stella end up caring deeply for some of the “gypsies,” and overall the novel portrays the thieves as good people—kids, really—despite the fact that they are robbing people who don’t have much to steal. Can you speak a little bit to this?

The kids are committing crimes. That’s clear. They’re robbing homes and, in some cases, lashing out violently. But I wanted to convey that the locals’ fear and anger had as much to do with the crimes as with the outsider-ness of the thieves. These strangers have upended Shelk’s status quo, and they’ve also given the locals a glimpse of a freer, more unencumbered way of life. The transience isn’t enviable, but the wider world isn’t something Shelk locals often consider—and this makes them uncomfortable. I think many of the men in Ramsy’s bar would have reacted with similar fear and anger to these outsiders even if no crimes had been committed. All that matters is their belief that these strangers don’t belong in Shelk.

My goal in framing the thieves this way was to spread out the culpability for the violence that ultimately transpires—to make the blame murky and unpleasant. The thieves are guilty for breaking the law, to which the locals reasonably object, but the locals are, in the end, even more guilty for allowing their xenophobia to barrel ahead unchecked. The thieves’ bounty is trivial—a little cash, some old jewelry—but the locals, by taking up their guns and shedding their own basic humanity, ultimately lose everything.

What made you decide to publish with a small press, and UNO Press specifically?

What a stroke of luck to find UNO Press. Vagabond had a twisty path to publication, with many near-misses from the big houses and contests, and too much heartbreak over the years to recount. Last year I entered it in UNO Press’s inaugural Publishing Lab Prize contest, and it won. They did such a wonderful job with the book—smart editing, lovely cover, lots of enthusiasm. I never expected my southwestern Pennsylvania novel to find its right home in New Orleans, but I’m so grateful for a happy ending to its publication journey.

What has been your experience in trying to market your book and find readers?

In December, I was thrilled to see that Each Vagabond by Name made the Long List for The Tournament of Books from The Morning News, and it was named one of the Top Reads of 2016 from The Next Best Book Club. It’s gratifying to know that readers have responded to it so positively. In general, though, marketing and promoting a small-press book, let alone a literary novel from a first-time author, is hard. It’s a partnership with the press, definitely, and I’ve tried to be as proactive as I can with finding possible reviewers, writing guest blog posts, arranging local events, and keeping up with my own blog. A lot of it is out of my control, such as whether a big publication like Publishers Weekly or Kirkus chooses to review the book, and this can be frustrating. Word of mouth is key. There are a lot of books out there, and personal recommendations are so important.

What are some novels that have inspired you? What is your favorite piece of writing advice?

Bits and pieces from so many wonderful books have played a role in shaping my work: the grotesque in books like Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; the heartbreaking and brutal insider’s view of Appalachia in Ann Pancake’s Given Ground; Hemingway’s commitment to keeping so much beneath the surface. I love Jennifer Haigh’s Baker Towers, Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. The books I love the most almost always deal with small towns and family secrets.

My favorite writing advice is to write every day, to make it a habit. Waiting for inspiration is a luxury most writers can’t afford, especially those like me who have young kids. I’ve found that the writing muscle is one that responds to routine. I also try to remember that you can’t get to a good second draft until you muddle through an abysmal first one. Put words on the page. That’s the only way to free yourself from a messy, ridiculous scene or chapter.

Do you have plans for another full-length novel?

Right now I’m revising a new novel, also set in southwestern Pennsylvania. This one also focuses on a departure from and return to a small town, with blighted rental properties at the heart of my protagonist’s story. I’m hoping to nail down a strong new draft within six months.

About the Author

Margo Orlando Littell grew up in a coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. She earned an MFA from Columbia and has spent the past fifteen years in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Barcelona, Sacramento, and, now, northern New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. Each Vagabond by Name, her first novel, won a Gold Medal for Regional Fiction (Mid-Atlantic) in the 2017 IPPY Awards and was long-listed for the 2017 Tournament of Books. Read more at margoorlandolittell.com.

About Eva Langston

Eva Langston is the features editor at Compose. She received her MFA from the University of New Orleans in 2009, the same year she won 3rd place in the annual Playboy Fiction Contest. Her work has since been published in many literary journals, and she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011. Recently Eva obtained representation from Conville & Walsh for a middle-grade novel, but she enjoys writing adult fiction as well. She is a regular contributor to Carve Magazine’s blog and the Burlesque Press Variety Show, and she blogs (sometimes quite personally!) about writing at inthegardenofeva.com. In addition to writing, she is also a math curriculum consultant and an ESL Skype tutor for Ukranians.

Eva Langston

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