The Quiet Power of Small-Town Stories:
An Interview with Margo Orlando Littell

by Karin Cecile Davidson

 

Photo credit: Kathryn Huang

Margo Orlando Littell’s debut novel, “Each Vagabond by Name,” is an Appalachian tale of longing and loss, belonging and isolation, desperation and deliverance. Its characters confess the truth of life in the small coalmining town of Shelk, Pennsylvania, their simple, hardworking existence threatened by a band of thieves who have pitched camp in the nearby hills. Zaccariah Ramsy, Vietnam veteran and local bar owner, and Stella Vale, librarian and Ramsy’s once-and-eventual lover, establish the novel’s tone as townspeople who remain outside the spoken and unspoken rules of what it is to belong and not belong. Their histories are rich and tragic, which sets them apart and allows them to see their world from inside and out. Winner of the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize, “Each Vagabond by Name” reaches beyond small-town boundaries by way of careful observation, winding through an autumn of fear into a harsh, reactive winter and a spring of slow acceptance.

It was an ordinary fall until the gypsies came. Leaves changed, fell, and clogged the curbside gutters. Crackling footsteps approached and receded, and the blue sky took Ramsy’s breath when he glimpsed it through his bar’s small window. –Margo Orlando Littell

KARIN CECILE DAVIDSON: Zaccariah Ramsy, a remarkable, intense character, leads us through the novel. He is complex, yet uncomplicated, a true realist who views the world in clearly drawn lines and resists the emotional shadows that fall around those lines. Tell us about his origins, about how you came to discover him and to decide that he would be the one to reveal this story.
 

MARGO ORLANDO LITTELL: I like your phrasing: “how you came to discover him.” That’s what it felt like, as I set out to create this story. It felt like Ramsy was already fully formed. He was born from a bit of restaurant gossip I heard when I waited tables in southwestern Pennsylvania in 1999. I’d go out after my shifts with the other servers to the kind of isolated bars where people would set their tips in front of them and drink until the bills were gone. One of these nights I heard about another bar, where the bartender came in one day with a missing eye—a gruesome development that, it seems, surprised no one. That image—a man for whom losing an eye was an expected, unsurprising thing—stuck with me, and he eventually became Ramsy. His reticence, his moral clarity, and his gruff insistence of keeping his distance from others were characteristics that were there from the beginning, things I knew about him from the moment I put his name on the page. It felt like nothing less than conjuring him whole. Figuring out where and how he lost his eye, and what that loss meant to him, are elements I then consciously created and tweaked.  

The very earliest scratchings of this work had Stella as the main narrative voice, but it quickly became Ramsy’s story. I knew that he was the character best able to see Shelk. Stella’s heartbreak was interesting and her role in reshaping Shelk critical, but the depth of her grief threatened to overshadow the forward movement of the outsiders’ interactions with the town and Ramsy. With Ramsy at the helm, Stella’s handling of her grief is communicated as unusual but necessary, part of a world where extreme grief and trauma lead people to take part in rituals that others may find grotesque. Having Ramsy reveal the story ensured that Stella and her endless hope would generate sympathy instead of suspicion.   

DAVIDSON: Place is beautifully developed in “Each Vagabond by Name,” and the hardscrabble, sheer, painstaking presence of the mountains of western Pennsylvania allow the dimension and climate and perspective needed for this kind of tale. Isolation and sweeping views, lives spent in coal mines and diners, black coffee and bottles of beer, the sad blaze of fall and the harsh crack of winter—all of this is Shelk. Ann Pancake, Jennifer Haigh, and Ron Rash have also created Appalachian worlds. Margo, what brought you to your portrayal of this world?
 

LITTELL: I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, 50 miles south of Pittsburgh, in a former coal-and-coke boomtown that once was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country. Now the town is crumbling. Turreted, once-splendid brick mansions on the main street can be purchased, if you find ruin romantic, for under $20K. My hometown isn’t as isolated as Shelk, but its economic struggles and its location in the gorgeous Appalachian foothills certainly informed my fictional setting. I’ve lived in many places—cities on both coasts, the Midwest, Europe—but I don’t know any other place as well as this.

The grittiness of my part of the world was something I’d always yearned to escape. And once I did, for graduate school in NYC, I was surprised to discover that the only worthwhile bits I wrote were those that took place back home. I needed distance from that world, and that landscape, to finally see the stories. It also took time to set aside my reflexive big-city condescension and probe further into the small-town quirkiness that made good cocktail party conversation. I had a lot of firsthand knowledge of southwestern Pennsylvania, but I needed to open myself up to a deeper understanding.

What fascinates me most about this area is the very strong sense of deep-rooted community—multiple generations living their entire lives in one place. Everyone knows everyone. This is comforting and supportive if you’re a native, but it also creates a kind of natural barrier to entry—outsiders lack the right connections. Their relatives didn’t shop at my grandparents’ corner store in the 1970s. Their faces don’t appear in old yearbooks. Even if they make a place for themselves in the community, they stand out because they’re not from there. Having grown up feeling like part of this place, I now realize that I may never again feel that level of belonging anywhere else I live. I’ll always be someone who came from somewhere else. I have a strong sense of being an outsider, because I know so well what it’s like to be a generations-deep insider.

That’s all to say that I’m compelled to write about places where the divide between insiders and outsiders is acute, and where the moral code is clear—even if this version of moral clarity leads to Trump banners waving outside decrepit mobile homes, to an innate preference for anyone who “shoots from the hip” and eschews liberal, urban sensibilities. The moral code is different in the Appalachian foothills than it is, say, in the suburban New Jersey town where I now live. In some ways, it’s clearer. Once I began to understand this, and even admire it, “Vagabond” came alive.

What also fascinates me is that the moral code sometimes collapses in towns like Shelk, becoming incomprehensible even to insiders. During a recent visit to my hometown, I had the opportunity to visit my childhood home, where I lived until I was 8—and it was devastating. The warm, cozy duplex my parents rented for the first eleven years of their married life had been desecrated. Holes in the ceiling, garbage piled high in the closets, hypodermic needles in the attic, indescribable filth. The renters who had just been evicted had been so furious that they stuffed pieces of raw meat into cracks in the walls before they left. It’s almost impossible to imagine what kind of life took place there. The Appalachian world is full of contrasts like this—strong family and community bonds alongside a kind of lawlessness.

Every time I visit southwestern Pennsylvania, I find new heartache as well as new inspiration. It’s a beautiful, troubled, soulful place.

‘Not a person in this town hasn’t lost something.’ –Ramsy in “Each Vagabond by Name” –Margo Orlando Littell

DAVIDSON: Loss is realized in devastating, rare, and unimaginable ways. Especially by Ramsy and Stella. Ramsy has lost the sight of one eye during the Vietnam War and, through his own emotional avoidance, the chance to experience fatherhood. Stella’s loss of her baby daughter years earlier has colored her character with unrelenting grief and a thin thread of hope. How do their experiences create a space for recognizing and understanding loss in ways unavailable to the others living in Shelk?
 

LITTELL: Shelk has a harsh landscape and is an economic dead zone, guaranteeing that loss and struggle are part of daily life. Still, locals carry on with the kind of resilience required in a remote small town. The arrival of the thieves is upsetting, and Shelkians are enraged by the brazen thefts, but deep down they never doubt that the group will move on eventually. These are pragmatic people, but a kind of optimism is in them, too. Ramsy and Stella don’t share this reflexive tendency to make the best of things. Their losses are different, beyond jobs and marriages and personal possessions. Ramsy can’t overcome his botched attempt to be a good husband and father; his failure to do the right, strong thing has wrecked something in him. Stella’s loss of her daughter has set her entire life off course—as it would—and in her version of contentment, her grief is nestled right alongside her. Their lives have gone on, but they’re shadowed.

This shadowed state unsettles other Shelkians. There’s a moment when Ramsy, referring to the loss of her daughter, tells Stella, “No one expects you to get over something like this,” and Stella responds, “Good. Because I never will.” I think Ramsy isn’t quite right here. The men and women of Shelk do expect Stella to “get over it”—because getting over things and getting on with life is just what people do. When Stella chooses, instead, to keep her grief with her like an infant on her chest, and to maintain a wild hope that absolutely no one comprehends, she makes people uneasy, frightened. “You never try to make me see the bright side,” Stella says to Ramsy, and I think this is what gives both of these characters their unique perspective on and understanding of loss. Some things you just don’t get over. Grief and regret can become your breath. Someone like Ramsy knows that the outsiders won’t just move on and leave Shelk intact.

He searched for silver in the cupboards, stamps and coins in the closets, jewelry in the dressers. There were a few crystal wineglasses on the top shelf in the kitchen, but they wouldn’t survive a trip in his canvas sack. He found an engagement ring in a bowl on the bureau, as he suspected he might, the pregnant woman’s finger grown too fat to wear it. Modest, but not nothing, set in a thick gold band. He took a handful of cufflinks and a man’s leather-strapped watch, and then he went into the children’s room. –Margo Orlando Littell

DAVIDSON: Structure and perspective are closely tied, as every chapter begins with a robbery from the thief’s viewpoint, each incident occurring in moments, elevating the tension, giving the narrative an unsettled tone, and providing a glimpse of “the gypsies”—as the townspeople of Shelk call them. These scenes are followed by Ramsy’s realistic take on this world, his version of the story. Themes of belonging and not belonging weave through the novel’s structure and standpoints, and Ramsy, like the lost, wayward thieves, offers a sense of not belonging, though he has lived in Shelk for decades. Would you tell us about these themes in relation to the book’s architecture and the diverging views of its characters? What creates this “inside/outside” sense of belonging and not belonging, and how does this change as the novel develops?
 

LITTELL: The locals’ homes are the heart of Shelk, offering sanctuary from the demands of daily life and the harsh winter. They’re the safest place on earth for Shelkians—they’re sacred. So it was critical that I show those homes being breached by the thieves. I needed to do more than just talk about a theft after the fact, when the victims are enraged; I had to show the collision of insider and outsider—which, usually, happens quietly. The thief slipping in, rustling in drawers, sneaking out. One of them is so stealthy he doesn’t even wake an old woman who’s sleeping. By allowing readers to actually go into the homes with the thieves, I wanted to convey a sense of violation—opening up Shelkians’ most intimate spaces for observation, evaluation, and judgment. No one—thieves, nor readers—is supposed to be inside those rooms.

The home invasions contribute explicitly to the theme of yearning/searching for a home, a place to belong. Which is, of course, at the heart of “Vagabond.” Ramsy understands the anger—his home, too, is robbed—but because he comes to know one of the thieves, his reaction is more complex. This puts him at odds with the local men, but it’s not the only reason he remains on the outside of Shelk. Town rituals are so important here—specifically, the pigeon shoot and the spaghetti dinner—and Ramsy chooses not to participate. He watches the shoot but doesn’t take part. He doesn’t go to the dinner, just hears about it after the fact. In many ways he doesn’t contribute to the Shelk community at all—he literally separates himself from it, standing behind his bar. He violates the norms. He doesn’t make an effort. His insistence on an arm’s-length relationship with others ensures he’ll never be an insider no matter how long he lives in Shelk.

What finally gives Ramsy an opening into Shelk is, strangely, the thieves. By aligning himself with them and challenging the men, he’s intimately involved in the violence that unfolds—but he also helps lead the locals to a place of greater acceptance and open-mindedness. The thieves force Ramsy out of himself, which, prior to their arrival, only Stella had been able to do. Stella, too, is able to move toward a greater sense of belonging thanks to the thieves. When, at the end, Stella and Ramsy finally decide to emerge from Stella’s home and join the public life of Shelk, we see a true shift in their outsider status. Without the thieves and their extreme outsider-ness, Ramsy and Stella would never have achieved such an evolution.     

The tangle of what belonged to whom and who belonged where had shaken itself out and fallen into a new kind of order. –Margo Orlando Littelll

DAVIDSON: What might you share about the process of discovery in writing “Each Vagabond by Name,” especially the elements that surprised you? Tell us about your experiences of working with the students of the UNO Publishing Lab and at the pre-release of the novel at the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans.
 

LITTELL: Building Stella’s story, and the evolution of her hope, brought the most surprises when I was writing. I never expected the loss of her daughter and her relentless search for answers and peace to become such driving forces in the novel. But a lot changed during this novel’s creation. I wrote the very earliest drafts of it long before I had children, and at that time the kidnapping and search were simply gruesome pieces of Stella’s history. All of that took on new texture, depth, and significance for me when my second daughter was born and I was actively expanding “Vagabond” from a novella into a full-length work. I wrote a lot of Stella’s scenes while my baby was sleeping in a carrier on my chest, and it was unsettling to dive deep into Stella’s grief while my own child breathed and slept that close to me. Discovering new elements of her story this way was something I hadn’t anticipated.

I was also surprised by how desperately I wanted Stella to have a happy ending. She became so real during the writing process. I couldn’t bear the fact that I was hurting her so much, taking so much away.

Finding the UNO Publishing Lab and UNO Press was the happy conclusion to a long, heartbreaking journey to publication for this novel. One of the goals of the Publishing Lab Prize is to give graduate students hands-on experience selecting, editing, and publishing a novel. For the writer who wins such a contest, this setup immediately raises the terrifying, overwhelming specter of being pummeled by conflicting editorial suggestions from fifteen people. I’m happy to say that this was not at all the case. The edits made and requested were cohesive and smart, and I was thrilled—after so many years—to have thoughtful people engaged with making the work the best it could be.

The pre-release in New Orleans was such great fun. This was the novel’s debut, its first public appearance, and the first sight of my book out there in the flesh is something I’ll never forget. And it was a thrill to meet the students and editors who’d brought the story into the world.

They’d found bags full of bright, torn wrapping paper and ribbons, wax-dripped candles, and festive colored envelopes. The pastel papers from baby showers. Stella found a whole bag full of half-deflated balloons, which a breeze lifted out of the bag and scattered, bouncing, all over the highway, their colored strings trailing like second thoughts behind them.” –Margo Orlando Littell

DAVIDSON: The past, the future. Ramsy in Vietnam, then rediscovering his daughter, Liza, grown with a family of her own. Stella losing her baby, Lucy, yet always searching for her and eventually for peace. Lives intersect with lists of items lost, stolen, given, thrown away, found, collected, delivered, relinquished. The thieves’ pillowcases and rucksacks heaving with silver and coins, jewelry and cash; Stella’s search along the highway through trash bags, abandoned and tossed; Ramsy’s shoebox of things collected by Stella, trinkets and tokens of others’ lives, in the end swaddled in Lucy’s blanket. While there is enormous distrust, despair, fear, and even rage that comes of things taken and lives disturbed and changed, the town of Shelk begins to offer itself to hope, love, and acceptance. Might you compare this fictional scenario to the present social and political climate in our country and in the world at present? And from the experience of examining lives through your characters, will you extend and broaden this challenge toward your next project?
 

LITTELL: In many ways, this novel is about a small-town apocalypse brought about by unchecked xenophobia. The Shelk locals’ fear and anger leads inevitably to violent consequences—which they realize, too late, they hadn’t really wanted or intended. Extending this idea to the present day is unsettling. The novel seems so prescient and relevant that it could almost be read as allegory.

What’s interesting to me is that I wrote this novel long before Syrian refugees were daily news, before Trump began his political rumblings, before border walls and extreme vetting for immigrants were part of the national conversation; the original version of this story dates back to the early 2000s. But small-town clannishness, the urge to protect one’s own people, and the threat of the unfamiliar are timeless subjects. Some stories, for better or worse, don’t change. The fact that “Vagabond” aligns with current politics so alarmingly highlights the universality of Shelk’s reckoning and also suggests that the story is no longer wholly mine. The way it interacts with the world it finds itself in, and the way readers will interpret it, are not in my control. It’s not easy letting my novel stand on its own this way, after being only mine for so many years, but it’s all part of sending a book into the world.

My next project deals again with outsiders and insiders, but more internally than “Vagabond.” My main character has spent her life denying her troubled past and shunning where she came from, and she ultimately finds that the only place she really belongs is the one that knows the worst of her. It’s a character-driven story about reinvention, regret, and unexpected community, set in an Appalachian backwater struggling to accept new ideas about change and forward movement. I’m in revision mode, and much will change, but what I know for certain is this: small-town stories are quiet but powerful. We brush them aside at our peril.

 

Karin_Cecile_Davidson
Karin Cecile Davidson, Interviews Editor