We're always happy to shine a little spotlight on small press books, especially when it's a debut! So I was thrilled when Margo reached out about her upcoming novel Each Vagabond By Name, because it's both!
In this essay, Margo shares how her novel came into being and the role small town gossip played in the process.
My Novel’s Debt to Small-Town Gossip
Over the past ten years, I’ve mined the landscape and atmosphere of my hometown in southwestern Pennsylvania to craft my novel, Each Vagabond By Name. This part of the world has always inspired me—the rootedness of the people, the common context of multiple generations who live, and will continue to live, in one place. But my novel also owes a debt to small-town gossip—the strange bits of everyday life that become stories told during weekly phone calls to former locals like me who now live far away.
At the heart of my novel are young, itinerant runaways who arrive in a remote coal-mining town and begin robbing homes, introducing dangerous tension between those who belong and those who don’t—and raising the question of how “belonging” should be defined. In my book, the local townspeople call the outsiders “gypsies,” and the xenophobia inherent in that term is key to establishing the context in which my characters’ story plays out.
The characters and events in my novel are pure fiction. However, in the early 2000s, itinerant thieves really did arrive in my hometown and commit a series of home invasions. My main characters, Ramsy and Stella, had existed well before I learned about these thieves, and they’d spent a long time meandering through ponderous scenes that contained little energy or purpose. I finished my MFA with these characters still languishing aimlessly in a tale that didn’t feel fully formed. Only when I introduced the thieves into my novel—initially as an atmospheric extra, not a crucial plot element—did Ramsy and Stella’s story crack open. Without these outsiders, there would be no novel.
I remember when I first learned about the “gypsies.” I’d been living in New York City for several years, and though I’d grown up in a remote small town, the city fit me like a second skin. I loved everything about New York—the culture and splendor, of course, but mostly the quotidian rhythms of subway-riding and sidewalk-pounding and the fabulous difficulty of everyday tasks like laundry and grocery shopping. I was deep into the infatuation that makes living in a city like New York worthwhile.
Also exquisite was hearing the news from home, which I got weekly on the phone with my mother. The small-town dramas I’d long taken for granted assumed startling new color when I considered them from a self-satisfied urban distance, and the quirks from my hometown often made good cocktail-party conversation. And so when my mother told me about a group of gypsies who had arrived in town and had been robbing local homes, I listened with great interest.
They weren’t “real” gypsies, my mother admitted when I questioned her, but that’s what people were calling them. They slipped into homes and took cash and jewelry while their friends distracted the homeowners with requests for water or use of the phone. There was fear; there was anger. Not a lot of new people made their way into my town, and this group had arrived and upended the status quo.
I found the whole episode so compelling that I put the thieves into the novel I was writing. It was an ordinary fall until the gypsies came, I wrote, and suddenly Ramsy and Stella had reason to live and breathe for three hundred pages as their involvement with and compassion for the outsiders set them apart from their neighbors.
I wrote that line over a decade ago. Though my novel has been rewritten and revised more times than I can count, that line never changed. Years into the work on my book, I did some research into the thefts, and I found a few newspaper articles that reinforced the ideas that had struck me so long ago. The thieves were described as “foreign-looking” and “foreign-sounding”; the authorities were certain that the crimes were “the work of outsiders.” There, in black and white, was the fear that had put my story in motion.
It took many years for the gossip my mother recounted on the phone to become the richer material that nourished my novel. After all, no good story can be based on a quirky anecdote the writer views with condescension or contempt—and for a long time that was me, failing to recognize the truth in all that small-town weirdness. It took time to understand that I had to look beyond it. The outsiders in my novel are criminals, and the locals do fear them; but over these many years I came to see there was so much more to it than crime, than fear. In those examinations, I found the story I was meant to tell.
|photo by Kathryn Huang|
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, two daughters, and a collection of card catalogs. The winner of the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize, Each Vagabond By Name is her debut novel. Margo blogs at www.margoorlandolittell.com, and you can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.
Each Vagabond By Name will launch on June 1 and is available now for preorder.