Sunday, April 2, 2017

#AuthoReadeR Discussion with Margo Orlando Littell

Back in October, TNBBC had the opportunity to host a week long discussion with Margo Orlando Littell about her novel Each Vagabond By Name

During that week, we discussed the setting of the book, the placement of the thief-vignettes, and whether Margo would be weary of vagabonds irl or take them them and feed them like her protags did.

This is the week long conversation, in its entirety:

TNBBCWelcome Margo! I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to be able to host you and your novel here, within the group. I remember thinking as I was reading it "I need to get this book into everyone's hands!" I fell in love with your writing style immediately.

My first question is....

Did you attempt to pitch the big 5 publishers before settling in with a small press? If so, what were their responses? If not, what made you decide to shop directly with small press? 

Margo Orlando Little: Hello everyone! I’m so excited to spend the week discussing all things Vagabond. A HUGE thank-you to Lori for selecting my book! Let the discussion begin…
Each Vagabond by Name’s path into the world has been long, twisty, and heartbreaking (until now, of course). In 2004, I thought Ramsy and Stella’s story was complete as a novella, about 100 pages, which formed part of my MFA thesis. Years later, I mentioned the novella in passing while pitching a different work to an agent, and she asked to see it--then agreed to take me on as a client if I expanded it into a full-length novel. She shopped Vagabond to the big five, and many other houses as well, but it never found a home--the consensus seemed to be that it was too quiet, and too dark. Then the agent left the industry. Since no agent wants to take on a work that’s already been shopped around, my novel was essentially an orphan. But I still believed that there was a home out there for my story, and I began entering it in contests and pitching small presses on my own. I came close as a finalist a handful of times, and then finally got a yes from UNO Press. 

Tabitha: Hi Margo,

I am so in love with this novel. Here are a few questions for you: 1). did the inspiration for the story come before or after the haunting poem that is the title's namesake?  2). Could you tell us about your decision to center the story around gypsies and transients? ( I love that btw). 3). I think that the pieces where you describe the houses that are robbed from the robbers perspective are so haunting and really capture the essence of what our material possessions say about us. What inspired you to capture that the way that you did?

I still have a bit left to go ( I entered the circle a little late haha) but this is one of my fave reads of the year. Thank you! 

MOL: Thanks for the questions, Tabitha! I'll answer each one in a separate comment.
1). did the inspiration for the story come before or after the haunting poem that is the title's namesake? 
After. Way, way, after. I first read “A Vagabond Song” in 1998, when I was a poetry student at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts--a summer arts program for high school students. I never forgot it, especially my favorite line--“There is something in October sets the gypsy blood astir.” 
Years later, in the early 2000s, I was working on a novella about characters named Ramsy and Stella that just wasn’t coming together at all. It was meandering, pointless, and plotless. I was living in NYC at the time, as far away from my Appalachian hometown in Pennsylvania as you can get, and during a phone call with my mother, she told me that “gypsies” had come to town and had been robbing homes and causing a lot of fear. It was an a-ha moment: my story needed outsiders to barge in and shake things up. From there, my plot came alive, and that poem rushed back to me--haunting, evocative, and exactly the tone I wanted for my book. 
The poem was the final piece of the novel-building puzzle, but I actually can’t imagine my book without it. 
2). Could you tell us about your decision to center the story around gypsies and transients? ( I love that btw).
I’m glad you liked the outsiders. As I was writing, they kind of took over my story. In early versions of Vagabond, the “gypsies” were minor characters--in the background, there for mood-setting more than anything else. But it quickly became clear to me that they were the key to disrupting Ramsy’s isolation--and to giving Stella a new way of dealing with her grief. The gypsies are outsiders, and feared by others, just as Ramsy and Stella are to some extent. They were natural allies for one another, and Ramsy and Stella’s involvement with them is crucial to bringing them together.
Once I understood that connection, centering my story around the itinerant thieves wasn’t so much a decision as a necessity. Their appearance in my novel wasn’t just an aspect of the plot--it was the plot. In a novel that’s gone through more rewrites and revisions and reimaginings than I can possibly count, it’s significant that the first line has never changed: “It was an ordinary fall until the gypsies came.” They’re the spine of my story. 
3). I think that the pieces where you describe the houses that are robbed from the robbers perspective are so haunting and really capture the essence of what our material possessions say about us. What inspired you to capture that the way that you did?
I’ve always been intrigued by other people’s homes. As a kid, I had a “spy route” around my neighborhood, and I’d walk around in the evening and try to see in people’s lighted windows. As an adult, I’m the houseguest who peers at the bookshelves and angles for a look at the grocery list on the fridge. The things people believe are important, the things in their homes to which they assign value, are always revealing and usually surprising--in many cases, because they’re so modest and quotidian. The people I write about in Vagabond aren’t at all wealthy; they don’t hire interior decorators to choose and arrange their furniture; they don’t have bonuses to blow on jewelry and gadgets. But I wanted to show that their homes and possessions are valuable in a different way: because they’re familiar and cherished. 
The thieves understand what their small-town victims value, and though they exploit their knowledge to quickly locate heirloom jewelry and money (“People and the things they loved were all the same”), they also envy the homes they invade because they’re warm, comfortable, and safe. In this way, these scenes carry a lot of weight in my novel, enriching the depiction of the Shelk locals as well as the thieves--they’re stealing things, yes, but they’re also young, scared, and hungry. Additionally, by writing scenes where readers can actually go into the homes and be with the thieves as they root through drawers and closets, I was trying to draw readers even more deeply into Shelk. To make them feel at home there. 
Those vignettes, as I call them, were among the final things I wrote. By that point in my novel writing, I knew a lot about Shelk, and I didn’t really want to leave. So I invited myself into the locals’ homes and looked around, becoming a kind of thief myself.  

Rhonda: Hi Margo so happy to have the chance to tell you how much I loved your book. The characters the atmosphere the town itself & other chilling gypsies. My husband & I once lived in a town when gypsies invaded & it was very unnerving.i can still remember the darkness in the air. 

Now to my questions have you started writing your next book? what genre of books do you read.Anything you've read recently that you would recommend. 

MOL: Rhonda, thank you so much! It’s interesting that you mentioned gypsies coming to your former hometown. Now that Vagabond is out in the world, I’ve had so many people tell me their own “gypsy stories.” One woman told me her parents were robbed in exactly the same way as the vignette from chapter one--thieves asking for a glass of water, and then sneaking in. The invasions that inspired my novel happened in the early 2000s in southwestern Pennsylvania, when I was no longer living there--so I didn’t have the firsthand experience of the fear, anger, and unrest. But your remark that it was unnerving echoes what I’ve heard so many times from others. (And it's that feeling I tried to capture in the book.)
Now, on to your questions:
Have you started writing your next book?
I have! I have a draft of a new novel that I’m currently tearing apart in a major rewrite/revision. I won’t say too much about the story, because it’s changing so much right now; but it takes place in southwestern Pennsylvania once again, in a town much like Shelk. I’m not an efficient writer--I tend to draft very quickly, then spend a long time (too long) reworking and reimagining everything. Minor characters take over, the “real” story emerges in the final chapter, and on and on. I’ll get there. I’m working on it every day. For me, habit is key. 
What genre of books do you read. Anything you've read recently that you would recommend.
I read literary fiction almost exclusively, and it’s probably not surprising that I love reading about small towns, family secrets, and domestic unrest. I’m trying to read more small-press novels these days, and more novels set in Appalachia. 
Recently, I was blown away by a collection of stories called Given Ground by Ann Pancake--the kind of book that had me underlining like crazy. Dark, beautiful stories. I enjoy Jennifer Haigh’s work--she writes about southwestern Pennsylvania--and her newest one, Heat and Light, is wonderful. Other books I read recently and loved: My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, As Good As Gone by Larry Watson, and Our Souls at Nightby Kent Haruf. 

Rhonda: Thanks so much, Thanks for new books to add to my list. I loved My Name is Lucy Barton one I am always recommending. The gypsys who invaded our town started showing up at businesses then appeared climbing over the wall of our apartment building .We were hanging out at the pool they climbed over the wall made rude comments & refused to leave. I can still feel the chill in the air one minute a fun day the next minute we were in a danger zone.

Eric: Hi Margo, I absolutely adored Each Vagabond By Name. Thank you for writing such a wonderful book, for pushing onward despite the long road it faced. (I'm very much enjoying hearing about Vagabond's publishing-- and your writing--process.) I'm someone who desperately wants to write a "quiet" book such as this one, and it's both encouraging and a little sad to have my suspicions confirmed about the industry's bias. I would love to know what was behind your decision to create such a story (in a rather holistic manner), and to stick with it in the face of its setbacks; were you simply being true to the story, or was it a personal drive? Ramsy and Stella seem to have been there from the beginning--was their relationship the spark? (And what a relationship, so unique, but utterly true to life.)

I'm curious about your decision to begin each chapter with a theft-vignette--it's the only authorial "intrusion" in an otherwise character-driven, organic book. Could you talk a little about that? I love the distance that it provides, the breathing space, but for such a close, quiet book, it also strikes me as a risky move. 

MOL: Thank you so much, Eric. I can’t even begin to describe how it feels to have this story out in the world at last, with readers connecting to my characters and living for a little while in Shelk.
Your first question:
I would love to know what was behind your decision to create [a quiet] story (in a rather holistic manner), and to stick with it in the face of its setbacks; were you simply being true to the story, or was it a personal drive? Ramsy and Stella seem to have been there from the beginning--was their relationship the spark?
Quiet: it’s a loaded description, isn’t it? I love quiet books; the market does not. I didn’t intentionally set out to write a quiet book (and I’m desperately trying to make my current work in progress a little bit less so). The story of Ramsy and Stella evolved slowly, but many parts of it came to me almost fully formed. For example, Ramsy came to me whole--nothing about him, from his reticence to his missing eye to his love for Stella, changed at all from his first appearance on the page, to the very final pre-publication proofread. Stella also seemed to appear whole from the magical writerly mist. Their storyline changed over the years as the gypsies appeared and I deepened their involvement with them, but in many ways this story had to be what it is and could never have been anything else. 
Ramsy and Stella were never meant for a grand, page-turning adventure, but their halting relationship changed both of their lives in extraordinary ways. To me, that was a compelling, moving. Focusing on small moments that turn lives in unexpected directions is--for better or worse--what I do.
You ask about persevering in the face of setbacks. At one point a few years ago, when I was feeling particularly discouraged about ever publishing this quiet book, my husband said I should think about swapping “vampires” for “gypsies.” It would work, he insisted. And you’d sell it. I wasn’t going to do that, of course, and for a long time I accepted that this book would just be mine alone. I was always working on new things, but I also kept submitting--a contest here, a small press there. I did feel committed to my characters, but tenacity was what kept me seeking a home for the novel. 
Now and then I’d come close; I think Vagabond was a finalist five times in contests offering publication. Always a bridesmaid, etc. Those little nods don’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but they were affirmation that I wasn’t delusional about my novel having merit--quiet as it was. 
I'm curious about your decision to begin each chapter with a theft-vignette--it's the only authorial "intrusion" in an otherwise character-driven, organic book. Could you talk a little about that? I love the distance that it provides, the breathing space, but for such a close, quiet book, it also strikes me as a risky move. 
I agree that this was risky, especially since I worked hard to keep the POV laser-focused on Ramsy. But I needed the vignettes for a very practical reason: I didn’t want the thieves to be wholly damnable. Of course there are JT and Adrienne, who are sympathetic and make connections to Ramsy and Stella. But I wanted all the thieves to elicit readers’ compassion to some extent. I didn’t want to “justify” their actions; but I wanted to show that their victims’ homes were, for these kids, both target and safe haven. The local men are so angry, and I had to have a reason to make those feelings just as morally questionable as the thefts themselves. The vignettes gave me a way to explore the thieves’ feelings and motivations without resorting to hokey dialogue between JT and Ramsy (“Sometimes we sit on the bed and rest when we’re robbing a house…” etc) or relying exclusively on Ramsy’s speculations.
Furthermore, I wanted to pull readers as deep into Shelk as possible--to insert them right into the fear and loss and uneasiness the locals were facing. Actually sending readers into the homes with the thieves was a way for me to do this. Ramsy certainly wasn’t invited into too many people’s homes, so readers in some ways are privy to more intimate spaces in Shelk than he is. The vignettes pull back the curtains, which felt right for the book. In a book full of outsiders, I wanted readers to have an insider’s view. 

Marvin: Hi, Margo. To piggyback some other folks' questions/comments, I really dug the "vignettes" opening each chapter and actually thought they were one of the strongest parts of the book. Kind of as a framing device, I guess, especially as their instances of violence escalated alongside the tension of the main thread of the book as it neared its climax. I will say I was surprised Emilian was identified directly in the penultimate chapter. I found the anonymity of the others intriguing.

I thought Ramsy and Stella were both strong, interesting characters, and in a lot of ways it feels as much her story as his. Despite staying close to Ramsy, my brain somehow keeps tricking me into asking, "Wait, was part of it from Stella's point of view?" How'd you settle on Ramsy as the focal point of the narration? Any earlier drafting/thinking about letting them share the stage, or maybe going first-person with Ramsy? 

MOL: Thanks for the questions, Marvin! I'll address the first comment first
I will say I was surprised Emilian was identified directly in the penultimate chapter. I found the anonymity of the others intriguing.
Indeed, the Emilian vignette stands apart from the anonymity of the others. I named him because I wanted to be clear that the crimes Emilian was committing, in Shelk and elsewhere, were different from the petty thefts of the rest of the thieves. Unlike the wayward kids, Emilian is a true criminal, truly dangerous and capable of violence. The other thieves may lash out when they’re cornered, but not to the extent that Emilian does. 
Additionally, by that chapter, the local men have almost reached a point of no return--so angry, so fearful, and ready to take action. By opening that chapter with a named thief, I wanted to signal that things are escalating fast. The men know who’s to blame, and this is the moment they’ve been waiting for. There’s no moral gray area in this vignette. This is Emilian, he’s guilty, and things are about to get very, very real.
How'd you settle on Ramsy as the focal point of the narration? Any earlier drafting/thinking about letting [Ramsy and Stella] share the stage, or maybe going first-person with Ramsy?
You’re absolutely correct to question this: in very early drafts, I focused on Stella with the same close-third POV I ultimately used with Ramsy. But I ultimately gave the stage to Ramsy. Don’t get me wrong--I love Stella. Fully. But the story simply isn’t hers. I say that because Stella doesn’t fundamentally change over the course of the novel. The way grief affects her life changes, as do the ways she attempts to manage that grief. But--in my mind--there’s never a question that Stella would help a young person in need. She’d never claim that worrying about others was too much trouble. Her tragic past makes her an outsider in Shelk, but she doesn’t hide from the world, and she’s not ashamed to care. 
Ramsy, on the other hand, has consistently and conscientiously cut himself off from meaningful relationships with other people. Liza makes inroads; Stella, in the past, made inroads. But only when JT enters his life does Ramsy truly begin to open up. He changes. He’s a different man after the night on the mountain. Stella is integral to that evolution; but allowing her to share the stage was--ultimately--diluting what I believe is the true story. 
I never considered first person because I don't easily write in first. Close third is my natural style of storytelling. I feel it gives me more opportunity to build the world of the story.  

Tiffany: Hello Margo! Have you thought about evolving the Ramsey and Stella relationship to see where it goes? I am a person who always wants to know more about the relationship main characters have when the "story" is finished. Stella and Randy are so real to me that I often have to remind myself they are not real people. 

Who do you look to for advice when you hit a stumbling block or you just don't know what to do with a character or scene? Who do you see as a role model?

Shelk seemed like the perfect place for the setting of this story. Does Shelk exist is more of your writings? 

MOL: Hello Tiffany, and thanks for the questions! My answers, one by one (after-school craziness has begun; I promise to get to the rest ASAP!):
Have you thought about evolving the Ramsey and Stella relationship to see where it goes? I am a person who always wants to know more about the relationship main characters have when the "story" is finished. Stella and Randy are so real to me that I often have to remind myself they are not real people.
Thanks for saying they feel real to you. They do to me, too. They’re still really, really present in my mind, even now that I’m not actually writing the book anymore. Ramsy, in particular, hovers in my consciousness and will emerge now and then to comment or react--maybe that sounds a little strange; okay, yes, it does sound strange. But there we are.
All that said--there won’t be a sequel. So many people have asked me this question! I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t felt compelled to put anything on the page. I’d be afraid to do it, to be honest. I’d love to return to Shelk and the familiar cadences of Ramsy’s world--but there’s risk in that return. I understand (and share) the desire to read more and more about them--to revel in their new life together and witness their hard-won contentment--but I feel strongly that their story is complete. 
Who do you look to for advice when you hit a stumbling block or you just don't know what to do with a character or scene? Who do you see as a role model?
Ah, yes, stumbling blocks. What happens? Why? Who are these characters, and what do they want? I deal with stumbling blocks and brick walls by writing my way through them. This is effective for me, because bits and pieces emerge in the writing process and open new pathways to explore. The characters will begin speaking for themselves, and I’ll discover things I hadn’t known before. The problem is that this involves writing an alarming number of pages and discarding them when it becomes clear (and it always does) that they have little to do with the story that’s emerging. Still, for me, the only way out is through. The only way to get the story moving is to write it. 
For my work in progress, I’ve just started fiddling around with the character-building techniques in a book called Story Genius by Lisa Cron, and I’ve found her way of thinking about story incredibly insightful. I’m usually not an outliner, but she’s inspiring me to drill down on cause-and-effect within each scene in a detailed way. Will see if this helps cut down on those panicked moments of wondering what in the world should be happening next, and why.
I don’t really have specific role models to help me through difficult writing obstacles. Instead I turn inward, make tons and tons of “What if…” and "Maybe..." notes, and try to find enough quiet in my life to let the characters and story start to speak to me. 
Shelk seemed like the perfect place for the setting of this story. Does Shelk exist is more of your writings? 
Shelk was inspired by my own hometown and the towns near it in southwestern Pennsylvania--closer to West Virginia than Pittsburgh, nestled in amazingly beautiful scenery, filled with so much history. My hometown is such an interesting place--it’s a former coal-and-coke town, at one point home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country. Once-stunning mansions line the main street, but they’re decrepit now, split into rentals, overgrown and neglected. (And some are for sale for under $20K.) I grew up knowing for certain that I’d leave someday, and I did. But I’ve never lost my sense of being rooted to that part of the world. I’ve lived a lot of places, but that’s home. 
This is part of why southwestern Pennsylvania is the setting for almost everything I’ve written. It feels specific to me in a way that other places do not. I’ve lived in cities, in suburbs, in Europe, on the West Coast and the East. But I’ve been unable to write anything set there that felt genuine. There’s always been a persistent vagueness to my attempts. The stories I imagine have Pennsylvania at their heart, and place is as crucial to them as the characters.
Interestingly, I never wrote about southwestern Pennsylvania until I left it. I needed the distance to start seeing it clearly. It’s too easy, as a very young person, to look at a small hometown with condescension and amusement--I needed time to let all of that melt away so I could truly imagine the place, and the people. 
My work in progress is set in a small town much like Shelk. Maybe it’ll turn out to be Shelk, but probably not. Still, I plan to make Shelk a neighboring town if nothing else. That’s my world. 

TNBBC: What a wonderful start to the discussion you guys! I just caught myself up with the conversation.

Margo, It really disheartens me when the big publishers refuse to take a risk on such a subtle and moving novel as this one. I like to think I have a nose for strong literature, and it's sad to see others pass on something as beautiful as this. 

So I have to ask, based on the tenderness that you've written into Stella and Ramsey's relationships with Adrienne and TJ, whether you would act as they have in a similar situation. Are you the type to take a chance helping someone out who could potentially be a risk to you and your community? I find the older I get, the more cynical and untrusting I am. I don't think I could have done what they did, opening their hearts and their homes to them like that. But I adored them both so severely for doing so themselves! 

MOL: I’m with you. Ramsy and Stella faced real risks--expulsion from the community, anger, even violence--but acted according to their belief in what was right. They both trusted their gut, and rooted their actions in unwavering moral fiber. I’m not sure I’d be that strong, or that trusting--of myself or others. It’s hard to imagine Ramsy and Stella’s openness winning out over my own instinctive wariness in a lot of situations. 
Ramsy and Stella's actions seem almost saintly, but I definitely don’t see these characters that way. They were able to recognize something of themselves in the outsiders--and I think that's what sparked the empathy that drove them to help JT and Adrienne so generously. 

Lori: Hi Margo, I was blown away by the character development in your novel. I was instantly drawn in to Ramsey and Stella's story, and I was biting my nails hoping the escalating violence by the gypsies wouldn't touch them, or have the townies reactions backfire like it did with Kitty and JT. Did you at any point consider one of them dying or did you always plan on them having a happy ending together? 

MOL: I never considered killing Ramsy or Stella, and even the earliest versions of the novel had them ending up together. So the struggle wasn’t whether to give them a happy ending--it was how happy to make it. For a long time, my ending was quite subtle--a verbal assurance from Ramsy to Stella that he wouldn’t leave, and him taking her by the hand. That was about as happy as it got. 
But something happened over the years I worked on this story: I truly came to love Ramsy and Stella, and I wanted more happiness and resolution for them--especially for Stella. By the time I decided to write a brand-new ending, I’d been with her for over a decade; I’d had her lose her child, and search for her in a gruesome way; I became a mother twice myself during that decade and couldn’t believe what I was doing to her page after page after page. Honestly, I felt terrible. I wrote a lot of her scenes while I had an infant sleeping in an Ergo on my chest, and it was just eerie and awful to immerse myself in her grief that way. So I wrote an ending where Stella got Lucy back. She deserved it, right? She definitely did. 
It wasn't meant to be. When the book was accepted for publication, and the editors approached the story from a much less sentimental position, they suggested (wisely) that I reconsider. I did, and was happy to do so, knowing (sigh) that it was the right decision for the story. 
I get asked all the time whether the girl at the end is Lucy. I think many readers want the miracle for Stella, just as I did. 

PEG: Hi Margo. You have one hell of a book here!! I loved it. I didn't get online until after work today and I'm afraid most of my questions have been asked and answered. This has been a fascinating thread today and it's only the first day! The depth and excitement in the discussion comes from the the power of your writing and the story. And I loved your comment about your "spy route;" that curiosity and thoughtfulness permeates the book.

I'll ask a couple of questions about you: 1) At what age did you start writing and what did you write? 2) What are your passions in life besides writing?  

MOL: Thanks for the kind words, Peg! 
I’ve been writing as long as I’ve known how to write. I started keeping a diary when I was really little--around five years old--and journaling daily was an important part of my life until I was in my late twenties. I wrote short stories as a kid and teenager. One of my favorite things to do was write spoofs of the “situation stories” from my religion textbooks at school--the kind of hit-you-over-the-head-with-the-moral short stories that were meant to illustrate whatever topic we were studying. They were always followed by a long list of discussion questions: “What should Maureen have done? What would you have done? Do you think that’s the right choice? Why or why not? Explain.” My sendups, too, were followed by elaborate lists of questions. I’m not sure anyone else found them funny, but I thought they were hilarious. 
I love to travel. I was never adventurous enough as a very young person to backpack around the world or anything like that, and I went to a college that didn’t really emphasize studying abroad as an important experience. I was fortunate enough to be able to create my own version of studying abroad when I moved to Spain in 2006. It remains one of the boldest things I’ve ever done: I quit an editing job I loved, sold all my belongings, broke the lease on my apartment, and went to Barcelona. I was accompanying my boyfriend (now husband) who’d decided to attend an international business school. We traveled as much as we could while we were there, and I took some solo trips as well. Insert your standard comments about life-changing experiences here.
What else: reading, of course, is a passion of mine. I also love treasure-hunting at rummage sales--a dime a dozen here in suburban New Jersey. I collect painted portraits of strangers and have created a creepy gallery in my attic stairwell. My favorite is a large oil portrait of an unsmiling young girl wearing a blue headband. I hung this painting at the very top of the attic stairs, and her eyes stare at you as you ascend. She is, frankly, terrifying. 

Ariel: Hi Margo, Thank you for writing this gem of a novel. It's been very informative reading about how Each Vagabond by Name developed and changed over the years. So many great questions and comments already and if I am echoing any of the above, please forgive me. 

I am very curious about how Ramsy and Stella changed as the novel took shape. Was Ramsy always a veteran? This may sound strange, but I loved his backstory. It was, ultimately, so perfect for his character, how he lost his eye and how his shame fostered his isolation. And, as heartbreaking as it was to read about Stella's search for her infant daughter, the details you included (Stella opening every plastic bag along the highway, keeping mementos, leaving them for Ramsy, the way she clearly gave zero fs about what anyone in Shelk thought of her) really gave authenticity to your portrayal of the peculiar nature of grief. Stella is such a survivor. Were you ever tempted to make her more dysfunctional? 

Part of me wanted to know more about the "gypsies". Like many readers, I loved the break-in vignettes. They offered a tantalizing glimpse into what kind of lives these wayward kids lived and how they saw themselves in relation to the small town folk whose lives they were so thoroughly disrupting. At the same time, it was refreshing to have the perspective of "regular" people. You really captured small town life and how it feels to be an outsider in a place where everyone knows your name and your business. As I read your story, I often wondered if you were drawing connections between this "small town mentality" and American attitudes toward the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and issues of immigration and citizenship in the US. 

Thank you for being available for this forum. How wonderful to be able to interact with an author so directly. I look forward to reading your next novel! 

MOL: This is an interesting question, because defining specifically how Ramsy lost his eye is something I did very late in the game. As I’ve mentioned, this story began as a novella, which I expanded into a novel about five years ago. That was hard. The idea of cracking open a story that felt whole and complete was extremely daunting for me--I wasn’t sure where to begin digging in and mining for new material. The first thing I knew I had to do was explain how Ramsy lost his eye, and I knew this backstory had to be key to his way of relating (or not relating) to others. He was always a Vietnam veteran, but when I started thinking about what happened to him, I wanted to consider scenarios that put him in shady moral territory. I knew his war wound couldn’t be caused by a heroic act, or even basic combat--then he’d have no reason to retreat from the world. His injury had to be shameful in some way. 
Hence my decision to link it to his involvement with a prostitute--not because that encounter itself was so shameful but because this is one time in his life that Ramsy actually allowed himself to be hopeful and vulnerable. And he paid a price for that. 
I never wanted Stella to be so dysfunctional that her motivations would become incomprehensible to others. Still, I wanted her to have that history of life-altering desperation--searching in bags much, much longer than it made any sense to do so--and I struggled with making that behavior believable. Grief is powerful, and I felt it was important to show how tragedy affected Stella not just in the immediate aftermath of the kidnapping but throughout the rest of her life. Stella was definitely in crisis when she was immersed in her search, but she was able to drag herself past it and go on with her life. She never fully abandoned her hope of finding Lucy, though, and I think this is what makes her such a compelling character. She manages to live a relatively “normal” life alongside a distinctly unusual, even disturbing, alternate reality in which Lucy may actually reappear at any time. 
I’m a little unnerved by how much this novel reflects current events, because I completed this story in 2012. And yet it’s almost impossible to consider it now without making connections between my outsiders and the many, may people struggling to find a place right now in the U.S.--to the extent that some readers may believe it’s allegorical. I didn’t intend for it to be so, but that happens, doesn’t it? I wrote this book, yes, but it’s in the world now, no longer fully mine, and it’s bumping up against the reality it finds itself in. I may have written it without any notion of connecting my story to broader U.S. issues, but I also can’t deny that this is an absolutely reasonable way of reading it. Those parallels are there.
Some of the rhetoric surrounding us right now seems like it could have jumped right out of Ramsy’s bar.  

Eric: Thanks so much for your answers so far. I'd like to hear you talk a little about conflict, as a writer who clearly has a much deeper and internal sense of the word than, say, most workshops and young writers. I loved hearing you discuss the origin of Vagabond, with just Ramsy and Stella trying to find their way to each other, and then seeing the addition of outsiders as the solution. It's, of course, a classic story (someone new comes to town), but it's perfect, and deft. Would you talk a little more about finding that conflict, or perhaps just rap a little about your philosophy of conflict? Vagabond, perhaps better than any novel I can think of immediately, doesn't pit any extraordinary forces, any radical changes, against its protagonists. Instead it shifts, only slightly, the alignment of the entire cast of characters, and we find their entire world in disarray. That's a truly wonderful move, and I'd love to hear a little more about it. 

MOL: I’m a character-driven writer. I’m intrigued by people, and particularly by the small moments that lead to epiphany. Unfortunately for me, that focus on small moments--gestures, even--can be fatal to telling a good, sound story. And I struggled mightily with conflict when I was working on Vagabond. I had these two characters I adored (who, as I’ve said, arrived in my life more or less whole)--and no clue what they should do. I’d describe my first attempts at Vagabond as “plotless ruminations.” They were moody and had lovely sentences and plenty of atmosphere...but nothing happened. Ramsy and Stella would pine for things, and reflect on things, and even realize important things--but my plot stopped short of actual conflict. 
For Vagabond, the idea that guided me as I shaped the conflict is the very first sentence: “It was an ordinary fall until the gypsies came.” Ramsy and Stella were interesting enough to me that I fell into the trap of going on and on about their ordinary lives--but the conflict, the story, could only begin when things were no longer ordinary. The day after the ordinary day is the important moment that finally got the story moving. All of that plotless ruminating took place before page one. When the outsiders arrived, everything tilted, and, ultimately, everything changed. Tracking how those changes came to be is how I created the plot of Vagabond.
That shifting of my characters’ world is, as you said, slight. But small, isolated Shelk doesn’t need much to be unsettled, and I think this is why the scale of my conflict was able to work. Nothing of any magnitude ever happens in Shelk. People like it that way. They rely on it. And they’re also ill-equipped to handle threat when it arrives. If I created the world of Shelk successfully, then the tremors caused by the outsiders’ arrival, their petty thefts, and their uncomfortable domestic intrusions should feel like great quakes. 
Writing and rewriting Vagabond has taught me more about conflict than any MFA workshop ever did, but I still struggle. In my work in progress, my characters still realize things, and discover things, and I’m working really hard to define and create the conflict that leads to those realizations and discoveries. 

Tabitha: I finally finished! What an amazing novel! Okay, so...just a few more questions for you :)

1. Could you comment on your decision to leave Lucy's fate un-resolved? 2. Any thoughts in the future of revisiting the gypsy/transient motif? 3. I appreciated that the resolution for the novel was equal arts somber and hopeful. Did you consciously strive to make it not too much one or the other?
I truly adored this book. Thank you!  

MOL: I’m so glad you finished the book and enjoyed it! I was hoping my answers wouldn’t give too much away as you continued reading. 

Could you comment on your decision to leave Lucy's fate un-resolved?
Central to Stella’s character--and the novel as whole--is the idea of how a person manages to live with unbearable grief. The loss of Lucy is all the more hideous because it is unresolved; Stella never had the deep comfort and closure of a funeral or other formal ritual of farewell. The closest she comes to any kind of closure is receiving Lucy’s blanket after Seth dies, and even then it’s not 100% certain that Lucy is dead. She probably is, but she might not be. Stella has lived almost all of her adult life with that destabilizing uncertainty. 
Resolving that for Stella would have been somewhat easy to do. The detective in Ohio could have known something; some evidence one way or another could have been discovered in Seth’s house; and Stella could have gone on with her life--never getting over her loss, of course, but with the new possibility that she might one day be able to put it behind her. 
But what purpose would this have served? It was much too neat and tidy. Life isn’t that easy, and as much as I love Stella, I’m afraid her fate as my character was to adapt her entire life to her grief and wild, stubborn hope. The beauty of Stella is that she manages to do this. As Ramsy observes on the final page of the novel--Stella will always wonder maybe… when she encounters girls who would be Lucy’s age. She has to do that. It’s how she survives. Erasing that terrible unknown for her would take away the slanted grace that makes Vagabond what it is.

Any thoughts in the future of revisiting the gypsy/transient motif?
I don’t have plans to revisit these elements directly, but the idea of outsiders--being an outsider, relating to an outsider--is definitely a big part of my current work in progress. I’ve heard many times that writers write the same story again and again--with different storylines and characters and settings, of course, but the same central obsession. That’s true for me, for sure. I feel like I’ll always be exploring questions about belonging to and searching for a home and community.

I appreciated that the resolution for the novel was equal arts somber and hopeful. Did you consciously strive to make it not too much one or the other?
This was a balancing act. As I mentioned earlier, I really really wanted a happy ending, but not too happy. I think your description is good--the ending provides a somber hopefulness. Ramsy and Stella gain so much. But so much was lost to get them to that point, and it’s certain that neither one of them will ever forget that. 

Tabitha: Margo thank you again for your thoughtful answers. I've enjoyed reading them all! 

Rhonda: Do you have any special rituals or superstitions when you write?

MOL: I don’t have rituals or superstitions per se, but I’m definitely a creature of habit. I write a lot in longhand, with black extra-fine-point Pilot pens in paperback Moleskine notebooks. I almost always write at my desk, and I’ve reached a point where I can basically sit down and flip a mental switch to access my creative space--having extremely limited writing time over the past few years has made waiting for “inspiration” a luxury I can’t afford. 
I do keep some talismans around me--three storyteller figures from Taos, a variety of very tiny objects from my childhood. 
And I guess I should add that when I found out that my novel was a finalist with UNO Press, I felt compelled, for the first time in my lapsed-Catholic life, to offer up some prayers to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. Who better to watch over my book? Of course Vagabond won because it was the right book for the right group of readers with the right openness to a quiet story...and yet. St. Jude. Part of me does wonder. 

Tiffany: Do you have plans to continue to push the major publishing companies, or are you pretty determined to stay with UNO since this is where you got your break? 

MOL: It feels decadent to even consider this question because it assumes that I will, at some point, have another novel that is publication-worthy! Let’s say I do manage to pull it off. I would love to get an agent and take another swing at the big houses. UNO Press has done a beautiful job with Vagabond--and their love of the book is everything I could hope for. But it’s a crowded world of books out there, and it’s hard to get mainstream attention for a literary novel from a small press. Big houses have marketing muscle and an insider’s access to reviewers and other publicity avenues. I think I owe it to my future work to aim big, to take a chance.
That said--if a small press turns out to be the best home for my work, I wouldn’t hesitate to go with UNO Press again if I had a book they felt as passionately about as Vagabond. Mutual enthusiasm from the writer and the publisher is really the only way a book can be published well. 

Rachelle: Hi Margo I appreciate you explaining how the story expanded from a Novella into the book it is today. Are there any particular highlights that were new to the rewrite? Was it all information that was part of your original world building just added to the page or did you develop new plot points? Is revisiting a book to expand the story anything like your experience rereading a favourite book after a long time? I find that when I reread a book I love that I have been thinking about the characters all along. Even though the book itself hasn't changed my understanding of the characters evolves. 

MOL: This is a really good question. I had to think about this a little--the story seems so complete that it’s hard to even remember when some parts weren’t there. I do remember being completely overwhelmed by what I’d undertaken. The novella just seemed like this smooth, perfect sphere; it was already so sparse; and I couldn’t imagine taking a sledgehammer to it--which was basically what this kind of project required.
Much of the new material was, as you pointed out, world building. The explanation of Ramsy’s eye, for example, was just a deepening of an element that was already there. I added more scenes between Ramsy and JT to flesh out their relationship. I added more descriptions of Shelk, and delved more into Ramsy’s relationship with Liza.
But world building was not going to get me 150 new pages, which is what I was aiming for. I had to reimagine the story itself--not change it wholesale; but figure out ways to intensify it. So, many of the plot points that seem pretty crucial to Vagabond were brand new. I developed the storyline of Stella, Adrienne, and Adrienne’s baby specifically for the novel. The pigeon shoot and the spaghetti dinner, which JT and some friends anger everyone by attending, were new. Kitty and Emilian’s affair was new. All the vignettes were new. This is interesting, because those specific elements--Stella intruding on Emilian’s turf to care for Adrienne, the men’s boiling-over that begins at the spaghetti dinner, the affair that enrages Jack Kurtz, Emilian’s killing of the woman that’s described in one of the final vignettes--are what build the tension and lead to the final violence. 
So yes--you ask if returning to this work was like rereading a favorite book with new understanding of the characters, and this seems right. Seven years passed between my finishing the novella and expanding it into a novel. That’s a long time, and I changed a lot (as anyone would) in that period. The characters’ voices and the world of Shelk were familiar to me, but I was newly able to identify areas that were begging for further exploration. Stella, in particular. I understood her so much more. The whole journey to Ohio to retrieve the blanket--and the emotional fallout Stella experiences from this, and the way she turns to Ramsy in those moments--was new, and so important to this character. 

TNBBC: Margo, which character did you enjoy writing the most? Which one did you dread writing? 

MOL: I loved writing Ramsy. He’s such an unlikely character soulmate--aside from his small-town home, his background and life experience don’t overlap with mine at all. He’s the first character I ever wrote who was so completely unlike me, and I think this is what made him so much fun to create. His voice was immediately powerful, and figuring out what made him tick required listening to him more closely than I’d ever listened to that writer-voice before. He’s so flawed, so withdrawn, but he has so much depth--I could have written him endlessly. 
I didn’t really dread writing anyone. I felt real anxiety while writing the scenes with Stella in Ohio, but I was also very invested in that phase of Stella’s development, so I didn’t dread it. 

Marvin: Did the economic troubles of the Rust Belt factor much into your work on this novel? I feel sort of trained, I guess, being from outside the area, to look for that as a big marker in anything set in Pennsylvania or Ohio or thereabouts. Certainly see a lot of books that really ground themselves in the effects of the collapse of the steel and mining industries, anyway. Shelk definitely seems to carry those scars and burdens, but--I guess going back to its being a quiet novel--it's (nicely, I think) a piece of the backdrop supporting the very personal concerns and conflicts of Ramsy and Stella. Did you ever feel any pull, or even outside pressure, to further develop those sort of big-picture themes? 

MOL: You’re right--the economic struggles of southwestern Pennsylvania are omnipresent in work set in the area. Those struggles inform everything, from how you live to what you hope for. As a native southwestern Pennsylvanian--and as a writer--I’m particularly compelled by the disjunct between the deep the economic devastation and the stunning landscape. So much ugliness, and so much beauty.
The implied economic scars in Shelk are integral to the locals’ reaction to the outsiders. Those scars inform their protectiveness of their homes and valuables, and their adherence to a moral code that embraces sticking to the familiar and “shooting from the hip.” They’ve been left behind by mainstream economic development--pursuing a job in the quickly growing Pittsburgh tech industry wouldn’t even cross their minds--and I think their awareness of having lost their economic strength influences their reliance on physical shows of strength. They’ve been weakened, but they’re not weak. Much of what they lost from dying industries was out of their control--but preventing losses from a bunch of thieving outsiders is well within their power.
So it’s there--the impact of those big-picture themes. But this wasn’t a story that warranted deeper examination of the economic factors that have ravaged towns like Shelk. The focus of the story was--as you described--the personal concerns and conflicts of the people living their lives in this environment. I hope I succeeded in infusing everything with the hopelessness and struggle brought about by the shrinking of the coal industry--but at the same time, maintaining a laser focus on the characters. What’s done is done, economically; these characters are not reacting to new and shocking changes. The economy is a baseline, white noise in the background. I think anything more than that would overwhelm the story, and I never felt any external pressure (from early readers or editors) to expand that element. 
MOL: Just wanted to say a huge thank you for all the great questions this week. What a privilege to be able to think closely about my process and Vagabond's creation! Add to this thread in the future if you wish or find me on my Goodreads author page or my website, I'm so grateful for the time you all gave to this story. And Lori: you're the best--thank you for having me! 

Rhonda: Thank you so much. Loved your book love reading all your answers. Looking forward to your next book. Lori,  thanks for introducing me to this book telling all my book friends about it,This discussion has been fantastic. 

TNBBC: Margo, there would be no discussion if you and UNO hadn't had an interest in supplying us copies and taking the time to hang with us! It was an extraordinary experience getting behind this book! I am so grateful for the time you took to be here and to respond to everyone's questions....

And hooray for spreading the word! I was so happy to introduce you guys to it. It still remains one of my favorite reads of this year. And one of my all time small press favorites! 

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