A Conversation with Joe Kapitan
Shawna Caro, Prose Reader: First, tell us a few things about yourself. Where are you from? What are some of your hobbies and interests? What inspired you to write "Assisted Living"?
Joe Kapitan, Volume 3 Prose Contributor: I'm from northern Ohio. I spent my childhood here, wandered away for a few years, then found my way back like those lost dogs you read about. I like being a Midwesterner, but I hate the long winters, which are an integral part of being a Midwesterner. I have a day-job and a family and a lawn to mow and about five other things going, so writing is definitely my primary hobby. I have to squeeze it in where I can. Other than writing, I love cycling, and pretty much anything I can do outdoors, like hiking and camping. I even like splitting firewood.
Most of my story ideas come from a scene or even just an image in my head, and they grow out in several directions from that seed. In "Assisted Living" the image I had was a mentally-challenged individual trying to make it in the world with all sorts of reminders and clues written on his arms, and that guy became Robert. From there, it grew into a story about people whose lives were unraveling at a place that was supposed to be helping them.
Midwestern winters are definitely tough to get through, especially with their unpredictable nature. Do you write outdoors as well?
I've tried writing outdoors but I found it hard to do—I get too interested in my surroundings (is that a hawk over there? the maple leaves are flipping over, I guess rain is coming, hey, that cloud looks like an anvil) and lose concentration. I need to write indoors.
Your writing comes from from scenes or images—do your ideas blossom in other ways than through a visual setting? I love Robert in "Assisted Living". The image and action of him having to write reminders on his arms is so engaging—I got lost thinking about how, if I met him at the supermarket where he works, I might not be able to look away or leave without asking him a question.
I'm glad you liked Robert! I'd like to meet him too. I struggle with creating character depth sometimes, so I'm pleased he seemed real enough to you. I thought hard about your question, and I can't come up with a story that started with a name or detail. I'm a visual person, so they all seem to start with a scene. I wrote a short story about another scene I had, of an interactive college course in marriage simulation. That is how most of them star—with a weird scenario.
I do appreciate the aspect of helpers not helping as a focal point of the story. It really shows the reader a lot about the nature of relationships and about humans in general.
Yeah, I agree with you; the helpers-not-helping theme is a pretty basic state of the human condition. We all tend to amble around hurting each other, but the separator, what divides a good person from a bad person, is whether or not the hurting is intentional. In "Assisted Living." none of the characters are out to hurt others. It just happens when we're so focused on ourselves and our own needs.
Do you think you would write more stories with a human condition theme like "Assisted Living?” Have you already? Do you prefer short stories over other forms of writing?
I think most of my stories end up being about the human condition. While the surface story is some crazy situation, the under-story contains the deeper message. The story I mentioned earlier, the one about the interactive marriage simulation course in college, was really a story of loneliness. "Sea Oak" by George Saunders has this absurd surface action, but it's really a story about regret, wasting life, and watching loved ones waste theirs. The short form is just something I'm comfortable with. Even my longer short stories seem to run out gas between 4000 and 5000 words. I want to write a novella or novel next because I know that process is really going to push me out of my comfort zone.
Do you have any particular editing or revising strategies that you follow? What is your process for taking a piece of prose from rough draft to final draft stage?
I'm not one of those writers that gushes out thousands of words and then goes back to edit. Whenever I sit down to write I usually warm up by editing the last session's work and then plowing ahead. It’s this continuous create/revise cycle. And then I hit a point when I think I'm done and want to send it out, which is the dangerous stage. I have to make myself wait and let things simmer. Then I go back, edit again, and finish by reading it aloud. Funny how things jump out at me when I speak the lines.
What is the worst piece of advice you have received regarding your writing? The best advice?
The worst advice I've ever heard is "write what you know.” If I did that, I'd be the most boring writer ever. I'd be writing about construction sites and lawn mowing. Worse yet, we'd have no Tolkien, no Kafka, no Phillip K. Dick. The best advice I've ever seen came from Tim O'Brien's essay on writing fiction called "Telling Tails.” He said good fiction needs two things: imagination and emotional gravitas. I try to make sure my work lives up to that wisdom.
And just for good measure: Do you have a favorite punctuation mark? If so, what is it and why is it your favorite?
My favorite punctuation mark is the comma, because it lets me abuse it so heinously.
Read Joe Kapitan's prose piece "Assisted Living" in Volume 3 of Winter Tangerine Review.