interview with mike decapite
I picked up Mike DeCapite's Jacket Weather (Soft Skull, 2021) on a whim last year and it blew me away: a book about time and memory, growing older in the swiftly-changing city, the second and third chances granted to us by life, the inspirations and consolations brought by the small details of the present: a book that's lighter than air but still left an enduring impression on me. After meeting him once in person, and reading Through the Windshield, his self-published debut, I reached out to ask him some questions that kept floating through my mind.
Nicholas Clemente: The first thing I wanted to ask about are your influences. Though no resemblance to anyone in particular comes to mind, I have noticed a plasticity in your approach to rhythm and punctuation and other minutiae of sentence construction; without being programmatic in any way, it represents instead a healthy spirit of adaptability and experimentation. Who are your favorite writers in terms of form?
Mike DeCapite: When I was younger, I let my descriptive impulse take me where it would. Into the upper registers, if you know what I mean. I’m still basically a descriptive writer, but I need the writing to have the force and intimacy of speech. So it’s more stylized now. It doesn’t mimic speech, but hopefully it sounds like something I might tell you.
For that, my favorite writer has always been Céline. For nimbleness, adaptability, intimacy—for maximum poetry disguised as everyday speech. So if you’re asking about prose styles that have excited me, I’d say Céline, above all, and after him, maybe James Agee and Kerouac for expansiveness, and for concision, I’ll say Beckett, Burroughs, and my father, Raymond DeCapite, who wrote novels. Though of course his novels’ effect on me is inseparable from his effect on my use of language in the first place. Obviously there are lots and lots of people whose prose styles I admire, but those are people whose styles have fired my imagination about what’s possible. And that’s just prose writers, nevermind poets, like Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Ted Berrigan.
My influence, though, is whatever I’m writing about. That sort of dictates itself to you, right? Because I don’t think anyone influences you down deep where your voice comes from. When you’re young, some writer turns your head and affects your style, but that’s a passing thing. In the end, you write like you write.
Really, I’ve spent a lot more time with albums than with novels. Prose writers were never as important to me as songwriters. All the people who added to our ocean of folk and blues verses. Dylan, of course. Lou Reed. All kinds of people from Eddie Cochran to Iggy Pop to Van Morrison. They’ve all used the language of speech to poetic ends. What novel makes the same impact on a person as “Positively Fourth Street” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” or “Marquee Moon”? Last thing I heard before I went to sleep last night was “Moonlight Mile.” I’d trade that for 90% of the novels I’ve read.
NC: Could I ask you a little bit about your father? What was his literary career like? Was he encouraging or discouraging when it came to your own literary output?
MD: My father published two novels—The Coming of Fabrizze in 1960 and A Lost King in 1961—both completely original, both—to me—miraculous. He got great reviews from the big critics but the books didn’t sell much, and then his editor left to go work at a textbook company, I think. The books were frequently optioned for movies, so he picked up a little money that way while continuing to write novels and then plays, but he never published another novel except for one that came out in Cleveland magazine in 1976 and two short ones that I published in one volume in 2000. He was supportive about whatever I showed him, though he never pushed me to become a writer. He thought I could write whatever I wanted to write. But he felt I was too closely tied to the facts, too close to the people I was writing about, which was an unnecessary limitation, as he saw it. He had a different kind of imagination from mine.
NC: One of the things that I like most about your books is the wideness of their scope, their unwillingness to be “about” anything. Through the Windshield, for example, deals heavily with cab driving and sports betting, but you couldn’t say it is a book that is “about” labor or “about” gambling. There is no messaging there: all the depth is contained in the surface. Do you think this is something you picked up from someone else, or is it just a natural tendency in your writing?
MD: Through the Windshield is not about anything, it’s about everything. It’s a first novel, so I was trying to capture the world in there. But it’s “about” a period of time that I wanted to hang on to, and what that time meant to me. That set of experiences. I can’t just draw the frame anywhere. Some periods have a shape or a meaning and sort of ask for your attention. And Jacket Weather is also about a period I wanted to preserve. But I wrote it to be “about” time and mortality. I mean, my choices about what to put in and what to leave out and how to organize it aren’t just aesthetic, they’re made to convey something recognizable about time and memory and mortality. But the book embodies its meaning. As you say, its depth is contained in its surface.
NC: Both novels feature affectionate depictions of bonding among unfashionably old men—in locker rooms or dusty bars or back room poker games. It reminds me of a friend of mine who is always hanging out at VFWs despite having never served in the military. And it’s fascinating because it’s a segment of society rarely visited by fiction, which is usually fixated on more active modes of life. What is it about this kind of sociability that attracts you? Do you find (or have you found) yourself spending lots of time in similar situations?
MD: That’s funny about your friend. I just did a reading at a VFW hall in New Jersey. I think of my books as hangouts. We’re not going anywhere, we’re hanging out here and paying attention to this moment. Most novels are about the past. I want mine to feel like the present, like they’re happening now. And I don’t mean just by writing in the present tense, I mean by paying attention to now, what’s in front me now. And I like talk in a book. Opens it up, keeps it moving. You don’t turn a page and feel your heart sink. And people don’t hang out in books that much, right? Of course it has to be a certain kind of book, where there’s room for people to talk for three or four pages. But talk can be one of life’s pleasures, like the other things these books take notice of.
NC: I guess that would explain the attention given to food in the novels, right? I am tempted to revisit Jacket Weather just to earmark the recipes I’d like to try. When food appears in novels it makes you feel at home and it makes you want to return.
I found it fascinating when we once spoke about your method for composing Jacket Weather: wandering around New York City, making diarylike observations of miniature street scenes. But what was your process like when it came to Through the Windshield? I ask because it seems so self-assured and fully formed. But I know that no first novel actually comes out that effortlessly.
MD: I’d written a book of journals as a novel. So there were incidents and reflections and bits of weather. When I wrote Through the Windshield, it followed the same pattern.
NC: You mentioned once that you self-published Through the Windshield. What was that process like in 1998, when it first came out? It’s especially fascinating because most indie presses and authors feel a real pressure to live on the internet for visibility. You also mentioned once in conversation (and I apologize for the paraphrase) that the book managed to find its way to all the people who were supposed to read it. Could you expand a little on that thought if possible?
MD: I’d been sending Through the Windshield around for eight years, so if I didn’t do it, it wasn’t going to happen. It wasn’t hard, but it was much less common than it is now to self-publish a book. Though I’d spent five years hanging around the poetry scene on the Lower East Side, where everyone had been publishing themselves and their friends forever and everyone had a DIY license, so that got me past any hang-ups I might’ve had about self-publishing. I was starting from zero: I didn’t even have an electronic version of Through the Windshield, just a typescript. And I had very little computer knowledge, so I had to hire someone to lay it out. I didn’t realize I could have done that myself. I took it step by step, like you must’ve done with Martin & Hannah. I got an ISBN, which allows you to get a barcode on the back cover, which allows you to get a distributor, which allows you to get it into bookstores. The hard part was getting it reviewed. Same as now. Because nobody reviewed self-published books. This was before you could pay for reviews in Kirkus. But I had some luck there. Harvey Pekar reviewed it for the Austin Chronicle, and it was written up in a couple of papers in Cleveland, where it was set. And I had a friend who was very sympathetic to the book and who was writing for the SF Chronicle, and she wrote a half-page review with a big picture in the Chronicle’s Sunday book section. I thought “That’s it: I’ll sell out the first run.” Maybe it sold a dozen books. But eventually, over the years, at bookstores, at Amazon, at readings, I did sell out of them, and I feel like TTW found its way to the people it was supposed to go to. It made me some friendships, it’s meant a lot to some people, and I feel like it’s had a life of its own. I did a reading in Cleveland a few years ago, and for the first time, there were more people I didn’t know than people I knew in the audience—people in their twenties, who were there because of Through the Windshield. But the biggest thing is that it got the book off my back and let me move on with my life. Because whatever you don’t publish, you’re carrying it around on your back.
NC: Through the Windshield came out in 1998 and Jacket Weather came out in 2021. Why such a long gap between the books? Are you the type of person who is always working on something and throwing out lots of material or the type of person who only works when he has something really special on the line?
MD: There’s another novel, Ruined for Life!, which I must’ve spent ten years on and never published. For a couple of years I was writing the pieces collected in Radiant Fog. There’s a chapbook called Creamsicle Blue. And there are some stories. Plus I used to drink, which not only made my life chaotic but made the process of writing more self-indulgent and less efficient. Even so, it’s not a lot. I work slow. Which I’m able to do, because I’ve always had some job and never had to support myself as a writer or write anything I didn’t want to write. For better and for worse. But I’m always working on something. Or feeling guilty and useless because I’m not.
NC: I had to do some very minor internet detective work to get in touch with you. Do you deliberately keep a low online profile? How do you view the relationship between a writer and their online presence? For a lot of people coming up these days it sometimes seems like the only option they have for exposure, both for better and for worse.
MD: My low profile online is not really deliberate, it’s more the result of my mixed feelings about self-promotion and social media. I’m not on Facebook, though I go on now and then to promote a reading. I’m on Instagram, and there are nice things about that, like being in touch with people you wouldn’t be, otherwise. But I don’t have a burning need to be heard from.