(Soft Skull Press, 2021)
I met novelist Mike DeCapite in 2009, at a performance of East of Bowery, a multimedia show I was doing in collaboration with a mutual friend, photographer Ted Barron. In 2016, DeCapite and Barron invited me to be part of the Sparkle Street Social & Athletic Club, a performance series they were running at the Howl! Happening gallery, on East First Street. And DeCapite and I have since spent time floating around New York, talking about writing. We’ve known each other a while, but I’d never been to his place. When I interviewed him on a Saturday night in January, it was like stepping into a scene from his new novel, Jacket Weather , a love-story-in-fragments about Mike and his partner, June. We met at the Chelsea studio apartment described in Jacket Weather, with red sauce and boogaloo in the air, just like in the book.
Drew Hubner (Brooklyn Rail): Do you always write novels?
Mike DeCapite: I aspire to write novels. I always hope I’m gonna hit upon a novel to write, put it that way. That’s the form I’m interested in. But I’ve written short things, too.
Rail: That’s the form that lifts you up.
DeCapite: That I’m called by, yeah.
Rail: You’re called by, yeah. So what was the first thing you ever wrote?
DeCapite: First thing I wrote, really, was when I was eighteen, someone suggested I keep a journal. So for a year, I kept this journal, but I typed it, as though I were writing a novel. I thought that after a year I’m gonna put this all together and call it a novel. So that became a template for everything I’ve written. Because there’s narrative, but there are also little observations about the weather, or atmospheric things. That’s what came naturally to me. Some days, there’s nothing to talk about except the sky.
Rail: What happened to that?
DeCapite: I never submitted that for publication, I couldn’t, because there were too many people in it whose lives and reputations were involved. So then a few years went by, and I started writing the novel that became Through the Windshield. I was twenty-three. And that started out in the same way. My idea was that this book was going to describe a year on the Southside of Cleveland, which is basically what it did. And it followed that same pattern. Bits of narrative alternating with prose poems and bits of weather. But it still never occurred to me to think of it as anything but a novel.
DeCapite: You’re one of those people who can write at both ends of this fiction spectrum. With the Cormac McCarthys at one end and the Thomas Wolfes and Jack Kerouacs at the other, culminating with Chris Kraus. Maybe it’s no accident that Chris Kraus was instrumental in Jacket Weather’s publication. She read it and recommended I send it to Yuka Igarashi at Soft Skull. Anyway, I’m down here with those people, who use their lives as material. This is the consciousness I feel most qualified to write from. This instrument—I don’t mean instrument like an opera singer’s voice, but more like a bathysphere that also records and stores data—is the one I feel most qualified to operate. So this is my medium: my life. But you’re able to write fiction about yourself and fiction about people who are not you.
Rail: You don’t do that.
DeCapite: Nah, I don’t do that.
Rail: It’s always you.
DeCapite: Yes, it’s always from this point of view.
Rail: Oh wow.
DeCapite: Did Ted Barron tell me you have a Cormac McCarthy story?
Rail: [Laughter] That I stalked him once in New Mexico? My publisher wanted me to use a certain photographer, Marion Ettlinger, who would be good for my career—
DeCapite: For an author photo? That’s why you didn’t use Ted?
Rail: Right, but they didn’t tell me how expensive it would be. [Laughs] Actually, she also used my picture in a book she published of her photographs, which was quite an honor, to be included with Truman Capote, McCarthy, and a bunch of others like that. It was the highlight of my career. [Laughs] Anyway, there’s an institute out there where McCarthy used to like to work in the library. The director was really nice about it and told me to come by at the coffee hour on Friday at 4:30, and I might get a chance to say hello. Instead, I got all excited and walked right up to him after he got out of his car in the parking lot. I was starstruck.
DeCapite: What happened?
Rail: He was nice about it. I mean, I could’ve been anyone, but he’s pretty private, and he just said something like “I don’t talk to other writers.” He shook my hand. Then he went in to coffee hour and I was too freaked out to say anything else to him. The guys at the gym, in Jacket Weather: what do they represent?
DeCapite: Well, first of all, they’re just part of my day. But they’re older, so they’re my connection to history. Which is what New York is, right? Living history. And just like New York is all this history on one plane, I see this novel all on one plane. Like a fabric or mosaic. So they’re part of the pattern.
Rail: They talk a lot about food. Some writers forget that the characters have to eat. I always liked that point in The Odyssey when Odysseus complains that he always has to feed his stomach.
DeCapite: Plus, it’s not what people think of when they imagine what guys talk about in locker rooms.
Rail: Tell me about time, in Jacket Weather, with the seasons. The way it’s organized. When did you realize you were gonna do that?
DeCapite: The book is made of fragments. And after the first month, it’s nonlinear. It’s ten years of a relationship, collapsed into six months. That first six months is the through line. The fragments are organized by month—apart from that, they’re anachronistic. So something that happened in September 2009 might follow something that happened in September 2015. I realized pretty early on that I was gonna do that, because I wanted to write about things that happened outside of those first six months. I wanted it to end when it’s clear that June and I are going to be together. But that point was only about six months in. So that’s how I devised this organization system. Y’know, that’s kind of what a novel is, in a way: it’s a system of ordering information, right?
Rail: Okay, now you said, about sentimentality—you seemed to have an issue with that.
DeCapite: I had an issue with it?
Rail: Do you?
DeCapite: Yeah, I try to steer clear of it, myself.
DeCapite: Because … I want the thing to be coming from as clear a point of view as possible. I want it to burn clean. Maybe superficially people think this book is sentimental, because it’s about two people falling in love—but I’m using sentimental as a derogatory term.
Rail: You don’t want this to be sentimental.
Rail: But sentimentality, though, is comfortable for the reader, right?
DeCapite: Yeah. But it’s there for that person to fill in. She can feel as sentimentally about these characters and situations as she wants. But that shouldn’t be coming from my end. Sentimentality is me telling her what to feel. It just cheapens it.
Rail: Yeah, but at the same time you want a little music.
DeCapite: Well, you must have found some music in that book.
Rail: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Speaking of music: Gene Clark. You don’t describe that album you mention, it’s just there.
DeCapite: Yeah, I just mention it, but I can’t tell you how many times I played that song in a row, while writing that passage.
Rail: Which song?
DeCapite: It’s like maybe the last couple of songs on that record of White Light demos.
Rail: Yeah, it’s amazing, the feelings you get from that, just to mention it, you know. But I want a little—I’m left thinking, “Evoke—gimme a color, gimme blue-gray,” y’know.
DeCapite: I wanted that description of making pasta just quietly by yourself … I felt like those actions, simply described, and the feeling around them, were the equivalent of the song. That was the description of the song.
Rail: I’m not disappointed or anything. I mean, I really think you put it all together. Like if you say to a guy “You’re going to write the best thing you’ve ever written, and it’s better than you can write—” That’s what happened here. Don’t you feel that?
DeCapite: …Yeah. Yes. But I think what’s—
Rail: Isn’t that satisfying?
DeCapite: It is. Definitely. And it also feels like … This is exactly what I’ve been trying to do. It’s along the same lines, but it does it. Instead of trying to do it.
Rail: You said that the themes were what you wanted to write about, and that’s why it’s not a memoir.
DeCapite: Yeah, my life is just the raw material for this, it’s just what I’m working with. But it’s not about me, it’s about love and time and mortality.
Rail: Do you do that for the poetry of the moment?
DeCapite: What do you mean?
Rail: Well, “I’m shaping it the best way I can—”
DeCapite: Yeah, some of the things that are in the September part of the book didn’t take place in September, I found a place for them there. I kinda make this thing like a puzzle. There are times when I had this table where you’re sitting covered with three-by-five cards, each with a phrase on it…
Rail: Do you go to the gym and take notes?
Rail: So you do it from memory?
DeCapite: Yeah, but the gym is half a block away, so I don’t have to remember for long. I might have a conversation with those guys and put it down right then.
Rail: Yeah. So you’re working all the time, in that sense.
DeCapite: Yeah, and that is the best place to be, especially if you’ve got a couple of drafts done? And you just feel like you’re walking around in the world, shopping for details for your book. It wakes up your whole life, to be in that.
Rail: Yeah, I remember I was writing American by Blood, and I dreamed it. And I was so in the groove that I could remember it.
DeCapite: Right, you’re inside it. And the fact that you’re inside it lights the world up in a particular way.
Rail: Okay, what’s your favorite novel? Mine’s Crime and Punishment.
DeCapite: Yeah, well, if you’d ask me what the greatest one was, I’d have said Dostoevsky, but my favorites are probably my father’s [Raymond DeCapite] novels The Coming of Fabrizze and A Lost King, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan—
Rail: Death on the Installment Plan And not Journey to the End of the Night?
DeCapite: Well, all of Céline. Almost all of Céline. But in Death on the Installment Plan, he got there. With the ellipses, with that style. Which can do anything … Come on in here, I gotta check this…
Rail: How many rooms you got here, man?
DeCapite: Just this one.
Rail: This is it. Is the food or the writing more important?
DeCapite: Oh, the writing’s more important.
Rail: It is.
DeCapite: Yeah. To me! You mean in my life, as far as what’s important to me?
DeCapite: Writing is much more important, although I have done enough cooking by now that I’m pretty good at it. You gotta be hungry, no?
Rail: Yeah! I mean, come on! I’m like, “feed this beast!” Look what you got, you got an iPod! I’m leaving here with this.
DeCapite: You know, I had that at work—it’s even in the book. I had it at my desk, and those girls I work with thought it was some sort of medical device. They thought it was a pacemaker or something.
Rail: Okay. How many words a day?
DeCapite: Oh, I don’t have any kinda thing like that.
Rail: Come on, you’re an obsessive writer.
DeCapite: No, I don’t have any kind of rule about how many words I—
Rail: How much do you like? How many you gotta do, so you feel alright about yourself at the end of the day? “Oh yeah, I wrote eight hundred words today.”
DeCapite: I can write a couple of lines and feel okay.
Rail: Do you ever get obsessive about it?
DeCapite: Obsessive about getting to that couple of lines?
Rail: Yeah. To my detriment, I have to do two thousand words a day. Then you realize after three hundred pages, “I have three hundred pages, I don’t have a novel.”
DeCapite: Right, right.
Rail: Where do you err? On what side of that? You’re just casual.
DeCapite: Yeah, I’m just casual. It took me a long time to write this book! You wouldn’t think so, you would think that’s a book you could put together in a year!
Rail: How long did it take you to write it?
DeCapite: Oh, it probably took me a couple of years of compiling material and then another few years putting it into shape.
Rail: If you were gonna make a metaphor of this book, what would be the metaphor?
DeCapite: Well, like Céline, I just kinda wanted it to be like lace.
Rail: Like lace?
DeCapite: Yeah, I wanted it to be light, and airy. Or wait, are you—
Rail: So that’s the aesthetic you’re going for?
DeCapite: Yeah, light. Light.
Rail: But not without substance.
DeCapite: No, right! The object is to make substance float.
Rail: Is that a good analogy for the book? Jacket weather, it’s light, you got a jacket on, it’s airy—
DeCapite: No, it’s starting to get cold, that’s what jacket weather is. Mortality. You’re gonna die.
DeCapite: Right.That’s what they’re up against. That’s the shadow. Because he starts out with this sorta comic, manic—jealousy and anxiety and all this stuff that he’s always thinking about. But as soon as moves in with her, that all goes away. But now he realizes that they’ve only got so much time left together.
Rail: Yeah. Yeah, that’s really well done. And that’s the whole thing, right? There are just moments of grace, moments of dignity. And that’s love, right?
DeCapite: Yeah. Though the word love doesn’t appear in the book.
Rail: Really? … So your dad—was he happy with his success as a writer? Did he die unhappy?
DeCapite: He was pretty unhappy, I think, when he died. Yeah. I think you can say that. But how many people die happy? If you can’t read, you can’t eat, you can’t get out, you’re just waiting for it to be over. But as for writing, he wrote these two beautiful novels—
Rail: Publishing disappoints everybody, doesn’t it?
DeCapite: Yes. Well, he had those two books come out in ’60 and ’61, and then he never had another book published, until I published two of his short novels in 1999, with my Sparkle Street Books. So I grew up with him never getting anything published. So I just thought that’s how it is, you just don’t get anything published.
DeCapite: Y’know, I didn’t start out with high expectations.
Rail: But why didn’t you go to college?
DeCapite: I didn't want to go to college because I didn’t want to ever have to write anything for anybody. And a big part of that, although I might not have realized it at the time, was that I didn't want to write the way they expect you to write in school. I was done with writing transitions, which take all the air and life out of a piece of writing and all the fun out of doing it. Plus, I was just in a hurry to get the fuck out of school. I’d had enough of school by the time I was in high school.
Rail: You didn’t like school?
DeCapite: No, I didn’t like school; does anybody like school?
Rail: Yeah, people like school.
DeCapite: They do? High school?
Rail: Yeah, people like to be smart, they have a place to be smart … I’ve been in school for fifty years.
DeCapite: I’m not talking about college, I’m talking about when you’re a kid. By the time I was done with high school I was ready to be done with school.
Rail: I mean I have a funny thing where I don’t get degrees, but I go to school.
DeCapite: Right. It’s like going to karate and not changing your belt.
Rail: What does it matter?
DeCapite: What does it matter, right.
Rail: Was it a thing? You know, “I’m going to be a writer and not go to school”? Like Jack Kerouac?
DeCapite: No, I—
Rail: ’Cause he had a thing about it: “I’m gonna be a guy who hitchhikes, I’m not gonna be a guy who—”
Rail: You self-consciously said “I’m gonna be a writer and not go to school.”
DeCapite: No, I don’t think it was so much about being a writer, I just saw myself living my life in a particular way that wasn’t—
Rail: You always wanted to be a writer?
DeCapite: I don’t know if I always wanted to be a writer so much as that it was always there with me as a possibility.
Rail: You’re an editor, right?
DeCapite: Now I’m a copy editor, yes, that’s a recent thing. I mean, the last fifteen, twenty years.
Rail: Oh yeah? What’d you do before that?
DeCapite: Before that I was in San Francisco, and I was working in a law firm as a file clerk. And then before that I was in New York, where I had various driving jobs and painting jobs and construction jobs and all the kinds of jobs that everyone gets. In Cleveland, I worked in a hospital, I drove a cab, I did factory work. I’ve had a million jobs.
Rail: How’d you get into this editing thing?
DeCapite: The poet Elinor Nauen was editing some things for Newsweek, she asked Richard Hell if he knew of a copy editor. And since I was the person Richard could think of who was the most uptight about punctuation, he recommended me. Because Richard thought that my endless revising was some sort of psychological problem.
Rail: Are we gonna eat?
DeCapite: Yeah, I’m waiting for this water to boil.
Rail: So is this the culmination of all your work? Or is this just another thing you wrote, and this just happened to be the one to get published?
DeCapite: This is very close to how I envisioned it.
Rail: And form equals function, in this, utterly. Right? ’Cause you got the time, you got the seasons, you got—somehow it works together and flows.
DeCapite: Every chapter is just a little shorter than the last.
Rail: Oh wow.
DeCapite: I don’t know if that really works, but you realize at the end of the book that you’ve already read about ten years of this relationship. This is it. This is the relationship … I’m gonna just dress this salad.