Midwestern Gothic staffer Marisa Frey talked with author Joe Kapitan about his collection Caves of the Rust Belt, how to link the fantastical and the real, what “caves” are to him, & more.
Marisa Frey: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Joe Kapitan: Um, pretty much everything. Other than four years spent in the military, my entire life has been spent here in the Midwest—most of it in the Cleveland area, plus my college years in South Bend, Indiana.
MF: The stories in Caves of the Rust Belt are character-centric, diving into one person’s experience in each story. What was important to you about approaching the writing this way?
JK: I try to keep Tim O’Brien’s advice in mind when I write. He said that good fiction has both imagination and emotional gravitas; that it must engage both the mind and the heart. And the only way to the “heart” is through characters, whether likable or unlikable, heroines or villains. In a lot of my stories, especially the stranger ones, characters become the link between the fantastical and the real. So many great writers do this: Aimee Bender, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Colson Whitehead, George Saunders. Saunders’ classic novella Pastoralia is a great example. The outrageous premise of the bizarre amusement park only works because it’s tethered to the real world through the normal human problems of the characters: getting along with difficult co-workers, and being the parent of a sick or drug-addicted child.
MF: The “caves” in Caves of the Rust Belt are sometimes physical and sometimes emotional—a sinkhole, characters who get laid off from their jobs, murky and unreliable memory. How did you come to the title? What are “caves” to you?
JK: That’s a very insightful point, and one that eluded me for quite a while. I originally sent this collection out in a different form, under a different name, not even labeling it as a collection of Ohio stories. What a mistake. It collected a dozen rejections. Once I decided to repackage and re-brand it, so to speak, it dawned on me that the idea of “caves” was so pervasive in many of the stories, from literal sinkholes and pits and the shifting earth’s crust to metaphorical “caves” of depression and loneliness. That’s what caves are to me: dark and unknown voids, where you’re bound to encounter fears.
MF: Your stories have a gritty edge, often giving off an air of desolation and hopelessness. What was it like to write them?
JK: I believe there is something fundamentally Midwestern about the dogged pursuit of the positive amidst the negative. In my lifetime, Cleveland has battled a polluted lake and a burning river, political corruption and civic bankruptcy, economic downturns, vacant buildings, the vacant faces of addicts and the urban poor, and (until recently) chronically underachieving sports teams. Any glimmer of positive news—young people flocking to the city to live! Hosting a political convention! Cavs win 2016 championship!—is splashed across the front page of the news because we crave it. Q. What gets us through the nasty winters here in Cleveland? A. Knowing how great the summers are here. So to answer your question, it didn’t feel different to write this way. I just felt real, and normal.
MF: Caves of the Rust Belt is a collection of short stories. What appeals to you about this genre?
JK: I guess I love that short fiction is so approachable. I think that’s how most of us experience life each day—as a series of short stories or flash-fictions. When you see an ancient, one-armed man selling hot dogs at the ballpark, or a well-dressed woman standing at the highway exit with a cardboard sign asking for money, don’t you start to build their back-stories in your mind, even subconsciously? I know I do, and I don’t think at novel-scale. I imagine in snippets.
MF: What does your writing process look like?
JK: Disorganized and anemic, mostly. I have a full-time career and a family, so my writing consists of the time-fragments I find in the liminal spaces between those larger spheres of my life. Most of Caves was written during lunch hours at work, over a period of years. It’s a hard way to write, because I feel time-pressured and it’s difficult to find the “zone” under those conditions. I look forward to the day when I can flip the script and set aside dedicated writing time.
MF: You’re also an architect. How does that work its way into your writing?
JK: I’m a very visual person, so my writing ideas often come from visual cues—an imagined scene, or one from a dream. I guess I always look for the structure beneath my writing, too, just like a building. I need to understand the framework of a story and how it will support what I want to do, and those frameworks can be orderly or fragmented, whichever best serves the overall design.
MF: How has your writing changed over time?
JK: The biggest change I’ve seen in my own writing is that I’m now more trusting and courageous about my voice and my choices. Over the past several months, I’ve heard two veteran writers, Benjamin Percy and Matt Weinkam, say the same basic thing—that you need to learn the rules so you can break the rules. That message really resonates with me. It’s like becoming an architect. You must go through a training period and pass a standardized licensure test, not so you become homogenous or an automaton, but so you can learn the appropriate limits of expressing your individuality. So you learn how much you can break the rules before it all comes crashing down around you.
MF: What’s next for you?
JK: I’d love to finish my novel, but at the rate I’m going, it will take another decade. I keep telling myself it’s a marathon, not a sprint. But it’s a marathon I didn’t properly train for.
Joe Kapitan writes from a glacial ridge line a day’s march south of Cleveland. Besides being a proud two-time Midwestern Gothic contributor, his short fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared or will appear in The Cincinnati Review, Booth, PANK, Wigleaf, Hobart, Notre Dame Magazine, and others. His collection of Ohio-based short stories, Caves of the Rust Belt, will be published by Tortoise Books in October 2018.