Smoking With Joe Kapitan

by Ethel Rohan Read the Story October 2, 2011

There’s so much to admire and appreciate about this excellent story. Let’s start with your process in general, and then for this story in particular. How do you go about writing your stories? How did “Sleepless #7” come to be?

First of all, thank you Ethel!  My process is, quite honestly, less than desirable.  I write part time, and sporadically.  I have to fit it in where I can, between work and family, which is never often enough, and even when I find an opening, sometimes nothing worthwhile comes out and I end up spending the time reading, editing previous work, submitting, doing anything I can to move myself forward as a writer.  If I had my preference, though, I’d write in the morning.

In general, most of my ideas come from some thread pulled from a dream or half-waking mind-drift — it could be a first line, a last line, a compelling image — and then I start to build a framework around that fragment and see where it leads.  In the case of this particular piece, the first line is what came to me.  I was half-asleep and found myself imagining a character tossing and turning in bed, haunted by a closetful of alternate futures shaped like the children that could have (should have?) been.

I love that “Sleepless #7” depicts an anguished man regretting childlessness, such grief shown through the male perspective is something we don’t often read in fiction. How intentional was this perspective or is it something that came out in the telling? 

My initial perspective was the inner voice of a character troubled by thoughts of paths not taken, but as I wrote it, this man’s self-examination seemed to crack wide open and give way to an awareness of deep pain and a growing sense of loss.  And you’re right, I think, that we are used to childlessness being couched in female terms because the biological clock is such a large and unforgiving tyrant in many women’s lives.  I am the father of two kids, so without personal experience I can only imagine that for some men, the realization of childlessness is strangely gradual or quiet, perhaps because we’re different, there’s no real brick wall ahead of us as far as reproductive capacity goes.  I picture an overtly successful, workaholic, late-forties executive driving his BMW past a Little League game one summer evening, catching a glimpse of a dad helping a son or daughter with their swing, and thinking, maybe for the first time, “Damn, I guess that’s never going to be me.” 

It’s interesting that shortly after I wrote this piece, I caught the online discussion about gender and writing at The Lit Pub, and judging from the activity I saw there, it’s a topic many writers are fascinated with, myself included.

The title suggests this is perhaps one in a series of stories? Do you have other stories that feature this same character and further explore his great sense of loss? Or does the #7 represent the passage of time and the extent of his insomnia?

It’s one of three stories, actually.  I imagined that in any city, on any given night, there are a few thousand people tossing in bed or staring at the ceiling cracks or pacing, unable to sleep for various reasons.  I tried to capture glimpses of a few of those sleepless people, as if through a window or by overheard thoughts, hence the numbers — voyeurist vignettes of different insomniac characters.  Sleepless #3 was published last year at Wigleaf, and it’s about a terminally ill man regretting his emotional unavailability and all the women he lost because of it.  Sleepless #5 is a bad-breakup guy, and his pain is morphing into anger.  It’s darker, stalkerish, more menacing.  The basic concept is there, but I can tell something’s still missing.  A spice, maybe, or a marinade.  It’s a work in progress.


I find the language, imagery and emotion here stunning, and I would have happily read on. Can you talk about the brevity of this story in particular and in your work as a whole? Was it difficult to allow this work to remain so brief when it’s clear you could have continued to dazzle readers?

I don’t know how to answer that, other than to say that I always reach a point where I feel a story is done, short or long.  In this case, the important thing to me was that the character reached the very painful realization that he wasn’t going to be a father.  That felt like the end for me.  No use torturing the poor guy any further.

I tend to write skeletally at first, and then add the tissues and membranes, so I find writing flash fiction to be somewhat comfortable.  The one thing I love about flash is that no matter how compact it is, a good piece of fiction expands in the mind of the reader.  It’s a glimpse of a moment happening in a given place, but it sends out tendrils in other directions and makes you think about what probably came before, and what will likely follow, all pieces of a larger continuum.  Your story “Out of the Wreckage” is a perfect example.  You can’t read it without imagining what waits beyond the last paragraph for Stella.

I’m actively trying to challenge this short-form comfort zone of mine, though.  I’ve dedicated this year to writing longer pieces, which for me means the 4000 – 6000 word range.  It’s forcing me to work on things that I think need improvement in my writing: character transformation, dialogue, story vs. backstory structuring.  Some of these longer ones have been accepted for publication, so I feel like I’m making progress toward my eventual goal of writing a novel.

Fire is an element that both haunts and fuels my imagination, and I love how you use the horror of fire in this story. The image of the children’s melting faces and the idea of escaping a house fire are both horrific and brilliant here. What are the fears and fascinations that repeat in your stories?

I think fire, like water, is such a powerful element because of its dual nature, simultaneously life-giving and life-taking, and that contradiction is deeply rooted in our DNA, at an archetypal caveman/woman level, which places them both pretty close to the subconscious.  Fire, in particular, seemed right to me for this story because the character has been putting off processing a smoldering issue, but now he can’t ignore his blazing closet — a house fire has this funny way of demanding your full and immediate attention. 

What a coincidence that you should ask about repeating fears and fascinations.  I was recently looking over a list of stories I have written and/or published, and it dawned on me that I’ve written three different stories that involve artificial legs, without ever being conscious of this weird preoccupation with prostheses.  What the hell is that about?  Fear, or fascination?  Both?

About the Author:

Joe Kapitan is a full-time architect from Cleveland, Ohio, where the sun doesn't shine from November to April, giving him ample time to write pale and cranky short fiction.