Michael Capel received his MFA from Boise State University. His work has appeared in Baltimore Review, Barnstorm, and South Dakota Review. He lives in Boise with his partner, fiction writer Mollie Ficek, and their dog, Rusty. His story “Florida Arizona Buffalo Hawaii” appears in the Fall 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review and can be found here.
Could you tell us a little about “Florida Arizona Buffalo Hawaii”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
My original impulse was to make the piece like a little stack of Polaroids you flip through, and that it would be an almost random assemblage of images and instances with no real obvious progression or endgame. That was a lot of fun for me as the person doing the writing, but I realized early on it might leave the person reading pretty unsatisfied if that’s all it was. And that was the biggest difficulty: introducing narrative structure to an initial writing experience that wanted to resist it.
This story is impressive in its movement between adolescent humor and adolescent experimentation with detachment and violence. While you were writing it, did you struggle at all with weighting the story too heavily in either direction?
I did. It’s just my natural tendency to be more crass or shocking when I’m alone and writing. That comes from my dad letting me watch A Clockwork Orange and Taxi Driver and all these insanely violent mafia movies when I was probably too young to be doing so. Luckily, I’ve been blessed with two amazing initial readers. One is my partner, Mollie Ficek, and the other is a guy named Dylan J. Lambert, who is a very close friend of ours. Mollie is from Fargo and DJ is from Salt Lake City, so their sensibilities are generally more wholesome than mine. With this piece, they saw where the edges needed sanding. They also located the moments of emotional resonance I was overlooking and showed me how to exploit them, how to put them more in balance with the rougher stuff I’d already written.
This story, runner-up in the KR Short Fiction Contest, had to clock in at under 1200 words. Is flash fiction a form you ordinarily work in? Do you think that successful short-shorts share any common characteristics?
I’ve been writing a lot of flash lately, almost exclusively. When I was in grad school I wrote the longest stories I’ve ever written, and directly after that I took a crack at a novel. I got exhausted. I was also feeling alienated from the writing process itself, and writing shorter pieces brought me closer to the feeling I had when I first started writing. It became fun again.
As far as commonality goes, I’m probably not qualified to give that a substantial answer. But from my limited perspective, a good short-short delivers that same here-to-there feeling of a longer story, just with fewer tools. If a 25 page story is “Bohemian Rhapsody,” with a piano, guitar solos, multi-tracked vocals and a gong at the end, then a 250 word story is “Blitzkrieg Bop.”
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I used to get really depressed by the massive heap of one or two-paragraph snippets clogging up my hard-drive. I would weigh all that unfinished stuff against the few stories I actually finished and think I must be the least productive writer in the world. When it got really bad I’d do a cleansing ritual with the delete button; then I’d panic and convince myself I’d thrown out a potential masterpiece. It was all very paralyzing. Just recently, though, I’ve started thinking of it as a healthy part of my process, like making a compost heap. Those broken fragments eventually feed into the stories that are completed. They all count.
In the 1950s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by ten leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” If you were to write a credo, do you have a potent piece of advice, either from yourself or from another writer, that you might use as a jumping-off point?
Learn to suffer. My first writing teacher, Ira Sukrungruang, told me that when I was finishing my undergraduate degree. At first I thought he meant “suffer” as most people define it: enduring something miserable. I thought he was telling me to prepare for the hardships of a writer’s life, that I was never going to make any money, people were going to hate my stories, then I would hate them, become a sociopath, etc. But now I think he was talking about the secondary definition of “suffer,” which is just to feel something keenly. He was telling me not to fear my own sensitivity, but he was also warning me that once I was able to confront it, there was this further step of being able to work that sensitivity into readable writing. The craft and the emotion could never mean anything without the other. You can see that in everything Ira writes. His craft is incredibly sound and controlled, but it’s all very wide-eyed and open at the same time. It’s fearless without ever becoming irrational.