Our associate editor Michelle LaCrosse recently reached out to Bill, after reading several of his essays published in CR, to learn more about his writing style, favorite metaphors, influential teachers and published works, and more.
Michelle LaCrosse: The fall 2019 issue of CR will include your essay “Roadmap.” How did the idea come to you?
Bill Capossere: I’ve collected books and articles on maps for ages, and always figured there’d be an essay in there somewhere (we essayists always think our fascinations can be turned into other people’s fascinations if we just write it right!). When [my son] Kaidan and I started to do our maps together after getting back from our summer trips, I knew that would be the bookend with my own map of road trips, and then it was just filling in the spaces between.
ML: Yes, I’m always thinking about what can be turned into an essay! One thing I’ve learned at the CLP when reading an essay submission is to ask: Why this story? Why now? What would you say your answers are for “Roadmap”?
BC: I like to think it captures the spirit of something being lost—an experience and an object being left behind as the world moves on—and then connects that to the deeper, more personal sense of loss we all feel in our lives thanks to the passage of time. Plus, who wouldn’t want a map in the chaotic, confusing, upside down world we currently inhabit?
ML: You write about your personal life often. How does it feel to know that people read these personal essays about your family and some very emotional events? Does it get easier the more you write?
BC: I fret more about others who appear in the pieces rather than myself. That first published piece I mentioned was about an uncle who had died, and the essay did not paint a flattering image of him. When I found out it was accepted I had to tell my three cousins (his daughters) and my aunt and give them a copy, then stood there while they read it, which was terrifying (it worked out). Clearly that hasn’t stopped me from writing about real people, but some events I won’t use out of respect for those who haven’t volunteered to have their lives splayed out for everyone to look at. And let’s be honest, I have yet to reveal all my own darkest, most shameful acts. If it’s become any easier, and I’m not sure it has, it’s probably more about time than writing experience, of having a bit more distance between my current self and that past self I’m writing about.
ML: Your other essays featured in CR—“Planetary Loss,” (spring, 2007), “Man in the Moon” (fall, 2005), “Strange Travelers,” (fall, 2012), and “Black Holes” (spring, 2009)—have used space and objects in space as a metaphor. Is that something you write about often?
BC: I’ve always been fascinated by science, so that’s long found its way into my writing to varying degrees—out of my interest in it, out of its impact on the world, and also because it offers up such rich metaphor. That said, after those first two CR essays, I did feel like I’d almost accidentally wandered in my own little patch of writing woods and since then I’ve been more purposeful in tromping around in there.
ML: Do you remember the first thing you wrote that you thought, “Hey, this is pretty good — I should try to get it published”? Did it get published?
BC: The first story I recall writing was a collaborative tale our third-grade class composed called “George: Man from the Dead.” And yes, it was published—bound and printed (complete with illustrations), and we each got a copy, and to this day, I lord it over my friends who were in that class that I was the only one who got to write two chapters, including the ending. But if you mean a bit more professional . . . I did submit some stories in my twenties to magazines like Asimov’s and Analog (I should not have). But once my own internal critic had reached an actual discerning level of quality control, “Man in the Moon” was probably the first piece I sincerely thought, “Hey, I did that!” It wasn’t my first published piece. That was a simpler, more linear essay that was mostly whipped off in a night or two. “Man in the Moon” was more complex in thought and structure and so it took much longer to polish, but yes, it did end up finding a home . . . (CR fall/winter 2005, and Man in the Moon: Essays on Fathers & Fatherhood).
ML: What does your writing process look like?
BC: Early on, pieces typically began with an image that came out of nowhere, an in-ground pool drained and furnished like a room, for instance, an image that haunted me for years and became the seed for my play Drowned. Nowadays it’s less random. For the science essays, I’m actively seeking those metaphors, those connections to life, in my reading. Generally essays take significantly longer than my stories or even the full-length plays. Every now and then, of course, you get that bolt that goes right through you and something comes out almost fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus.
That uncle essay I mentioned originated when Judith Kitchen gave us a prompt in class using a line from the end of: “The Dead”—probably my favorite paragraph in all literature. Somehow I was the only one who recognized the line, and when I immediately put my pen down and said, “I can’t compete with [James] Joyce,” Judith just laughed. But driving home, I was struck by a connection between that line, my uncle, and the old trope about Inuit words for snow. I wrote the essay late that night pretty much as it appeared in print. Similarly, my flash fiction “Museum of Grace” was written in about ten minutes in a class at the Mt. Rainier MFA program and published pretty much as is. That happens all too rarely though. Way, way too rarely.
My process is painfully slow. I’ve never mastered the “just get it all out on the page” style of drafting. Instead, I’m a leave-no-bad-sentence-behind kind of writer, so I’ll typically write a paragraph or two, work the sentences, then, if it isn’t already three o’clock in the morning by then, write another paragraph or two. The exception to that are the plays, which surprisingly, despite their length and complexity, tend to come out multiple scenes at a time (not always in order), with the whole thing done as much as it can be in my head in a few months. At that point I need to hear it aloud from some actors to do more honing.
ML: Is there an essay or book that’s really stuck with you/influenced your work? In what ways?
BC: As I mentioned above, Judith is the one who really opened my eyes to creative nonfiction’s possibilities, both by her teaching and by her writing—not to mention her encouragement, which is just so damn good at both the micro level of words and sentences and the macro level of voice and structure, as well as how she follows a twisting thread in and out and round and back and over and under and then just lands it. And oh, those metaphors and similes! Her passing was such a loss to the community, not just for her writing but also her criticism, her teaching, and her unflagging support (moral and more tangible) of writers. Hers is the critical voice I hear most often in my head. As for other influences or favorites, too many to list, but two off the top of my head are Diane Ackerman for her blend of clarity and lushness, and Scott Russell Sanders for his warmth. In fiction, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a major inspiration for my museum cycle.
ML: A class with Judith Kitchen must have been amazing! Did you know her/her work when you took the class? Do you have a top piece of advice from her that’s turned into a motto or affirmation?
BC: No, I didn’t know her work at the time, though I quickly rectified that. As for advice, lots of it. But she was especially good on letting me know when my preference/tendency for long, ornate sentences was getting in the way, and it’s something I’ve learned to pay attention to (which one may or may not notice in this most recent essay).
ML: Do you have a favorite essay or book of Judith’s?
BC: The Circus Train is absolutely, brilliantly stunning. And I should note beyond her essay writing, her criticism (often for the Georgia Review) is sharp and insightful and a good guide for any writer as to what works, what doesn’t, and why.
ML: You learned a lot about writing from your instructors and now you teach writing. What do you like best about it? Your students rated you highly on quality feedback; what is your feedback style?
BC: Teaching creative writing, it’s the spirited community of writers inhabiting that shared space of imagination, so boundless and open and inviting. And the joy of believing in magic and alchemy and transformation, which is what we’re doing in there. But even in my more prosaic composition classes, students get something akin to that sense: “I wrote this, and then I wrote this, and look at the difference.” And what’s more exciting than that sort of real Narnia-level, Harry-Potter-level magic? In terms of feedback, it’s more marginalia and a short note at the end, and as much as possible, in both types of classes, I try to use questions: Why do you need this here, what are you trying to do there, what else could you have done here, what would happen if . . . etc.
ML: How difficult is it for you to write with a day job? Do you have a specific time you write, or are you able to write whenever the mood strikes?
BC: It used to be a lot harder when I taught high school full time, but some years ago my wonderful wife said yes to my quitting and becoming a part-time adjunct, which had a hugely positive impact on my writing (less so on our bank account, which is why she’s so wonderful). I like long, unbroken chunks of writing time, so ever since my teens, I’ve always written late at night, usually between midnight and five (later if I’m on a roll), though lately that’s crept back during the week to two or three (it’s actually 3:35 a.m. now).
ML: You also write plays and fiction. Did you always write a mix of genres, or did you come to nonfiction later? If so, what brought you there?
BC: Early on, I wrote stories and poetry (quite bad poetry). I was aware of this thing called “the essay,” couldn’t avoid reading some as an English major of course, but it wasn’t until I took a class with Judith Kitchen in the late ‘90s that I became fully aware of the genre: what had been done with it lately, its lyricism, its playfulness with form and language. The form quickly became my preferred one. The playwriting came about a few years later, after I’d been struggling for years with a short story. Much of it was dialogue and on one of those cross-country trips I reference in “Roadmap,” I got the should-have-been-obvious idea of why not just tell it all in dialogue, as a play. That was also about the time I (wisely) stopped writing poetry, though I’ll still sometimes turn to it as an early draft for a story or essay.
ML: What is your favorite thing you’ve written, or top two (in any genre)?
BC: (The most recent one written of course!) None of my full-length plays have gotten a full performance, but all have received formal readings by professional actors, and there’s just something about how the work comes alive even in that limited form that is electrifying in a way different from my other work. My favorite essay might be “There But for This Universe,” which is highly unlikely to ever see light except in a collection of my work due to its length (14,000 words) and odd column formatting. It explores quantum physics and the multiple universes theory in conjunction with looking at two different paths my life could have gone down. And I got to talk about the Fantastic Four and the Negative Zone in a formal piece, so there’s that.
ML: Finally, what do you want readers to know about you? About your work?
BC: Reading my work will make you younger and richer, cures back pain, clears up acne, and grows back hair. And every time you subscribe to one of the journals it appears in, an angel gets their wings.
I require that our family size M&M’s bag be kept in the fridge because chocolate is better cold. I will die on that hill. And I suppose I should add you can find me on Twitter, though mostly I just post when my reviews are up at fantasyliterature.com or elsewhere.
Bill Capossere’s work has appeared in Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rosebud, and other journals, as well as in the anthologies Man in the Moon, In Short, Short Takes, and most recently Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction. His nonfiction has been recognized in the “Notable essays” Section of several Best American Essays, and has received several Pushcart Prize nominations. He holds an MFA from Rainier Writing Workshop under Judith Kitchen and Stan Rubin. Capossere lives in Rochester, New York.
By Colorado Review Associate Editor Michelle LaCrosse