Mike DeCapite’s writerly trajectory reads like a punk band’s Horatio Alger story: Upon arrival in NYC, his first writings were published by Richard Hell, then his D.I.Y. first novel, Through The Windshield (1998) attracted a slow but steady following and inspired music by Pere Ubu. His new novel, Jacket Weather (Soft Skull Press), is now taking NYC by storm and gaining full-on national buzz. DeCapite’s personal story is as interesting as the fictional ones he spins in his books. Jordan N. Mamone sat down with DeCapite to get the goods for PKM.
Mike DeCapite’s literary connections scan like a list of Please Kill Me bona fides. Richard Hell printed the Cleveland-bred writer’s first piece and arranged for his inaugural reading. Our own Gillian McCain was an early booster, as well. And none other than Pere Ubu spun lyrics from prose that would turn into DeCapite’s debut novel, 1998’s gritty DIY Through the Windshield. Additionally, for an autumn book tour promoting his latest effort, Jacket Weather, the author is appearing alongside cultural historian Lucy Sante plus singer and Peter Laughner chronicler Adele Bertei, who once played organ for James Chance’s Contortions. Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, it’s worth revealing that DeCapite and I share the same day job—though I’d admired his stuff prior to knowing him personally and for roughly a decade before I colonized the adjacent cubicle. This blatant namechecking, however, shouldn’t be required to talk you into smearing the guy’s ink all over your mitts and mind.
Jacket Weather, released by Soft Skull Press in October, is DeCapite’s hotly anticipated bow for a big-shot publisher. And yes, music references abound, from the comfort-food strains of vintage Stones, Lou Reed, and Suicide to a cameo by post-punk chanteuse Judy Nylon (announcing Willy DeVille’s cancer diagnosis, to boot) to a ticket stub for no-wave superfreak Von Lmo’s infamously underattended gig at the Palladium circa 1980. At the opposite end of the spectrum lies a biting dissection of Journey’s AOR schlock monster “Don’t Stop Believin’”: “I’m captivated by its total falsity—its comprehensive pretension—the striving of this suburban jackass with feathered hair to convey some kind of hazy urban fantasy with these counterfeit images,” DeCapite comments toward the beginning of his text. “The song seems like it was written by someone who’s never been outside.” Elsewhere, Philly, one of Jacket Weather’s most ebullient characters, voices a cogent takedown of the Beatles, explaining why he worships lascivious Latin rhythms but wholly ignores rock and roll: “When I was in high school I heard ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ and I said ‘I wanna hold your hand’? Gimme a break! This is the squarest shit I ever heard!… They ruined everything!”
But the main draw is DeCapite’s penchant for noticing the poetic details and profundities in mundane situations, whether he’s surveying the sky from an open window or rattling off the menu at the type of Puerto Rican lunch joint that’s unfortunately become an endangered species in an increasingly shiny Manhattan. His matter-of-fact language and command of naturalistic dialogue are similarly impressive. He’s that rare wordsmith who trades heavily in autobiographical reflections but refuses to succumb to the narcissistic pitfalls of capital-M memoirs.
While it’s nominally a love story concerning two fiftysomethings who long ago eschewed starry-eyed notions of idealized attachment, Jacket Weather is as much about aging, reborn hope, and New York City living as it is about DeCapite himself and June, the object of his slightly obsessive affection. Recounted nonchronologically and even non-narratively on occasion, their romance leaves plenty of room for recurring digressions into Italian-American cooking, male bonding at a YMCA gym inhabited by crusty old-timers, and the eccentric mannerisms of arts patron and manager Jane Friedman, who looms large in the careers of Patti Smith and John Cale. Jacket Weather’s structure is decidedly abstract but not calculatedly experimental or abstruse. And despite its sporadic sweetness, the tale veers away from sappiness or overt sentimentality. It describes a very NYC courtship, but one that will charm people who get hives at the mention of Woody Allen movies.
Here, from his studio-apartment roost at the nexus between Chelsea and the West Village, DeCapite offers insight into his plainspoken style, his distinguished social circles, and the ever-smudging line separating real life and fiction.
PKM: You’ve got readings coming up with Adele Bertei and Lucy Sante. How did those come about?
Mike DeCapite: Adele had two books come out during the pandemic, when she couldn’t promote them in person: Peter and the Wolves, which is her memoir about Peter Laughner, and a book about [the R&B vocal trio] Labelle, Why Labelle Matters. And Lucy never had a chance to promote [her current book] Maybe the People Would Be the Times, for the same reason. Adele and I had talked about doing something together in Cleveland, so we started there and she got us a reading in LA and I added one in New York and Lucy got us the rest. We’re doing seven readings, in October and November. And those two are doing a couple in New York, before Jacket Weather comes out.
PKM: You’re observant by nature. You’re not a shy person, but you’re able to hang back and notice minute details about everyday things. Where do you think that perceptiveness comes from?
Mike DeCapite: It’s working on something that wakes me up as an observer. I’m sort of going around like I’m in a supermarket: “I’ll take that for my book, and I’ll take that…”
PKM: You have an ear for dialogue, too.
Mike DeCapite: Dialogue I like because it opens the book up, or seems to. You’re not hearing from me all the time.
PKM: Have you always written in such a naturalistic, conversational style?
Mike DeCapite: It’s gotten more direct and conversational over the years, but I’ve had to work at it.
PKM: Richard Hell was the first person to publish you. He also put on your first reading. How did you meet and how did both of those opportunities come about?
Mike DeCapite: I moved to New York in the spring of 1987, and there was an item in one of the free papers that said Richard was going to be running the Monday-night readings at [the Poetry Project at] St. Mark’s [Church] and editing a magazine. I was writing Through the Windshield, so I sent him some short pieces from that. Maybe I called him first. I have a memory of talking to him from a job site, with saws going in another room; I was working on a painting crew. When I said I was from Cleveland, he mentioned [poet and underground publisher] d.a. levy. I sent [Hell] some short things, and he called to say he wanted some of them for the magazine, Cuz. He said he wanted me to read, too, which was something I’d never considered. I dunno. I was really young. I mean, I was 25, but I was a young 25. Richard invited me and my partner to his birthday dinner that October at John’s, on 12th Street.
PKM: The red-sauce Italian restaurant in the East Village. It seemed so old-school, even back then.
Mike DeCapite: And I remember thinking I was in a fancy place because of the white tablecloths. It was an auspicious night.
PKM: [laughing] They advertise having vegan dishes there now, you know.
Mike DeCapite: And gluten-free stuff. A couple of months ago, I walked over to John’s after work; I hadn’t been there in years. And I was thinking about Jacket Weather coming out in October, you know, and remembering that night.
PKM: What was Hell like?
Mike DeCapite: He was incredibly generous to me with his time, friendship, criticism, patience, knowledge—you name it. Introduced me to everyone. He just opened up New York to me. Later, Richard published my story “Sitting Pretty” as part of his chapbook series, Cuz Editions. At that point, it was just a chapter in a novel I was writing called Ruined for Life!
PKM: The phrase cult hit is a bit of a cliché, but Through the Windshield became something like that—gradually and purely via word-of-mouth and underground literary channels. It was eventually self-published, but it acquired a certain cachet over the years. Care to comment on how its reputation grew?
Mike DeCapite: By the time I finished it—maybe 1990—excerpts had appeared in three issues of Cuz and a few other places. There was a chapter in a zine called Ragnarok, that [Cleveland musician and writer] Charlotte Pressler was involved with. [Scat Records label boss and Prisonshake guitarist] Robert Griffin used a chunk in [his magazine] Seven. And at some point, [editor, now co-owner of Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom & Tavern] Cindy Barber published the book’s opening chapter as the cover story in the Cleveland Free Times. And I’d been reading from it and sending it out to agents and giving people manuscripts, which they passed around. It was 1998 before I decided no one else was going to publish it. So that’s another eight years the book was floating around. It had lots of time to gather a little reputation.
PKM: With the rise of social media and everything being so hyped and branded, do you think it’s still possible for a book—or any work of art, really—to get attention so organically?
Mike DeCapite: Sure. The difference is that you used to find out about something by chasing it down, and now you find out about something by filtering everything else out.
PKM: Some of what was published in the first book ended up as lyrics to a Pere Ubu song. How did that happen?
Mike DeCapite: [Ubu bassist from 1976 to 1992] Tony Maimone and I are old friends. He became a sort of sensei to me when I met him in Cleveland, about 1982. Not in writing so much as in, you know, life. And after he moved to New York, I moved in with him on Grand Street, in Williamsburg, until I got a place of my own, directly downstairs. Tony built a piece of music around some lines from Through the Windshield, and when [Ubu] were looking for bonus material for a reissue of Story of My Life, they used it.
PKM: Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo wrote a blurb for the new book. How do you know him?
Mike DeCapite: We’ve never met, but we know some people in common, and a couple of times, over the years, it got back to me that he said something nice about Through the Windshield. Soft Skull published two of his books, so when they asked me who they should send review copies to, I mentioned him. Which is a lot to ask of someone. And he wrote a long, very nice endorsement of Jacket Weather. Really generous of him.
PKM: The director Kelly Reichardt mentioned that your books feel like movies. I guess she means that it’s easy to picture some of the scenes you set and the characters you feature. Do you agree with her? Why or why not?
Mike DeCapite: I love Kelly’s movies, so that’s a big compliment. Maybe what makes my books like Kelly’s movies, in particular, is they’re sort of elliptical. They’re made up of discrete segments, you know, with very little exposition or transition. So there’s some room to breathe. The worst thing about writing is transitions; they just take all the life out of something and make it a chore—to write and to read. So I try to avoid them. Leave some air in there. And Kelly’s always very aware of the surroundings. I mean, what’s happening is not more important than the surroundings. She has a sense of scale.
PKM: Jacket Weather is less gritty, bitter, and resigned than Through the Windshield or even your chapbook Creamsicle Blue. Why’s that?
Mike DeCapite: I wouldn’t call those books bitter or resigned; they’re both affirmative.
PKM: Yeah, fair enough, but maybe not in the most traditionally uplifting sense.
Mike DeCapite: Maybe Jacket Weather is less gritty.
PKM: I guess what I mean is that the tone of the new one is a little different. Is it just because you’re older and perhaps more content?
Mike DeCapite: I mean, it’s a love story. But it has its share of anxiety and dread, doesn’t it? I meant it to be even lighter than it is. I imagined it like lace: a novella, 120 pages.
PKM: And, of course, it wound up becoming twice that long. Jacket Weather is your first real experience with a relatively large publisher. How has that felt different from the self-published stuff? Has it been pleasant, a pain in the ass, or a little of both?
Mike DeCapite: I sent Jacket Weather to [editor] Yuka Igarashi in early August 2019, and in November, she wrote and said she wanted to talk. So we arranged to talk that week, which was a week before Thanksgiving. And after work that day, I was supposed to take Jane Friedman, who’s a character in the book, to Costco. So I left work early and went down to the garage where we park the car, on Pier 40. And from the car on the roof of this garage, under this low sky, I called Yuka. And right away, I could tell she saw Jacket Weather as its own thing rather than as a failure to be something else. I could tell she was someone who’d have the book’s best interests at heart. She wanted me to know that if they decided to publish it, the book was going to go through a machine. Promotional machine. Anyway, we talked for so long that eventually, I started the engine because I had to go get Jane. And Yuka said, “Are you driving somewhere?” I said, “Well, I gotta take Jane to Costco.” And she said, “Oh, I love Jane.” So I knew she was the one. Even so, you’re used to working alone, so to let someone in is an adjustment. Each new round [of editing] was like a dentist appointment that you dread and that turns out to be painless. Because Yuka was so sympathetic.
PKM: Did you make any compromises?
Mike DeCapite: There were small compromises, but none I regret or even really remember, at this point. There were lots of song lyrics, that’s one thing. But it was going to be too expensive to use them, so I took them out. And I don’t miss them. And there were improvements I wouldn’t have gotten to without Yuka. Of course, the main difference is you don’t have to do everything yourself. And there are people repping the book to distributors and bookstores and reviewers. There’s a team behind it, and in this case, a smart, enthusiastic, and sensitive team.
PKM: Gillian McCain initially tried to hook you up with Soft Skull, right? How do you know her and what was that all about?
Mike DeCapite: I’ve known Gillian since the late ’80s, early ’90s. When she was at the Poetry Project. I want to say I met her through the writer Janice Johnson, but I also knew Legs McNeil, so it might’ve been through him. When I moved back to New York from San Francisco, I gave her Ruined for Life! I think at that point, we were trying to write some poems together. She sent Ruined for Life! to a woman she knew at Soft Skull named Anne Horowitz. And Anne was really taken with the book. I thought I might have a chance there, but then [the company] got sold and moved west and whatever else happened, so I don’t think anyone else even saw it.
PKM: How did you end up reconnecting with Soft Skull for Jacket Weather?
Mike DeCapite: [Writer and founder of Semiotext(e) press’s Native Agents imprint] Chris Kraus agreed to read it, and she recommended I send it to Yuka.
PKM: The new book is about falling in love after you’ve given up on such notions. But it’s also just as much about you. And about the city. Did you make a conscious decision to write it as something that wasn’t a straight love story?
Mike DeCapite: Let’s say the love story is the occasion for the book. It’s what lets me capture the other things that are in there. And it lets me write about feeling my mortality.
PKM: Despite it being very sweet at times, the book is never sappy or too sentimental.
Mike DeCapite: Yeah, I hope not, because then it would be false.
PKM: Did you know you wanted to write it from the minute you met June?
Mike DeCapite: Yeah, let me think about that. … Not as the story for a book, because that sounds linear, but as the reason for a book. The frame. From pretty early on, I knew this was a box I could put things into.
PKM: Is the stuff in the book purely autobiographical? Why do you call this a novel rather than a memoir?
Mike DeCapite: I only ever thought of it as a novel. It uses people and events from my life, so it’s a novel using found materials. Like a collage. But you use only what’s consistent with what you’re trying to convey. I’m not interested in writing about myself; I’m just interested in putting one thing next to another to achieve an effect. Or in making a space into which you can project yourself. Maybe one you’ll go back to. I’ll never forget what someone said to me about Through the Windshield: “You just wrote down what happened. What’s the big deal?” I love that. Tell that to a painter: “What’s the big deal? You just painted what was there.” Also, a memoir is about the past. A novel is now.
PKM: Why did you choose to tell the story nonchronologically and even nonnarratively at times? Why fly in poetic observations about New York, bits of random dialogue between June and Jane, and all that?
Mike DeCapite: Texture. The idea that the book is open to its surroundings, open to chance. I always loved the way Lou Reed mixed in what sounds like people sitting around a table of drinks on a couple of songs on Coney Island Baby and The Bells. These elements are only random if you’re looking for a plot. But even though it moves fast, this isn’t a device built to take you from here to there, you know what I mean? I want you to feel like you’re there. It’s that simple, really. That’s my whole deal. And I want you to have fun while you’re there. Right? Otherwise, why not just say “boy meets girl”? This book covers 10 years. I’m glad you noticed that; some people don’t.
PKM: Thanks, man. Why did you shelve Ruined for Life!? Did Jacket Weather have its roots in that project?
Mike DeCapite: Ruined for Life! is the novel I wrote after Through the Windshield. It’s nothing to do with anything else. I wrote it in San Francisco, in the ’90s, and completely redid it when I quit drinking, and maybe again after I moved back to New York, in 2005. I finished it several times. I just couldn’t find an agent or a publisher for it. And eventually, I had to walk away from it, like a bad relationship. Did you ever read that short Balzac novel, The Unknown Masterpiece? Do you know that book?
PKM: No. School me.
Mike DeCapite: It’s about a painter who gets stuck in this artistic quagmire. Like a tar pit. He gets trapped in this painting because it presents problems he can’t solve or leave unsolved. Ruined for Life! was that for me. I guess it’s the one that got away.
PKM: How did June react to Jacket Weather, particularly to the more candid parts in which you’re gushing romantically about her, and to the erotic stuff? Was she flattered? Embarrassed? Amused?
Mike DeCapite: Not embarrassed. Flattered, sure. But also exposed. You know, because people are using your name in reviews and quoting you and judging your behavior. Obviously, I can expect to be judged because I wrote the book, but it’s not what she signed up for.
PKM: What were your first impressions of Jane Friedman? Briefly detail the history between her and June.
Mike DeCapite: I can’t remember when I first met Jane. It was a long time ago, when her firm was doing press for Ubu. I’d already met June, through Tony. I think I always thought of Jane as a sort of fairy godmother who made things happen. One of those people who makes it seem like anything’s possible. She’s June’s best friend. Those two have been like family since June went to work for her, in the mid-’80s.
PKM: Why make Jane such a huge part of the book?
Mike DeCapite: Her relation to the rest of it is more apparent if you see the book as a fabric or a design instead of as a story. She’s part of the pattern. And she represents an aspect of New York that I wanted, like the guys at the Y. All these people are where we tap into history. They’re living history. Like New York.
PKM: Speaking of which, what’s your fascination with YMCAs? How and when did you start going to them?
Mike DeCapite: Good question. You know, when I was a little kid, my mother and father separated for a short time, and my father took a room at the downtown Y in Cleveland. And I remember being taken there to see him in his narrow room with an air-shaft view and a cot and a typewriter and an ashtray. So I had a romantic notion of YMCAs from an early age. And of writing, come to think of it. And an association between the two. Later, I joined that same Y, and opened Through the Windshield there. I dunno, that seems like a very pat psychological explanation, but even if you’re not interested in psychology, which I’m not, sometimes you go “Well, yeah.”
PKM: Let’s talk about food; it’s such a major feature of Jacket Weather. Have you always cooked? Where did that passion come from?
Mike DeCapite: I always cooked, yeah. I got it from my father, who did most of the cooking at home. I just assumed it was something I should be able to do for myself.
PKM: Me, too. What’s your favorite dish to prepare? And please be more specific than just saying “pasta.”
Mike DeCapite: Before [June and I] cut way back on meat, I’d been making spareribs with sweet bell peppers and cherry peppers and potatoes. I browned the ribs and then cooked it all together in a roasting pan. I got the idea from pork chops and cherry peppers, which I love.
PKM: Oh, man! Especially when the sweet, sour, and salty elements balance out.
Mike DeCapite: Then we started eating meat like once a month.
PKM: Sorry for your loss.
Mike DeCapite: One thing I’ve been making lately is a recipe I got from my friend Shay, these chickpea-flour pancakes.
PKM: Like panelle, those fritters from Sicily? They rule.
Mike DeCapite: Like crepes, with Swiss chard and feta inside. But if you’re asking about my favorite dish to prepare, we’re back to pasta, Jordan. Linguine with garlic and oil, if June’s eating something else for dinner. Pasta doesn’t have the same fascination for her as it does for me.
PKM: Poor thing.
Mike DeCapite: And I’ve been making linguine with asparagus. Chop the asparagus up small, soften it in olive oil with the juice and zest of a lemon, and a couple of spoons of the pasta water. Parmesan. Can’t beat it.
PKM: Not bad at all. You leave it up to the reader to figure out if you and June ended up together for the long haul. I mean, it’s implied. But why didn’t you just spell it out?