The Secret Life of James R. Gapinski

By Tina Casarotto on April 9, 2019

James R. Gapinski

Tucked away in the back of the Tutoring & Study Skills Center located at the Salem, OR campus of Chemeketa Community College is a small shared office filled with books, papers, desks, and one James R. Gapinski. Tall, thin, and always dressed impeccably, Gapinski quietly goes about his work as an Instructional Specialist, supervising the writing tutors and conducting writing workshops.

However, this is just a small part of the person few people know about. Besides being a Professor and Managing Editor, he is also an author. James has written many flash fiction stories which have been compiled into one book, Messiah Tortoise. Released just this past April is his first novella, Edge of the Known Bus Line.

“There’s a face behind the tile above our sink…There it is. A human face. Scratch that. It’s a head. Sort of.”     -The Renovation

Born into a family of modest means in southern Wisconsin, Gapinski was encouraged to read from a very young age. He recounts, “I was very fortunate to grow up in a house that had books, which is not the case for every child, but I grew up in a household that had a bookshelf with books and we went to the library regularly. Our library had this bin of children’s books that we rifled through and found the ones we liked. It wasn’t even shelved. We just found something. That was my fun for the week, was going to the library and finding new books.”

For his family, television was a luxury. The one they had was an old black and white with a knob to turn the channels. He continues, “Books were sort of my way of entertainment and my way of escape and my way of transporting myself to other worlds, passing the time. And at some point, I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point, that transitioned to writing. I think probably very early in my childhood.”

Gapinski’s first form of storytelling began as drawing and captioning his own comic strips. “At first, I was…drawing little cartoon things like I’d read in the Sunday paper,” he remembers. “That was probably my first form of story, these little three-panel things where something happens in the end. I think gradually as I learned to do more than make these little tiny illustrations that told rather boring stories. I thought they were really interesting.” However, his aptitude for writing didn’t take form until high school when he discovered creative writing courses. “Somebody first showed me this is a thing you really can do and writing is an activity you really can do. And they’re, like, go with this, try this, explore this, because before that I was just kind of playing around if that makes sense,” he explained.

After college, Gapinski lived first in Portland, Oregon and then in Colorado and Boston before returning to Oregon. Working as a freelance copywriter allowed him to mainly work from home as his partner’s internship and post-doc compelled them to move. However, Portland called to him. He found the vibe of the city to be liberating and climate to be comfortable. It made it seem like a place he could enjoy living. So, along with his partner and two cats, Jasper and Lester, he moved to Oregon and has been here ever since. Besides reading, one of his favorite ways to de-stress is to play vintage 8-bit Nintendo games.

“Please, no more sneaking into the zoo for bestiality, slaughtering animals for ‘exotic’ meats, or frat initiations that involve angering the big cats.”-Notice to All Zoo Patrons

When it comes to writing, though, this is where things take a left turn. Once a person begins to read a few of his short stories, one begins to realize that underneath this veneer of averageness lurks a dark and twisted sense of humor. In fact, when asked about this, Gapinski ducks his head and tries to hide a small smile. Where did this darkness come from? “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed humor. I enjoy laughter. I enjoy funny things. I used to enjoy comedy movies and funny books. I guess gradually I just learned that merging it with the other writing I was doing.”

Edge of the Known Bus Line simply cannot fit into one genre or category. It is, perhaps, part Twilight Zone and part horror. “I just gradually learned that despite what popular culture might tell us, you can do a lot of interesting things with humor,” Gapinski explains. “You can explore and probe some very serious topics and you can sort of cut through that tension of talking about dark, depressing things by using a joke occasionally. It gets the reader to go along with you. Instead of kind of turning away in sort of disgust, they find it a little funny and they’re willing to kind of take that ride a little more. And it just kind of evolves from there. Intellectually, I can see it as a tool for addressing difficult subject matter.”

“Tarp-Woman drops the wrung-out scrap back in the container and prods the bits of gray brain matter in the hubcap with her fingernail…’Make sure you cook it long enough. Don’t eat any until the blood boils, okay?’”-Edge of the Known Bus Line

Influential to Gapinski are several authors who also push the boundaries of what is considered traditional fiction. While studying for his Master of Fine Arts at Goddard College, he found Etgar Keret, an Israeli author of flash fiction. Gapinski describes his work as surreal in an absurd, over the top kind of way that, while dark, is also whimsical and fantastic. “He really does some interesting things just with suspending disbelief and get the reader to buy into whatever story he’s put in front of them. So, a lot of my stories do deal with sort of unreal situations. So I tend to use (him) as sort of an inspiration to make those sort of tangible and real for the reader.”

For Edge of the Known Bus Line, two authors provided inspiration. First, Grace Krilanovich and her collection of stories titled The Orange Eats Creeps. Gapinski describes it as “a gritty, fast-paced novel,” the tone of which helped him during his writing process. The other author was Amelia Gray and her novel Gutshot.

Despite Gray being a novelist, Gapinski sees her as being akin to a flash fiction writer, able to tell a story that is “visceral and impactful in a smaller space.” He continues, “I was really thinking about how to tell a fully realized story in a short space (and) in a way the reader feels it rather than me having to describe this sprawling landscape. It was more a quickly paced scenario.”

Along these lines, Gapinski is the Managing Editor of The Conium Review, a print magazine that specializes in innovative fiction. “People often think of innovative fiction as sort of experiments in form,” he explains. “Visually you look at it (and) it looks different. It’s got different paragraphing. It’s kind of almost a hybrid form that blends some kind of poetry conventions into the fiction. But we tend to have a broader umbrella where innovative or forward thinking, different thinking kind of fiction can also provide different experiments in character, style and subject matter.”

He goes on to explain fiction does not need to follow traditional plot lines or even have a main character who is instantly relatable or likable. “Maybe there’s this…character that’s being developed that feels authentic but is very, very much the sort of person you loathe,” he says. “ But that’s sort of how you get someone to stay in that moment and explore that character. It’s an interesting character, an interesting experiment in the realm of characters.”

“Sharon’s lover is a smoke cloud. Or maybe black mist is a better descriptor. He doesn’t smell smoky, nor is he dry and suffocating. He is moist and dense, like a blackened fog.”-Sharon’s Lover Is Dissipating

The Conium Review provides a place where marginalized writers can have a chance to have their work published. Their mission states, “We are especially interested in work from women, LGBTQIA authors, and writers of color.” This is one reason why James is so proud to be working with this publication. “I’m glad to be involved in a magazine that lets me kind of explore that as an editor. I get to see all these interesting new pieces that are coming out from writers around the country,” he says.

Every year three separate contests are held for best book, short story, and flash fiction. First place receives $500 along with the publication of their work. While this year’s deadline has passed, the web address is

[Check out his shorter works at http://www.jamesrgapinski.comEdge of the Known Bus Line is available on Amazon.]

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