We at The Southeast Review and Florida State University are reeling from the sudden and tragic loss of one of our own. On the morning of August 10th, 2010, the driver of an SUV struck and killed Jill Caputo, a recently-graduated MFA student, as she was crossing a street by FSU’s campus in her wheelchair.
Jill was a teaching assistant in the English Department from 2006-2008 and served as a reader of incoming fiction submissions for SER. After graduating in the spring of 2008, she worked for the Agency of Workforce Innovation, aiding people in filing for and receiving unemployment benefits. At the time of her death, she was 30 years old.
While funeral services have already taken place in Caputo’s hometown of Wichita, Kansas, all of us at SER would like this page to serve as an ongoing and permanent tribute to her life and work. Many thanks to everyone who has helped us celebrate Jill here. To contribute a tribute of your own, please email the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Jessica Pitchford, editor
Cass Cross: My Friend, Jill Caputo
I remember Jill asking me once, in a moment of insecurity, if I thought she was a good writer. I said, yes, without a doubt. She asked again, stressing honesty. She wanted to really believe me when I said it. Though I remember her so much for being tough—ballsy, even—there was a fragility to her that surfaced quickly and quietly. I recognized that need to know; I barely had enough courage to voice my own.
She was so persistent that day that I ran out of things to say.
“Jill, do you think I’m a good writer?” I asked. I was trying to make a point about belief—if I believed her, she should believe me—expecting her to answer immediately, yes, of course.
She replied, exasperated in the moment, “I haven’t really read enough of your work!”
Honest to a fault, that was Jill. But it was something to lighten the mood, and we both laughed. As a writer, I am selfish; we all are. I try to keep it secret. It has taken me too long to write this, the document open and saving on my computer for months. The truth—the trouble—is that I miss my friend. I want to hear her voice on the phone. I have sat down to write this many times and each time it becomes selfish. It is me writing about grief, about how I feel in her absence. The story quickly becomes about my sadness, my loss. I want to write, instead, about giggling.
Spending time with Jill meant lots of giggling. Lonely my first year of graduate school, meeting Jill was a godsend. We talked about what it was like to be in the writing program (who do you think is the cutest? she asked) and celebrity gossip and my weakness for Jude Law movies. We talked about who was published, and how it broke our selfish hearts to watch our colleagues succeed. We agreed that Robert Olen Butler was astounding in his brilliance, and once at a party she got fluttery when Mark Winegardner lifted her up the porch steps, Jill and the wheelchair effortlessly in three stairs.
Jill was fashionably dressed, always. She loved Betsey Johnson and sparkly eye shadows and had a pile of shoes she didn’t wear. She was funny—very—even though she didn’t always mean to be. That’s just what happens when someone is true and honest and completely frank, like Jill. She laughed a lot, and sometimes quite inappropriately, which was always my favorite thing about her.
Spending time with Jill meant understanding that there were too many places in town that presented impassable obstacles for Jill’s wheels. Small things, like a couple of stairs. And so with our friend Mariann we went to movies at the Miracle 5 often. Though there was a special space for a wheelchair at the end of one row, Jill preferred to sit in a theatre seat instead. We’d wheel her empty chair to the back of the theater and she’d settle in with her giant soda and M&Ms, for two hours watching the film the same as everyone else.
On the phone the other day, Mariann told me that she could hear Jill’s voice sometimes, responding to something she’d said, or laughing at a joke. It has been months, but even now it is hard. I think of all the clichés of death. It’s not fair. She was wonderful. She had so much life ahead of her, so many words to write.
The worst part about this is that I only learned of Jill’s death in December. I was 3,000 miles away and more than three months late. I hate to write that sentence because it reveals the truth, that I had let so much time go by without calling, that I had thought I haven’t heard from Jill lately and not picked up the phone, that I had been a terrible friend in those last months of our friendship. I will think of myself this way forever. There is no repair for it, no way back to the last conversation we would have had. In the weeks where I did not know, the months, my ignorant bliss was thinking she would call soon, and I would be happy to hear from her. I want to go back to this.
I think about the first and last times I saw her.
The first time: sitting in Bob Butler’s screenwriting class waiting for it to start, a whirring in the hallway, the sound of wheels on carpet moving fast, and a voice calling, Would you hold that door? and then Jill, in her purple wheelchair, her purse and soda and pencil case, zooming to a stop at the front of the room. In class she asked the questions that everyone else wanted to but didn’t, and some questions that seemingly appeared out of thin air. Sometimes she asked questions she hadn’t quite figured how to ask before starting to ask them, stringing along words in an endless thread, confusing the one being questioned and also herself, finally laughing and saying oh, nevermind.
The question was her favorite social tool. She loved to ask couples when they were getting married. Loved to ask, “Do you love her?” and then smile in excitement at the answer. Only days after my wedding she began to ask, “When are you going to have babies?” Once, when our friend Tom Cooper volunteered to help lift her up the steps to my apartment building, she declined, and asked, innocently, “Where’d you get that shirt, Tom? American Eagle?”
The last time I saw her: smiling and fashionable at dinner downtown, a light sweater thrown over her shoulders, helping me celebrate the successful defense of my thesis. It was dark and so I walked her halfway home, past the line of fraternity houses on College Avenue, stupidly thinking there might be frat boys causing trouble, stupidly thinking that I would be able to defend us both. Of course, Jill never needed protecting in that way. She was a firecracker, a little voice with big impact. But she could get hurt, too. Like any of us, the occasional surprise of an insensitive comment threw her off balance. She was embarrassed by the fact that she had, once or twice, cried in class. I think that I said to her it doesn’t matter, everyone understands, but I should have said what I really felt, which was, to me, her tears were admirable. In MFA programs we’re told we have to be tough to handle rejection. But writing is hard; I feel it all the time. If Jill felt like crying, she cried. She was never going to give up—that’s the danger, not the tears—and didn’t consider the idea of not writing. She felt what she felt, then recovered. I want to learn from that. I want to feel what I feel.
I have a silly memory of her that pops into my head more frequently than she probably would have liked; the time at a restaurant she suspected she was being skimped shrimp on her pasta dish and got in a lengthy discussion with the waiter about how many shrimp were in a pound. Something about the way she said “three shrimp?!” makes me smile, and always has. Now she would say, That’s what you remember about me, Cassie? Shrimp?!
Mariann says that she sometimes pretends Jill is on vacation. I pretend we are still suspended, out of touch. She will call any day. I will get to hear her voice, I will get to hear her giggle.
I’m afraid I’m not doing it right. Not the grieving, but this—here—the writing. She might not have agreed with everything I’ve said. She’d say there’s too much Jude Law, too many unimportant stories. I’m afraid I’ve made her too giggly. Again, she’d say, Shrimp?! But I can’t forget the memory, her incredulous look.
Is this friendship after death? Remembering such inane details, even the smallest things, the little holes that cannot be filled again. A friend who sends back a plate of food, who has a pile of shoes to donate to Goodwill, hardly worn. A friend who laughs about the name the company has given to the color of her wheelchair: Razzledazzle.
Because there was more to her than that. Obviously so much more. She could write lines about the body that would make me jealous I hadn’t written them myself. She somehow knew to call just when I was getting discouraged with my work, knew when I needed someone’s voice to say, keep going. And once, you can never give up.
I have forgotten to include the things that made her real—the depth of her feelings, how she sometimes fell asleep in class, her frustrations with those in the program who didn’t take her seriously, her desire to be published, to kiss a boy. And I may have forgotten more, too, that I don’t even know to include. Or I may have altered things to fit. I may have tried too hard.
These last few years our friendship existed over phone calls, emails, sending chapters or entire novels, being the you can do it for the other, being the I love your work for the other. Hers is an absence I feel keenly. I don’t think I can fit anyone else into that spot.
I worry I am not finding all the right words for her now. She would have done it better for me. She wrote with less fear than I; she did not always endear her reader to her subject. She was much more perceptive of her characters and their faults. Jill’s narrators were fierce, furious. She revealed their selfishness without hesitation. She let them behave badly, and they did: the main character of her novel had an affinity for ramming people with her wheelchair (which Jill had also done to me once in the hallway of the Williams Building.) She began one story with a bridesmaid bothered by a “rogue pubic hair” under her satin dress. Would she hate me for remembering that line above all others? There is another line I remember, touching and delicate, where her main character holds a business card for a wheelchair-accessible cab company: Felix Gutterson, the card says. “Premier Wheelchair Taxi Service.” And underneath it, to the right, is an imprint of a handicapped icon. I run my fingers over it, feel the indentation, slightly raised and special, almost like Braille.
This year one of her stories will be published in the Bellevue Literary Review. A story titled, “Winston Speaks,” awarded an honorable mention by Andre Dubus III for the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction. It will be Jill’s first published story. A small asterisk on their website reads, Sadly, we discovered that Jill Caputo passed away in August 2010.
I’ve asked Mariann, did she know? I want to believe in that moment, the email informing her of the win, the surge of pride, the glee of accomplishment. Mariann says we could ask her sister, who is now in possession of Jill’s hard drive, her emails, the entirety of her words and those anyone else had written to her. I’ve held back from doing so, knowing there is a high probability she wasn’t notified in time. The flat face of evidence: she never mentioned it to Mariann, she never called me with the news. I’d rather believe the version where she knew, just like I’d rather believe in the idea she died on impact, that there were no moments of fear, and no moments of pain. Some pieces of the puzzle you can’t pursue.
I’ve moved six times in the last 13 years; I make friends slowly, I find myself often lonely. The friends I have made are now scattered around this country, away from me. After Jill’s death I feel the impulse to gather them up—however I am able—in my arms like children and whisper to the tops of their heads, Are you okay? Are you happy?
If I finish writing this, I’ll stop having the document titled “Jill” open on my screen. If I finish writing this there will be an end to the page. A good friend. A firecracker. Someone who cared. I can’t write everything about her. I’ll have to admit defeat.
I have led myself into a trap, thinking of what the well-meaning call “the important things in life.” Jill would have underlined this and written in the margin be more specific. Good writers don’t let one another get away with cliché.
Jill told me once that when she was younger she could sit cross-legged in her chair. I have a distinct image of that—a curly-headed, giggly girl, bony-knees and big smile. And another image, of her leading a panel at AWP in Atlanta, confident and professional, when the night before we had snacked on chicken strips in the hotel restaurant and she confessed, I’m nervous.
Jill was dear to me; I miss her. My friend, my colleague of words.
I first met Jill Caputo in the summer of 2005 at Ali Baba’s, a now-closed hookah bar on Pensacola Street in Tallahassee, Florida. Saleh Assadi, the owner, hosted a weekly reading series for graduate students in the Florida State Creative Writing Program. Thursday nights we would gather to share pita and hummus and listen to our friends read from their work. After, we would sit on the front porch (it was a great front porch), drink pitcher after pitcher of warm beer in the muggy Gulf air, and say things to each other like,
“I used to think Lolita was the best novel ever written until I read Pale Fire.”
“Maybe, but no one can beat Hannah’s sentence about feet and uteri.”
“Nabokov did with two words: picnic—lightning.”
Simply put, we were making friends, starting arguments, and plagiarizing our heroes to see how their words sounded coming out of our mouths.
It’s hard to remember a late night at Ali Baba’s without hearing Jill laughing at the absurdity of our conversations. The gleam in her eye suggested that she knew what we were all too afraid to admit: we were posing, faking it, trying to talk our way into being real writers without doing any of the real work (putting down the pitchers, driving home to our beds, and waking up with the sun to write). It’s possible that I’m misremembering that. Maybe the gleam said we were all idiots.
We were idiots. Well, I was an idiot.
I didn’t really get to know Jill until the spring of 2006 when we were enrolled together in a novel seminar with Julianna Baggott. Jill was writing a book then titled Meals on Wheels about a wheelchair-bound girl’s relationship with her mother. It was tempting as a young writer to imagine the characters as stand-ins for Jill and her own mother. Libby, the narrator, after all, shared so many of Jill’s wonderful qualities—warmth, humor, a heightened sense of the absurd.
I am a bit of a pack rat and I managed to locate a copy of a critique I wrote for her manuscript. I wrote things like “seemed so bizarre, yet fit so well,” “this scene is heartbreaking, but funny, too … the tone of the narrator makes the novel,” and “whenever the manuscript veers toward sentimentality … the narrator’s wit undercuts it.”
The mother’s character, on the other hand, was downright nasty and became the critical focus of the workshop. We talked at length about her as an unlikable villain, so much so that Jill felt compelled to break workshop etiquette and explain that this was not her mother. She shared her personal story then and we learned about her real family—kind and incredibly supportive—back home in Kansas. Jill, though, wasn’t using this moment to defend her manuscript or let the workshop off the hook. Instead, she challenged the class to explain how a writer could present an unlikable character effectively.
I don’t remember what we came up with, but I do remember that unlikable characters became a crusade for Jill. In 2007, she successfully proposed a panel to AWP titled “I Like You, I Like You Not.” She was kind enough to invite me and two other students from the workshop (Jessica Pitchford and Roger Turnau) to participate on the panel. I remember sitting at a table in front of a packed ballroom, uncomfortable in my writer’s uniform—blazer, oxford-cloth shirt, blue jeans, and cowboy boots—and marveling at the absurdity of the most likable girl in the world not only defending un-likeability but also claiming that likable characters were the definition of mediocre fiction.
I came to depend on her sensibility as a fiction reader during my time as an editor for The Southeast Review. She made the least of the slush pile tolerable by laughing maniacally at the absurdity of bad writing. When other readers presented stories for publication that she disliked, she had no problem reading cringe worthy passages aloud and demanding the reader to defend the story. Best of all, when she found a story that she loved, she could argue the rest of the editorial board into loving the story, too. This happened with “Fourteen Carousels” by Fulbright Jones—a story that went on to receive a nomination for a Pushcart Prize.
My last memory of Jill is of her asking me to join her on another panel at AWP. She planned to pull together a handful of writers to talk about writing disabled characters. I suspected she asked me because I had written a story about a boy with Down syndrome that went over well in workshop and eventually earned the department’s nomination for Best New American Voices. Truthfully, though, I had (and still have) misgivings about the story. On good days, I doubted my ability to write the character honestly, and on bad days, I felt like I had stolen a narrative that did not belong to me. Plus, in no way did I feel comfortable with the idea of addressing a roomful of people about disabilities. I said as much to Jill. She laughed and said in her quiet, lilting way of talking that caused you to lean down close to hear that she didn’t care much for the story but she wanted me on the panel anyway. She remembered that my little sister was hearing-impaired and that I had plans for a long story based on her.
I have no recollection of sharing that with Jill. No doubt, I told her during one of those late-night conversations us graduate students liked to have on the front porch of Ali Baba’s, nights when we talked away our best stories because we didn’t know any better. Jill remembered, though. She was a much better friend to me than I was to her.
I miss her.
—Forrest Anderson, fiction editor (2007-2008) and assistant fiction editor (2006-2007)
Jill Caputo Candlelight Speech by Shawn Brown
Jill Caputo. What can you say about Jill Caputo? Jill, she was one of a kind. From the day she began working for the agency to the last day she signed out, she made sure to tell me, in her own mysterious way, that she was no different than anyone else. From day one I tried to accommodate Jill in every way. I constantly asked her do you need this, do you need that, can I get this, can I get that. She politely told me, “no, I can do it myself.” That made me feel so useless. I finally came to realize that Jill was very independent.
There were times that I had to be a bit aggressive with my staff about their work performance. Jill was no exception. I had my one-on-ones with her as well as my other staff. I quickly came to realize that Jill was very sensitive. I would say the slightest thing, such as “Jill, you forgot to put your initials on some paperwork.” Five minutes later somebody is coming to my desk saying they just saw Jill in the bathroom crying. You know I didn’t think I had it in me to make a grown woman cry. I mean look at me—I weigh a buck fifty, soaking wet!
Oh, the memories of Jill will forever follow me. I can remember the first time ever seeing Jill outside of work. It’s always awkward to see some employees outside of the office. I was driving on Pensacola Street and I saw this lady in a wheelchair on the sidewalk as I was passing. I had to do a double take. It was Jill! I drifted into the other lane trying to look at her. Jill was too cool that day. She had her shades on, a little mini skirt; she was leaned to the side. You couldn’t convince Jill that she didn’t have it going on that day! Oh, the memories. I remember us having imaginary speed limit signs posted in the office for Jill to follow. Oh yes, and we would let her know when she was over the speed limit. There were times I was in a supervisor meeting behind closed doors and I would hear the sound of her wheelchair. I knew then what time it was. It was 10 o’clock sharp because that’s when Jill was due in at work. Jill never let me down as my timekeeper. I don’t care what you say, but you can’t convince me that Jill didn’t have a turbo engine in her motorized wheelchair.
I talked to Jill about her production. I talked to Jill about her quality. Who would have ever thought that I would have to talk to myself about Jill? But we all know Jill is at peace now. Jill made me believe in her; with that beautiful smile and those wide eyes. In so many words she told me, “I may be disabled, but I am not unable.” Please keep Jill’s family in your prayers. Also, please keep the driver of the vehicle and her family in your prayers as well. I can only imagine how traumatized the driver is after this tragic accident. She will have to live with this for the rest of her life, and I know it will not be easy. Rest in Love, Jill. Thank you.
—Shawn Brown, supervisor for Jill Caputo, Agency for Workforce Innovation
Jill took my Novel Seminar a few years ago. It was an intense group of students, lots of heavy hitters who’d been kicking around novels for years, some of whom already had agents, and lots of publications and awards under their belts, as well as those who were treading into their first novels. There was some jockeying, some tension early on.
Let me put it this way. At one point, one student said, “I’ll publish a novel before you do.” And the other came back, “You want to go right now, mofo.” At which point there was a moment of silence. Then I said, “Well, we are already in a circle.” Jilll laughed immediately. She had no stop. When a situation deserved a laugh, it got one. In any case, it was that kind of workshop.
Or, at least, it started out as such. The egos calmed down. We fell into the all-consuming worlds of the novels that were being created. The writers who were the least experienced ended up coming in with astonishing work. The playing field leveled out. The work was the work. As a group, we were charged to make each novel more distinctly its own, to take it up a notch.
Jill came up to me after one of the first few classes. She told me that she cried easily, that it was the result of one of her medications. I told her that I liked tears. I loved the famous Jimmy V. speech where he tells us that every day should bring us to laughter, to tears, and to thought. “Cry,” I told her. “It’s okay with me.”
She was making sure that I wasn’t going to hold back if she broke down.
I promised I wouldn’t.
Jill’s novel proved challenging. It was darkly fun, raw, and raucous. I’d grown up with a double amputee—my grandfather—but had never read about disability written with such fierceness and honesty. It was terrifying, in the best sense.
And it made me want to hold back. Not for Jill’s sake, though. I knew Jill was tough. I knew she could take it. One conversation with her and you knew. She wasn’t compromising.
But I wanted to hold back for the sake of the novel itself. This novel wasn’t going to be written and revised and revised and sent to agents. This was a long-haul novel. It was her heartwork. It would take a very long time. The novel didn’t need to be fixed—by perfecting structure and tense and tone and perspective although we discussed those things because each work is fodder for lessons for all of us to take home. I could tell that, if she was patient and honest—painfully honest—the novel would assert itself. In fact, I felt that the novel couldn’t help but assert itself into the world—it had that kind of rocket fuel. It was a story that needed to be told and needed to be heard. And it was a story with only one teller—Jill herself.
The novel needed only time, days and years.
And so I mourn the loss of a novelist and her work.
But what I mourn more deeply is Jill who was a writer because of something within her that was elementally and beautifully and soulfully human. She wanted to express the inexpressible. She wanted to understand why we want what we want and fear what we fear. She wanted to open herself up to the most heartbreaking truths about herself and all of us. I didn’t know that Jill was Catholic until after her death, but I see that in her work and her life now, that O’Connor eye for the grotesque and the divine.
Above, I wrote that the novel needed only time, days and years—only time, as if time isn’t precious, as if life and our days and hours together aren’t urgent.
When I think of Jill now, I think of her brilliant soul. She seemed lit from within. I wish she had been given more time, days and years. She is deeply missed.
—Julianna Baggott, consulting editor and Florida State University professor
Jill has always been audacious, fierce, honest, and loving. Suffering a bizarre stroke in childhood, Jill lost most of the movement on one side of her body. This did not stop her from going to graduate school, going to the beach, fighting to be taken seriously as a teacher, having great hair, and writing honest work that neither wallowed in nor shunned self-pity. She was an honest writer and I miss her.
We’re talking about a woman who showed up to our Politically Incorrect-themed Halloween party dressed up as a disabled prostitute, complete with a cardboard sign that read, “Meals on Wheels.” That is how I think of her: bold, funny, daring, and laughing at life’s petty unfairness. I think about how she looks like a cat when she yawns. I think about how she asked me to be her back up reader if her voice gave out during a live reading of her work (what an incredible honor!) I have only ever heard of one person who didn’t like Jill, and to this day I wonder, “What the hell is wrong with that guy?”
I ran into her one day on campus and we made small talk, but then there was a lull in the conversation. So she said, “Any luck gettin’ laid lately?” Jill’s life and untimely exit from it continue to teach me. Take nothing for granted. Not our bodies, not our voices. Thank you, Jill, for everything.
—Evan Peterson, director of online marketing (2008-2009)
Because I came to FSU after Jill Caputo had finished her coursework I only saw her briefly early on, at department mixers and readings. One of the first things I learned about Jill—via hearsay, as we tend to do in a small academic setting—was that during a workshop of one of her stories the professor had made her cry; but before I could file away that little bit of trivia under something banal and stereotypical I learned this fact: Jill would go on to say that professor was her favorite, because of how he pushed and challenged her.
I never did get to spend a lot of time with Jill, but I ran into her frequently while riding around town on my bicycle, seeing her motoring about in her wheelchair, zipping across the campus and down city streets, catching readings at the Warehouse and getting coffee at All Saints. At intersections, while waiting for the red light to turn, we would strike up short, quirky conversations. Other times, when we went in opposite directions or passed each other on different sides of the street, I’d shout a greeting and she would wave back without a hitch or a pause in her steering. One got the sense she was constantly moving somewhere, constantly pushing ahead.
Jill has always been shortchanged, but she was no whiner. And it is this fearless, independent spirit of hers that most inspired me and others around her—people who have been luckier, people who have been more privileged—and provided a model for us to push ourselves to do more, no matter what we’ve been given. It is doubly tragic to see this happen to Jill while she was on one of her jaunts across town, heading towards another destination rather than staying still.
Jill, it’s just a damn crying shame. We’re sorry and embarrassed and sad for the whole world. You were a sweetheart and a hero. Ride on.
—John Wang, assistant editor (2009)