Michael Kimball is the author of the novels The Way the Family Got Away and How Much of Us There Was, both of which were published to critical acclaim in both the UK and the US and have been translated into many languages. Kimball is a master craftsman of sentences and a virtuoso at writing in a multitude of voices to tell a story. His writing has been published in New York Tyrant, Prairie Schooner, Post Road, Open City, and other fine literary venues. He is also working on a project titled Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard) (link: http://postcardlifestories.blogspot.com/) and was the guy with the idea for the documentary film I Will Smash You. His third novel, Dear Everybody, is an account of Jonathon Bender’s life and death as compiled by his younger brother, Robert, who acts as the editor (and author, in a way): conducting interviews, gathering diary entries, newspaper clippings, and the letters that Jonathon himself had written to the people, places, and things in his life as a final attempt to explain himself to a world that never understood him. All of this is organized into a sort of collage or cubist representation of Jonathon’s life. This interview took place through email over the course of about a month. Michael Kimball is a gracious and generous interviewee. He blogs at http://deareverybody.blogspot.com.
JM: Each of your novels is narrated by at least two characters, whose voices alternate with each chapter. Books like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying come to mind. Was the novel structured this way from the beginning or did it take shape and emerge out of the chaos? Did you write a flurry of random fragments and then see where and if they fit later, or was it a fairly orderly progression?
MK: It was a flurry of Jonathon’s letters that started the novel, over 100 of them in a few days, which was a new thing for me, that rush of words. I’ll often get a paragraph or maybe even a page like that, but never that much material. I still have vivid memories of those few days, sitting in bed with a notepad, writing as fast as I could. I had never written so much and I was really happy about it. I still have that magical notebook in a box with all of the other different versions of the manuscript. I typed all of the letters up and then tried to impose some kind of order on it (the initial writing seemed to have no order at all). Eventually, I printed everything out, one letter to a page and laid them out in my dining room, all over the dining table, the chairs, etc. The chronological structure came out of that episode, those first attempts at finding structure. And then I thought that I was done. I thought that it was going to be a longish short story. But then, a couple of weeks after that, there was another rush of Jonathon’s letters, another 100 or so. And then I had the idea for the “Chronology” at the front of the novel and “The Last Will and Testament” and “Sara’s Eulogy” at the back of the novel, a kind of frame. I wrote a fictional introduction for it and also made up an index, but the introduction eventually turned into a completely different frame and I cut the index. It seemed like the wrong way to end the book. Again, I thought that I was done. But a few months later, the novel started to open up again. (I try to let a novel tell me what it is going to be.) There were more of Jonathon’s letters, but also diary entries from his mother, conversations between Jonathon’s brother and father, and lots of other documents—letters from teachers, annotated newspaper articles and encyclopedia entries, psychological reports, weather reports, yearbook quotes, class notes, to-do lists, a mixtape.
JM: As I imagine your process and the way the novel continually unfolded for you, I see you writing these fictional documents and discovering all of these things about Jonathon in much the same way Robert would have. What prompted you to write these fictional documents and artifacts?
MK: It was a process of discovery. I often didn’t have much idea about what the documents were going to be or how they related to Jonathon or even if they explained anything that he didn’t explain, or try to explain, in his letters. But the initial purpose for the documents and artifacts—I’m thinking of “The Last Will and Testament” and “Sara’s Eulogy” here—was to create a frame of sorts. And after that idea was introduced the different types of artifacts and documents grew from there. They seemed to give the novel more texture, more layers, to fill it out with story and fill it in with feeling.
JM: So you started with Jonathon’s voice. Was that the seed of the whole story? You’ve said in other interviews that The Way the Family Got Away began with a single sentence from a story your grandfather had told you. Was there an image or an idea or a sentence that ignited these suicide notes?
MK: Yeah, I had Jonathon’s voice. I could hear it. And the first letter was just a flash in my mind, a man who was apologizing to a woman. I didn’t even think it, really. It seemed to write itself. The man and the woman were supposed to meet up, go out, and hadn’t. The man is wondering if maybe his whole life came out wrong because of that missed meeting. I eventually cut that letter, probably somewhere in the third draft, but it was that voice, that tone, that brought on the rush of letters that followed.
JM: That’s interesting that the germ of the novel was a letter about a guy wondering if his life had turned out wrong because he didn’t go on a date with that particular woman, while the novel now is all of this evidence, all of the tells and signs—maybe even a convergence of nature and nurture—of what seems Jonathon’s inevitable, well, if not path, then an end he could hardly have avoided.
You mentioned some psychological reports you wrote during the composition of Dear Everybody. I’ve read that you edit psychology textbooks for a living. How much does that inform or maybe even hinder your fiction?
MK: I love to read and edit areas of knowledge of which I know (or knew) very little—abnormal psychology, statistics, social psychology, poker and blackjack, conceptual art, abstract expressionism. I find it fascinating to see how different people from different backgrounds, perspectives, or fields of study understand the world in different ways. And, so, over the years I have picked up little nuggets of knowledge that have informed the construction of each novel. The thinking behind behaviorism very much informed the things that are told (and not) in The Way the Family Got Away (not to mention what developmentalists have learned about language acquisitions and the influence of trauma on development). In How Much of Us There Was, the novel is very much about how love and grief influence behavior, which many clinicians have a lot to say about. And with Dear Everybody, I did a lot of research on mental illness, the types of affect associated with different mental illnesses, the biological and psychological and social factors involved in different mental illnesses, the ways that different kinds of affect influence thought and behavior, historical treatments (well, you know, going back to the 1980s).
Editing psychology textbooks only hinders my fiction when work pressures keep me from writing fiction, which does happen but not often. And sometimes, I think that editing and rewriting academic work (which is all about communicating information in accessible and meaningful ways, and for which there are, in a certain sense, a limited number of solutions), provides me a kind of release in my fiction writing to which I might not otherwise feel entitled.
JM: You gave a glimpse of your process with the account of the early moments of Dear Everybody, but can you talk a bit about how you operate as a writer as far as daily writing time, superstitions, priming practices, etc?
MK: I write most days and I particularly like to write in the morning or late at night, before the rest of my life takes over or after the rest of my life has gone to sleep. But I’ll write anywhere, any time. I like to write on trains and in planes. When I lived in New York City, I used to write a lot on the subway going to and from work. Just this week, I was working on my new novel in the dentist’s office. For me, the key is to keep the thing I’m working on in my mind, to think about it as often as I can, even if just in little ways, glimpses, thinking about how to solve the problem of a sentence, etc.
JM: Yeah, I definitely work better at night. I’ve also found that working with my hands and driving in particular get my mind going. Legend has it that Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks using an upsidedown wheelbarrow for a desk while he worked the nightshift at a power plant. It seems like a lot of writing happens away from the desk.
MK: I knew that Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, but I hadn’t heard about the wheelbarrow part. This isn’t about writing, but my friend Luca just told me that Samuel Beckett sometimes used to drive Andre the Giant to school. I smile every time I think about it.
JM: That image of Beckett driving Andre the Giant to school is going to be with me forever. It does bring a smile, ironically. There is no excitement in the car, though, as I imagine it.
So I keep mentioning Faulkner, who I know you’ve said is one of your favorite writers. What other writers do you admire? Whose work has inspired or influenced you?
MK: Beckett, definitely. Did Andre the Giant write anything? I would kind of like to see it if he did. But also, Benjamin Franklin and Richard Brautigan. I was heartened to see Cormac McCarthy write another great novel, The Road, after a string of poor ones. I love Lydia Davis’ underappreciated novel, The End of the Story. The early Michael Ondaatje, the middle Stanley Crawford, and the late David Markson. I’m still inspired by the writing of certain friends, Sam Lipsyte and Will Eno.
JM: Yeah, I’d be very interested to see anything Andre the Giant wrote. Especially the grocery list.
I read The Road at the same time as a friend, right after it was published, and we just kept saying how we finally knew what it felt like to be reading something and know that it was something big.
It must feel somewhat similar when you’re writing and it’s taking shape like Dear Everybody did for you, when it just flows and you can hardly write fast enough to keep up with your mind. Of course, that umbilical cord of words gets cut as in the case of Jonathon’s initial letter, and then the rewriting begins. Can you talk a bit about your revision process? How do you operate when you’re reworking the raw material?
MK: For the longest time, while I was working on Dear Everybody, I felt as if I had this big secret. Sometimes, I would look out the window and wonder if anybody knew yet what I was doing. It is one of the great feelings that we can have as humans. And this was especially true during the revision process—though it also alternated with feelings of disgust, which is another part of the revision process. But anyway, yeah, I revise a lot. I rewrite nearly everything. I throw a lot of material away. There is easily another 50K words of Dear Everybody that didn’t make it into the finished novel. And the thing I’m thinking, the thing I’m asking myself is: Is this good enough? If it isn’t good enough, it just gets cut. And if it is good enough, then I try to figure out how to make it better. No matter what it is, no matter how many times I’ve already looked at it or worked on it or rewritten it, I’m always trying to make it better. It’s endless, until the book goes to the printer.
JM: Having a big secret is a great way to put it. And going from thrilled to disgusted and back is an apt description of the revision process. It’s a violent relationship at times. You mentioned before that you cut that first letter of Jonathon’s somewhere around the third draft. How many drafts did Dear Everybody go through? Do you ever find it difficult to lose some material?
MK: I’m not exactly sure about the number of drafts. I would guess that the manuscript existed in at least 12 distinct versions, where I thought, in one way or another, that I was done. Of course, within any one of those versions, things would have been rewritten, added, deleted many times. So the real number would be 12X many, whatever that works out to. But, no, I never find it difficult to cut material. It feels so good.
JM: That works out to a lot of time and thought about what you’re after with the material. Jonathon’s note opening the chapter covering 1970 says, “Dear Mom and Dad, Here’s the reason I pulled the stitching out of my feather pillow and then pulled all of the feathers out of it, too: I thought that I was going to find a bird.” These notes with funny, sad, and moving revelations are throughout the novel, showing Jonathon’s odd and childlike way of looking at the world, and yet they don’t feel contrived or self-conscious or produced. So it makes sense when you say that this and every other passage has been rewritten twelve times or more. Your craft on a sentence level is invisibly evident. By that I mean that the writing is clean and readable and does not get in its own way or draw attention to itself. Creating and sustaining that subtle blend truly requires a mastery of craft. What are you thinking about when you’re reworking a piece of text? What kinds of things were you trying to capture in the rhythm, diction, etc? What determines the choices you make regarding those things?
MK: One of the big things for me is finding the voice early in the writing of something. So once I found Jonathon’s voice, I spent a lot of time looking hard at those sentences, the particularities of them, the kinds of nouns and verbs he uses, but also how he uses the more perennial parts of language—articles, conjunctions, prepositions. Out of that comes a particular syntax and out of the syntax there comes a particular way of thinking and out of that I find the character. So I never think of a character first. I have voice and then I have to figure out who is talking.
I know that my answer just moved away from your question, but it sounded good so I kept going. Let me bring it back. When I’m rewriting sentences, syntax is a big consideration and I like mine to be headlong, moving forward at all times. And I’m also considering speed, how quickly I’m taking the reader through things, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes the opposite of whatever I just did so that it breaks things up. And I’m looking at acoustical considerations—staying away from obvious things like alliteration, but finding ways to create assonantial relations. I used to focus more on that within sentences, but now I’m more often looking for it from one sentence to another sentence. I like to do things with prepositions and conjunctions—separate them, string them out. These are all ways to draw the reader through the fiction and if it’s done consistently then it can create a kind of narrative hold on the reader.
JM: It’s fascinating to get a look at how your mind works when you’re writing and rewriting. On top of the forward moving rhythm of the sentences, the fragmented nature of the whole narrative is compulsively readable. Two late-night sittings and I’d finished the book before I realized it. But it wasn’t one of those things where I put it aside and moved onto something else. I went right back to the beginning, to the introduction/preface, the chronology, back to some of the faux newspaper clippings, and some of the moments where small details foreshadowed something deeper. Part of my return to the text was to try and get a little more insight into the father’s blunt answers to Robert’s questions, as though he had no idea or didn’t care how what he said might have been hurtful even to Robert, the son who loved him regardless of what he said or did. Did you tend to work on a single character at a time: rewriting Jonathon and then the mother’s diaries, the interviews with the father, teachers, etc?
MK: At first, I was focused on Jonathon—just the letters, just his voice—but as I made my way deeper into later revisions, I was working on everything at the same time. Jonathon’s letters seemed to suggest other pieces, other voices, and the novel just kept opening up like that. I probably worked on it off and on like that for about three years.
JM: Do you think a writer must first master the short form before writing a novel?
MK: I don’t think a writer has to master the short story before taking on a novel. I hadn’t written a good short story before I started on The Way the Family Got Away. And I had people warn me away from writing a novel, telling me that I would end up wasting two or threes years on it and that I would end of with a mess. I’m glad I didn’t listen.
JM: It’s interesting, though, that you say you hadn’t written a good short story before writing The Way the Family Got Away, which was so successful despite the difficulties getting it picked up—what, something like 119 rejections (sorry, not trying to salt any wounds)? How many short stories had you written or attempted to write before saying to hell with it and writing whatever came out? Do you see much short fiction in your writing future?
MK: After fifty or sixty rejections, it stops being frustrating and starts becoming unbelievable and kind of funny. But, yeah, 119 rejections before it got picked up by Fourth Estate in the UK. And I had tried to write dozens of stories, five years worth, however many that was. The only thing that I had going for me was that I knew that they weren’t any good. It was out of that frustration that The Way the Family Got Away was started. I was working on another bad short story, from the perspective of the character of Bompa, and I flipped the narration to the little boy. I knew that I had a novel after I was three sentences in. I just had to figure out how to do it.
I don’t know how much short fiction is in my future. I have a collection of stories that I have wanted to write for a few years now, but I don’t if I’ll get around to it. Besides, I mostly think in novels.
About the author:
Josh Maday lives in Saginaw, Michigan. His writing has been published or is forthcoming in Phoebe, Lamination Colony, Action Yes, Barrelhouse, Opium, Thieves Jargon, NANO Fiction, pineapplewar, Dark Sky Magazine, Defenestration, Haggard and Halloo, Rivet Magazine, and elsewhere. His (non)fiction about Michael Martone was nominated for Best Creative Nonfiction. He reviews books and literary magazines for NewPages.com. He can be found online at http://joshmaday.blogspot.com.