Dear Michael Kimball

Posted on April 15, 2009

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Susan Tomaselli interviews Michael Kimball.

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From an Email between Susan Tomaselli and Michael Kimball
ST: Dear Everybody is written (mostly) as an epistolary novel. Chuck Palahniuk starts with a conceit, Michael Ondaatje with a central fixed image; how did you start, with the idea of the letters or with the suicidal character? When and why did you realise you wanted to use that form?

MK: The novel started with a letter, just one short letter – a man apologizing to a woman for standing her up, a date they were supposed to have gone out on, and the man is wondering if they had gone out that night, if they might have had a happy life, if maybe his whole life would have been better if he had met her that night. I didn’t know then who was speaking or that it was a suicide letter, but I did have a voice, a particular way of speaking, and a particular way of thinking. That one letter led to a rush of about 100 letters —Jonathon apologizing to nearly everybody he has ever known. It wasn’t until I had that big first batch of letters that I knew Dear Everybody would be a (mostly) epistolary novel or that the letter writer was going to commit suicide.

ST: There’s a part in Mary Gaitskill‘s new collection, Don’t Cry: Stories, where two characters discuss writing – “And what’s important in writing is what’s happening between the characters, what they are doing, not what they look like or what things look like.” As there’s very little in the way of physical description of surroundings and things in Dear Everybody (as befits the letter form), did you consciously omit details, deliberately leave things out?

MK: I love that Gaitskill sentence. I’ve been meaning to get that book and now I will go order it, but, yes, I consciously omitted certain details. I’m more interested in story and feeling and thought than in setting and scene. A friend, a creative writing professor, read an early version of the novel and told me, “You can’t do this.” He was shocked that I was leaving those details out and used an early letter about Jonathon getting his hair cut as an example. He said something like, “Here you in this barbershop, but you haven’t described the chairs and the mirrors and those blue canisters with the combs in them.” I said, “I don’t need to. We all know what a barbershop is, what those things are.” I used the word barbershop and that imagery just comes to many readers. This allowed me to get huge amounts of story into the novel, much more than in a traditional narrative that is trying to describe things in a traditional way.

Dear Mom and Dad,
Here’s the reason that 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.

[Extract from Dear Everybody, Alma Books, 2009]

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From an Email between Susan Tomaselli and Michael Kimball
ST: Dear Everybody is told chronologically, was it written as such?

MK: Dear Everybody was written in no particular order. I wrote down the letters and other documents as they came to me. I learned about Jonathon as the reader does, letter by letter (though out of order). I try not to know where the story of the novel is going. I don’t outline or anything like that. Of course, eventually I did have to organize it. I had all the letters printed out on different pieces of paper and spread out in my dining room. Every flat surface was covered. I paced around the room moving the letters from year to year until everything had found it’s right place in the chronological organization.

ST: At the beginning of the book, there’s a chronology of Jonathon Bender’s life (he was born in the same year as you); how much of your life went into Jonathon, do you share any key moments with him, “1983 His first sexual experience with a girl who is not in a magazine,” for example?

MK: The chronology was originally written to help me organize all the pieces of the novel. It was only later that I decided that it needed to be a part of the novel. But Jonathon and I share a lot of what I call incidental details – details that were useful in terms of moving the narrative along. We were born in the same year (though he was born during a blizzard and I was born a couple of days after it). We went to the same high school and university. We both hit a bully over the head with a lunchbox and cracked his head open with it.

There are two books I can remember that ever made me physically cry. There were the rape scenes in Saramago’s Blindness, and there was nearly every chapter of Michael Kimball’s How Much of Us There Was. While the first hurt because it was so brutal, Kimball’s was a softer kind of invocation – as I read it in a bathtub, I could not shake the feeling of being held, as if somehow the words had interlaced my skin. This is the essence of the magic Michael Kimball holds – his sentences come on so taut, so right there, and yet somehow so calming, it’s as if you are being visited by some lighted presence.
[..]
Dear Everybody is a book both intricate and new, painful and engaging, tapping on the clearest rendering of what is human, on the importance of the rhythm of each word. Dear Everybody is so many things – a collage, a hypnosis, an invention, a thing of awe, perhaps a warning – a work of new that will no doubt linger in your mind and in your stomach and in your aging skin for quite some time.

[Excerpt from Blake Butler‘s review of Dear Everybody, Keyhole magazine. The book has been celebrated by both Dave Eggers and Stephen King and continues to garner praise: Scott Pack has described it as a “fucking marvelous book.” (ST)]

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From an Email between Susan Tomaselli and Michael Kimball
ST:: Let’s talk about the weather. Is there any significance in making Jonathon a weatherman?

MK: The weather is one of those things that people often imbue with too much meaning. That the weather can actively interfere with a person’s life or that a person can have control over the weather — these ideas, these tendencies, also show up in the thinking of certain psychotics. It was a way to amplify Jonathon’s skewed thinking while still describing a mostly realistic world.

As the letters pile up, Jonathon’s voice is tempered by his brother’s commentary, which comes through in occasional footnotes and in interviews with their father. Robert is initially skeptical of Jonathon’s recollections – right away he says that “Jonathon’s version may have been true for him, but I was the favorite and I don’t remember it like that.” In one of the book’s rare missteps, the truth behind the worst of these indictments is never fully revealed, leaving both Robert and the reader lost as to the severity of the father’s crimes.

Jonathon writes to his parents, his brother and his ex-wife, to his professors and his bosses, as well as to more unlikely entities such as Santa Claus, the state of Michigan and even a tornado he chased as a budding weatherman. He shares everything he is with those around him, and, by proxy, with us, the readers of his final document. There is a whole life contained in this slim novel, a life as funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking as any other, rendered with honest complexity and freshness by Kimball’s sharp writing.

[From Matt Bell‘s review in the L.A. Times. Sam Lipsyte said of Michael, “he is a hero of contemporary American literature,” confirmed by Bookslut, naming him an Indie Heartthrob (ST)]

From an Email between Susan Tomaselli and Michael Kimball
ST: When you were writing Dear Everybody, did you do much research? Does your novel have any direct influence, literary or otherwise?

MK: I did a lot of research on the weather and meteorology and how to write weather reports, also on mental illness and how to write a psychological evaluation. I even described Jonathon to three different clinicians to see what their diagnosis of him would be. In terms of influence, I have to mention a strange 19th-century memoir, Daniel Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. Other influences included notions of narrative speed. I was trying to tell as much story as possible with as few words as possible.

Dear Residents of Jefferson City, Missouri and the Surrounding Areas,
I know that it didn’t rain through the late spring and early summer of 1994 and that the growing season was stunted by the drought. And, yes, I was the weatherman, but it wasn’t my fault. I tried to send the clouds to make it rain. I took long showers and left the sprinklers on outside my house. I even peed outside. I watched sad movies to make myself cry. I tried to make water any way that I could, but my influence was limited to small areas around my body and my house.

[Extract from Dear Everybody, Alma Books, 2009]

From an Email between Susan Tomaselli and Michael Kimball
ST: Like your previous novels, Dear Everybody deals with death. Is your Postcard Life Story project a way of cheating death? Could you tell me a little about the project?

MK: One of things I loved about the Postcard Life Story project is that it is a kind of celebration of life for most of the subjects. Even for those who have been through some terrible things in their lives, it is a kind of reclamation of life, a way to get on with it. But the project, it [Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard)] started when my friend Adam Robinson, who was the curator for a performance art festival, asked me if I wanted to participate. I asked him what he thought a writer could do as performance and we made some jokes about that. But then I suggested that I could write people’s life stories for them and we both thought that was a pretty great idea. That’s how the project started. I thought it would be fun and funny and that I would ask a few questions and write on the backs of a few postcards and that would be it. The first postcard I wrote was for Bart O’Reilly a painter, who quit art school in Dublin to work as an ice cream man in Ocean City, MD — which is how he met the woman who became his wife. When I finished writing the postcard and looked up, a line had formed. For the rest of the night, I interviewed dozens of people and wrote each person’s life story on the back of the postcard. I did this for four hours straight without getting up out of the chair that I was sitting in. I was completely exhausted by the end. My mind was racing with the details of people’s lives and the hope that I had done their various stories justice in the space of a postcard. I was astounded by what people told me, the secrets and the difficulties, the pain and wonder and hope that they revealed. I’ve since written about 170 postcard life stories. The one thing that I have learned so far: Everybody is amazing.

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[Cutting from a Guardian article on Michael’s Postcard project, Saturday 8 November 2008. Postcard #75 Moose: Feral Cat to House Cat. HTMLGIANT have named Michael the “International King of Postcards” (ST)]

From an Email between Susan Tomaselli and Michael Kimball
ST: I remember reading Zadie Smith lamenting the fact that people don’t correspond the way they used to anymore and it was not necessarily a good thing for a writer, her point being that ‘The Collected Emails of … ‘ doesn’t have the same ring. Outside of the novel and the project, are you a letter/postcard writer yourself? If so, what is it about those forms that appeal to you?

MK: I was for a very long time, a big letter writer, a big postcard writer. After college, after I moved away from home, my grandfather and I wrote letters back and forth, and that was an important time in my life. Now I suppose it was after I stopped writing letters and postcards, that they took on a new form — the epistolary novel and the postcard life stories. Anyway, the thing I most love is the intimacy that is conveyed.

[Short film for Dear Everybody, directed by Luca Dipierro]

From an Email between Susan Tomaselli and Michael Kimball
ST: I was astonished to read that your first novel was rejected something like 119 times; was there ever a point where you considered giving up?

MK: Back then, I never considered giving up. I had a lot of confidence in what I had done, but looking back I don’t really know how I did that, how I kept sending that manuscript out. I don’t know if I could do that now. It might be too much.

ST: You recently guest-edited Lamination Colony, how did you find that?

MK: I loved guest-editing Lamination Colony. There is so much original writing being done that I was happy to pull as much of it together as I could find. I tried very much to get a lot of work out there from people who aren’t particularly well-known yet, but I hope soon will be.

[A short film, I Will Smash You: Trailer #3, Black Arrow Studio & Kimball Films]

From an Email between Susan Tomaselli and Michael Kimball
ST: You’re also involved in filmmaking; is that something you’d like to explore more?

MK: The filmmaking happened by accident. I had a filmmaker, Luca Dipierro, who wanted to make a trailer for Dear Everybody. We developed a great working relationship working on the trailer and Luca, who has since become a great friend, asked me about filming I Will Smash You (trailers here and here). I did the interviews for that film and I’m doing some of the light editing on the back-end. Now with 60 Writers/60 Places (trailers here and here), I’m behind the camera for some of it too. I don’t even know how to describe how much fun it is.

ST: What’s next for you? Are you working on another novel at the moment?

MK: I’ve just finished a new novel — Friday, Saturday, Sunday. The whole novel takes places over the course of those three days. And I’ve had a couple of publishers ask about collecting the postcard life stories into a book, so I’m writing an introduction for that.

As Bell’s review says, there’s a whole life contained in this slim novel. Yes, it’s McSweeney-esque, but surely telling a life through letters (not to mention the supplementary use of obits, newspaper clippings, transcribed conversations, diary entries and so on) warrants a comparison to the Oulipo group. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Oulipo. Is Kimball’s novel Oulipian? It’s not Harry Mathews nor is it Queneau. Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual springs to mind and though it’s nowhere near as long, it certainly shares Perec’s sadness. Like the Oulipo’s Dear Everybody is, no doubt, a novel of language (and Kimball’s subtle shifts in language – the change of Jonathon’s mother’s surname on her diary entries, the crushing effect on the reader of the occasional open-addressed letter “Dear Anybody”), playing with a form. You glean the information and put Jonathon’s story together, though it’s filtered through his brother (and this, as the brother’s memories diverge from Jonathon’s, throws into question just how reliable a “narrator” his brother is, or, just how ill Jonathon is/was). “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

[Notes from the Moleskin of Susan Tomaselli>]

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE

Michael Kimball’s third novel, Dear Everybody, was recently published in the US, UK, and Canada. The Believer calls it “a curatorial masterpiece.” Time Out New York calls the writing “stunning.” And the Los Angeles Times says the book is “funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking.” His first two novels are The Way the Family Got Away (2000) and How Much of Us There Was (2005), both of which have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. He is also responsible for the collaborative art project – Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard).

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Posted in: Interviews