Michael Kimball is the author of six books, including the novels Big Ray, Dear Everybody, Us, and, most recently, Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard). His work has been translated into a dozen languages, and been on NPR's All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as in The Guardian, Huffington Post, Bomb, and New York Tyrant.
This interview was conducted over the phone and transcribed by Interview Editor April Hanks. Of the process she said, “Michael Kimball has quickly become one of my favorite authors, so I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to speak with him. I immediately fell in love with Us, which was the first of his books that I read. While his novels are enjoyable and thought-provoking, he also experiments with various other projects.” In this interview Michael discusses writing about his life, creating his pseudonym, and smashing an office.
Superstition Review: Although Big Ray is about your father, it was published as fiction. In your interview with Vice, you mentioned that it started out as a memoir. What led you to change it from a memoir to a novel?
Michael Kimball: There were a couple things that happened. One, when I was partway through writing the memoir I got stuck. I couldn't figure out what to do with it and part of that struggle was dealing with events exactly how they happened and being as honest and true as I could to those things. And so it was at that point that I started to consider it as fiction or started to think about it as fiction. I conflated a couple of the characters who were in the memoir. I also started to get rid of some back story that didn't seem particularly interesting to me but felt necessary if it were a memoir. And so that was part of what happened. The other thing that happened was something I realized when I started to change it to fiction. There was a kind of release in it for me in writing it as fiction. I could tell the story exactly as I wanted to tell it and make the story mine rather than Big Ray's.
SR: When I read Us and Big Ray, I was struck by how honest and emotional they were. Since these are stories that come from your own life, how do you balance this honesty with privacy for you and your family?
MK: It can be a little difficult with any of the people who are alive and also characters in the books. They've all been shown the material before it ever goes to publishers or ever gets published. So that's part of it, just being open about that with the people who are a part of those books. And the other part of it is… a lot of it's personal for me, but I found that being open and putting the story out there in those ways can be very liberating.
SR: You have stated before that you wrote Big Ray in a mad rush. Was the mad rush caused or influenced by those feelings?
MK: The rush was kind of an accident. And this complicates an earlier answer about memoir and fiction, but I had been writing what I thought was going to be another novel and I started writing a chapter in that novel that was about fathers, father figures, but mostly concerned my father Big Ray, and a lot of that was just coming from my own life even though I was calling that fiction. At some point in writing that chapter, it went from being 20 pages and 30 pages to 70 pages and 100 pages. I finally had to look at it as its own thing and ended up splitting it off. So part of the rush just came from following the story. It just sort of kept coming and I just followed it out. I let it tell me what it was. It was a really strange experience for me. Also, writing Big Ray coincided perfectly with me having very little editing work and I could work on the novel in the morning, in the afternoon, at night and so it all just sort of came together like that. It was three months start to finish.
SR: In an interview with Identity Theory, you mentioned you tried to write Big Ray several times in the past. What do you think made you ready to write the book when you did?
MK: I think a few things were involved. I think one, my tools as a writer had developed some by that last approach to the book. That is, I don't think I was ready to handle the material yet as the writer I was before then. And part of it was just a personal, emotional maturity that allowed me to be ready to write it.
SR: Even though Dear Everybody deals with a serious subject, suicide, it also includes humorous elements. How do you approach the use of humor in your work?
MK: My first two books, The Way the Family Got Away and How Much of Us There Was (which became Us), have pretty much no humor in them at all. But something happened with Dear Everybody with that voice and those letters. The narrator's skewed perspective seemed to allow both a great sadness and some really funny moments. And most of those funny moments come out when the narrator is younger. And that allows some of the later humor too. And so I really liked that in Dear Everybody, that big range of emotion. And I think in setting those two things next to each other, both balance each other out and allow you to go to more extremes for each. That is, you can be even blacker and darker with the humor and you can be even sadder with the things that are moving in that way.
That sort of came up in a different way in Big Ray with the “yo daddy so fat” jokes. When I came up with that idea, I just thought to myself “There's no way you can put these in the book.” But the more I thought about it and the more I thought about my negative reaction to it, I thought, “Well, I have to do that.” And that sort of released a big range of emotion in Big Ray.
SR: So do you consider your audience when writing a book and how they will react to these things?
MK: There's that idea of the reader out there. But I'm always writing a book for myself first. Of course, I don't think you can help but think about the reader, so I think it is all tied together. But you have to do what's right for the book.
SR: How did your pseudonym, Andy Devine, come to be?
MK: (laughter) I'm glad you found that. It started years and years ago. When I lived in New York, I had a group of friends. We all did various arts-related things. One person ran a magazine, one person was a poet, I was a fiction writer, there was a nonfiction writer, there was somebody who designed websites. And around the same time, we all moved away. One person stayed in New York, but we went to Chicago, LA, I moved to Texas at the time. And for a few years after that, we would all meet in Las Vegas every summer‚—it was our way to stay in touch and remain friends. One of those times, Mark Cajigao came up with the idea of starting a magazine, one of the first online magazines there was. We were having some trouble getting content, but we didn't want to publish ourselves. And that's basically where the idea for Andy Devine came from. On one of those trips to Vegas we were driving through Flagstaff, Arizona, there was a sign for an exit for Andy Devine Avenue. I said, “That's my Vegas name this time.” We all took on pseudonyms for playing blackjack and getting players cards and stuff like that. So I said, “That's my Vegas name this time” then it became my pseudonym for the magazine. When we needed content for the magazine, I would use him to write things. And that pseudonym just kept developing with that sort of conceptual project over time. So it evolved from those early lists, alphabetized, to essays to stories then eventually a novel and then the book.
SR: I love the tour Being Andy Devine, where various people read Words as Andy Devine. How did you come up with this concept and how did you choose who would be Andy in every city?
MK: There were a couple things going on. One, I was still doing a lot of readings for I guess it would have been Dear Everybody. And the Devine book was sort of coming out around the same time and overlapping. And I had the idea that since it was a pseudonym, that it could be anybody, that it could be anybody anywhere. And so it just sort of came about through friends who run reading series or other people we know. It was just finding people who got it and were willing to participate. So there was even one time when Andy Devine read in Champagne, Illinois and Brooklyn, New York at exactly the same time.
SR: You are a very concise writer. In an interview with Moonshot you mentioned that you do not want any “filler” in your books. Could you explain the editing process you use to accomplish this?
MK: I have a really basic rule, an unofficial rule, that is just always in the back of my head: Cut anything you don't absolutely need. So I'm always asking myself, “Do I need this?” It's partly that and then it's the idea that I want the fiction to move as quickly as it can. I want only the necessary elements there. We talked about the reader a little bit ago. At times, I'm counting on the reader to fill in places. There are all sorts of assumptions that we make as readers of books and watchers of television and movies. I try to put some of those assumptions to work in the way the fiction is told.
SR: Speaking of movies, you worked with Luca Dipierro to create two documentaries: 60 Writers/60 Places and I Will Smash You. Can you discuss how you got into film?
MK: That was kind of an accident. Luca and I met in Baltimore, kind of a fluke. He had just moved here from Italy and we had met and I think I had given him a copy of Dear Everybody, which he was really excited about and suggested making a book trailer for. We had a lot of discussion about how to do that and that turned into a little short film that is nine minutes or something like that. We took our time putting it together and we would talk about the sort of things we were shooting and how that was working. And one of those conversations… oh, it was when we were shooting a scene where the character tears apart a feather pillow because he thinks he's going to find a bird. After we shot that scene, Luca and I were talking and I said, “Well wouldn't it be great if we had people sort of destroying all kinds of objects for some reason, whether it's a crazy reason or a personal reason or there's some emotional aspect tied to it.” We just sort of joked about it and then I forgot about it. But after we finished the trailer for Dear Everybody, he said in his English-as-a-second-language way, “I feel very urgent about this other film.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” He was like, “The one where you smash stuff.” And I was like, “I still don't even know what you're talking about” and he recounted the conversation and I asked, “You really want to make that?” and he was like, “Yeah, absolutely.” So we put a call out and we had a couple dozen people show up for I Will Smash You. We filmed it in three days and then it took a while to put all the footage together. And while we were doing that, we would kick around other ideas and one of them was filming writers in all sorts of different places. So that was just a simple idea that took on its own life and became 60 Writers/60 Places.
SR: In your segment of I Will Smash You, you smash an office. Can you explain how you chose what to smash and what it felt like to destroy it?
MK: By the time I was doing my smashing segment, I had watched a lot of other people smash things and I was struck by how daintily people destroy things. I imagined it being something really physical. And so I knew I needed something big and I had very much hated working in an office when I did. So it just seemed like a perfect little thing that allowed me to use a really big sledgehammer and swing it as hard as it could. It was an absolutely cathartic thing to do. I encourage you to try it on your own.
SR: In an interview with Cobalt Review, you discussed the themes of family and death and how they keep coming back to your writing. Why do you think these themes keep appearing in your work, even when you don't start out with that intention?
MK: I'm sure a therapist could answer this better than I could. But those two things, if I have any perspective on this, those two things are the root of my discomfort as a human being. So I think even if I tried to move away from those things, something keeps bringing me back to them as what I have to write. So even when I was trying to write what I thought was a very different novel where nobody died, that's where the chapter on the father comes from and takes over and becomes its own thing. I think if you're being honest with yourself, this is one of those things that happens to most writers, that they have their personal central obsession.
SR: Us was originally published in the UK as How Much of Us There Was. When it was published in the United States, you got to go back and edit the book. If given the same opportunity, would you want to change anything in your other books?
MK: I would change things in every book. If we weren't on the phone now and we were in the same room, I would show you. I have reading copies of every book that I do the readings from and all of them are marked up with cuts or additions or different edits. So I think some of them would be small things, but I would definitely make changes in everything I've done.
SR: When you write, you prefer to first write it down on a legal pad. How does this help your creative process?
MK: The problem is I type too fast, so then there are moments when I'm not typing and I'm just looking at the page or looking at what I've written or looking at the blank space to come, and all of that feels unsettling. I'm sure that's different for everybody. It's just figuring out what that is for you.
SR: You did a project where you wrote people's life stories on a postcard. Can you explain how this project started and what you learned from it?
MK: Like the films, it started kind of by accident. There's a performance arts festival here in Baltimore every spring called Transmodern and I was there on opening night in 2008 and I was talking to a friend of mine, Adam Robinson, who was saying, “Well, why aren't you doing something?” And we started joking about what writers would do as performance and I thought of how often people you meet, when they find out you're a writer, say, “Well, I have a story to tell you” or “You'd really have something if I told you my life story.” But then I had the idea of writing it on a postcard as a way to manage it. We joked about it some more, but then I kind of forgot about it. But the next morning, Adam called me and left a message on my phone and said, “I think you really need to do this. I made the sign. I set up a desk for you. There's a whole space where you can interview people. Just show up.” And so I showed up that night and sat down at my little desk. Somebody had an art studio behind where I was set up and said, “Oh, I want to do this before everybody gets here.” He sat down and I interviewed him for five or ten minutes, wrote it on the spot, handed him the postcard, looked up, and a line had already formed. For the next four or five hours I wrote people's life stories like that. And I thought it would be a one-off, but not long after that one of the people I wrote a life story for sent me an email and said, “You took a dark and difficult time in my life and made it manageable for me.” That just really cut through me and I thought, “Well, I should try this again. I should open this project up in some way.” And so eventually I started the blog and encouraged anybody who wanted a postcard life story to get in touch. I would interview them over the phone or over email or sometimes in person. The project sort of took off from there and I ended up writing just over three hundred of them. It changes you to see how open people can be, to see the sort of intimate details people are willing to trust you with. No matter how much empathy or sympathy I had before I started the project, I came away from it with more.
SR: Do you have a favorite postcard or story from the project?
MK: I don't think I could pick one. Some of my favorites are ones I wrote for animals: Moose the Cat, Abby the Horse, Sammy the Dog. Those are definite favorites. The one I wrote for Rahne Alexander is a favorite. But I remember each one pretty distinctly.
SR: What authors have influenced you?
MK: So many, and it continues to evolve. Years ago, I would have said writers like William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Susanne Langer, Samuel Beckett. Today, I'll say Michael Ondaatje, David Markson, Lydia Davis, Edouard Leve.