I first "met" Michael Kimball on facebook and because his novel seemed quirky and interesting, I decided to read it. (He's also the acclaimed author of How Much of Us there Was, and The Way the Family Got Away.) Oh. My. God. Dear Everybody is inventive, ingenious and downright irresistible, a series of letters left behind that present an astonishing life. I was so enamored of this novel that I asked Michael if I could pepper him with questions and he graciously consented. (Thanks, Michael!)
You experiment with ways of telling stories in ways that are ingenious and brilliant. Dear Everybody, for example, is told in letters and a few diary entries left behind by your hero This letters are at turns hilarious, heart-scorching and incredibly moving. Why did you write a book in the form of letters? What did it allow you to do that a plain narrative did not? Also the book started out as a story, "Excerpts from the Suicide Letters of Jonathon Bender," which Stephen King nominated as one of the 100 Distinguished Stories of 2006. Was it always part of the novel, or was this nomination a push to create a novel?
Dear Everybody started with one short letter: a man apologizing to a woman for standing her up on a date. The man is wondering if they had gone out that night, if maybe his whole life would have been different, better. At first, I didn't know then who was speaking or that it was a suicide letter, but I did have a strong voice and a skewed way of thinking. That one letter led to a rush of about 100 letters--Jonathon, the main character, apologizing to nearly everybody he has ever known--and the novel opened up from there.
Writing a mostly epistolary novel allowed me to deal with difficult material that might have become sentimental if handled as ordinary narrative Another reason that I wrote in the form of letters is that it allowed me to put huge amounts of story into the novel. Each letter is its own story. Each letter evokes more descriptive content, more emotional content, and more narrative content than what is there on the surface. There is so much implication that becomes part of the novel and that accumulates through the novel. That story that was short-listed was always part of the novel. I have never really written short stories, so I have to cut things up if I am going to publish between novels.
I heard that you left New York for Baltimore and haven't looked back. How is Baltimore a better place for you to be a writer? And why wasn't New York good for you?
It's not that New York wasn't good for me. It was. It was where I became the adult version of myself and found my way as a writer. But writing was always a struggle during my time in NYC. And since my time in Baltimore, writing and I have come to a new understanding. Also, Baltimore has an unbelievable number of writers and artists and musicians working here. This community is incredibly open, generous, supportive. It's a wonderful place to do whatever it is that you do.
Can you talk a bit about Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story on a Postcard?
This 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 a performance and we made some jokes about that. But then I remembered these promotional postcards that I had for Dear Everybody and I suggested that I could write people's life stories for them. 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.
People told me about being in jail, about having too many boyfriends, about suicide attempts, about computer hacking, about communicating with the dead or with aliens. The life story project tapped into something I hadn't expected. I was struck by how earnest and forthcoming most people were, how eager they were to share their life stories, how grateful they were for their postcard. People sometimes ask me how I get people to tell me the things I write about them, but there's no real trick to it. I just ask questions. One thing I learned so far: Everybody is amazing.
Can you talk about your documentary, I Will Smash You?
I'm making this with Luca Dipierro and Black Arrow Studio. We asked people to choose an object that had some personal meaning for them and then to destroy it in any way that they wished--an idea that grew out of the trailer for Dear Everybody. I interviewed each person about their object, the story behind it, though I was off to the side, off-camera the whole time, just a voice asking questions. Then we let each person do whatever he or she needed to do with the object they brought with them. In the trailer, Adam's troubled relationship with Christianity leads him to sing a favorite hymn and then take a baseball bat to the notes that are in the air around him. Then you see Ella walking down the alley behind my house with a paper mache version of her mean teacher's head. And then there is a glimpse of Betsy working over the windshield of her Ford Taurus, which was cursed. There are some 20 different chapters like that.
So what's your usual working day like-and what is obsessing you these days?
I always work on my own work first, whatever that is, a novel I'm working on, the postcard life stories, any of that. Then I join the rest of the world-answering email, phone messages, all that. Then I edit somebody else's writing for a few hours. Recently I've been overwhelmed with the life stories of other people. I'm working through a pretty big backlog of requests for the life story project as I figure out what my next big project will be.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
You should have asked me what my next novel is going to be about. I wouldn't have been able to tell you, but I would have made something up.