One of my favorite books of the year is Us by Michael Kimball. I carried it around with me on the subway, and when I finished, I couldn't let it go. I kept it by my desk and kept rereading parts of it. Michael's also the author of four other fantastic novels including Dear Everybody and he's responsible for the innovative Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard), which I have inexplicably been too chicken and shy to do. He's one of my heroes, and I'm just dazzled to have him here.
What sparked this particular book?
Us started out as a kind of an accident. I had approached the novel a few different ways, a few different times, none of which worked. Then I was sitting at my desk one night writing longhand and I wasn’t really thinking about anything in particular, but I just started writing this voice—the one that opens the first chapter—and it seemed to capture a feeling that I had in mind. I wrote a few chapters before I realized that I was writing about one pair of my grandparents who were around a lot when I was growing up, that I was writing about their last days together. I used my feelings about them and other people in my life that I have lost to write the novel, a kind of method writing, so to speak. The novel was written out of those feelings of loss and grief, but also very much out of love. I wanted the reader to feel what I felt or at least to understand it and to honor it. And there was a desire to fill in a void. I was trying to make something to replace two people who could not be replaced. I was imagining more life for my grandparents and it was a small comfort.
I deeply admire the structure, which is a moment-to-moment account of a particular time in an old marriage. What made you decide on this structure? Also, what strikes me is that this particular time is very much indicative of the whole and long marriage.
I found the structure after I found the voice. There was a really specific syntax, a particular way of describing things, and an especially particular thought-structure—the little leaps between his wife and almost everything else that he encounters. After that, I imposed some unspoken rules on the narrator—what he could describe and how. Limiting the scope of his narrative enacted a kind of close attention in what he tells us. There is great care and great love in that close attention, which makes it a culmination of sorts for their long and loving marriage.
The writing in this book seems so clear and clean and almost simple, yet every word is like an iceberg, with levels of meaning that radiate outwards. I've told you that I'm asking all my UCLA students to read this, as an example of what writing can and should do. How conscious were you of paring things down as you were writing, or does this simply come naturally to you?
I’m very conscious of paring things down. I’m trying to tell as much story and convey as much feeling as possible with as few words as possible. I’m making some assumptions about what a reader brings to reading a book when I do this. There is a lot that fiction writers don’t need to describe anymore. I get to that pared down state by drafting material and then distilling it, getting rid of everything that doesn’t seem absolutely necessary. This takes a different form in Us (where feeling is the thing that is compressed) than Dear Everybody (where it is story that is compressed). Also, I’m trying to write the kind of thing that I would most like to read. I want a kind of intensity, also a certain narrative speed, two things that compression can make happen.
You've said that the book is about "how love can accumulate between two people." It's such a deeply moving novel, and yet, despite the sorrow in it, it's also incredibly optimistic about love. Can you comment on this?
The behavior of the main narrator is driven by grief, both anticipatory grief and then actual grief, which becomes more extreme as the novel progress. The extreme grief is a sad and terrible thing, but only because the long love of their marriage is such a great and beautiful thing.
Can you talk about your writing process?
I used to have a terrible time getting anything down on the page. Once I did, once I had something to work with, then I would revise endlessly. But my writing process has evolved quite a bit over the years, I have found ways to open myself up on the page. I try to be brave on the page. I move into any space where I sense any kind of resistance—personal, emotion, aesthetic, etc. I try to be fearless. I try to let the voice tell the story and let the story tell me what it is. I try to find new ways to get from sentences to sentence. For instance, sometimes I find a word or phrase or turn by looking at the surrounding acoustics or graphics rather than by considering the semantic logic. It can lead to some surprising choices that I couldn’t possibly think of, but that I only have to recognize. It moves the narrative in different ways and helps the energy and the tension build. More and more, I’m trying to be open and receptive to anything happening on the page.
What's obsessing you now?
I just finished writing a new novel and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. It takes me months to let go of the voices from my novels. So I’m at once obsessed with what I’ve just done and with trying to figure out what the next thing might be. Also, I’ve been trying to figure out how to make a short film using this abandoned swimming pool that’s been filled in with dirt and has grass growing where the surface of the water would be. I can see some of the action and hear the soundtrack, but I feel as if I’m missing an important element, and I have no idea what it is.]
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
It would have been nearly impossible to come up with this, but you could have asked me what position I play for the Poet’s Athletic Club, which is a co-ed softball team made up of Baltimore writers and artists. I would have told you that I haven’t played organized anything in a couple of decades and that playing first base for the Poet’s Athletic Club is so much fun that it makes me feel like a giant kid.