I'm always dazzled by debuts (nice alliteration, right?) and Kimi Eisle's THE LIGHTEST OBJECT IN THE UNIVERSE is absolutely glorious. Gorgeously written, unnerving, and also one of the most moving love stories I've read. I'm honored to host her here.
P.S. come to The Strand in Manhattan on July 30 because I will be interviewing Kimi.
Here is just some of the praise:
July 2019 INDIE NEXT Pick (IndieBound)
Indies Introduce Summer 2019 Selection
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Summer 2019 Selection
Powell’s Books’ We Can’t Wait: The Best Reads of 2019
Readers’ Digest 15 Best Summer Books to Read in 2019
I always want to know what was haunting you into writing this novel, what was the why now moment as to writing this story. Was there a question you were trying to answer?
Before I wrote THE LIGHTEST OBJECT IN THE UNIVERSE, I had been struggling to write nonfiction essays about American exceptionalism and what it meant to live in a superpower country and benefit from some of the privileges that can offer. The US was at war with Iraq over non-existent weapons and greed and I knew about the long history of US economic imperialism and US support of totalitarian regimes in Latin America and elsewhere. It was difficult to reconcile my privileges as a white woman with an education and status that had enabled me to view and learn about this unevenness with what that unevenness meant for millions of people. Meanwhile, the US remained a kind of beacon—dare I say dream?—for so many I people I’d met across the border to the South.
The essay I was trying to write went on and on and on and never found coherence. So I decided to hand over the struggle to fiction.
On a personal level, I was trying to answer a question about how to live with this contradiction—knowing my privilege and comfort rested on the disadvantage, discomfort, and sometimes despair of entire global regions. On a larger level, the question became: How might we re-envision or rebuild America, once it came crashing down?
What I so loved about this novel is that even though it’s marked as dystopian, it didn’t really read that way to me. It seemed more real, more ground in human drama, and that was part of my delirious delight in it. Was this your intent?
Before I began the book, we lost a dear family friend to cancer. We visited her husband in New York City from time to time. One evening he excused himself from the table to call to someone in California he’d met through an organization that connected bereaved spouses for phone conversations. I don’t think it was a romantic connection, but I was struck by the intimacy of it, and how he was finding comfort there. Sorrow is solitary but often what keeps us going is human connection.
Also, I had worked with a lot of young activists and recognized their zeal for wanting to make the world more just. I began to wonder what would happen if the chipping away at dominant structures actually worked. What would the activists do if the world they wanted to topple actually toppled? That felt like a personal question as much as a political one.
I was less interested in the mechanism of collapse than I was in how a shared catastrophe might bring make us kinder—or not—towards one another. I thought a lot about the personal losses we experience in life—deaths, of course, but other disappointments and failings also—and wondered how those losses would be re-scaled in the wake of a national or global unraveling. It seemed unlikely that personal grief would dim. But maybe it could expand in some kind of meaningful way. So yes, the personal dramas and sorrows were always forefront for me. Also, I knew from my review of the literature that most apocalyptic stories were about gloom and doom. Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road came out early on in my process, and I thought, Oh crap, how can I compete with that? But after reading it, I thought, Yay, my book is nothing like this. My book has light! It really does. In fact, for a long time there was so much light that friend-readers said it was “too Sesame Street.” I had to keep adding more and more menace, right down to the last edits.
Also, speaking of drama, since one of the perspectives comes from a teenaged girl, there’s a moment to ponder the realities of getting your period in the wake of a systems collapse. I mean, you wonder, right?
I loved the structure, the way we had the lynch pins of Beatrix and Carson on opposite ends, moving toward each other, and then there was Rosie’s story. Did you always plan the structure this way? When I think about it, it’s a very clear narrative line, but when I read it, it felt so abundantly rich.
From the start, I knew there were two protagonists—Beatrix and Carson—at opposite ends of the country, in part because of that bereavement phone service. Early on in my process, I remembered the lovers in Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and re-read it, realizing its structure was similar and could be useful. I even found the Cliff Notes online and printed out the plot summaries for every chapter, just to understand better how it worked. I was such a fiction novice—and still am. What propels me are pretty sentences and characters, not plot. I often joke that I chose way too complicated a story for my first novel and would have been better off writing simple tale, say, about a girl and her dog. I remain forever indebted to Frazier for writing Cold Mountain, which taught me so much.
Rosie emerged during the writing and became more and more significant with each draft. A key conversation with a friend one night at a bar finally taught me what fiction could do. Without giving too much away, my friend asked about Rosie’s journey and we ended up discussing the geography of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I realized the power I had to make the seemingly impossible possible and that “far-fetched” sometimes just means we can deliver the payoff readers of novels so often want.
What kind of writer are you? Did the story slowly unfold, or were you writing, writing, writing, and then you discovered the story. And can you talk about what you are writing next? (No problem if you can’t. I always get tongue tied and stubborn when asked this.)
I’m the kind of writer that delights in the blank page and what unexpectedly appears there. One of my best writing days was meeting a tribe of orphan girls who’d escaped their group home to take up residence in a circle of abandoned train cars. (Perhaps I was summoning The Box Car Children?) I hadn’t planned them, they just showed up and I loved them. They got edited out of the book at some point, except for a small scene, but I still love them and loved writing them.
I knew the ending all along but was open to being led elsewhere. I think a lot of what I discovered through revision was how to create consequence and causality. If this, then that. And how to raise the stakes and build tension. (Again, lessons in plot!) I also discovered as I went how to trust the reader. My early drafts were so over-written. My poor agent and her assistant had to slog through 500 pages.
Right now I’m working on a memoir-ish thing, which feels imperative, as in something I need to finish before I can write another novel. It’s about trying—and failing—to make a baby and the untidiness of grief and the things I made instead and wanting to become an animal and becoming one.
Do you think our world can and will survive, and at what cost?
I think we will survive if we start understanding that it can fundamentally feel good to care about and support the well-being of others. That sounds cliché, but I do see so much of what’s ill about the world as rooted in greed, not just greed for more money or power but greed for being right and thinking one’s own ideology is better than anyone else’s. This speaks to both capitalism and a jihad that uses terror to win.
Sometimes I think the best thing I can do on any given day is have a conversation with a neighbor or make eye contact with and say hi to someone I might be slightly afraid of.
I do think balms come in the form of stories and art, but I don’t know if that will be enough.
What I think stories and art do is help us feel connected—the way rock concerts and sports games can, but without all the flashing lights and advertising. I’m not opposed to internet connection, but at some point we have to stand next to each other, if only to feel the warmth of each other’s elbows, to remember we breathe the same air.
Air. I think air might be one of the “costs” we could soon pay. Our greed means we forget to care for the things we can’t see. I worry a lot about nature and the way our belief in “jobs” over “workers” and “workplace” means we justify things like C02 emissions.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m thinking a lot right now about forests and animals, particularly because in the Southwest, given the intensity and frequency of wildfires, our forests here are not likely to recover. That means, they’ll end. Scientists and dendochronologists know this and speak of it matter-of-factly, but not many people around me talk about it. I don’t think it has sunk in. It’s so hard to fathom a no-forest region.
I’m particularly fascinated with the non-hierarchical, non-linear systems that forests use to survive. Trees communicate via fungal networks at their roots that send messages related to temperature, light, and moisture. They can nourish one another this way and do so even across species. I love that this system is horizontal and turns upside down (ahem) the long-held idea of trees as vertical and linear. I think we have a lot to learn from trees about how to be better humans and live together in community.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Maybe, something like—Given that it took you over a decade to write the book, is it as relevant now as when you started?
Yes. Maybe more so. For a long time, I worried that I’d missed the catastrophe boat, so to speak. The 2008 economic crash happened and then the 2016 election and the end times kept seeming to close in. But there are always end times in our imagination. Which is why there is always post-apocalyptic fiction. To exist is to also imagine non-existence and future existence. We can’t know the light unless we also know the dark.
More directly, I think we’re in the midst of a seismic shift, particularly in the US, but also globally, given this country’s role in the world. If we agree that the presidency of Donald Trump has pulled back a veil allowing more people to see the dirt that is the oligarchy, the patriarchy, and the white supremacy, and if we agree that climate change and the lack of political will to accept and address it (by those same hierarchies I just mentioned) will irrevocably change both natural and human communities, then it really does feel like an ending is coming. And honestly, I think we need an ending. A country built on genocide and slavery, no matter its other virtues, doesn’t really stand on strong and loving feet. We’re seeing that now. So perhaps it’s time for this America to fall. And if we’re still around to rebuild, let’s build something new. Let’s look into the darkness and reach horizontally to find the superhero in our neighbors and the superpower in our collectivism.