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Human Destiny Starkly Illuminated

Michael Kimball, His Books, and How He Wrote Them

Tita Chico

By Rupert Wondolowski | Posted 10/15/2008

"So you'll be gone about a half-hour?" Michael Kimball asks his wife, Tita Chico, with what sounds like a trace of anxiety. Summer is retreating and the setting sun is casting orange across the rowhouses, and just before I had wrapped up this article about Baltimore author Kimball, I had run across the pair--this being Baltimore--outside their home. She is going for a jog; he's returning inside. And in this heightened moment of ordinary life comes a flash of Kimball's fiction and a sense of his character's vulnerability. Nothing is assured, and each simple moment holds the potential for great loss or beauty. Here are a man and woman in love enacting the eternal return to home and each other.

Kimball is the author of two highly acclaimed novels, 2000's The Way the Family Got Away and '05's How Much of Us There Was, with a third, Dear Everybody--the story of an emotionally damaged weatherman who takes his own life--just out and already piling up kudos in the Los Angeles Times, Keyhole magazine, and

Judging by his three books, all dealing with everyday people facing grief and loss head on, Kimball has traveled deeply through and learned much of pain. His books are about "what happens when a person can't control their life through grief or chemical imbalance," he says. "All behavior is to bring order to a disordered situation."

Kimball's path to his third novel was one such disordered situation. He tried his first novel, The Way the Family Got Away, out on more than 20 agents without any luck. He then personally sent out more than 100 copies to publishers and received 119 rejections.

His luck turned when he read an article in Publisher's Weekly about British publishing houses being more open to American authors. One of the five British publishers he sent his book to read it in one sitting. Soon Kimball not only had a home for Family, but through the British publisher he got an Italian agent, who then lined him up with a British agent.

It is not too surprising that Kimball's novel wasn't lapped up in his home country, where the American public is eating up books such as The Shack, which The New York Times synopsizes as "A man whose daughter was abducted receives an invitation to an isolated shack, apparently from God" on its best-sellers list. Family is a bleak, heartrending story written in a poetic, stream-of-consciousness style that, of his three books, most belies Kimball's acknowledged respect for William Faulkner. It's the tale of a family that has lost its youngest child and, because of dire poverty, is forced to slowly jettison all their possessions to make it to a relative's house many states away. In the words of the son of the family, they "kept going away into the night until we got filled up with things that had already happened. My brother was still dead and we were still driving away from that."

The novel is told in the voices of the surviving brother and sister in stretched, occasionally broken syntax that remains true to children's speech and contains a power beyond what could be conveyed by an adult or omniscient narrator. Interestingly, the novel started out as a short story and was narrated by an older voice, but Kimball became frustrated with it. When he hit upon the boy's voice things began to fall into place.

A few months after working on the book he felt that the boy's voice was changing. "He seemed to be saying things that weren't his to say," Kimball says. That's when Kimball realized that another character was emerging and trying to speak, which became the sister. The girl's more metaphysical, poetic view of the family's grim journey into disintegration plays well against the more journalistic, list-making voice of the brother.

Throughout this interview, whenever Kimball speaks of the characters in his books, he discusses them like family members. He recalls that when he had been working on Family for a year, a friend of his in divinity school took him out to dinner and asked him, "You hear voices, don't you?"

Part of the reason for the authenticity of children's voices in Family is that Kimball has a background in child development. While he was writing this novel he was also working as an editor of college textbooks, mostly psychology textbooks, and through them he became familiar with language acquisition.

And Family's story is based on true-life events that happened to Kimball's great-grandmother, who passed it on to his grandfather, who then told it to him. The first line of the book is taken directly from the grandfather's rendition: "My brother's cradle and other baby stuff got us from Mineola to Birthrock." Kimball credits his grandfather's storytelling, his vivid re-creations of family history and reading aloud the Sunday comics, for instilling his love for stories. He and his grandfather were very close and wrote many letters to each other until the older man's passing in 1998.

His grandfather was also the main inspiration behind Kimball's second novel, How Much of Us There Was. Once again it tells the tale of everyday people dealing with great grief--this time a man losing his wife of many years. Like Family, each chapter of How Much has a descriptive title that reads like a brief poem. Kimball says that he started out in his first novel using the chapter headings as sketches for personal use to keep track of what was going on, but then they stuck. And stuck beautifully, like linguistic shadow boxes--viz., Family's "How You Get the Breath All the Way Down Into Momma and the Baby Alive, How Poppa Laid the Babies Down to Sleep and Grow Up Inside Momma, and Why We Kept Waking Each Other Up," and How Much's "How I Kept Looking for Her and the Little Pieces of Her That Were Still Her."

Some of the most emotionally brutal scenes in each of his books are when people perform ritualistic activities to assuage their pain. In Family, the daughter has her dolls stand in for her real family: "Me and my bigger brother could have died like my little brother did. But my dolls of us kept both of us both people-alive." In How Much, after the narrator's ill wife dies he looks for her spirit in her clothing and pulls one of her dresses over a floor lamp: "I could see the shadows of us dancing on the walls all of the way around the living room."

Kimball's new novel, Dear Everybody, is the first not directly inspired by his grandfather, but maybe his many years of intimate letter writing inspired its epistolary form. It's the story of an emotionally damaged weatherman named Jonathon who kills himself, and it's told through the letters he writes and leaves behind to family members, old friends, lovers, his ex-wife, teachers, and even to a weather satellite and a brown squirrel.

Also included are excerpts from Jonathon's mother's diaries, newspaper clippings that Jonathon saved, and his last will and testament. Presiding over all these written strands of a life, and occasionally providing commentary on it, is the slightly malevolent voice of Jonathon's younger brother, Robert. Throughout Jonathon's harsh travails and mental illness, Robert only felt embarrassed and resentful. Even Jonathon's father, who is an emotionally distant person who spends most of his life dodging his family, shows some spiritual growth by the end of the book, but Robert clings to his bitterness and lack of empathy.

Kimball says Dear came about imagining a letter a man writes to a woman apologizing for a date he missed, and he wondered if they could have had a happy life together if the man hadn't screwed up. He then wrote 100 letters in two weeks and thought the book was done, until a month or so later when he wrote another 100 letters. His third approach to the book brought the emotionally balancing diary of Jonathon's mother and the frame of overlord Robert.

Kimball, a native of Lansing, Mich., moved to Baltimore about three years ago when his wife, a specialist in 18th-century literature, got a teaching job at the University of Maryland. He quickly fit into Baltimore's burgeoning arts community, starting up the 510 reading series dedicated to prose writing with fellow author Jen Michalski at Minas Gallery. The reading series almost immediately packed in standing-room-only crowds at the atypical time of 5 p.m. on Saturdays, a time most writerly types are just extracting themselves from their crypts.

And while hanging out at this year's Transmodern Festival, he came up with the idea of "Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story On a Postcard," where he interviews people through postcards or e-mail and then condenses your life story and sends it back to you on a postcard and posts it on his blog, an idea he says was a little out of his comfort zone and attributable to the spirit of Baltimore's multimedia, thinking-outside-genre-constraint freedom. When asked how he likes it here, he says, "People should just come here."

Right before this interview, Kimball had just had knee surgery, and there is something of a woodland creature in his soft movements and miles-deep brown eyes as he excitedly talks of his quick and miraculous recovery--a recovery so quick that all the juicy painkillers were left like ripe tomatoes on a sun-drenched kitchen window sill after only one day of use. He speaks as someone who hasn't gotten off so easily before, so he's all the more grateful, and he keeps his voice low, outside the hearing of capricious Fate.

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