Michael Kimball Interview

Every now and again I read a book that knocks my socks off. It is not something that happens very often, which is probably a good thing because it means when I do find one like that it’s rather special. Slaughterhouse 5 knocked my socks off. Aimee Bender’s short story collections knocked my socks off. So did Etgar Keret’s. Caroline Smailes’ Black Boxes knocked my socks off. So did Frankenstein. To name but a few (have a look through the blog for others – most have been labelled The Incredibles).

The most recent socks-knocker-offer was Dear Everybody by Michael Kimball. It’s right up there with the best I’ve read. Ever. It’s clever, sensitive, heart breaking, moving, funny and many, many other wonderful things. I can’t say enough nice things about it. Honestly (like you can’t tell!) I loved it. (Scott Pack reviews it far better than I ever could here. He says: “If you go out and buy this on the back of my review then you won’t be disappointed, and if you are then you need to give yourself a slap.” And I think he’s right.

I was thrilled to be able to tell Michael Kimball how much I loved it. And thrilled also to be able to ask him some questions.

And here are the results:


So, let’s begin. Could you tell us a little about Dear Everybody and a little about where it came from?

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. Most of the novel is Jonathon’s letters, but it also includes newspaper articles, psychological evaluations, weather reports, a missing person flyer, a eulogy, a last will and testament, and many other fragments, which taken together tell the story of the short life of Jonathon Bender, weatherman.

How much, structurally, was planned?

I didn’t plan the novel, structurally or otherwise. The beginning of it was a surprise to me, one of those happy surprises that sometimes happens during a good bout of writing. And the structure came out of an episode when I printed out all the pieces of the novel, basically one piece to a page, and laid them out in my dining room–all over the dining table, the chairs, any flat surface. I started putting things in a kind of order that way and the chronological structure came out of that.


How does Dear Everybody compare to your other books?

Because of the structure, Dear Everybody is different than my first two novels, but there are some similarities. An obvious similarity is that all three novels use multiple narrators—3 in The Way the Family Got Away, 3 in How Much of Us There Was, and a couple of dozen in Dear Everybody.


What ingredients are essential in a piece of fiction for it to be great?

It starts with a great sense of language and a particular perspective that somehow creates an original voice. The story, whatever happens, it all comes after that.


Has writing the book changed your opinions on mental illness and suicide?

I had a certain sympathy for those suffering from mental illness and/or those who have to deal with suicide, in whatever form, but as much sympathy as I had, I now have more.


Tell us about you. Who is Michael Kimball? Does he write letters?

That’s a difficult question. I’m still a writer first, both the novels and the life stories, but I’ve been working with film a lot lately. I don’t write so many letters anymore, but I used to write a lot of them. In fact, it was after I stopped writing letters so much that Dear Everybody came into being.


Could you tell us about 60 Writers/60 Places, and postcard life stories?

The postcard life stories (click here to view) — I call it a collaborative art project. I interview people and then write their life stories (on a postcard). I have written postcard life stories for people from the UK, Canada, South Africa, Portugal, Russia, Finland, Uganda, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, Greece, China, Italy, and a man who claims to be an alien. Besides people, I have written postcard life stories for two cats, two dogs, an apple, a fictional character, and a literary magazine. One of the things that I have learned is that there are life stories everywhere.

60 WRITERS / 60 PLACES is a film about writers and their writing occupying untraditional spaces, everyday life, everywhere. It begins with the idea of the tableaux vivant, a living picture where the camera never moves, but the writers read a short excerpt of their work instead of silently holding their poses. Blake Butler reads on the subway, Deb Olin Unferth in a Laundromat, Jamie Gaughran – Perez in a beauty salon, Tita Chico in a dressing room, Tao Lin next to a hot dog cart, and Jessica Anya Blau at a swimming pool. The writer and the writing go on no matter what is going on around them.


What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?

Cut anything that you don’t absolutely need. That thought continues to guide me.


What’s next for you?
I’m finishing a new novel – Friday, Saturday, Sunday – and will keep writing postcard life stories. This fall, there will be a few screenings of
I Will Smash You — a film I made with Luca Dipierro. And Luca and I are almost done shooting 60 Writers/60 Places — and plan to have that ready to screen in the spring.


Michael Kimball’s third novel, DEAR EVERYBODY, is just out in the US, UK, and Canada (http://michael-kimball.com/). The Believer calls it “a curatorial masterpiece.” Time Out New York calls the writing “stunning.” And the Los Angeles Times says the book is “funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking.” His first two novels are THE WAY THE FAMILY GOT AWAY (2000) and HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS (2005), both of which have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. He is also responsible for the ongoing art project—Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard)—and the documentary films, I WILL SMASH YOU (2009) and 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES (2010).

9 Comments on “Michael Kimball Interview

  1.  by  Tania Hershman

    Nik and Michael, thank you for a fascinating interview. I've heard so much about Dear Everybody and the postcard life stories but was never really sure what either was about. Now I know, and am off to order Dear Everybody, it sounds amazing – if it's one of Nik's Incredibles then it must be!

  2.  by  annie clarkson

    I really want to read this book, I have it on my wishlist, but am currently on a self-ban from buying any books, as I have so many waiting to be read and not a lot of spare cash. but I will read it, it sounds so so good, and I loved this interview, thanks, you're both very interested and both have lovely beards.

  3.  by  (Best Show)Watch

    "Hi:Two things1) I’d like your permission to (re)print your article on ‘Torchwood’for our website2) I was hoping we could use your ‘scribing’ talent for our website.The Best Shows Youre Not Watching (dot) com [all one word]‘Torchwood’one of our featured shows. We’re hoping to round up a few people who can occasionally contribute perspective (via an article/blog) on the shows – maybe a recent episode, future direction, plot shortcomings etc.What’s in it for you?Primarily a larger audience back channeled to your blog. We don’t pay but the site has a lot of promise and we're pretty excited about getting it off the ground. Let me know what you think.Thanks

  4.  by  Nik Perring

    Tania, Fiona, Annie and Caroline – thanks for reading. Thrilled you enjoyed it. I think you'd all love Dear Everybody. Go on, get it bought!NikPS Fiona – I remember reading that interview now and I remember thinking it was great. I think How Much… will be in the Perring household before too long!

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