Michael Kimball: New novel and your life story on a postcard

“There’s a lot of love in grief.”

Posted May 09, 2011

Be forewarned: when you pick up Us, Michael Kimball's haunting story of love and letting go, you will not be able to put it down. Here's more from Michael:

Jennifer Haupt: The elderly husband and wife in this novel are so incredibly real. Are they based on people you know and have observed?

Michael Kimball: The two main characters were based, loosely, on two real people-my grandfather taking care of my grandmother during their last days together. I saw some of that, but mostly I was imagining what it might have been like. I used my feelings about my grandparents, who I spent a lot of time with when I was growing up, to write the novel. The novel was written from feelings of loss and grief, but mostly out of love. Instead of method acting, it was a kind of method writing. I wanted the reader to feel what I felt. It was also a way to go back and remember my grandparents, their house, their garden, their car, the way that they moved-and that was some kind of a small comfort.

JH: Where did you start with this novel? Was it the concept of love, death, or something else?

MK: All that I was working with when I started writing Us was an elderly man's voice, letting it tell me where to go with the story of the novel. At that point, I didn't know what the story was, what had happened or what was going to happen. I tried not to have any preconceived ideas about what I was writing. That is, I didn't know that I was writing about my grandparents when I started Us.

I try to let the fiction tell me what it needs to be and follow that. I wrote a few chapters before I realized that the elderly husband and wife were probably stand-ins for my grandparents, who I missed so much. At that point, it became clear to me that the novel was going to be about their last days together after a long and loving marriage.

JH: This novel is emotionally draining - in a very satisfying way - to read. Was it every overwhelming to keep writing at this level of emotional depth? What did you do to take a breather from your characters, or was there no need to do this?

JH: For you, what's the most difficult part of writing a novel?

MK: The most difficult part of writing a novel for me is finding content that is worthy of a novel's length. That's why my novels tend to take on weighty subject matter-a family's loss of a baby in The Way the Family Got Away; abuse, mental illness, and suicide in Dear Everybody; and in Us, the last days of an elderly couple together and the ways that they find to manage their grief and love. If I'm going to spend years working on a novel, I want it to matter. I try to find ways to say difficult things.

JH: I love Dear Everybody, a collection of fictional unsent letters. Is this a habit of yours?

JH: Tell me how you came up with the wonderful idea to write peoples' life stories on a postcard. How do you go about doing this?

MK: My friend Adam Robinson was one of the curators for a performance art festival, the Transmodern in Baltimore, and he asked me if I wanted to participate. I asked him what he thought a writer could do as performance and we made some jokes about that. But then I suggested that I could write people's life stories and then I remembered this bunch of postcards that I had just gotten in the mail. That's how the project started.

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, which is how he met the woman who became his wife. When I finished the postcard and looked up, a line had formed. For the rest of the night, I interviewed dozens of people, wrote each person's life story, and then gave them the postcard. I did this for four hours straight without getting up out of the chair that I was sitting in.

I don't choose the people; I let the people choose the project. It's important that they come to the project wanting to tell their life story. Now Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard) includes almost 300 life stories. The one true thing that I have learned from this project is that everybody is amazing.

JH: How would you describe the story of your writing life in three sentences?

MK: I write nearly every day and one of the things that I have learned is that writing is being present-to the sentences and to the story in very particular ways. The thing that I love about being a writer is that it has become a part of the rest of my life. I find myself paying that kind of attention to many of the people in my life and paying great attention to everybody I care about is a great way to live.

JH: If you could write a one sentence postcard to anyone, knowing they'd actually read it, who would that person be and what would the card say?

MK: The first person I thought of was my wife, but I've already said everything that I can think of (so far) to her. So the one person would be my dead father and the one sentence would be this: "I forgive you."

JH: What's the one true thing you learned from writing Us?

MK: I wrote Us as a kind of response to a time when I was unable to communicate my feelings about my grandmother and my grandfather. I grew up in a family that didn't talk much, and most feelings weren't communicated unless they were negative ones, so it took me years to learn how to do that as an adult. So the one true thing that I learned from writing Us is this: Don't be afraid to say whatever you are feeling. The one other true thing is that there is a lot of love in grief.

Michael Kimball is the author of four books, including Dear Everybody and, most recently, Us. His work has been on NPR's All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Prairie Schooner, and New York Tyrant. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard).