Author Q&A’s can be quite surprising. When I ask Michael Kimball which refreshments he would like during our interview, he replied “My wife introduced me to cream tea on one of our visits to London and I have been partial to it ever since.” Cream tea is high tea in Central Scotland and so I invited Michael to the Alona Hotel in Strathclyde Country Park to enjoy the feast you see on the left. It’s a pity that Michael’s attendance was virtual. Mine wasn’t and I can assure you that I enjoyed every mouthful on Michael’s behalf!
Michael is currently blog touring to promote the UK paperback edition of his third novel “Dear Everybody”. It is the best book I’ve read in 2009 thus far – without a shadow of a doubt. A solar plexus read – it floored me without being overly explicit. The first question just had to relate to this. So, without further ado:
LS: The novel’s power lies in the unspoken — the reading between the lines that is necessary to fill in the blanks. Each reader will interpret in their own way with their own resonances. Have you had much feedback from your readership about this and have there been any surprises?
MK: This has come up a few times, mostly when I talked with writing classes at a university. Sometimes the class would be split, especially regarding the blacked-out passage in one of the letters to Robert. I have found this a little surprising. I think that particular episode is pretty clear, but I recognize the possible interpretations. The reader is dealing with at least one unreliable narrator (either Jonathon or Robert, and maybe both). I’ve also been surprised by a few people who seem to have no sympathy for a character that had an abusive childhood.
LS: These differences in interpretation are reflected in the mindsets of the two brothers. Jonathon is devastated by events in the family home while Robert minimises their significance, questioning in places whether they ever happened. The reader’s view of the parents hinges on which lens they look through. There wouldn’t be any implicit critique of the misery memoir in this, would there?
MK: Yes, an implicit critique. My feeling is that more can be conveyed with understatement—more story, more feeling, more implication. That blacked-out passage in the letter to Robert, it’s blacked-out, in part, because I thought that spelling out exactly what happened lessens the emotional power and the narrative complexity of the novel.
LS: The extracts from Alice’s diary are particularly sorrowful. As a man writing from the viewpoint of a woman, how did you get into her head in this way?
MK: Alice’s diary entries started as a problem with one of Jonathon’s letters. Jonathon was apologizing for leaving the refrigerator door open one summer day when he was 6 years old (for which he received a beating from his father) and I couldn’t get the tone right. I switched the perspective to the mother and it finally felt as if the voice were right. The voice and tone of her diary entries all come out of that piece, looking at the situation from a different but distinct perspective.
LS: Dear Everybody started life as an acclaimed short story. Is there a copy of the original short story available?
MK: That was originally published in one of my favorite literary magazines, Post Road, and they later put it online (http://www.postroadmag.com/12/fiction/Kimball.phtml). All of those letters were eventually rewritten; some of them were cut from the novel.
LS: When did you realise the potential for growth into a novel? And what changes were necessary to achieve this?
MK: I already had a couple hundred letters when I decided to try to publish some of them as short stories. That’s where that first short story came from. But I was already thinking about how to turn all those letters into a longer work, in a novel. I added the obituary, the eulogy, and the last will and testament. After adding those framing elements, the novel opened up for me in a new way. I realized that I could include anything. I added the mother’s diary entries, conversations with people from Jonathon’s past, the psychological evaluations, encyclopedia entries, weather reports, yearbook quotes, to-do lists, a mixtape, and other sorts of documents that fill in the parts of Jonathon’s life that he can’t tell us with his letters. The different documents seemed to give the novel more texture, more layers, to fill it out with story and fill it in with feeling.
LS: Finally, please recommend 3 must-read epistolary novels.
MK: In English, we have to start with Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Then, well, this one isn’t letters, but it’s a diary, and I have to mention it; as a teenager, I loved Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4. And third, a book written by a poet that isn’t a novel but is epistolary and amazing: Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s.