Michael Kimball is a mainstay of the Baltimore literary scene, but he’s
much more than simply a writer. Ace poker player, Galaga enthusiast,
guerilla filmmaker—Kimball’s pursuits are eclectic, to say the least.
This complexity is reflected in his output. No two titles are the same,
and yet each bears his signature voice.
I first encountered Kimball’s work with the release of
(Tyrant Books, 2011). The novel bears many of Kimball’s hallmarks.
Multiple narrators, formal experimentation, language distilled to its
purest essence. Kimball somehow manages to evoke an intense emotional
response through calm, unwavering diction, a truly tremendous feat.
As an interview subject, Kimball proves just as compelling as his
fiction. We chatted over email, touching on trauma, place, persona, and
a host of other topics. For more on Michael Kimball, visit his
website or buy his books
I’m curious how you came to Baltimore. What’s your relationship to the
city? Has living there influenced your writing? I noticed you used to
run a local reading series. My cohorts and I are trying to start up
something similar. How would you describe the literary community in
I moved to Baltimore in a kind of happy accident, just life
circumstances and a job. Years before, I had moved from NYC to West
Texas, a kind of cultural wasteland even though a major university
exists there. So I was happy to get back to the East Coast and have
wondered at all of the great cultural things happening in Baltimore ever
since. I’m not sure that the city itself has influenced my writing, but
it’s nice to be around so many weirdly-minded creative people. When I
moved to Baltimore, I was surprised that there wasn’t a dedicated
fiction reading series of any type; there were lots of poetry reading
series and the odd events at colleges and universities, but it seemed
like a cultural hole. The 510 Reading Series did its best to invite as
many different fiction writers as possible (local, national, and
international; published and unpublished; any genre as long as the
writer was serious about it, etc.); for about a decade, there was a
thriving writing community around that reading series. I’m less involved
in the scene these days, but it seems to have taken on some good new
forms in Baltimore, a pretty generous creative community in my
“That old writing advice about writing what you know is a lot easier to put into practice when you know a lot of different stuff.”
I noticed you’ve done some work in film. I’ve trained and performed as
a theatre actor/director, so I’m always curious about writers who cross
into other disciplines. How did you get into cinema? Was it something
you always wanted to do or did you stumble into it by chance? Has your
writing fed into your filmmaking or vice versa?
The work in film was almost entirely accidental, but a lot of fun. Just
before Dear Everybody was published in 2008, I met Luca Dipierro and
he was interested in making a short film around the novel. We did that
and had a lot of fun doing it. The piece about the feather pillow and
the bird, which was part of the short, led to an idea about objects,
their stories, and their destruction, which turned into I Will Smash
You. The cumulative form of that film then led to 60 Writers / 60
Places, in which we filmed a writer in a location with some personal
relevance while they read 60 seconds or less of their work. I don’t know
that the films influenced my fiction, but if there is a structural
progression in the body of my work, then those two films were two steps
in that projection. That said, I also tend to think that everything a
writer does, whatever that range of things is, brings some influence to
the writing. It can be another creative field, a sport, another
discipline, etc. That old writing advice about writing what you know is
a lot easier to put into practice when you know a lot of different
Being a grad student, I spend a lot of time in workshops talking about
craft and technique and all those other lofty concepts. The One-Hour MFA
is a refreshingly unpretentious guide to writing. The wisdom you provide
is so down to earth and easy to digest but still incredibly insightful.
I’m curious about the worst writing advice you’ve ever been given. Are
there are “rules” or “standards” you hear writers or teachers throwing
around that are arbitrary or maybe even harmful to students?
Thanks for the kind words about The One-Hour MFA, which started as a
talk I would give at colleges and universities and then turned into that
little book; it’s still available for free
here. I wanted young
writers to have access to that kind of writing advice even if they can’t
attend an MFA program. Janet Burroway wrote a famous text for writing
students that includes some advice about prose not needing as much craft
as poetry to be “good” writing; a lot of students are assigned that text
and I suspect it’s had an unfortunate influence over a large swath of
contemporary prose. I’d also suggest ignoring any teacher who tells a
student to not write something that the student is clearly enthused
about writing. I had a writing teacher tell me that The Way the Family
Got Away should only be a short story and that I’d waste a few years of
my life trying to make it a novel. Obviously, I ignored him and my life
(both writing and otherwise) turned out the better for it.
“At first, I write without too much thought about what the story is or even who the character is.”
It can be tough for young writers to trust their instincts, especially
if some authority figure like a professor is telling them otherwise.
There’s definitely a balancing act between following your own vision
while also being receptive to outside feedback. I’m glad you ignored
that writing teacher about The Way the Family Got Away. Your work is
intensely voice-driven. I’m reminded of writers like Barry Hannah who
can take a simple concept and transform it into something profound
through voice alone. In Us you’re successfully juggling multiple
voices, not an easy feat. What’s your process like for developing and
distinguishing these voices?
Yeah, that balancing act—trusting yourself and what makes you you as a
writer while also accepting sound advice that furthers what you want to
do as a writer—it’s such an important thing to figure out (and it’s
different for every writer). Regarding voice, I generally let the
writing tell me what the voice is. That is, at first, I write without
too much thought about what the story is or even who the character is.
After the character has said enough—which could be a couple of
sentences, pages, chapters, depending—then I look hard at the sentences.
I look for idiosyncratic syntax, odd word choices, and any sense of
feeling the language gives me; once I have a better sense of that, I
start limiting vocabulary and thought and categories of discussion for
different characters in different ways. I’m always working with what I
already have in the writing or what the writing eventually reveals. With
both The Way the Family Got Away and Us, I initially only had one
voice. With both books, at different points, I ended up with some
writing that didn’t fit the original voice and that’s how I knew a new
character wanted to speak.
I like the idea of following where the writing takes you rather than
trying to force a character or voice. Seems much more organic that way,
more fun too because it adds a sense of discovery. The work you put into
developing those voices is on full display in Us. I noticed the book
was originally published under a different title. I hear a lot of
writers say they look at their published work and immediately want to
start editing again. Usually writers don’t get that second chance
(unless you’re Walt Whitman, ha!). Was it satisfying being able to
refine the original work into something new? Any surprises you
encountered in creating an updated version?
I’m pretty sure Walt would have revised those 150th-anniversary editions
that have been published recently. And, yeah, Us was originally
published as How Much of Us There Was all over the world in English,
but never had a U.S. deal. Thankfully, Giancarlo Ditrapano and Tyrant
Books rescued it here, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to
revise it into Us. I didn’t make any large changes, but made hundreds
of little ones. One surprise was realizing I could cut a couple hundred
instances of the word “that” throughout the novel. And maybe the biggest
surprise was what an incredibly satisfying experience it was. I
certainly don’t have any remaining urge to revise that one, though I
couldn’t say that for most of my other books.
What strikes me most about the voice in Us, particularly the elderly
husband, is its plain-spokenness. The husband narrates in an objective,
almost detached way that is still somehow emotionally gut wrenching. I
got echoes of Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. Was this a conscious
choice or did it develop organically? What’s your approach to capturing
a character’s emotional state?
The way you describe the husband’s narration, that’s what first stood
out to me about the initial sentences in that voice, and it’s the main
thing I carried with that voice throughout the novel. So it was organic
and then deliberate. And the more I let the language go inside the
character of the husband (while still being descriptive of the exterior
world), the more understated power it seemed to gather.
For my money’s worth, the ending of Us is damn near perfect. I
rarely cry when reading a book, but you had me in pieces by the last
page. I had recently gotten married myself when I read the book, so the
last page packed a particularly potent wallop for me. I’m curious if you
always had this conclusion in mind or if it was another discovery you
came to as you were writing. Was there ever an alternate ending? I know
a lot of writers who say they go in without a clue as to how the piece
will end. How do you sense when it’s time to stop writing? Does instinct
tell you when something’s finished?
I got the chills when you gave me this question and needed a moment. I
came back to it and it happened again. I don’t know what that means, but
there is that thing about ghosts communicating that way. Regardless of
belief, this is an ending that will always stick with me. I knew I was
working on the last section of the novel, but I thought I had maybe
30-40 pages in front of me. Then I wrote that short last chapter, those
two pages—and the same thing that is happening to me now happened to me
then. I remember stopping, looking up at the ceiling, and saying out
loud (to myself): “Oh, that’s the end.” And that was the end. It told
me. I felt it happen.
“Understatement can carry a kind of narrative strength when working with difficult material.”
Your response leads me to another question I wanted to ask. I’m still
working my way through Big Ray (loving it so far). I understand the
book contains autobiographical elements. There’s some truly horrifying
shit in there. In my program, we talk a lot about writing through our
trauma. It’s shocking how many of my classmates, as well as professors,
have been victimized or abused at the hands of a loved one. I’m
disturbed by how commonplace it’s become. For you, what’s the greatest
challenge in writing about trauma? Do you find it to be a cathartic act?
Any advice you can offer for young writers approaching these immensely
difficult and painful subjects?
The abuse that so many people suffer through is terribly under-discussed
in today’s world. It is beginning to change in some positive ways, I
hope, but there is a long way to go with the general perception of that.
And writing about trauma is its own particular and difficult problem. I
tried to write the material that became Big Ray a few different times
without much success. In one early attempt, I don’t think I yet had the
writing tools to manage that difficult material. In another early
attempt, the tone was just too angry in a distracting way. It wasn’t
until I moved the tone toward a kind of understatement that I thought
the narrative began to work—and that’s the only somewhat general advice
I have: Understatement can carry a kind of narrative strength when
working with difficult material. I never expected writing Big Ray to
be cathartic, but it was in ways I never imagined. Writing that book
I’m intrigued by the “conceptual pseudonym” Andy Devine that you
created. It seems like a fascinating exercise in persona, which is
something I’m endlessly studying as an actor. How did this alter ego
come into being? Was it a vehicle to write something more experimental?
How is Andy Devine different from Michael Kimball?
Andy Devine was one of my Vegas names—picked up on a card counting trip
through Nevada and Arizona while passing through Flagstaff, where the
actor who used the pseudonym Andy Devine was born, and his name showed
up on all kinds of signage. The pseudonym started as a joke, but
definitely became a vehicle through which I could push some writing
limits. Andy Devine writes with an extreme and unforgiving aesthetic.
One of my favorite pieces in Words is the condensed, alphabetical
novel buried toward the back of that unreadable book. Michael Kimball
enjoys a much wider range of writing and life than Andy Devine does.
Love the idea of a deliberately unreadable book. These days a lot of
literature seems increasingly less and less difficult. Gives me hope
that there are still writers out there who are willing to experiment
with form and challenge readers. You have a pretty diverse body of work:
Andy Divine, The One-Hour MFA, Galaga, etc. I admire how each book
is wholly unique but still carries your distinct voice. Not an easy
feat. What’s next for you? Any upcoming releases or works in progress? I
read in another interview that at one point you were toying with a
post-apocalyptic novel of some sort. I would be all over that.
Thank you for that kindness. I’ve always been fond of some kind of range
in the work of other writers and it’s something I have fun with in my
own work. I have a bunch of work-in-progress, as a lot of life and work
has gotten in the way of writing over the last few years. The
post-apocalyptic novel you mention, I’ve been working on that off-and-on
for a decade and I may try to finish it next; it is less unreadable
than Words, but a different type of challenge, something like if
Wallace Stevens wrote an apocalyptic novel, maybe. I also have a mostly
secret project that I’ve just finished and is out with a publisher who
is one of the few people who knew I was writing it. And I have a long
first draft of a handwritten novel that I should probably type up, so I
can see what’s there. It’s unsettling to have so much unfinished work.
I’m looking forward to having some more writing time in the next
Your postcard project is pretty far-reaching. You’ve covered a lot of
geography, a diverse collection of lives. I love the condensed form,
almost like a formal constraint. Is the postcard project ongoing or has
it run its course? Bonus question, have you ever written your own life
story on a postcard?
Yeah, I loved the postcard life story project. I met a ton of great
people and learned a lot about being a human being. I closed the project
when the book was published years ago, in part, because I was still
getting so many requests, and I never would have written anything else
except postcard life stories for probably the rest of my life. My friend
Sam Ligon wrote a postcard for my life story (after I had written his)
and then I wrote one for myself to be included in the book version of
the project. It was difficult being that honest with myself (something
that so many other people seemed to find relatively easy).
My last question is a fun one that I always like to ask writers. I’ll
focus on Us since the book profoundly affected me. If Us had a theme
song, what would it be?
I was obsessed with Bon
Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago and listened to it when I revised How
Much of Us There Was into Us. I become even more obsessed with that
album when I learned that Justin Vernon usually gets his music first,
then places sounds with the music, and then finds words for the sounds.
His song “Lump Sum” creates a great weird feeling that gets inside me in
a way I can’t quite explain, and he pulls that feeling all the way
through the song. I tried to do something similar in Us.