Cobalt: Two of your books, BIG RAY and DEAR EVERYBODY, face death through snapshots. In BIG RAY, those snapshots are through quick bursts of memories and descriptions of mementoes; and in DEAR EVERYBODY through unsent letters. What is your process of creating these scrapbooks of someone’s life, post-mortem? Also, as the author, do you paint the picture and then dissect it piece-by-piece, or do you start with the pieces and later find the portrait they create?
Michael Kimball: With both books, I started with pieces—and a voice—and the story of the line emerged from that. With DEAR EVERYBODY, the letters were written in a kind of rush, one letter leading to another letter as wrote on a legal pad as quickly as I could. The letters were written out of order, but eventually organized into a chronology. With BIG RAY, I started with the death of my father, which was a kind of shock and which came back to me in glimpses, little bits of memory that led other memories, both of his life and his death. The novel came out in a rush like that and many of the chapters are organized in the way that we remember.
Cobalt: Another similarity between these novels is that an individual is re-discovering their deceased relative in a different light. Do you find that death and family drive your writing? If so, how?
Kimball: I never set out to write about death and family, but the themes keep coming back. Even when I’ve tried to start a novel in a different place, as I did with DEAR EVERYBODY, I find my way back to family and death. I feel as if BIG RAY is a kind of culmination for that, though, and that my next novel will have to be about something very different.
Cobalt: You are at the center of the Baltimore writing community, not only living, writing and publishing here, but also hosting the 510 Readings. In your experience, what are some of the advantages to being part of such a strong community of writers?
Kimball: In a basic way, it’s just a nice thing to be part of such an active and generous community. It’s nice to be around people who care about and do the same things that you care about and do. And so I do what I can to add to that sense of community. I think of the 510 as my community service—and a way to introduce as many writers as I can to each other.
Cobalt: You’re a novelist. What do you do when you’re not noveling, and how do you balance noveling with non-noveling activities?
Kimball: I just Googled “noveling.” I had to see if it was a thing and the Internet machine says it is a thing. So I edit and rewrite college textbooks—that takes care of some of the bills that literary fiction doesn’t. I ride my mountain bike most days and like that it can be done pretty much year-round in Baltimore. I like to paint. I like to read in bed with my two cats, Moose and El Duque. I play on a co-ed softball team—sometimes called Sir Lord Baltimore, sometimes called Sweatpants—that is made up of other writers, artists, and musicians. And as certain friends will tell you, I will bet on nearly anything.
Cobalt: You say that for DEAR EVERYBODY you were writing in a rush, writing letter after letter on a legal pad. How do you think this pace informed the voice of the book? Did you ever have to step back and slow down?
Kimball: There’s something about writing the first draft with a pen on paper that I really like. The speed I can write by hand kind of matches the speed of my writing brain—and I find the voice there on that legal pad. But, yes, eventually, after I had written a couple hundred of the letters, I had to step back and see what I had. At that point, I organized the letters into a chronological order and started writing some of the other elements in the novel—the weather reports, the yearbook quotes, the last will and testament, etc.
Cobalt: Where do you do your best writing, or the most writing? This could be an actual geographic location, or a state of mind, or whatever you want it to be, really. In fact, I’ll even rephrase: What conditions best suit your writing needs?
Kimball: I’m going to answer a slightly different question. I most like writing at home, in bed, either late at night or early in the morning. I think of it as a kind of in-between time. It feels like everything changes if I actually get out of bed. Besides that, I also like to write on airplanes and trains, even buses though less so. There is something about writing while traveling that lets me get a different range of things down on the page. One of my favorite parts about living NYC was writing on the subway every day, going to and from work.
About Michael: Michael Kimball is the author of four novels, including Dear Everybody, Us, and, most recently, Big Ray. His work has been translated into a dozen languages, and been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as in The Guardian, Bomb, and New York Tyrant. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard).