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Memory by Memory: CV talks with Michael Kimball

by Jeff Jackson

September 27, 2012

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).

Big Ray recounts a son’s complicated feelings in the wake of his obese and abusive father’s death. This deeply affecting novel was recently selected as Oprah’s “Book of the Week.” I discussed the novel with Michael via email, using his own interview technique of sending one question at a time.

One of the most striking and immediate features of Big Ray is how it’s written in very short bursts – sometimes the entries last only a sentence or two and they’re never longer than two paragraphs. It’s a very effective way of conveying the narrator’s fragmented and grief-stricken memories of his father and I was curious if this stylistic idea arrived fairly early in your process and whether it significantly evolved over the course of the project?

The entries were fairly short from the very beginning, but there were sections that ran for many paragraphs, even a few pages. I was revising as I wrote, though, and at some point I started making each entry a single thought of sorts. It was pretty easy to go back and back down some of those early sections, though I found myself breaking entries into multiple pieces all the way through pages. My idea was that the entries would work like the brain remembers one memory leading to another memory – I was interested in the kind of natural form that would create. And that in turn led to the thematic chapters that are sprinkled throughout the novel – on sleeping, on being fat, etc.

The novel often does feel free-associative in a way that feels true to memory, but there’s a velocity to it as well – I felt compelled to keep turning the pages. There seems to be a sort of submerged structure with how the early sections alternate between past and present, the inclusion of thematic chapters, how the book charts the father’s funeral and the weeks afterwards. Was much of the book written in sequence and how did you approach structuring the multitude of short entries?

I have a lettered and numbered chart that helped me keep track of everything. Most of the present sections about the father’s death and funeral were written first and then most of the thematic sections and then some of the past sections about the father’s life were written. When I had about half the novel, I stumbled on the idea of alternating past and present, but roughed that up a bit by placing the thematic chapters in particular places. At that point, I went back to the beginning of the novel and reworked the structure, then moved forward again from there. So the second half of the book was written in mostly alternating chapters, and it was written very quickly, just a month or so.

There are over 500 short entries, but most of them were written with the entries that ultimately surround them. Still, some good number of those entries floated in different ways. In revision, lots of entries moved around, were split up, broke up other material, etc. And during the final revision, the last three entries were pulled from three earlier sections of the novel, which snapped everything into place into a different way.

A while back, you mentioned that you were trying to write more directly from your subconscious. Can you talk a little about this process, how you’ve been able to tap into this mode, and how it’s affected Big Ray and your writing in general?

It’s difficult to explain how to approach not thinking while writing, but I think of that mode as not thinking (or, sometimes, as being receptive). It’s how I try to get things down on the page in the early drafts. I try to lose myself in the writing and it’s a kind of accidental mode, a way to let there be surprising accidents and jumps between sentences and paragraphs. Anything can be a trigger for the next sentence or paragraph or scene. In Big Ray, it could be a word like fat or sleep or dad. Or it could be that vowel sound in fat and dad. Or it could be a topic like ways to die or gambling or eating. That’s how the associative structure makes up the narrative of Big Ray. It moves from thought to thought in ways that I couldn’t plan with an outline. It’s chronological at times, thematic other times, and somewhat random in places. The more I tried to tap into this non-thinking mode, the more material seemed to just come to me. At times, I felt possessed by the voice, as if I were just typing. It was a kind of rush. There were many nights when I was simply typing just as fast as I could.

In Us, there’s a character who shares your name. And in Big Ray, the narrator is very explicitly a writer. At one point in the novel, he says “I wish I was making this up.” I think some readers will naturally wonder how much of the book might be autobiographical – and this tension certainly adds an extra charge to the material. Why did you decide to make the narrator a writer? And were you looking to generate this sort of tension by doing that?

When I started writing Big Ray, it was going to be a memoir. I wrote everything exactly as I remembered it and I wrote everything as true as I could. But I eventually made Big Ray a novel—in part because it seemed too messy as a memoir and also because I wanted more control over how it was told, a fiction writer’s prerogative. So this novel is a retelling of my life (and my father’s life) as a way to reclaim a part of my life. The character Big Ray is still mostly my father and the narrator is mostly me and my father did most of the things described in the book. That is, most of the novel is still based on real events, in particular the father’s abuse and his obesity, as well as the all the events surrounding his death. Also, I decided to keep the main character as a writer because it seemed more authentic in terms of the telling. And I kept many of the devices of the memoir, so the novel still reads like nonfiction, because I like the tension that creates—the double narrative that puts in play.

I’m sorry for you that so much of the book is based on real events, though I’m impressed by your mastery over such potentially overwhelming material. Many writers tend to mine these sort of potent autobiographical situations for their first book, but you’ve waited a while to tackle it. In Big Ray, the father has always wanted the narrator to write about him but it’s only after his death that he’s able to do so. Was your father’s death the primary catalyst for writing this? Had you been feeling that you needed to write a number of other novels before you had the tools to do this story justice?

My father died in 2005 and for a couple of weeks after that I wrote in a red notebook about what I was feeling and thinking. Then I put the notebook away and kind of forgot about it. I found the notebook again years later when I was putting away some papers in a box and was sort of stunned by what I had written there. But I think it needed to happen that way. It took me years to be ready to face my father in this way – and part of that may have been the time it took to become a fiction writer who could manage this kind of material. I could not have written this book in this way in 2005. I was not ready emotionally or aesthetically. I needed five or six years to prepare myself.

I know some writers find the process of addressing personal traumas to be liberating. While there are others like Harry Crews who said writing Childhood: The Biography of a Place almost killed him and “nothing was purged.” What was your own experience by the end of writing Big Ray?

Big Ray was written in an intense rush, three months start to finish. I was emotionally exhausted by the end of it, but also changed. I was a different person – lighter, happier, released. I found a way to reconcile the love and the hate I had for my father and that gave me myself back.

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Tags: Big Ray, Michael Kimball, Jeff Jackson, interview, author, book

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