Adam Robinson chats with author Michael Kimball about the writing and publishing process of his book Us.
I read How Much of Us There Was after I first met Michael Kimball, maybe back in 2007. I picked up the book at Minás, a clothing shop and art space here in Baltimore, and immediately, from the first sentence—“Our bed was shaking and it woke me up afraid”—I was struck by the scope of the book. Clearly the story here was about something intense and personal—and focused on old people. That struck me as strange. In the catalog of novels about octogenarians, how many are written by people 45 years younger than them?
When How Much of Us There Was was reprinted recently by Tyrant Books as Us, I was interested in what had changed, aside from the title. I didn’t notice anything very different in the text, and what’s probably more important is that I didn’t notice anything different in my response to it. On my second reading, the book was as gripping as it was the first time. But having read a lot more of Kimball’s work since 2007, I found myself attending to the nuance of his writing. The real genius of Michael Kimball’s prose lies in his finely-honed grammatical subversions.
Now Kimball and I play together on a softball team called Sir Lord Baltimore—he’s a knuckleball pitcher who’s also usually good for two home runs a game. After lobbing him a couple soft questions about his book, he told me to ask him something he can’t answer. So I threw some impossible questions at him, and he hit them out of the park.
Adam Robinson How old is this couple you’ve written about?
Michael Kimball I never gave the characters a specific age, but 80-ish was the age I was thinking when I saw the two characters in my head.
AR I think you’ve said that you wrote the book to process your feelings about your own grandparents. Did you ever doubt whether you were qualified to project these thoughts? Did you ever worry that no one would care if you did?
MK Yes, processing certain feelings about my grandparents, this one set I grew up close to, was a big part of the novel. I didn’t set out to do that, and I didn’t realize that I was doing that until I was a ways into the novel, but that’s what happened. And it’s funny, at one point, when I was stuck in the middle of the novel, I did stop and ask myself what I was doing. I didn’t know, and I didn’t know why. It made me question the whole thing, but facing down those questions also sent me deeper into the novel. Whenever I’ve found myself worried about whether or not I should do something with a piece of writing, especially something that a writer isn’t supposed to do, whenever there is that hesitation or fear, I try to move into that space. I try to be brave on the page.
AR So you didn’t set out to write a novel about your grandfather coping with loss?
MK I didn’t set out with that idea, but I had a couple of failed attempts with other long pieces before writing How Much of Us There Was—both of them set in nursing homes, though I wasn’t thinking specifically about my grandparents with those. So I didn’t know what the novel was at first—I just had that voice of the older man, the husband, and the story of the novel revealed itself as I went along.
AR What does it mean to go “deeper into the novel,” as you say?
MK It’s different with each book, case specific, but it happened with How Much of Us There Was when I started to answer those difficult questions I was asking myself. The novel opened up at that point and some of those answers became the second narrator in the novel. The way the voices of the two main narrators talked back and forth to each other, that introduced a complexity and scope that I hadn’t anticipated.
AR At the end of How Much of Us There Was, there is a chapter called “How I Have Tried to Communicate with Him, How I Hear Voices, and How I Became a Writer.” I think it’s interesting that you later shortened it to “How I Hear Voices.” Was this just for consistency, or did you feel like you were giving too much away, or what?
MK That was partly for consistency with all the other shortened chapter titles, sure, but I also had come to dislike the phrase, “How I Became a Writer.” That seems off to me now. And I like how “How I Hear Voices” plays for both of the main narrators.
AR What don’t you like about “How I Became a Writer?”
MK It’s too on the nose, isn’t it? And at the same time, it feels false somehow. I know it’s fiction, but it doesn’t seem true to me anymore, even for that particular narrator.
AR In this chapter you write, “I hear people who aren’t here saying things to me and I write them down.” What would your life have been like if you didn’t write this book?
MK Is this the question that is impossible to answer? Because, of course, I can’t possibly know. I can say my life would be different. I probably wouldn’t still be a writer if I hadn’t written this book. I had been trying and failing to write a second novel for about five years, and it was getting too painful to keep trying. I was close to stopping when I found my way into How Much of Us There Was. I don’t know what I would be doing now. Maybe I’d be a professional gambler? Or a semi-pro softball player? Does that position exist—semi-pro softball player?
AR In the beginning of the book, you repeat the word “up” over and over—it occurs once in the first sentence, twice in the second sentence, and then seven more times throughout the first two paragraphs alone. It’s almost transparent, though it has a hypnotizing effect, and of course it reinforces the single-mindedness of that narrator: he desperately wants his wife to get up. How much did you work those kinds of mechanics, and how much of it was a torrent?
MK The use of the preposition “up”—the narrator’s insistence on it—was one of the first things that I noticed about the narrator’s voice when I started looking hard at how the sentences were constructed. I liked that it messed up the traditional sentence, and I liked the implicit idea in the overuse of the preposition. The narrator’s enormous grief grows out of that insistent way of speaking, which takes on other parts of speech as the novel progresses to it final hallucinatory scenes. Those little bits, those instances of his insistence, after I recognized them, I started to recognize all kinds of spaces for those words in other sentences. As I revised, the sentences filled up with more and more words like that.
AR When the man first sees his wife in the hospital room, you write, “Her eyes were closed and another part of her face was covered up with an oxygen mask.” It’s very funny, I actually find it delightful, that you describe her mouth and nose as “another part of her face.” What’s behind that?
MK Sometimes, when I’m writing description, I get these little close-ups in my mind—my mind zooming in—and I’m sure that’s how I found my way to that bit of description. It’s the narrator searching his wife’s face, looking everywhere, anywhere, for any sign of life.
AR When did you finish writing How Much of Us There Was?
MK I finished in late 2003. I still remember writing the last chapter and realizing it was the last chapter. Up to then, I thought that I probably had thirty or forty pages left to go. I didn’t realize that I was so close to the end of the novel and that realization was a euphoric moment. There was a kind of release, and I felt as if I understood myself in the world a bit more than I did before I started writing the novel.
AR What was that book’s path to publication?
MK I sent it to my UK agent (my main agent) who read it in a couple of weeks and then he sent it on to my UK publisher, Fourth Estate. About two weeks after that, I had a contract. It was pretty amazing, how quickly everything happened. Unfortunately, my US agent, who may or may not have ever submitted the novel with US publishers, never placed it. After it became somewhat clear what had (or hadn’t) happened, I fired her and the novel seemed destined to not be published in the US.
AR What’s Fourth Estate? The version I have was published by Harper Perennial. But the copyright page does say it was first published a year earlier by Fourth Estate. How did that happen?
MK Oh, so Fourth Estate is the publisher that first rescued me. The Way the Family Got Away had been rejected 119 times, when it found a home a Fourth Estate. They were a really great independent publisher in the UK, then HarperCollins bought them and made them an imprint, so that’s how come the paperback version of How Much of Us There Was has a Harper Perennial imprint on its spine. Unfortunately, Fourth Estate was never the same publisher after that merger—they lost a lot of their verve.
AR So now fast forward a few years and it comes out in the states with Giancarlo DiTrapano’s wonderful Tyrant Books. How did that come about?
MK Years ago now, Gian asked me for a story for New York Tyrant magazine. I sent him a piece of How Much of Us There Was that hadn’t been published in the US. That piece won me a holiday in a castelletto in Italy—and, even better, Gian and I became friends. We like a lot of the same stuff. Anyway, when he found out that How Much of Us There Was hadn’t been published in the US, he said that he wanted it to be one of the first books that Tyrant Books published. Then some other stuff happened in between that and the novel being published as Us earlier this year.
AR So, in a way, publishing Us with Tyrant Books was sort of bringing it full circle. Don’t you think the Tyrant is totally exemplary of what a small press is meant to be? From his essays at Vice as well as his cigarette-y good looks, Gian on one hand seems like a fast-living socialite, but at the same time he’s keenly attuned to the sensitivity of writing like yours.
MK Gian has a huge appetite for certain things—as has been documented elsewhere—and a huge heart to accompany that appetite. It seems like a pretty great way to live—if you can keep up with yourself.
AR Earlier, you said “some other stuff happened in between” Tyrant asking for your book and its publication. Other stuff like what? And how much did you rework it in this new, American version?
MK I was unsure of whether to re-read How Much of Us There Was or to just publish it exactly as I had in the UK. I asked a bunch of writer friends and everybody told me to leave it alone. One friend who has been reading my work since the mid-90s even told me she was afraid I’d fuck it up—or, at the very least, fuck up her reading of the novel. Of course, I knew I’d be reading it in proofs, if not other times, and I knew I’d want to change things. I’m always trying to make things better. I started re-reading How Much of Us There Was on a flight to LA and there were a lot of little changes that seemed obvious to me. I shortened the title from How Much of Us There Was to Us. I shortened all the chapter titles, cut a lot of little words at the beginnings and the ends of sentences, and moved the former last chapter to the end of Part Three. I felt as if I could give the novel a slightly deeper tone and all of those changes were in service of that. Having the chance to revise the novel like that was incredibly satisfying. I wish I had the chance to do that with each of my books.
AR So your new novel Big Ray is coming out next year. What would you change about that book?
MK Wait, is this the impossible question? The one thing that I would change is that almost all of Big Ray is based on things that really happened. I wish that wasn’t the case.
Michael Kimball is the author of three novels, including Dear Everybody (which The Believer calls “a curatorial masterpiece”) and, most recently, Us (which was named to Oprah’s Reading List). His work has been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, BOMB, and New York Tyrant, and has been translated into a dozen languages. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard). His new novel, Big Ray, will be published by Bloomsbury in Fall 2012.
Adam Robinson lives in Baltimore, where he runs Publishing Genius Press and plays guitar in Coach Taylor, a rock band. His first book, Adam Robison and Other Poems was nominated for the Goodreads Poetry Award. He self-published his second book, Say, Poem. He is also the editor of Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web 2011. Robinson has an MFA from the University of Baltimore and is a contributor to HTMLGiant.