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Haven Kimmel Builds Books to Last

Cassie Claiborne is a street-smart Nine-Ball prodigy, a temperamental tomboy, too knowing to accept her surroundings and too circumscribed by them to find release. I was less than thirty pages into Something Rising (Light and Swift) and already I sensed I'd be missing her by the novel's end. It was something in the voice, Kimmel's confidence, the comfort of her prose. She uses commas like clothespins, as if pinning long woven clauses to the lines. The wind flows through her sentences. Haven Kimmel

"She can sum up a minor character hell, she can sum up ancestry in a single sentence," Malcolm Jones raved in Newsweek, citing a line I'd underlined in my own copy: Barbara Thompson came from a long line of puppy-drowning rednecks who target-practiced with a twelve-gauge in the woods behind a trailer park filled with children.

"If this book were a pool game," Jones continued, "Kimmel would run the table all night long."

The voice of Something Rising seems so natural, in fact, that it was something of a surprise to encounter the broad range of Kimmel's other work. A Girl Named Zippy is that rarest of accomplishments: a captivating—and happy—childhood memoir; a priceless portrait of small town America, wise beyond its narrator's years. The Solace of Leaving Early, meanwhile, plumbs philosophy and theology to explore timeless notions of faith, grief, and responsibility; it's "a stunning bird's eye view of rural American life," the Los Angeles Times applauded, "as damning as it is affectionate."

Kimmel spoke from her home in Durham, North Carolina, a few days after reading at Powell's.

Dave: Something Rising is certainly recognizable alongside your other books these are all the work of one author but Cassie is a different type of character than the ones we encounter in The Solace of Leaving Early. Having her front and center changes the nature of the story. How did you start writing about her?

Haven Kimmel: Well, I would say first that you're right: while they are recognizable as books being written by the same person, the voice of those three books is significantly different, each one from the other. The voice of the characters dictates the tone and the style of the book. Everything in the craft follows after that. I've had the same editor for all three books, and I'm very lucky that my editor is not at all interested in my writing the same book over and over again, even though that's more commercially viable these days. I've been blessed that way.

In terms of Cassie and the way she was born: I've lived in the South for ten years now, but I go back to Indiana frequently because my family is still there, and when I'm there, one of the things I do fairly helplessly is study the Midwestern character. Even when I don't know I'm doing it, I'm studying the waitresses and the coeds and my mother's friends, everyone around me, because it continues to fascinate me. That's how Langston and Amos were born, all of those characters in Solace.

In the part of Indiana where I grew up, a lot of one's daily needs can be met at the farm supply store. You go there for your animal food, and you go there for your boots, and you go there for your work gloves, and you go there for your birdseed? You get everything there. I was in the supply store, and there was this woman over in the Carhartt bib overalls section. I was watching her, thinking, That is a very specific Midwestern farm type, that woman. She didn't look like Cassie, but her spirit was very interesting to me. And I remembered then the girls I grew up with, and their mothers taciturn, profoundly competent, very angry women who nonetheless you would always, always want on your side in any struggle. That's how Cassie was born.

I spent months doing studies of her, writing short stories and character sketches, without knowing what her vocation was. Really I was just waiting for her vocation to arrive, and then it did, very clearly. She became a pool hustler.

Dave: When Richard Ford was here, he said, "Characters to me, the ones I write, aren't persuasive till I can postulate what they do for a living."

Kimmel: That is exactly right. I said almost the same thing at the reading on Monday, as a matter of fact: In the same way that a character has only one name and one city and one set of parents, a character has only one vocation. Until you find it, you don't know her; you don't know him. And I think the same is true of our material lives: people who know their vocation are somehow very clear to the rest of the world. They're clearly defined and outlined.

Dave: When Cassie visits her sister at college, the other women in the dormitory are described as "girls Cassie would as soon kick as look at." Langston is probably one of those girls, I thought. Your lead characters come at life from very different angles.

Kimmel: In the same way that in this imagined county in rural Indiana there could easily be a Langston and there could easily be an Amos, there could even more easily be a Cassie. I think if I chose to and I won't, I don't think I could write about that county for the rest of my life. The variety of character is infinite.

The Midwest is a simple geographical point in some ways, and in other ways it's very, very complicated who landed there and why, and what those lives became. People who were traveling west, or traveling north, farmers who came down from Canada... All of those influences are felt in this rich diversity of character.

Since this is a trilogy, what I saw as one of my charges was to be as truthful about the place as I could be. In the third book, the next novel, the characters are all different again. If I listened and paid attention, I think it could go on and on.

Dave: Is there something in particular you haven't addressed in terms of character or setting that you find yourself going at now with the third book?

Kimmel: Not the place so much as life in the place. It's funny because I didn't know how quickly my readers might catch on to the developing themes, but a woman came up to me at my very first reading for Something Rising she'd already read it and she asked, "Would you ever write a novel about this place where someone is a mother instead of a daughter?"

In fact, that's what I'm trying to do in the third book. I don't think of these books as women's books or women's literature, necessarily Amos actually returns in the third book but they certainly are about women's lives. The stone that's turned over in the next one is what happens when you're on the other side of the ticket window: not the daughter, not the nymph, not the child, but the other thing. It's life at the other end of the spectrum.

Dave: There were several occasions in my reading of Solace when a detail shook me out of some kind of complacency, when the tone of the story and its setting, its characters certainly and their isolation, had made me forget how contemporary the action was. It felt timeless; then I'd come across some small detail and I'd realize, Wait, this is happening just a few years ago. I forgot again. One detail in particular that stood out was when Amos recalls the photograph of a firefighter at the Oklahoma City bombing.

Kimmel: It's interesting that you would say that because I originally wrote the novel with no reference to time. There are three references to time in that book: the first is that AnnaLee actually names the date because it's close to Mother's Day; the second is when the men in the diner are talking about Monica Lewinsky; and the third is the reference to the child in that picture you mention. There were two in the second draft, and Doubleday wanted me to add many more. I said, "I feel like I'm compromising with two," because it was not at all what I wanted.

I wanted it to be... not exactly like my favorite novel in the world, which is Little, Big by John Crowley, which takes place in no time and in no place I didn't want it to be that; I didn't want it to be any kind of science fiction but I did want it to be a timeless glimpse at the Midwest. And I had to compromise. So thank you for noticing that I had to compromise.

Dave: I'll scratch those references out.

Kimmel: Thanks.

Dave: You spoke a few minutes ago about finding a novel's voice. Okay, A Girl Named Zippy is a memoir, but it grows straight out of its voice. After reading your novels, it took me a little while to figure out what it was that you were doing in the memoir. In the same way that Solace often feels like it exists outside of time, Zippy isn't weighted down by any context greater than one young girl's understanding of the world.

Kimmel: For a while I thought that Zippy might be my ultimate experiment in terms of what can be done with first person narration. I was interested, first of all, in how long it's possible to sustain a child's voice intelligibly, meaningfully, and without losing the interest of the reader. It turns out you can do it a damn long time. The comment I get most often about Zippy is, "I wish it were four hundred pages longer." It's a world that people love to fall into for some reason. Probably it makes them recall their own childhood in some way.

The other thing is that I was trying to work within the limits of intelligence. What would it be like to try to accurately represent a world the world of Mooreland, Indiana, in the sixties and seventies with the limits of intelligence that a nine-year-old child has?

Dave: How long did you go on thinking that you were the adopted child of gypsies?

Kimmel: You know my best friend in the book named Rose? I brought it up with her mother. I just happened to mention at dinner at their house that I had been adopted. I can't remember what I call Rose's mother in the book her name is Judy but she just howled. She tipped back in her chair with her cigarette and her cocktail, and she set me straight. Otherwise I might have gone on believing it a long time.

Dave: We read a lot of novels now set in Manhattan, or novels of immigrants assimilating into new cultures...

Kimmel: The Fortress of Solitude and books like that.

Dave: Right: books about social change. But in your books, there's not as much change in the world your characters inhabit as we're accustomed to seeing. Their lives change as a course of the events in the story, yes, but not so much their surroundings. Relative to other things going on in the world, their lifestyles are fairly static. Mooreland, for example you mention at the outset of Zippy that its population has consistently hovered at three hundred for sixty years.

Kimmel: When I was in Seattle at Elliot Bay, there were some women in the audience, a book club. They had gone to Mooreland on a trip, on a pilgrimage. I was stunned. That's a damn long way from Seattle. They took photographs. I said to them, "Did you recognize it?" And they said, "Oh, yes. It looks exactly the same. It looks just like we thought it did."

That really is the case. The part of the Midwest that I'm from is the single most static place I've ever been. My sister, for instance, still has the same zip code we had when we were growing up; she still lives in Mooreland. All the same people are still there.

People in the place that I come from trade a great deal for consistency. They trade a certain level of sophistication, they trade the adventure of moving away and reinventing themselves, they trade far-flung ideas and education, because they want life to remain consistent. And they achieve it. In that way, it's a very rich place to write about.

Dave: Something Rising is a novel about the person who leaves Cassie is itching to get out whereas in Solace, Langston is coming back to her hometown.

Kimmel: Exactly.

Dave: And you've been gone for ten years, you said?

Kimmel: Ten years.

Dave: The part of Indiana you're writing about is Midwestern, but it's not so detached from the South, either. It's not as if you're writing about Kansas.

Kimmel: The part of Indiana that I was from was populated almost exclusively with people from Kentucky and Tennessee my grandmother was from Tennessee so it was already a Southern place. Some parts of the South were immediately familiar to me when I moved here.

Dave: You're happy in North Carolina?

Kimmel: I'm very happy in North Carolina, and I also have an apartment in New Orleans. I have houses in both places, in the South and in the Souther, really. Real Southerness is such an improvement over every other way of life I have ever seen. I would never leave it.

Dave: What do you appreciate about it the most?

Kimmel: I adore the very, very droll humor of the South. And I love the spontaneity. It's very difficult to get a rise out of a real Southerner because they're trained to be sort of droll and gracious under any circumstance. That makes life very humorous. And delightful.

Also, people in the South drink freely and they eat well. They're sensualists. And it's really, really hot here. It's just one of the least limited places I've ever been in terms of joyous, sexy behavior. I can't believe I just said that out loud, but that is it: It's just a very sexy place to live.

Dave: Well, that transitions naturally into the question of how you ended up at a Quaker Seminary for two years.

Kimmel: Oh, yes.

Actually, that is a simple answer. When I graduated from college, I was a radical atheist. I belonged to the Freedom from Religion Foundation; I had joined the young Socialist party at one point. And I graduated from college at a time when MFA programs were churning out people like Soylent Green, the early nineties. A lot of literature, particularly in poetry and I was a poet at the time a lot of the poetry being produced out of those MFA programs was so dreadful it made me question everything I understood about life. One of the things I saw, coming out of MFA programs, was that everyone was writing about writing or writing about someone who wrote about writing. Eventually it became not a snake swallowing its own tail; the snake, itself, was gone. There was nothing there.

I realized that if I wanted to be a poet, if I wanted to be a writer at all, I would have to commit myself to asking the largest questions of life I knew how to ask, and it seemed to me that those were questions about time and death and change and the ineffable, invisible world, the yearning for some escape from finitude. The only way I knew how to ask those questions was within a religious community with people who were contemplating it very seriously. I chose a seminary rather than an academic program because I didn't want to ask the questions academically. I wanted to ask them as if from a faith perspective. And I was raised a Quaker my whole life, I still am a Quaker, so it makes sense that I would go that direction.

I called the Earlham School of Religion, and I spoke to the Dean of Admissions. I said, "I am a hopeless sinner. I fall short of the grace of God every day, and I have no intention of changing that, but I hope you'll let me come study with you." And he said, "Oh, we'd love to have you." No hesitation: "We'd love to have you." And that's what I did for two-and-a-half years.

Dave: Now here you are, rewriting the Book of Revelation [in Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible]. How did you end up doing that? Were you assigned that chapter?

Kimmel: I was approached out of the blue. It was just an odd coincidence, really. Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau had pitched the book to Doubleday when my editor, Amy Scheibe, was there; they pitched it not to her but to Bill Thomas, and he rejected it. They then went to Free Press and pitched it to Dominick Anfuso, and he acquired it, along with one of his senior editors. In the interim, Amy had left Doubleday and gone to Free Press; there, the editor who acquired it quit, and it was assigned to Amy.

They had already chosen people for a number of the books of the Bible. There were just a couple books left. When Jeff discovered that Amy was going to be the editor, he decided to read her list. He read Solace, and he called and said, "We want you to have Revelation." I think that was how it worked.

I accepted it without realizing that it would end up being like performing some kind of brain surgery on myself in the dark, with no tools. That's what it felt like.

Dave: Where did you start? You found yourself with this assignment, and you thought, Hmmm.

Kimmel: I thought, Hmmm.

I started with the limitations, the parameters that I had been given. What they requested of us as contributors was that we could do anything with the book we had been assigned except scholarship. So we could write a nonfiction essay, as Francine Prose did, or we could write fiction, or we could do something really interesting like Peter Trachtenberg did, but that was it.

They were wise to do that because scholarship would have been the path of least resistance for all of us. I started there: It can't be that, which is a tenet of some Eastern religions if you don't know what to do, try radical negativity and decide what not to do.

I knew Revelation well because of New Testament studies and New Testament hermeneutics, so I reacquainted myself with that book and basically walked around for a month or so, and I thought, What is the single thing I want to say most of all no matter how difficult it would be to pull it off? In the contributor's note it says that I never thought I would wrangle the Book of Revelation, but that's what I did: I wrestled and wrangled with my God for a month, then it took me a year to write it. It's only fifteen manuscript pages, and it took me a solid year. They were very patient with me.

Dave: I would assume that it didn't take you quite as long to construct Orville.

Kimmel: No, not at all, though Orville involved its own bit of suffering. It was originally a chapter in Zippy that failed over and over again. I could not pull it off, but it is a true story and I couldn't bring myself to let it go.

I drafted it thirteen times. The last time it was lying on my desk, I thought, I hate to give that up. I love the metaphor of that story. I love so much about it. But somehow I'm getting it wrong. What is it with that story? Then I thought, Oh, it's a children's book.

I turned my attention to the structure of a children's book, and I basically just plucked the story out and put it together in about an hour. But that was after a lot of working on that story in other forms.

Dave: You recently contributed an essay to Remarkable Reads about Don Kurtz's South of the Big Four. Your topic was "The Most Familiar Book I've Ever Read." One of the interesting things about this collection is how many different approaches authors found to get at books that have made an impact on them: The Most Seductive Book I've Ever Read, The Most Elegant Book I've Ever Read, The Most Surprising, The Most Disappointing, The Most Unpleasant, The Most Luminous, The Queerest... How did you end up writing about the most familiar book?

Kimmel: That assignment was also very difficult in its way and for that very reason: Anyone who has read as much as I have, and whose relationship to books is as intense as mine is, as I'm sure yours is, could have gone ten thousand different ways.

Again, I tried to deal with the parameters I'd been given. Also, I asked myself, If I could only choose to publicly support one novel that I wished to God more people would read, that I wished were in the hands of half a million people right now, which book would it be? And I don't mean that in a mercenary way. It really is that good. It deserves that much attention. It is that underappreciated. That's how I chose it.

Dave: You must hear a lot of the same questions again and again from readers and interviewers, but what is your sustaining interest? What do you like to talk about?

Kimmel: I love to talk about how novels are generated. And I think people are very interested in that. Readers often ask about the process. One of the most interesting questions I've ever gotten at a reading was here in Durham at The Regulator Bookshop. A woman asked me and let me think of how she said this exactly, she was so articulate she said, "You use the change philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead as a guiding principle to the narrative of The Solace of Leaving Early, and I wonder if you could talk about how that philosophy applies to the process of writing fiction." I just paused for a moment and said, "No, I'm sorry. I can't do that."

But it turns out that I actually can. I realized as I was talking to her how greatly that interests me: the philosophy of fiction, the architecture of a book. Readers, even if they don't recognize it, respond to a well-crafted book. I think often of Clyde Edgerton, whose novels are so inviting, so open. The language is so simple, and yet by the end of virtually every one something sublime has happened. I think that readers respond to him the way they do not just because he's charming and funny and the stories are lovely, lovely stories, but because he knows how to build a book.

That question always interests me. I work very hard at it, the way most novelists work very hard at it; I worked very hard at not only imagining Cassie but building a coherent world around her that a reader could fall into without thinking about it.

Dave: I spoke to Billy Collins a few weeks ago, and he basically said the exact same thing, that the joy for him is in composition. "What's interesting to me is not so much movements or the state of American poetry or post-postmodernism," he said, "but actual poems and how they work, how they maneuver."

Kimmel: I absolutely agree.

Dave: What were your favorite books of 2003? Or is there anything coming out now that you're excited to read?

Kimmel: Can I walk into my study? I've read so much. I read almost a book a day when I'm traveling so it's hard for me to keep them all straight.

It's a little cheesy for me to say, but I definitely recommend the whole of Killing the Buddha. I think what the editors have done in their portion is just amazing; I love their essays. I recently finished The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, which I thought was amazing.

What I'm looking forward to in 2004 is David Sedaris's new book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and Augusten Burroughs's new book, which will be out I think in June. I'm just holding my breath, waiting for that.

Where are all the books I've read? I love Anne Tyler's new novel, The Amateur Marriage. I think it's just beautiful. I love Jincy Willett's Winner of the National Book Award. She has a particular voice that I find hysterically pointed and funny. And I just discovered the British novelist Sarah Waters. Do you know her?

Dave: Tipping the Velvet.

Kimmel: And Affinity and Fingersmith, yes. I recently read all three of those books, just joyfully.

Probably I love books that succeed at the very thing I'm trying to do, which is to create very tightly woven portraits within a kind of scheme, whatever the opposite of epic is not the epic, the opposite of epic and she does a very similar thing. I love how in Affinity, for instance, the entire book takes place either within the confines of a women's prison or back in the protagonist's room, and yet the novel feels huge. That's a great skill, I think.

Haven Kimmel visited Powell's Books on Hawthorne on March 2, 2004.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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