A Conversation with Michael Kimball
Prose
Bio

 

The Way the Family Got Away is Michael's Kimball's first novel. It is the story of a family, how they pack up all of their belongings including their dead baby, and travel from Mineola, Texas to Gaylord, Michigan.

In a basic sense, the novel is about a road trip, but the American tradition of the journey, on the road, is subverted. The geography becomes one of the emotions that unravels along the back roads that take the family through an American townscape filled with grief and need. The family trades their belongings away in town after town to people who stay where they are so that the family can keep going away. Some part of their family is traded away with each of their things. As the boy says, “We traded our stuff away for miles.”

The family’s two surviving children, a young boy and his younger sister, narrate the story in alternating chapters. They have a magical, irresistible influence on readers who, after a few pages, are drawn into their deep emotional vision, enter their minds, adopt their language, play their games. The two children explore the world of death, even play with it and in it, and hope to defeat it through hope, imagination, and gestures of love. They realize, though, when they reach their destination, as the girl says, “You die when everybody else goes away inside you.”

Paula Grenside: A book takes form from an idea, an intuition, a memory. What was the spring for The Way the Family Got Away?

Michael Kimball: The first sentence of The Way the Family Got Away is the beginning of a family story that was handed down from my great-grandmother to my grandfather and from my grandfather to me. It was my great-grandmother's little brother who died in Mineola, Texas, and her family that left that place and traveled up through America until they stopped in Gaylord, Michigan. This story was always striking to me, not only because of the young death, but also for the way my grandfather would break down as he told me about it, especially since it wasn't something that happened to him or in his lifetime. He had inherited all of that emotion from his mother and the way that she had told the story to him. After that first sentence, the rest of the novel is a fiction that tries to honor that emotional biography of that trip.

PG: Did the girl’s voice come from imagining your great-grandmother as a little girl, then, or from somewhere else?

MK: I wrote my way into the voices of the boy and the girl by accident. What became The Way the Family Got Away was just a short story when I first started writing, and it was narrated by an older man, a narrator I had always imagined to be my grandfather. The short story version never worked no matter how much I worked on it. Then, late one night, in front of the computer, in a fit of writerly frustration, I switched the perspective. I wrote, “My brother’s cradle and other baby stuff got us from Mineola to Birthrock.” And the boy’s voice went alive in my head. The girl’s voice came about through a different kind of accident. I had written a few chapters in the boy’s voice, but then started having problems with the way he was talking. The voice was changing, using different kinds of words, different kinds of phrasing. He seemed to be saying things that weren’t his to say. That’s when I realized that somebody else was speaking and the girl’s voice came out of that.

PG: The children’s way of talking, each of their distinctive voices, is always coherent within a child's point-of-view and way of expressing. I'd like to know how you studied these two characters before building them on the pages.

MK: I have some background in child development. While I was writing the book, I was also working as an editor of college textbooks, mostly psychology textbooks, and so through that I was familiar with language acquisition, the sorts of things that children can say at different young ages and how they can say them. Both narratives, the boy’s and the girl’s, are restricted in terms of diction and syntax, but this restriction also gives their narratives a power beyond their understanding. There is always a double narrative at work, the confused narrative that the boy and the girl give the reader and then the sense that an adult reader makes of that. There wasn’t any study of them beyond that and the particular narratives of each of them. The study of the narratives came out of the narratives themselves. The boy’s whole narrative comes out of his first sentence, “My brother’s cradle and other baby stuff got us from Mineola to Birthrock.” His whole narrative is concerned with how the family gets from one place to another, the things they had to trade away to do that, and the implication of that loss. The girl’s whole narrative comes out of her first sentence, “My doll-family plays better at family than my people one does.” Her whole narrative is an attempt to make her people-family whole again, to somehow replace the loss of her little brother with her dolls or anything else that comes into her range.

PG: The boy reports and comments, but with a sort of restraint, reserve. The girl, in her fantastic language, doesn't leave anything unveiled; she explores reality and language with utter curiosity. What did readers say about this difference in the two voices? And how and what did you do to perfectly give voice to a girl's thoughts and her imaginative, painful, "girlish" associations? They are female, absolutely.

MK: I have always thought of the differences in the voices of the boy and the girl as ones of age more than gender, though, of course, both the boy and the girl talk about certain things that are often associated with just a boy or a girl. One of the striking things to me is how certain people absolutely loved the voice of the girl or the voice of the boy, but had very little to say about the other. I have always thought of the two voices as telling different aspects of the same story, all of a piece.

PG: I find the girl’s chapters about the paper dolls particularly effective and touching. The girl creates a parallel family out of paper, not because she wants to substitute her real family but, in a sense, to reinforce her real family, to help her family keep stay together. Was this your intent, or is it my interpretation?

 MK: Absolutely, everything the girl tries to do, everything she says, everything she tries to understand is in those limited terms of trying to keep her family together. She thinks her brother got yellow fever because she left her doll of him out in the sun. So, based on that thinking, she tries to fix her real family with paper dolls, with other little dolls, tries to make a new doll of her little brother. These attempts at fixing her real family begin to take other, more extreme forms as the novel progresses.

PG: The adults determine the children's story; their decisions and actions create the desperate landscape through which the children move. But the adults are like shadows; they are less than secondary characters. We see the girl's and the boys' perception of their mother and their father, the doctors and the nurses, the people they trade things away to and other adults, but the reader doesn't really visualize the adults even though they are able to visualize the consequences of what the adults do on the children. Could you talk about that a little?

MK: The mystery and the power of the novel comes from the restriction imposed upon the voices of the boy and the girl, the limited syntax and diction, but also through their restriction of comprehension and of vision. I have always thought that if there were a clearer picture, visually or otherwise, of the adults in the novel, that its energy would have dissipated.

PG: Some of the episodes are quite disturbing. How did readers generally react?

MK: There are people who wonder how somebody can think up some of the things that are in the novel—the embalming scene, for instance, or the scene where the mother tries to tell the little girl where babies come from, or the scene where the children play with the body of their dead little brother. I was reminded of how strangely some of this is perceived recently when a professor at a local university, who was teaching the novel in a history of fiction course, invited me to his class. For the first twenty minutes of the class, I sat in the back as the students discussed some of this material. A few of them seemed offended, shocked, bewildered. And even after the professor introduced me and I was standing at the front of the class talking about the novel and answering their questions, there was a woman sitting in the front row whose eyes looked huge. She looked as if she were terrified of me, as if I must be a monster to have written those sorts of things.

PG: Are you?

[Editor’s Note: This portion of the interview was deleted at the request of the author.]

PG: I'd like to hear something about the writing process, how and when you write, if you revise as you go.

MK: I don’t know how to describe the writing process in any succinct way except to say revision. I revise a lot. I write a lot and cross a lot out and throw a lot out. There are certain chapters that went through at least one hundred drafts.

PG: Had you planned the beginning and the end when you started The Way The Family Got Away

MK: I hadn’t planned any of The Way the Family Got Away. I had the idea for the beginning, that bit of family history, but nothing after that. I didn’t know what the plot would be except that it was a journey in a car and I didn’t know what ending would be until I was about four years into the writing. I wanted to be as surprised by it as I hope the reader is.

PG: The novel has been translated into Dutch, German, and Italian. I read it first in English and only recently have read the Italian version. Paolo Dilonardo did an excellent job. What kind of exchange did you have with him? How did you overcome the difficulties, the language obstacles?

 MK: All of the credit in Italian goes to Giulia Arborio Mella, my wonderful editor at Adelphi, and to Paolo Dilonardo, who translated. I don’t know much Italian, a few words, mostly food, and none of the grammar. I know the translation wasn’t easy and there were some phrasings that were particularly difficult, but I would simply explain my thinking, in English, behind the construction in question, and then Giulia and Paola would apply that thinking to Italian. I’m no judge of the Italian, but one of my English- and Italian-speaking friends prefers the Italian to the English.

PG: In the Italian version, the girl's pages are in italics. I find it a good device to mark the shift from one voice to the other. Neither can be interchangeable with the other, of course; they have distinct voices, but did you discuss this with the publisher?

MK: I did ask the publisher for distinctive markers for the voices of the boy and the girl. In English, the graphic distinction is font size and line spacing. In Italian, the distinction is normal text and italics, which is how the original manuscript was formatted. I even asked for a font that had a particular form of the letter “a”—as a line at the left of a circle, as opposed to the hook over the circle, a younger version of the letter in my mind, reminiscent of how I learned to make the letter when I was in kindergarten.

PG: I read the reviews, both in English and in Italian, and they unanimously praise the book. As a reader, I find it a stunning debut.

MK: I don’t know what to say. I feel fortunate. I suppose it makes up for the difficulty I had finding a publisher.

PG: You have told me that it was a long, patient search. Why this reluctance from publishers? Style? Content?

MK: I would call it a long, impatient search. I couldn’t find an agent who would take me on and then after I decided to try it on my own I had 119 rejections from editors in the US and the UK before I was offered a contract by the great Leo Hollis at Fourth Estate. Perseverance was necessary.

PG: I know you are working on your second book. Any connection or follow up to your first novel?

MK: There isn’t an explicit connection to the first novel, but there is an untold story about Bompa and his wife in The Way the Family Got Away. We know that Bompa’s wife has died, but we don’t know anything about it. In some sense, my second book, How Much of Us There Was, is that story told. There are also thematic connections, grief, in particular, and how grief leads us to think particular thoughts and to do particular things. There is the same extreme emphasis on language, though it takes the form of different voices--an older man, an older woman, an adult grandson who may or may not be the author.

PG: Why so scarce news about the author? Readers know you were born in Michigan in 1967, live in Texas, are married. I am curious.

MK: My fiction is more interesting than my life.

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