Michael Kimball, interviewed by Peter Schwartz for Full Of Crow. Michael Kimball’s third novel, Dear Everybody, is available now- and he is still working on the ongoing interactive art project: Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story On A Postcard. Links at the end.
P.S.: I’d like to start out by thanking you, Michael Kimball, for agreeing to do this interview. My first question is when did you become so interested in other people and their stories? I think your life story on a postcard project is brilliant, I’d love to know exactly how that came about and what you’ve learned from what you’ve done so far.
M.K.: I’ve always been interested in other people and their stories. My older brother used to get annoyed with me for asking so many questions, so did my father. But the postcard life story project came about because my friend Adam Robinson (#45) was curating a performance art festival, the Transmodern in Baltimore, and he asked me if I wanted to participate. We joked about what a writer could do as performance and I suggested that I could write people’s life stories for them as they waited. The idea was absurd, but it was also fascinating, and it seemed oddly possible if it were contained to a postcard. Adam insisted that I give it a try and that’s how the postcard life story project started. I thought it would be fun and funny, that I would ask a few questions and write on the backs of a few postcards and that would be it. The first postcard life story I wrote was for a painter, Bart O’Reilly (#1). When I finished writing his postcard and looked up, a line had formed. For the rest of the night, I interviewed dozens of people and wrote their postcard life stories. It was intense and intimate. I remember being struck by how earnest and forthcoming most people were, how eager they were to share their life stories, how grateful they were for their postcard. It was later that I started the blog and opened the project up to everybody.
What I have learned, well, writing these postcard life stories has changed me. I am a different person. I feel bigger. I feel wider. I have more empathy. I see how broken and scared and flawed all of us are. I see how hard everybody is trying. Sometimes, I feel as if anybody can tell me anything and that I can carry that thing, that weight, whatever it is. It is so difficult to be alive and so wonderful too.
P.S.: In your trailer for I WILL SMASH YOU, you talk intensely about deciding, finalizing, that you would never go back to the office world. What jobs have you done to survive? My longest job was as a marketing researcher, so if smashing me would clear something important in you then sledgehammer away, my new friend. Is this world a bad place?
M.K.: Growing up, I worked in a family business and did everything from running the cash register to taking inventory to cleaning up to bookkeeping. I had paper routes. I was fired from a campaign job and from a fast food job. I was a high school English teacher, a substitute teacher (any subject), and a track coach. After I dropped out of graduate school, I was an editorial assistant, then an editor. I still edit and rewrite other people’s books sometimes, but I don’t do it in an office. That is to say that this world is not a bad place—in fact, it is often a wonderful place—but it could be a better place. And I would never use the sledgehammer on you, but I might lend it to you.
P.S.: Thanks for saying you might lend me your sledgehammer. Most likely, I’d take it and pretend I was Thor for a ridiculously long time. I mean so long that you’d somehow feel the vibe and be like hey man, are you pretending you’re Thor, and I’d shrug like I do and be like well, sorta. My oldest fantasy (of the ones I can talk about) is of becoming a superhero, do you think that’s possible? I remember reading somewhere that you felt like you could do anything, and I think that’s true. I would say the way you give voice to so many, including a Red Delicious Apple, that that makes you a hero of sorts. Which reminds me, what’s your next project? If I gave you a limitless checkbook, is there any project in the back of your mind this would free you to finally tackle?
M.K.: I WILL SMASH YOU — http://www.littleburnfilms.com/IWillSmashYou.html — is kind of next. We (I do the films with my friend Luca Dipierro) have the first screening for it at the PPOW Gallery in NYC on September 24th. We also have screenings set up in Baltimore and people helping us set up screenings in Los Angeles, Toronto, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Atlanta, Rochester, etc. We’re sending the DVD free to anybody with a projector, a screen, and a willingness to help put together an event. And we’re finishing up the shooting for 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES — http://www.littleburnfilms.com/60Writers60Places.html — which we hope to have done by the end of September. As to the limitless checkbook, I’m not sure that it would change things for me. I’ve been able to do what I want to do.
P.S.: Please tell a random story, one nobody has heard you tell before.
M.K.: I don’t really tell stories like that, so here’s the best I can do: I know a guy who ate lunch in a bathroom stall for every single day of his junior year in high school.
P.S.: Wow, I love that image, but please say he didn’t like mustard! I lived away from home my junior year of high school to avoid a similar situation. Was he new to your school at the time? What became of him? Does he blog?
M.K.: He wasn’t my friend at the time, but is now. He’s doing quite well, has a book coming out soon, and he does blog. I’d give you the addy, but then the secret would be revealed. Also, I made up part of that story.
P.S.: If the essence of being a poet is to give voice to the voiceless, I’d say you are pretty much the poet of all poets (or at the very least the most organized). What will you be when you write a postcard for everyone on Earth?
M.K.: I have been trying to think about the course of the postcard life story project. For instance, is there a point at which it should end or should I write them for the rest of life, for as many people as I possibly can? I don’t know the answer yet. Regardless, if I did write a postcard life story for everybody, I think that I would pretty much be much the same person, but, hopefully, a better version of me.
P.S.: I absolutely believe that the key to the success of your writing is your ability to be so honest with yourself and with your subjects. Personally, I think we’re only really honest on the deep levels when we’re forced to be. So what forced, or motivated you to be so honest?
M.K.: I don’t think that people have to be forced to be honest. I think that most people want to be honest and try to be honest. I think it’s more of an issue of giving people the opportunity to be honest. With something like the postcard life story project, or even I WILL SMASH YOU, the questions give people that opportunity to be honest. That is, we’re living in a culture where people put themselves out there in all sorts of ways—blogs, status updates, tweets, etc.—but there aren’t so many people asking each other real and meaningful questions. And with my fiction, I have, in a sense, given myself the opportunity to be honest—or, since it is fiction, to at least seem honest.
P.S.: Ooh, I see two points. What you said about giving people the opportunity to be honest was spot on. People react; treat them a certain way, approach them on a certain level, say with respect and kindness and then that’s what you’ll see in them because that’s how they’ll relate to you. People are how you treat them.
As far as the quest to be honest, that’s a quest for awareness too. You probably can get to awareness through soft nurturing to some extent but I think most folks would agree: there’s a lot to learn in the dark. There had to be some defining moment when you summoned all your bravery for a project and realized your mission. What has your proudest moment as a writer/artist been so far?
M.K.: There have been a few moments that might be considered brave in an artistic sense. In my mid-20s, I threw away everything that I had written up to that point, having realized that I needed to start over as a writer. Years later, I persevered through 119 rejections before finding a publisher for my first novel (which was then published in the UK, US, Canada, and translated into a bunch of languages). After that, I had a rough 5+ years where I didn’t like anything that I wrote, but somehow I kept on and found my way to my second novel, How Much of Us There Was. It was after that that I began to feel as if I could do whatever I wanted to do as a writer (not that that makes the actual doing any easier).
P.S.: Well thank God you held on. Some people have this bright, shiny, clean idea of success, but it’s actually the opposite, the winner is the one who is willing to get the most dirty. Just in terms of ratios, I emailed probably close to a thousand art galleries before I was invited to participate in a group show.
You’re only as good as your standards. That’s a superhuman accomplishment, saying “Not good enough” for five plus years. That’s also quite a Siberia to endure for your art. When I think about setting my standards high for a piece, I think of the work I’ve done with other poets and visual artists. I’d love to hear about your relationship with Luca, and with anyone else you’ve collaborated with, as well as your thoughts on collaboration in general.
M.K.: As a novelist, I never imagined that I would collaborate on anything, but working with Luca on the films has been so much fun. The fascinating thing to me is that we approach the films from pretty different perspectives. Luca is more visual and I’m more narrative. Luca likes to put everything in and I like to take everything out. But the miraculous thing, for us anyway, is that we always end up agreeing on what the finished thing should be, what the solution to a problem is, etc. We each have ideas that the other loves. It makes collaboration pretty easy.
P.S.: That is miraculous, matching aesthetics are a beautiful thing. Want to just give shout-outs to some of our friends right now and then high-five each other?
M.K.: This is going out to A-Rob, Double D, the Moose Man, El Duque, Eminence, Digital, and Wulf Girl.
P.S.: Word up, big shout to Barry G, Lady Lynn, The Vampire, Bennito, and anyone who cooks good biscuits. Speaking of biscuits, can you please explain how philosophical or even psychological of a film, I WILL SMASH YOU is? Talk about the catharsis and purpose of your smashing process, if you would.
M.K.: The smashing is the obvious part of the process, but the more significant part is the narrative that each participant created for their object. It is the interaction of those two events that provides the catharsis. A friend of mine who is a psychologist described it as smashing therapy and suggested we work up a paper on the idea. And others have referenced Arthur Janov’s work.
P.S.: Ah, primal therapy, smashing therapy, ways to get in touch with our primal selves. Freedom is such a big concept in so much of your work, so where do you see this all going? What’s your ultimate dream project?
M.K.: It is always the same: to do exactly what I want to do, whatever that is at the time.
P.S.: And what do you feel like doing right now?
P.S.: Perfect. Thanks again for this. This was fun.
Michael Kimball’s third novel, DEAR EVERYBODY, was recently published in the US, UK, and Canada. The Believer calls it “a curatorial masterpiece.” Time Out New York calls the writing “stunning.” And the Los Angeles Times says the book is “funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking.” His first two novels are THE WAY THE FAMILY GOT AWAY (2000) and HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS (2005), both of which have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. He is also responsible for the ongoing art project—Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard)—and the documentary films, I WILL SMASH YOU and 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES (2010).