Elliot Feels His Feelings: an interview with Michael Kimball
Michael Kimball is now the author of three of my favorite books. Before I read his latest, US, I had read and loved THE WAY THE FAMILY GOT AWAY. Before I read US, I read and really, really loved DEAR EVERYBODY. And before I read US, I had purchased but had not yet gotten to HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS.
Now there’s US: disarmingly simple, gorgeously structured, and as achingly sad a book as I have ever read. I had to stop a couple of times. I really did. The book’s elderly couple—so painfully aware of the fact that one of them is living the last parts of her life—are drawn so concisely, and the situation is so precisely rendered, it was hard not to spend all my time living in it even when I wasn’t reading the book.
Started your book last night. You are going to break my heart again, aren’t you?
Yes, but in a different way.
Why do our hearts have to break in so many different ways?
It’s one of the surprising things about life, right? When we learn that that can happen.
I think that it’s partly a structural issue, the heart’s strange shape.
Do you mean the heart’s lack of symmetry? We draw hearts symmetrically, but the real thing just ain’t so. Does it bother us that in the center of each of us is a weirdly shaped, not-even-a-little-bit-graceful ball of muscle?
The actual, physical heart seems misshapen. The four chambers are all different, irregular shapes and the valves, particularly, are not structurally sound. It’s not a coincidence that we locate certain difficult feelings within this uneven structure.
But, then, when we are handed a crayon and asked to put this structure on paper, we give it symmetry. Why are we inclined to do so? The iconic structure—two rounded sides, two pointy seams—is repeated, a meme, but it had to start somewhere, yes? When you write a book, do you long for a structural symmetry in which to store certain difficult feelings?
Isn’t the symmetrical drawing an attempt to cope? In 1st grade, I remember coloring in already-drawn hearts with red crayons. The teacher held up three examples, two good, one bad—a girl’s who colored hers in horizontally and perfectly within the outline, a boy who colored his in vertically and perfectly within the outline, and then mine, which was colored in in every direction and outside the outline. I still think that I had it closer to right than those other examples. And in a book, I think these things need to be uneven too. I don’t think that these difficult feelings can be stored neatly if they are being dealt with in some full sense. That’s part of why the structure of the novel is uneven. The older narrator gets four parts and most of the novel. The younger narrator gets three parts and many fewer pages, but more scope.
So, do you feel like you understood the need to rebel against the “coping through symmetry” strategy immediately? Is this something you have learned over the years? Did you learn it first as a child with a crayon and later as a writer with a pen/typewriter/computer? Gradual learning, or sudden moments punctuated by learning a huge amount quickly?
I don’t think I understood that drive as a kid. I just did it. As my mother would tell you, I was always different, even as a baby. But then I think that I learned myself out of it through school, to fit in, to not get beat up, etc. I came back to it as a young adult, remembered it, remembered how it felt, and it has been specific bits of unexpected insight ever since. I never know when it is going to happen. I just hope to recognize it when it does.
When you do recognize it, do you feel like thanking someone? Anyone? If so, who do you thank?
I feel thankful in general, grateful. I don’t think of thanking somebody particular. I don’t think of thanking even myself. I think that this is because those instances often feel delivered and the deliverer feels unknown—or the delivery system feels unknowable.
[A few days pass]
I read more of the book this weekend, early in the morning. I was up earlier than I wanted to be up. I wanted to sleep, but then I couldn’t. How about you? Did you sleep okay this weekend?
I didn’t have the greatest sleeping weekend. Each morning I was up before I wanted to be up. I also wanted to sleep more, but couldn’t. It makes me think of that scene in E.T. where the older brother is explaining the connection between Elliot and E.T. to one of the scary researchers in white suite: “Elliot feels his feelings.”
There is some blowback, reading a book like US, I think. A book that fears sleep in some ways. What about the blowback writing it? Lasting? Do you have to, at some point, try to pretend you didn’t write it in order to sleep comfortably?
While writing it, definitely, but I’ve become used to that feeling where the brain is kind of vibrating or something. There’s a way to relax into it that allows a person to fall asleep, sometimes. The problem is waking up and being really up. I can never go back to sleep after that. But eventually I did stop thinking about it so much and I could sleep through the night.
Do have some sense of helping cause that sensation in a reader? “I’m a little sorry to do this to you, reader, but I also think you’ll be better for it.” Are we better for it? Are you?
I felt the feeling as a reader when I was writing US. And I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I do feel as if somebody else will feel the feeling if I feel it. And I can say that I am better for it. And I can say that other people have told me that they are better for it, that they didn’t know that they wanted to know but that they are glad they do.
[Many days pass]
I’ve been away a little bit writing, and often when I’m writing, I find it impossible to read. You?
Reading and writing are both such a part of my daily life that it feels awkward for me to not do them both each day, every day. For me, it’s like eating and feeling hungry if you don’t for a while.
I worry they might creep together—what I’ve read and what I’m writing—in a way that would seem untoward to others. Can you talk me out of this? I think I would like to read and write and read and write.
What I was reading used to leak in to my writing, I think, but I think that goes away over time, if what you are doing is practicing at being the writer that only you can be. It’s about being honest with yourself as a writer and we’re on the honor system with that. But based on everything that I’ve read of yours, I think that you can stop worrying about it. The only story that you’re going to write is already yours.
What fed US?
The novel was written out of feelings of loss and grief, but mostly out of love–for my grandparents, who I spent a lot of time with when I was growing up. Instead of method acting, it was a kind of method writing. I wanted the reader to feel what I felt. It was also a way to go back and remember my grandparents, their house, their garden, their car, the way that they talked and moved—and that was a kind of small comfort.
This is an edit of HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS. What was it like revisiting that book to make this? What prompted you to do it?
I debated whether to even re-read HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS. I knew that if I re-read it that I would want to make changes. I can’t help it. I asked a few writers about it and everybody advised me not to make changes, to let it be what it has always been, but I couldn’t do it. I felt as if I could make it better. I felt as if I could take the tone of the book a little deeper, make it a little more raw, a little more felt.
It was a strange experience going back to it. The voice got back into my head so quickly even though there were large parts of the novel that I didn’t remember writing. And re-reading it, US made me cry, something that never happened to me while I was writing it.
Why did the title become shorter? I like the old title, but love the new one. It, merely two letters long, is so much sadder. I sort of towers there in front of the book. It’s beautifully lonely.
I always liked the lyricism of HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS, but it never quite clicked into place for me. As I thought about it, changing the title to Us felt more and more right—not as obviously lyrical, but lyrical nevertheless. Also, I like how US feels unbudgeable and full of implication. And I like the two letters together, which I think of as two people together.
Yeah, that occurred to me, too. The shapes of the letters are interesting, too. The S curve of a woman. The U, a smile without teeth. Like a sad smile. Maybe I’m looking too close.
Is US “better”? Is that even a germane question? Does it mean anything?
I don’t think that we can look too close. It’s a nice way to see different things.
I tried to make US better and I hope that I did. Even if I didn’t, I did make US more of what I wanted it to be. That’s something. It’s a satisfying feeling.
Did US make you better?
Absolutely, it released me in a way, emotionally and aesthetically. I feel lucky to have found a way to write it.
How did you find your way to the ending? (The ending kills me.) How did you discover that it was the last section? How did you know the last sentence was the last sentence?
As I was writing the last part, I knew it was the last part. I knew that it had to end with the older narrator’s voice and it felt right having that voice begin and end the voice. I didn’t know that I was writing the last chapter, though. I thought that I had maybe another thirty or forty pages in front of me. I didn’t realize that I had reached the end until the moment that I reached the end. I still remember sitting there in my desk chair, looking at the computer screen. I said something to myself, something like: “Oh, so that’s the ending.” I was surprised and I feel it in my chest. I knew that voice didn’t have anything else to say.
When do you think this interview ends?
I should say something funny right here, right?
Possibly. Maybe not, though. Maybe the interview just stops.
Or maybe it keeps going. The book exists today. How do you feel?
I’ll just go with earnest then: I love this book more than any of my other books and I’m really happy that it exists now in America.
Me, too, Michael.