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Interview with Haven Kimmel, December 4, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Haven Kimmel, December 4, 2007
December 4, 2007
Interview with author Haven Kimmel, whose publications include the memoirs A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch and the novel The Used World. Here, Kimmel discusses her background, her views on writing and the creative process, and the public experience of being a novelist.
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Interviewee:  Kimmel, Haven Interviewer:  Diesenhaus, Doug Date of Interview:  12/4/2007 Series:  SENC Writers Length  90 minutes


Diesenhaus: Hello, I'm Doug Diesenhaus and today is December 4, 2007. I'll be interviewing Haven Kimmel, the visiting creative writing professor for the Fall 2007 semester for the Randall Library Oral History Project on Creative Writers. And perhaps the best place to start is to ask how you got started writing? How you've come to this life?

Kimmel: I came to this life because I am incapable of doing anything else. I'm not good at anything else. In fact, just a couple of days ago I was saying to a friend, I was trying to make a list of sort of practical things I needed to take care of involving my cell phone plan and things like that, and I said, "You know, I'm just not very good at errands." And I realized, oh, that's an understatement. The things I'm good at are raising children and writing books. And I think probably the two things can happen at the same time. Otherwise, I wouldn't be good at either one probably. There were other things I wanted to do in the world, and I don't think that many children grow up in rural Indiana, you know, in a town of 300, thinking that she's going to be a writer or a poet, which is what I did for a long time. And so there were other things I wanted to do. I wanted to be a constitutional law professor; I was obsessed with constitutional law for a long time. But then I was a pre-law major in college and I realized that in fact what I wanted to do is write opinions. And then for a while I was a theater major and that was fun, except what I realized was, was that I just wanted to read plays. And finally, all of that information sort of narrowed itself down to being an English major, and after that-- and then I realized, it was just one of those things where I realized I'd been writing since I was 9 years old, but there was never any-- I'm not one of those people-- I've been to readings where authors said, "I started writing seriously at the age 4," or studying Latin at 2. There was nothing like that. I wrote the way other people play basketball for hours every day. It was just something that I did. And then I got to be about 21, 20, 21, and I realized, oh, this is actually my favorite thing in the world. And that was how I ended up here. I never stopped after that.

Diesenhaus: At that point, when you were about 20, 21, were there any teachers or people who were supportive of your realization that this was something that was really important to you?

Kimmel: Yes. For one thing there was always my mother, who is a brilliant writer herself. And she always took me enormously seriously, even though I was a complete idiot. And that really goes a long way. I mean, just treating someone, treating a young person with, you know, just a modicum of adult respect, really in any endeavor, goes a long way with children. But certainly that she was so gifted herself, but nonetheless encouraged me all the time and made it possible, that was the other thing. But then when I was 21, no, I was 20, I took a graduate level poetry writing seminar, and I can't remember how I got into that class, but I did. And the professor of that class was very encouraging, and in fact I married him later.

Diesenhaus: That's the best kind of encouragement. Either when you were at the younger part of your life around 9, or this later part in college, what was your reading like? Were you a voracious reader? Were there particular things that you were really interested in or focused on?

Kimmel: I was a voracious reader. And when I was, you know, I came-- I grew up in a time and a place, certainly, but maybe a time, I'm not sure, this isn't something I've ever addressed specifically to people my age, but it seems as though I grew up in an era when parents almost completely ignored their children. You know, there was none of that micromanaging of time or of energy. And so all, everything that I ever came to I came to in a sort of accidental or serendipitous way, and so while my mother had a really large library, given the limitations of our lives, it never occurred to me to take things off of her shelf. So I would go to the book mobile, which came into Mooreland every couple of weeks. And the first time I remember being shocked by how much I loved a book was Stephen King, and so I kept up with Stephen King for a long time, though I was never interested in that genre of writing, specifically, but there was something about-- and I think that I've said this before, I've certainly thought it before, that I'm enormously lucky that I started with him because regardless of what you think about the literary merits of his earlier work, although I think the literary merits of his body of fiction are more respected now than in the past, hardly any writer in America knows more about character and character development than he does, and certainly, the thrill of pacing, the thrill of the plot. So that came to me very early. And then when I was 16, my mom took me out of my rural high school and put me in this other school, a laboratory school. And the first semester that I was in that school, I took a class in the classics of, I guess, it was 20th century fiction, I can't remember what it was called, but we read Zorba the Greek and Tender is the Night, and the collected stories of Katherine Anne Porter and The Optimist's Daughter, and The Sun Also Rises, and To the Lighthouse. And that was it. Even having had that experience, we started with Zorba the Greek, and I remember thinking, oh, why didn't anyone tell me this. Why didn't I know this? And after I read Zorba the Greek, I read The Last Temptation of Christ, which remains one of my favorite novels in the world. And every book that followed in that class, I loved as much as that. I loved Tender is the Night, I loved Tender is the Night above all other Fitzgerald. And I don't know if it's because I was 16 or what, but nonetheless, having had that experience and seeing exactly what one needs to learn from each of those writers, the denseness and the lushness of Kazantzakis, and the sort of brooding pathology of Fitzgerald, the sentence structure of Hemingway and just the use of the sublime, which is hard to discuss of course in fiction, but Virginia Wolf is sublime, I'm still glad I started with Stephen King because it kept me really from ever being precious. If I had had that other kind of education where I learned Latin at 4 and believed myself a novelist at 6, I would be an impossible human being.

Diesenhaus: You talk about individual or piecemeal lessons from each writer. Did that have an impact on writing you might have been doing at the time?

Kimmel: It did.

Diesenhaus: Or did it become somewhat imitative or were you trying to internalize those lessons then or did it take some time to kind of come out?

Kimmel: The professor of that class, the school that I was sent to, it was a high school that was taught by college professors. And the professor of that class actually made us write in the voice of each book we were reading, just sort of to get it out in the open. And also because, we started with a peculiar pedagogical structure, I thought, which is that we would actually literally copy paragraphs of the story so that the story would come through our hand and then we would write a story or a journal entry in the manner of Fitzgerald and the manner of Hemingway. And it's very interesting once you write even just a few pages in the manner of Hemingway at the age of 16, that sentence structure is awakened in the mind and in the body and you'll always remember the opening paragraph of-- not The Sun Also Rises, but A Farewell to Arms, you know, the men were marching and the leaves were white with dust, all of that, it becomes sort of second nature to access it later in life. That here is a moment that calls for that kind of terseness or that kind of beautiful brevity. And the same was true with each of those writers, that it awakens like a Fitzgerald area of the brain, it awakens the sublime, and so I never even had to imitate them because I was asked to imitate them. It was very wise.

Diesenhaus: After college, you entered seminary at the Earlham School of Religion, and I wondered if you could talk a bit about that experience with a focus on what effect it may have had on your writing then or kind of afterwards?

Kimmel: I really owe everything to Earlham and I can't say it often enough, because, well, you can't say it often enough to anything that you owe everything to. You know, I left college and at that time I was still a poet and I was trying to decide where to go to graduate school. And a strange thing had happened, I had a lot of minors, you know, clearly because I hadn't known where I was going to start. So when I graduated I had a major in English, but I had minors in the humanities and women's studies and philosophy and something else. Oh, classics, particularly Greek and Roman, literature and antiquity and classical culture. And each one of the fields in that minor asked me to do graduate work there. So I not only was trying to decide between going to an MFA program but whether to do a master's in classics, or a master's in women studies or philosophy or psychology. And so it was a very confusing time. But I assumed as most people with an English major do, that I had to figure out my professional goal, which was something other than writing, and so it was academia. I assumed that I would get a Ph.D. and I would teach. And I actually loved scholarly writing. I still love scholarly writing very much and I love to read it as well. And then I just had a sort of life changing experience as the result of being trapped in my farmhouse in a blizzard for a while, alone, with my Rottweiler, the dog that I had, and I decided to go to seminary instead. And what I found there was a sort of intellectual rigor that was accompanied by-- and I actually don't generally like these distinctions, but in the way that graduate school-- because I went to graduate school later in English and it was very heady. And certainly at Earlham, the experience of seminary is very heady, but at the same time, it's all-- all of Quakerism is deeply devoted to the life of the spirit and also to social justice, so it was an experience of balance that I can't imagine having in another way. And so there was that. That I had to do a lot of writing and a lot of-- my mind will never work that well again. I mean, I look back on that time and think, well, that was the smartest I'll ever be. It was really three years of deeply concentrated effort in a number of fields. But more importantly-- so I gained all of the education that I would use in my first novel, The Solace of Leaving Early, and the character of the minister in that book, who reappears in my third novel. I couldn't have written him without that education, but I also started my memoir, A Girl Named Zippy, in a writing class there. And my professor, Tom Mullin [ph?], just, you know, he just really gently guided it, and he loved what he called the sort of slyness of the book, which, just exactly like my mother, the fact that he saw it, was enough to make me go farther. I thought I was doing something no one would ever-- that no one would actually like or get. And he got it and liked it right away, so it affected everything.

Diesenhaus: The struggle with faith and spirituality seems to be something that comes up a lot in your novels, just like you said with-- is it Amos that you're speaking of?

Kimmel: Yes.

Diesenhaus: Can you talk a little bit more about why that's important or why that sort of emerges and I wonder is it sort of related to where you sought balance, the tensions that might come out of that? Is that where the struggle comes through in the characters?

Kimmel: Yeah, I've never understood people who feel comfortable in any religious tradition. And I actually think that there's evidence in the scriptures themselves that the most deeply religious and the most deeply faithful historic figures are the ones that doubted the most passionately, because the struggle itself seems to be most of the reward. So I entered, you know, I think partly for myself, and I don't know if it's the case with a lot of people, other people who write about religion. But if you just take Shalom Auslander for instance, who has a new book, The Foreskin's Lament, A Memoir. If you grow up submerged in a religious life as I did, I attended church three times a week for 16 years, really 18 years. You have to figure out what to do about that. And I was not a believer, I don't have-- you know, my mother attended that church and believed in, it appeared that she bought wholesale the message of the New Testament because it was so much better than the alternative in her life, but I didn't have that problem and it was not a comfort to me and it didn't make any intellectual sense and it was not what I wanted or needed. And yet, if it is the tradition that you come from you have to do something with it, in the same way that Shalom Oslander has to do something with it, and so, I learned a valuable thing in seminary. I had a professor who was just shockingly erudite and spiritually disciplined and a good, brilliant human being in every way. And he had spent 10 years as a devout Buddhist, and I knew that, and I said to him one day, "Why did you ever give up Buddhism?" He seemed sort of like a perfect Buddhist. And he said, "I'm not Japanese." And I said, Oh. Oh, right. He said, you know, we are called upon to deal with and struggle with the religion that we're given and the culture that we're given, and so for him it was a return to Christianity and Quakerism, and I knew right then I can't be a Buddhist atheist, because I was never a Buddhist to begin with, so saying that I disbelieve is ridiculous, it has no currency. It doesn't mean anything for me to believe or disbelieve in Islam, but it does matter if I reject or accept the tradition of my own history. And that is the struggle at the heart for my characters, the same thing.

Diesenhaus: I guess I want to ask a little bit more about your instruction or the time you spent studying creative writing, both in college and then later at graduate school. Could you talk a bit more about it or compare it to the kind of experience you were having in seminary school? Was it similar or worlds apart? Different sides of the spectrum? Did you enjoy it and that kind of thing?

Kimmel: Yeah, I did enjoy it, very much. It was very different. And one of the primary differences is something that I've seen here as well. If you attend a seminary you're entering an intentional community and so the sort of life of your colleagues and the faculty, it all matters, it's important. And so, you know, you sort of strive to take care of one another, and you strive to solve problems and make sure there isn't strife or that someone is suffering-- you take care of each other. And you watch out for suffering. And in graduate school at a state university in a creative writing department, everyone was very isolated. You know, it was like we were in a community but it didn't have that-- but there was no spiritual basis for it and there was not that sort of drive toward reconciliation and connection and that part I missed very much. That seemed sad to me. People were living within their own goals and so also within their own-- sorry about that-- and within their own achievements and there wasn't that kind of celebration that I would have wished for, for my colleagues. You know, when someone did something extraordinary we might mention it but we didn't celebrate it in a way that we would have at Earlham. And that actually makes a difference in the level of work that you produce, I think. That said, I learned an enormous amount and one of the important things I took away from that education was I had a professor named Nick Halper and the first class I took with him which was 20th century American poetry, I think, he assigned our first paper and he set up the parameters of it and then he said, "but the only thing that matters is that you write like a genius." And the class went completely silent. But I thought (whispers), that was what I wanted to be told. And that was what I wanted to do. And it was that kind of odd, again, that odd permission, just be as smart as you can be, which is something we just don't say to our students often enough. Go the distance.

Diesenhaus: Given that philosophy, how you appreciated it, do you feel like writing can be taught? That kind of old question or can specific elements be taught but perhaps the main thrust is just go and write and do your best? Especially as a teacher now?

Kimmel: Yeah, I used to know this beautiful quotation from Wallace Stegner, which escapes me now, although I like Wallace Stegner very much and whatever he said was right and good, and again, he was a wonderful teacher. Writing can be taught in accordance with the openness of the student. I don't believe the genius can be taught. Genius can be fostered and encouraged and it can certainly be guided and illuminated but it can't really be given over. But this other thing, the handing someone the tools and helping them, you know, with architecture and being present, which is another thing that seminary taught me, matters almost as much. You know, one of the students in our seminar showed up to our class with a completely finished first draft of a book, and I edited it completely, gave it back to her and in the course of this semester, she's already rewritten half of it. That regardless of whether or not she has genius, she is learning constantly, and that is more rewarding than being handed some misbehaving, precocious-- I would rather have one of her, I would rather have one person who actually takes those tools and puts them to work. And she will get better and better and better and better. So I think that it can be taught, but more importantly, it can be learned.

Diesenhaus: That makes sense.

Kimmel: Good.

Diesenhaus: I want to shift a bit to more of your own writing and some of your books. Perhaps a good place to start is that you do write both fiction and nonfiction, and I just wondered if your approach is different for each of them or if you prefer one or the other; just how the process may be different for the two kinds of writing for you.

Kimmel: Yeah, it is different. And I think about it a lot having-- I've written-- I have three novels in print and two nonfiction essay memoirs in print, but I've finished a fourth novel which is coming out next year. So I've given a lot of thought to it. And I would say that writing nonfiction is for me just more joyous. There's something about-- I think I said this in class, that just those walls of, this is what happened in a sort of ontologically agreed upon universe, and this is my responsibility to the truth as I know it, and this is the responsibility to other people, and you know, just journalistic ethic as well as philosophical ethics, I find that every liberating and joyous to work with. I like that. I like nonfiction material very much. And I found that it's easier for me to craft it because what is there is already fixed and the craft can grow out of that. With fiction, fiction is like Quakerism, it is the via negativa, it is the road with absolutely nothing on it, and so you have to decide absolutely everything. You start ex nihilo out and you build out of it, and that is much harder and less joyous for me, but more rewarding in the end. When I finish a novel, I think, "I did that again." With nonfiction, I don't so much feel like a student of it, as I feel like a craftsperson. But with fiction, every time I sit down, I'm learning it all over again. And that keeps it fascinating to me. It stays very fascinating. I would guess that over the years I will write half again as much fiction as I do nonfiction. I'll never stop, I mean, the next two books that are on the table for me after the novel comes out next year is a nonfiction sort of scholarly look at the history of Quakerism in America, and then a novel. So I think I'll just do both.

Diesenhaus: On the nonfiction side, talking about the journalistic ethics and the ontological sense of truth, I think I know that you've shown your nonfiction books to at least some if not all of the people who are featured in them.

Kimmel: Right.

Diesenhaus: And I guess I wonder what their response has been? Are there any conflicts or any changes that resulted out of that process?

Kimmel: With my first memoir, A Girl Named Zippy, I was much more limited in who I could show it to. There were a number of people I just didn't know where they were. And also it was, that first time out you just learn a lot of lessons. And the primary lesson that I learned is that no one wants to be written about. They just don't want to be written about. And I couldn't understand it at first because I had written what I thought at first was, you know, not a hagiography of anyone, but certainly given what I might have said, for instance, no one was a villain and I was certainly no victim. There were no victims and there were no villains. It was really a sort of celebration of what could be seen as a happy childhood. Not idyllic, but pastoral. So I thought that-- and very humorous. So I thought that people would be happy with their portrayal, though I was honest about what I remembered and what I knew. And then I realized that in fact, you know, one of the ways that we survive temporality in general and mortality, is that time may be passing and we may be, you know, decaying, right in front of one another, but at least we get to reinvent ourselves, and thank goodness for small favors. But when someone, a little monkey child, was paying really close attention to everything you did, and not only remembered it all but kept a journal and now writes a book about it, it's kind of unfair. It was unfair to my family to think oh, well, this was funny, and we were mostly happy and they'll be glad that I told the story the way I did. So when I wrote She Got Up Off the Couch, I was much more circumspect. I not only limited the scope of the characters but I didn't write about anyone without their permission if they were alive.

Diesenhaus: Do you think that had an impact on the reading experience? Or do you think it kind of evened out, the way in which you told the story was different so that it was equally kind of enjoyable in the sense of learning about people or learning about the experience?

Kimmel: I do think the books are different and in part they're different for a stylistic reason. I aged the voice of the narrator. A Girl Named Zippy goes up to 7 or 8, or something like that, and She Got Up Off the Couch begins there and goes to 13. So what the narrator is realizing about the world is more sophisticated and darker; it's a darker book. And it's just better. I mean, it's just better written because I was a better writer by that time. It's funny because on book tours I've written five books that have five very distinct audiences, and there's like this little cult, this little Zippy cult, and then there's the She Got Up Off The Couch cult, and they're very, you know, they meet but they are very certain that this is the better book, or that this is the better book. Same with the novels. Each novel has its own little group. I think She Got Up Off the Couch is better for being circumspect. And I think that in the same way that those walls are liberating, they were liberating in this case, too, because I was working not-- I was working form memory to some extent, but I was working with documents which was, that was very rewarding. I had my mother's journal, I had an unpublished memoir she'd written, I had-- you know, I interviewed my friends and I think that shows through. A sort of verisimilitude and specificity that I think makes that book even better.

Diesenhaus: What I was trying to say before is do you think the reader can tell you made those changes, and it sounds like you're saying they can and that contributes to a division in who goes in what camp?

Kimmel: Yeah, one of the reviews of Zippy was that, and this was on the paperback for a while, was that it was droll and dreamlike, and that's true. And I intended this sort, a sort of universal lens on that book that made it about the universe of childhood as much as about a specific place in time. But She Got Up Off the Couch is enormously specific, and in a way-- I didn't intend for it to be something about a change in the lives of women in a particular era, although it became that, and a number of people have read it that way, but it doesn't have that dreamlike quality that Zippy has and I think that that's what people love in the first one. So, it's really just a matter of taste with readers.

Diesenhaus: I guess related to that kind of different camps question, I think you've also said your experience is that in a memoir no one believes it's all true, and then you write a novel and everyone believes it's autobiographical.

Kimmel: Right.

Diesenhaus: How does this play out-- I think in reviews-- how does that play out in the experience? And it sounds like it may play out-- is there an overlap between the fiction and nonfiction people? Do they read one, one way and one the other way?

Kimmel: The nonfiction people do not overlap with the fiction people very much until my last book, The Used World, and all of a sudden I had very big audiences for fiction and it was because the Zippy people and the Couch people had suddenly taken up with this other book. I don't know why. But it is interesting that even sophisticated journalists will ask, "Who is this character based on?" And it often, you know, will stump me for a moment, because I don't even know how many ways to say, these characters are not based on anyone. They really are not. They arrive, you know, like Athena from the head of Zeus in many ways. They arrive fully formed and whole and I may borrow someone's blue hat, or you know, I might borrow someone's peculiar use of the vernacular, but otherwise they really are not based on real people. But it's very difficult, unless you have that kind of imagination where you're hearing fictional people having a fictional conversation in your actual mind, a lot of people just don't, they don't know what that means.

Diesenhaus: I also heard or read that you said in a way imagining a character is kind of like a type of schizophrenia, where you're hearing voices or hearing scenes in your head. What's that like? I guess what I'm saying is does that happen naturally or do you kind of stimulate that to happen when you're trying to come up with characters for your novels?

Kimmel: It's very odd. You know, I've read a lot-- I'm sure that we all have, but I've read a lot of books about writing, and I used to read a lot more than I do now. Now I'm afraid they're going to confuse me, you know. I'm going to think, "Oh, that's what I ought to be doing." I've noticed that in a lot of writing texts authors would very firmly suggest that you write at the same time in the same place every day. And people used to be fond of saying you have to tell your characters where you're going to be so they can show up, which is a sort of oogle, boogledy way of suggesting something. But I think it's that. It's turning on a switch. And I've never needed to sit in the same place in the same time every day for that to happen. But it doesn't happen to me in my daily life, if I'm not working on a novel. And it doesn't happen if I'm working on nonfiction. But the moment that there's that initial spark, or that initial idea for a novel and I begin to just let my mind go, and populate it-- Once in a creative writing workshop with high school students we were talking about setting, and I said, "I want you to do this. You're standing on a curb in a city and there's a car in front of you, describe it." And they all could. And I had them walk through the door of a building and into a room and look in one corner and describe what was there, and they all could. And it was very surprising to them, because then they realized that if they could populate that room that quickly, they could populate the house and the town and then they could, you know, move their characters around or see them moving around. And for me that-- I heard Michael Chabon say in an interview after the Yiddish Policeman's Union came out, he was talking about this sort of 6,000 decisions that you make when you're writing a novel, beginning a novel, and how they're all made at one time, you know, they're just made in a flash. And once that sort of bright flash occurs, then I start hearing them talking and they just follow me. I'm with them all the time. And it's problematic to do anything else. You know, it's problematic to go to the grocery store, have a conversation, because I really need to be paying attention to them. The difference between, and I realized this after having said that sort of lightheartedly about schizophrenia, is that writing fiction can be uncomfortable but it isn't actually painful, and also that those conversations that you're overhearing are free of the self, whereas true schizophrenics, they're all about the self.

Diesenhaus: Given what you just said about kind of having to be with them, it seems to me that you do write more than one book at a time, there's a big overlap. And I wonder how you manage, given how important it is to sort of be with them, how do you manage it? Sometimes you're kind of involved with one and working on another or editing and making changes to one, and sort of writing another. How does that work?

Kimmel: That's often very gruesome. That's the area I would say, that's the area I would say that I'm actually disciplined. You know, that first draft, people think that sitting down and writing the first draft requires a sort of, you know, inhuman discipline if you've never done it. But for me it's everything that follows. It's the many revisions while also maintaining a life and relationships and then editing whilst-- or this is the other thing that's plagued my entire career-- I will be finishing a book, doing final edits, doing the copy edit, the page proofs, you know, going over design with a production team, while I'm on a book tour for the book that came out before. So I have to be constantly talking about this novel that's been done for a while and dwelling in that world while also trying to create this one. And finally I've just realized how to turn one off, I just, you know, the book tour for The Used World ended last month, you know it lasted forever, and I just shut it off, I don't have any relationship to it at all. And immediately after I had to do the sixth draft of Iodine, my new novel, but I wrote Iodine-- I have a children's novel coming out in February. And I wrote Iodine and that children's novel at the same time. That was-- I don't know-- my friend Gregory Maguire, who wrote Wicked and Son of a Witch, said one of the gifts that we are given is amnesia, and I am just now beginning to be able to forget everything else I ever wrote, which is really nice.

Diesenhaus: I want to ask a few questions about place, and I think they ultimately kind of lead us back to character, but maybe start with place. The three novels comprise a trilogy and I just wondered if you planned that from the beginning and if so or if not, how things might have changed as you went, creating the first, second and third?

Kimmel: Yeah, it did--

(crew talk)

Kimmel: It did start out as a trilogy, and now I think it's humorous that I had never written a novel and so I decided to write three. But in fact it seemed easier to me because I knew that there were these large themes that I wanted to deal with and I knew that I wanted to deal with very different types of men and women and very different types of experiences in this fictional county in Indiana. And rather than try to figure out how to do it all in one book, I just said to my editor, "You know, really I see this as a trilogy," and for some reason everybody just said, go ahead. When I planned it, in my head, as I was writing Solace, what eventually ended up being written bears no relationship to that at all. And you know, it was Nabokov who said, "If I wrote form an outline I would have no reason to go on; if I knew how it was going to end, I would have no reason to go on." And certainly that was the case with those three books. If I had actually stuck to this plan that I put on paper at the beginning of Solace, not only would I have destroyed all three books, but I would not have been true to myself, believing as I do in governing by surprise and letting things take shape in their own time and organically. So you either have to jump off of that bridge and actually do it or you have to protect yourself with sticking to an outline or a design. And I just didn't protect myself at all. So there's no relationship between the three. And in fact the book that I was writing at the beginning, the first draft of Solace, which was not called Solace, I don't even remember what it was called, I wrote 500 pages and threw them away. So the first book is not the same book. Not only do I find it funny that I had that kind of chutzpah that I would say I'm going to write three of them, but I actually did. I can't believe I did that either.

Diesenhaus: Something you said in answering in that, I've read that you called them a trilogy of place. And I want to just follow up on something you said, was the place the first piece? That ultimately you came up with the place and the characters emerged from that?

Kimmel: Yeah.

Diesenhaus: Or is it a different order?

Kimmel: It was a different order in a way. The initial book grew out of this very peculiar conversation I had with my mother. I feel like the world, and I've said this in interviews before, that the world is divided between people who are correct, me, and people who are wrong, my mother; who you either adore A Confederacy of Dunces, me, or you hate it, my mother. I was having this perennial argument with my mother about the merits of that novel and its extreme hilarity and she said, "Ignatius J. Riley is just disgusting. I'm sorry, he's disgusting." And I said, "Well, right, that's the joy of him." That's the joy of him as, you know, the very close third person that we're stuck with throughout this book. What if he were a girl? And the second, you know, the "l" had not even attached itself to the word girl, when I thought what if it were a very intellectual, deeply delusional young woman in the Midwest rather than this hilarious overweight man in New Orleans. And because that book is the definitive New Orleans book in so many ways. So I thought could there be a definitive, very funny novel about a small town in Indiana with a girl Ignatius J. Riley. I mean, it sounds so stupid when I say it now but I thought it would be hilarious, so I started writing it and it was very funny. It was just like-- there was no drama. And it was hilarious for probably 250 pages and then it just went off the rails and-- because it was the first novel I had ever written. I don't have a novel in a drawer. That was it; that was the first book. I felt it go askew and I threw it away. And somewhere in that process I had a dream about these two little girls, these orphaned girls, and I woke up one day and I thought, "Oh, oh, oh," what I had done in attempting to write a comic unreliable narrator who was sort of definitively located in this particular place is I had robbed the story of its gravitas and A Confederacy of Dunces has gravitas. And so I just abandoned that initial impulse and started over and let the book be itself. And it became the book that it is. And so place was always important but it was in service to this other idea, and then I realized I can't really-- I can't do that, I have to give as much integrity to each element, to character, to story, to setting, to everything and it just was born out of that.

Diesenhaus: And given that story, it does seem like a good portion of your characters are either outsiders or exiles, especially in the newest book. And I wonder where that comes from and does that have a closer connection to kind of place or geography? Where these people come from sets them apart somehow?

Kimmel: Yeah. No, that is a great question. Because ordinarily what I'm asked is if I write from that perspective because I feel like an outsider. But that's actually not the case. You know, I grew up in a world that was sort of removed from time, certainly removed from all the cultural machinations on each coast, you know, during the '60s and '70s, but even now if you say you're from Indiana, but dear God, if you say you're from Muncie, Indiana, or from Mooreland, Indiana, which no one knows what that means, you're automatically eliminated as a person of relevance, because place has cast you out. And it's very funny to me. In fact one of the-- I have been blessed with very, very good reviews for all of my books for reasons I don't know. In fact once in a while I think am I secretly paying these people? But I don't know-- but there was one review of Solace that was sort of mixed, and it's the only time I felt like someone was just wrong and a man said, you know, "while this book is a pleasure to read and interesting, there is simply no way that people as intellectually enlightened as Amos Langston and Langston's mother Anna Lee, could live in a town of 3,000 people in east central Indiana," and I just howled when I read it. Because of course that's where I came from and I wrote those characters. That's where my mother came from. It's astonishing that someone could be that limited in their understanding of the world. You know, Jung himself, Carl Jung himself, believed that because-- you know, one of the things that Jung said was that if you eliminated the human population and all of human history, it would sprout up just the same the moment humans were reborned, and essentially what that means is that, I think, is that our relationship to image and to archetypes and to dreams is universal, wherever we live and whoever we are, at all times. But that's not the case culturally. People who live in Indiana are fools and bunglers and buffoons, you know, according to New Yorkers, and to people from California. So, yes, that outsiderness has a lot to do with that. It also has a lot to do with a way that people in farm country and in the Midwest are themselves always searching for legitimacy, and not really finding it. You know, living a kind of uncomfortable relationship with legitimacy.

Diesenhaus: I think this is related somewhat. I'm a big fan of pool. And I wanted to ask you how you became interested in the game, how it functioned in a second novel, and it almost sounds like, potentially, it may have functioned as a form of legitimacy for the character, and I know that you use section headers, "the spectrum of possible outcomes," and I wonder if part of it is the control, the potential to control the outcome on the pool table or in other parts of life sort of something that you were drawn to?

Kimmel: Yeah, well, I've loved pool always. You know, my father was a gambler, and there was almost no sport and certainly no medium that he could not gamble upon, and he was very good at it. So pool was always in my life. But also just as an aesthetic game, I find it the most pleasing. Everything about it, the color and the precision and just, everything, I love everything about it. I love the silence of the players and the way that the silence is punctuated by those very sharp sounds of the pool balls hitting. I love that crack sound. And then also the sort of relationship that you have to have to the physical world in terms of both physics and geometry in order to make sense of it, in order to be able to play it well at all. The spatial sense that unfolds right in front of you. It doesn't take time, you know, it unfolds right in that second. But it is a microcosm of a sort of theological or philosophical dilemma which is the infinity of possibility. And it's a microcosm, also for me, of the Midwest, that flat green field, you know, upon which action is taking place dynamically. So it functions that way in the book. And it functions also as one of the things that interests me very much is vocation, with anyone, with everyone, everywhere, all the time. How do you know your vocation? How do you find it? How do you live within it? How do you excel, basically, in a way that is meaningful and that has depth. And what happens, one of the things that was very interesting to me when I started this trilogy was what if you live in a world that vocation is not really available to you? The scope is very, very small, as it would be for Cassie, as it was for her sister, as it was for Langston, as it was for everyone. What do you do under those circumstances, and with her, with Cassie, I had this sense that she would find it. She is such a fierce human being that she would find it right where she was and right where it was, and so it functions that way, too. And then of course mythologically as a competition between the father and the daughter, and the father and the son, she sort of serves both roles.

Diesenhaus: I just want to ask maybe three or four more questions, but we're about to come to the end of the tape. Is it okay if I just start a second one?

Kimmel: Sure. While you do that, I'll put him in the bedroom.

(crew talk)

Diesenhaus: Continuing with Tape 2. I wanted to kind of go in another direction, and if this is too private in anyway, please let me know. I know that you're such good friends with Augustin Burroughs, and I wonder how that friendship is important to your writing, and if he's one of the people -- if you show your work at any point to him or any other friends in your life and how they respond and give you feedback and what that's like.

Kimmel: Augustin and I have been best friends for about seven years and strangely we never show each other our work. We'll talk about it, you know, we'll talk about what we're working on. He's one of the few people in the world that I would ever say, "Oh, I had this idea," but we don't read one another's work until they come out, and I'm not sure what that's about. It's nothing-- I think we both just work sort of fast and privately and also we do very different things. We write very different things. He really is sort of-- he almost owns a particular form these days which is the essay that makes the most out of his own life and not just his history but his daily life, whereas I would never, ever write about my daily life, you know, I would never do it. But what we respect about one another, what he does and what I do, equally, and yet-- well, I think our friendship is ultimately literary in that we talk pretty much all day, every day and constantly about books, constantly about what we're reading or what's coming out, or "Did you read this in The Times Book Review?" Yesterday we sent one another book titles that we have always dreamed of using but will never use, that kind of-- I mean, you can only have that kind of friendship with very few people who would find it entertaining to spend all day writing book titles to one another. So in that way we're just kind of goofy and stupid. But I have a circle actually of friends that are writers and one of my closest friends is a man named Robert Brody, who writes a sort of gay intellectual farce in a way that I don't know many other writers that do it, except, you know, Quentin Crisp, or you know, and Robert is definitely in that school. And we show one another things in development. My new novel, Iodine, he has read it like three or four different drafts. And I do the same for him, and really you don't need very many people to do that. Sarah Messer is reading that book right now. And especially after a certain point, I certainly don't require any kind of aggrandizement or anything like that and I don't really need anyone to tell me that I got it right; I know whether I got it right or I got it wrong, depending on just how it feels as I'm working on it, and if I'm being, you know, true to it. But there is that feeling of something exists in the world, it doesn't just exist on my desk after a certain point. And Scott Browning reads everything that I write and it helps to just get it away from, you know, out of your own hands, and there are a few people that do that for me and I'm enormously grateful to them. But Augustin and I, our friendship is based on a kind of stupidness and that there is nothing that I can't say to him and there is nothing that he can't say to me, and you know, once you get to be an adult, you're supposed to be more reserved or dignified, so, not with him. So yes, let's call that literary.

Diesenhaus: I tried to create some sort of segue, you said "out of my hands," I know that the Solace of Leaving Early has been optioned by Mike Nichols for a film. Maybe just ask for a status update but also conceptually how do you feel about that? Are you comfortable with the idea or not?

Kimmel: Well, I'm one of the few people I know who just doesn't like movies, I just don't really-- movies make me really nervous, and it took me forever to figure that out. Because I have a great deal of respect for people who make films and when they're good, I adore them, and I can't imagine how they came into being. You know, how anybody has a vision and makes it happen filmically and visually? That makes no sense to me. So I admire them in that way, but sitting down to watch a movie is nerve wracking to me and I don't like to do it. And I'll do almost anything to get out of going to a movie for instance, in fact, I just don't. And I don't watch them at home. And the whole world of Hollywood could not be farther from me than it is. But I also love Mike Nichols and I loved Mike Nichols and Elaine May's improv in the '60s. Culturally, it's one of my favorite things and I would listen to them or watch them every day, so I have that respect for them, I have respect for him as a human mind in the world. And then I have loved his movies. So when my agents, you know, I have a New York literary agent and I have L.A. agents and when those agents called and said Mike Nichols wants to option Solace, I thought, well, isn't that weird. That's weird. So he optioned it right away. And he has held onto that option. It expires every 18 months and every 18 months he renews it. I have absolutely-- and he's attached a screenwriter, Susanna Grant [ph?]-- I have no idea, I mean, what are the odds of it ever being made? None, little. I really don't care one way or the other whether he ever makes it and if it's ever made. I would have refused to option a nonfiction, I couldn't do it to the people who are in the book and are alive and have suffered enough already, I would never do that to them. But if any of my books are ever made into movies, I just don't think I would see them. I feel like that would be that world, and then the world that exists on paper is discrete.

Diesenhaus: If it was anyone besides Mike Nichols would you have said no or would you have been open?

Kimmel: There are a few people I would have said yes to, but I was not interested in optioning any of them. That came out of the blue. There are a number of people I respect, you know, I've seen their work or I've read their, you know, I've read what they take to be their mission, and I respect them. But he was really sort of at the top of a list I didn't have, yeah.

Diesenhaus: I just have two more questions. One's sort of kind of a weird sociological one. I wonder if in the normal world someone asks you what you do and they don't necessarily know you, do you tell them that you're a writer? And if you do, and sort of how they respond and if you have thoughts on that? What's the world that's created if you tell someone you're a writer and what do they think of you?

Kimmel: Yeah. Well, you will know the answer to this in your own future. The problem-- I think that there are people now, especially since the world of writing has entered the entertainment industry, it's very tied up in the entertainment industry in a way that it wasn't, certainly when I was reading Fitzgerald, that there are people who become writers because they want to exercise a, you know, either a narcissistic leaning or you know, something like that. In another life they might have been an actor or they might have been a performer of some kind. But they have this slight other drive toward the page and they think they're going to be famous and wealthy. That is not me at all, and in fact, the public experience of being a novelist is anathema to me and strangely I am enormously shy and solitary and happiest just when I am working alone. But at the same time I am a lifelong Quaker, so I have never figured out how to lie. I know it would be smart to lie and I just can't do it. I find myself on an airplane or some situation and people always strike up conversation with me, it's like I have some kind of, you know, light pointing toward my head, "ask her something," or "tell her about your kidney infection." So, especially on airplanes, someone will always say to me, "what are you reading?" and I'll tell them what I'm reading and it inevitably it leads to, "Are you traveling for business?" "Kind of," and then I have to say I'm on a book tour. Because I just can't figure out what to say. What? That I sell x-ray tubes? I don't know. I don't know. So I say I'm on a book tour and then they find out that I'm a writer and the first question is always, "What do you write?" and again it would be good to lie, I could say I write technical manuals, but I don't, so I say I write novels. "Have I read them?" I don't know. It's a conversation I would never choose to have. And it does follow a sort of prescribed pattern of if someone finds out if I'm a writer they want to know what that relationship is to them. "Have I read it?" "Will I read it?" "What are the titles?" "Will you send them to me for free," that almost always follows. "Do you have a website?" and "Are your books being made into movies?" Always, always, always. And basically at this point I've learned to just sort of take a deep breath and admit I'm a writer and then go to that next uncomfortable level.

Diesenhaus: That's somewhat similar to what I've been getting when I ask other people and particularly the professors, at least two now have said well, I say a professor especially around here because then they avoid that entire--they've made it clear they've made a conscious choice thing just not to have to go through it step by step.

Kimmel: And is it uncomfortable for them for the same reasons?

Diesenhaus: Seemingly, and I guess the reason I ask or the reason I'm curious I just sort of wonder culturally how it ends up working, I mean, what do people think of it? And hearing your description, I think it's helpful to think the question of sort of bringing it around to themselves and also the question of sort of connecting it to the larger entertainment industry is interesting.

Kimmel: Right. There's movies and there's Oprah. "Have you been on Oprah?" I've been asked that 600 times. And then that leads to a conversation about Oprah, which I can't have because I've never seen it. I don't know her. You know. And then-- but I think-- I don't actually mean to be unkind about-- the fact that people want to talk about books at all, even though it's not necessarily in the sort of rarified way that I would wish from that class when I was 16, it's pretty remarkable, actually, and it's in no small way something that we owe to Oprah, and so when that conversation begins, I always say, "No, I haven't been on her show, and I don't know her, but I'm grateful to her." And the fact that people want to connect books back to themselves even in that immediate way, "What does this have to do with me?" is also "where would I be without them?"

Diesenhaus: Yeah. So I'm going to keep asking.

Kimmel: Yeah, I would too.

Diesenhaus: I'm just kind of infinitely curious about the place of books and I suppose the place of literary fiction or nonfiction, poetry, in the world.

Kimmel: Yeah. You know, it isn't just that books are now tied up in the entertainment industry, it's that authors have become, or publishers try to sell them as movie stars and so your public persona is very, very important. And I've met authors who have been less comfortable on a signing line at a book signing or who don't read well or who don't do Q and A well, and I think you would not have been in trouble 25 years ago but you're in trouble now. You know, you have to be able to do photo shoots and you have to be willing to meet with the public, sort of a lot.

Diesenhaus: My last question is if you have any advice, for any age, but perhaps particularly for younger writers, writers in an MFA program or any university setting? Advice to become writers and even against that world in which maybe it's harder to be a successful writer or things of that sort, if you had any advice on how to become a writer?

Kimmel: I do. And there are a few things. These are not just things that worked for me, these are things that I have seen that are sort of common to my friends who are successful and also just to students who seem to get it accomplished. For one thing, you have to not-- abandon the ego immediately. Abandon the ego. Imagine the thing that you're writing, even if it's about you, is about something larger than you. And also just that you aren't bound to it, you aren't bound to its success and you're not bound to something you thought it was going to be when you started. And then that makes it easier to revise and that's where writing happens, it happens in revision. And not just in the first revision, it happens in the second and the third. And that's a process to which one actually has to surrender. I don't think anyone knows how to overcome that resistance with some sort of formula, it really requires that kind of just take a deep breath and begin again. And my friend Lawrence Nafloft, a novelist, when I got back my first editorial letter for Solace, my first novel, it was 13 single spaced pages and it was so overwhelming to me that basically what I did was I read it and I read it again and I lay down on the couch in my study and stayed there for a month. And finally I just called him and said, Lawrence, I don't know what to do. And he said, "If you're a real writer, you will start at the first word and rewrite every word in accordance with what your editor is asking you to do." And I thought, oh, that. And so that's exactly what I did. And he was right. And it wasn't even that I was clinging to my own notion, it was that I didn't know how to write something other than what I had already written. You have to trust that what you haven't written is available to you and that it's better than what you did write. And then I think you have to pursue it, you have to pursue the act and you have to pursue each idea with the kind of ferocity that we don't see in the pursuit of anything else but money. You know, we're accustomed to people being ferocious about commerce and capitalism in general, and the defense of capitalism. And you have to pursue art in that same way. And I think if you do those things: you abandon the ego, you surrender the process itself, and you track it ferociously, there it is.

Diesenhaus: Thank you very much.

Kimmel: Thank you.

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