It seems as though everyone is talking about Michael Kimball and his new newly released novel, US. Sam Lipsyte calls Kimball a “Hero of contemporary fiction.” Blake Butler says US is one of only two books that ever made him cry. And Gary Lutz says that Kimball is “One of our most supremely gifted and virtuosic renderers of the human predicament.”
US might break your heart, but it’s a good kind of break-the kind that reminds you how nice it is to be alive.
Here are six questions for Michael Kimball about US:
The entire novel contemplates dying and death and forces the reader to contemplate her own death and dying. Was this a temporary obsession when you were writing the book? Are you always contemplating death?
I have at different points in my life been obsessed with death and dying. I grew up around people dying and that was sort of formative. Also, I had these two Sunday school teachers who were always telling the class that we could die on the way home from church and that we would go to hell if we hadn’t been saved. I always felt as if they were talking directly to me, but I never believed them. It was hard to shake that, though, as a kid who didn’t really know how things worked. The idea that I could die doing anything was a bit much for a little kid and something of that has always stuck with me.
Did you ever cry while you were writing this? I think if I wrote this book I would have been sobbing the whole way through.
I didn’t cry while I was writing US, but I cried after I wrote it, while reading it. An old writing teacher told me that the trick isn’t to make yourself cry, but to make the reader cry. I think she was right.
The elderly husband and his wife never call each other by their names in this book, we never find out where they live, and we don’t know what he ever did for a living and if she ever worked. And yet, it doesn’t feel like anything is missing. Somehow, by putting us in his immediate head and immediate world, we have all we need in this story. Was this deliberate–did you make a conscious choice to leave out the externals of a life so you could simply focus on these two beating hearts? Was more in there and you took it out? How did you come about writing this story in this way?
Those were deliberate choices-to leave that kind of description out of the novel. I didn’t think that they mattered. All that mattered was what the two people thought and said and did – how much they loved each other, how much they were going to miss each other. More and more, that other kind of description seems unnecessary in my reading and too often it slows the narrative down.
In Part Two of US another character is introduced-a person who may, or may not, be you, the author. What made you decide to insert a version of yourself into the story?
That character came out of my struggles with writing the novel. I almost gave up on the novel a couple of different times, but I kept going back to it. Eventually, I started to ask myself why I was writing the novel, why it mattered to me, why I needed to write about grief and death and family and love like that. The answers to those questions became the grandson’s voice, the character named Michael Kimball who has some biographical similarities me. After I had finished writing the novel, I tried to take my name out of it. I changed Michael Kimball to other names, but I couldn’t find another name that felt right. It felt as if something were missing from the novel when I did that. The emotional energy seemed to dissipate.]
God or religion is never directly mentioned in US, but there is a lot of spirituality. Any comments on this?
There is a line of mediums on one side of my family and the grandfather that US is loosely based on was a spiritualist. Growing up, he told me lots of stories about séances and spirit guides and ways to communicate with the other side. Most of the people in my family didn’t listen to him, but I was fascinated by these stories. It isn’t something that I believed so much, but I believed that he believed it. And I saw how it was a comfort to him after my grandmother died. He believed that he could communicate with her and that was a comfort to him. In US, the elderly wife’s voice can be read as the older narrator communicating with her through the methods of a spiritualist-a way to know that she still exists in another world-or it can be read as him having auditory hallucinations as a manifestation of his grief.
US is a very sad story but it’s also so sweet and tender–there’s just so much love in this story. Would you want the end of your life, or of your wife’s life, to go down like this–does it seem like a good way to end a life to you?
Honestly, that feels like too much to actually think about. But if my wife and I were together for the rest of our lives that would probably mean that it had been a good life.