September 26, 2012
It’s always a joy to sit down and talk with Michael Kimball. He’s into his cats, he plays softball (and is quite competitive!), he likes music, and he wears interesting T-shirts that make you want to scoot your chair back so you can get a good look. BIG RAY is Michael’s fourth book and, I think, his most intimate and moving. Whereas his other novels (Us, The Way the Family Got Away, Dear Everybody) all deal with loss of some sort, and are touching and powerful, BIG RAY emotionally dives down to a whole new level. You can’t help but be somewhat changed after reading this book.
Here’s what Michael Kimball has to say about BIG RAY:
When you were writing BIG RAY were you seeing you, your father, your sister and your mother; or were you seeing alternate people who had lived very similar lives?
When I started writing BIG RAY, it was going to be a memoir. I wrote everything exactly as I remembered it and I wrote everything as true as I could. But I eventually made BIG RAY a novel—in part because it seemed too messy as a memoir and also because I wanted more control over how it was told. So I was seeing versions of my real family in my head as I was writing. I was also looking through a lot of old family photos, so the actual people were very much on my mind. Of course, it is a novel, so the characters are all composites in varying degrees.
In the book, Daniel feels a sort of lightness, a happiness, as a result of getting rid of the ashes of his dead dad. Did you, or do you, feel that same sort of relief in simply having written this book?
BIG RAY was written in an intense rush, three months start to finish. I was emotionally exhausted by the end of it, but also changed. I was a different person—lighter, happier, released from something that I didn’t realize was pushing down on me. I found a way to reconcile the love and the hate I had for my father, which was a kind of relief that I didn’t know existed. I feel as if it gave me myself back.
Daniel often speaks of how terrifying his father was because of his size and because of his violent nature. Your own father, you’ve told me, was just that large and terrifying. What is your internal reaction to men as large as your father? Do you see them differently than, say, I might? Do you wonder about them—who they are inside, what kind of people they are? I guess this is sort of a “profiling” question, so maybe I can’t ask it without incriminating and defaming all men over 500 pounds, but I am curious.
I don’t feel good about this, but I do have a certain prejudice against very large men. They are definitely a trigger for me and I associate them with my father—or at the very least, they make me think of my father and that makes me not like them.
In the book, Big Ray falls asleep on toilets, including the guest toilet in Daniel’s house during a visit. Did this really happen? Why do I see this moment as the opening scene of the Big Ray movie?
Ha, yeah, that really happened. I don’t think I fictionalized any of that scene. And, yeah, it’s all there—the fat, the sleep (probably because of sleep apnea), the sense of disgust, the huge and overbearing presence in the house, the difficult father awakening, etc.
One of the things that I find so disturbing in this book is the bleeding together of FAT, FAMILY, and SEX. You handled it so brilliantly here—it is haunting, uncomfortable, and totally believable. Was the merging of those three things something that organically came out in the telling of this story or did you sit down and ask yourself how your were going to manage these elements?
I didn’t plan that out. The whole novel just started as a short piece about the unexpected death of my father—and then it kept expanding—not just his death, but his life, not just my relationship with him, but the whole family’s relationship with him. I did have a note to write a single chapter about him being fat, as well as separate chapters about the physical abuse and sexual abuse, but even those seemed to find their natural place within the overall narrative.
I love the line, “If you take the e out of dead you get dad.” Did you make that up? It’s one of those things that sounds so good you could swear you’ve read it on a T-shirt somewhere.
Hey, yeah, I was just staring at the phrase, “my dead dad” and I couldn’t shake the thought. I’m still trying to figure out what it means.
Daniel talks about his father pinning him down and rubbing his scratchy sideburns against his cheek or neck. At this point in the story, we understand Big Ray pretty well—we know who we’re dealing with—and that makes this moment in the book one of the more gruesome ones.
I still have a pretty visceral memory of that, the times that happened. And I was using a lot of those potentially ambiguous moments to set up the even more extreme abuse that comes later in the novel.
Do you forgive your father?
There’s this idea out there that we’re supposed to forgive people who have done terrible things to us, that this is the only way to heal. For some people, this is probably true. But it isn’t true for everybody. I do not forgive my father for the things he did, but I still love my father anyway (and it helps, in a way, that he is dead). I do not forgive my mother for not helping to stop the things that happened in that house growing up, but I know she was doing the best she could, and I love her very much. I can hate my father and love my father at the same time. I can keep what was good with all that was bad. I do not forgive my father, but I do forgive myself for ever believing that any of the abuse was my fault.