Michael Kimball's new novel, Big Ray, is a slim book about a big subject: fathers and sons and death. Big Ray, the father at the heart of this novel, is a big man, a fat man; "morbidly obese always seems the right term for my father," the narrator's son tells us, and he is as bad of a dad as he is fat.
How fat of a man is Big Ray? "My father could take up so much space that nobody wanted to be in the room with him ... Since he didn't fit in most chairs or on most couches, he often sat on the floor ... Sometimes, my father had to turn sideways to walk through doorways ..." Get the picture? This book mines the loss of a father to get at what remains: fear, anger, confusion, pain, as well as reconciliation and recovery:
"I'm awake and my father is dead. It's snowing and my father is dead. I'm hungry and my father is dead." Or: "Sometimes, I still want to ask my father some questions about his life or about how he treated my sister and me when we were growing up. Sometimes, I will even say a question out loud just to get it out of my body. My father still doesn't say anything back. It's just like when he was alive. ... Everything I do now, I do it with a dead dad.
I had a chance to catch up with Kimball recently at his home in Baltimore after the West Coast leg of his book tour to talk to him about his new book.
metrotimes: Big Ray is a novel that has the feel and authenticity of a memoir. How is Big Ray, the character, different from your dead dad — to whom you have dedicated this book — or how is he much the same?
Michael Kimball: The character of Big Ray is based on my father — who really did weigh over 500 pounds and really was abusive and really is dead — though the character became a kind of composite after I shifted the book from a memoir to a novel. I liked the tension that was created when I made that shift — that doubleness, the fiction that reads as truth.
mt: The form of Big Ray — 500 short snippets or vignettes — is like flipping through a photo album where on the back of each photo there is a story to be written down. Talk a bit about compression as it relates to Big Ray. Why such sparseness and spatial brevity to talk about such a large man? Or even talk a bit about your ongoing side project Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard).
Kimball: Doing the postcard life story project taught me about telling lots of story in a few sentences (or even covering a bunch of years in a phrase) and that influenced the condensed bits of story that make up Big Ray. But the real reason it's told like that, in all those pieces, has to do with how memory works — the mind jumping from one memory to another, then that triggering another memory, etc. It let me move the narrative in all sorts of unexpected ways.
mt: All four of your novels — The Way the Family Got Away (about the death of a child); How Much of Us There Was, which in its reprint has been retitled as simply Us (the death of a spouse); Dear Everybody (death by suicide); and now Big Ray — are about death and loss. How did these themes, or objects, as a writer, choose you to write about them?
Kimball: I have always been a bit traumatized by loss — whether it was the shock of losing my paternal grandfather (the first person-death I ever experienced) or the disappearance of my beloved cat Freddie when I was a kid, or even this one dark blue Super Ball I remember losing when I was really little. And so the subject matter (loss, really, rather than death) feels inescapable to me. The thing about Big Ray, though, the thing about finishing Big Ray, is that I feel as if I may have finished with my central obsession. I feel as if Big Ray is a kind of aesthetic, emotional, and thematic culmination.
mt: The sentences in Big Ray are direct and chiseled, straight to the point, at times matter-of-fact, but still, all the while, managing to be lyrical. Can you talk a bit about the way you write, and how you choose to write the way you do, or how the style perhaps chose you?
Kimball: The reason for the directness and clarity comes from using aspects of the memoir in the novel. It's part of what creates the authenticity and makes everything the narrator says so believable. I let the lyrical aspects present themselves, finding those bits of feeling in the language in play. For example, that line toward the end of the first chapter — "I'm one of the people who survived." — comes right out of the language used for obituaries. There is lyricism in everyday language if it's framed in the right way.
mt: You grew up in Michigan, Lansing, to be exact. All four of your books are at least partially located in Michigan. You don't live in Michigan anymore, but on any level do you think of yourself as a Michigan writer?
Kimball: I don't put an adjective in front of "writer," but sometimes I think of myself more specifically as a novelist rather than a writer. Of course, I do have a certain affection for Michigan, where I grew up, and use those details whenever they help the fiction.
mt: You write, "My father might tell a different version of this story." What's one thing that he might say?
Kimball: I put that line in the novel to add a kind of complexity, to create another layer, because, of course, any two people will tell a somewhat different version of anything that happened. That's part of how memory works.
mt: You write, "The more I think about my father, the more I think about myself." What have you learned, about yourself, through the writing of this book?
Kimball: 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.