This is Michael Kimball. He made me cry.
He didn’t step on my toes – that would have been tricky because we’ve never met. He didn’t say my books were rubbish (not yet anyway, but he is going to be one of my First Ten Readers). He made me cry by creating a character called Jonathon, and making me care about him as if he were a member of my own family.
I’m really honoured to be hosting Michael as a part of his blog tour. Rather than the usual Q and A we had a conversation over email – here it is.
Me: There are two things I find necessary if I’m going to really enjoy a novel – that it is well written, and that the characters feel authentic and believable. Dear Everybody meets both conditions admirably. I’m interested in how the protagonist, Jonathon, came into being. Can you remember when he first appeared? How did you get to know him over time?
Michael: Dear Everybody started with one short letter, a man apologizing to a woman for standing her up on a date; the man is wondering if they had gone out that night, if maybe his whole life would have been different, better. At first, I didn’t know then who was speaking or that it was a suicide letter, but I did have a strong voice and a skewed way of thinking.
That one letter led to a rush of about 100 letters—Jonathon, the main character, apologizing to nearly everybody he has ever known—and it was through writing those letters that I came to know Jonathon, the details of his life, what had happened to him, and how that made him the person he was.
Me: I love that image – as if the first letter was some kind of kernel, and the subsequent letters started layering around it to give Jonathon’s character breadth and depth. Jonathon isn’t the easiest person to like or to feel sympathetic towards, but I found myself really caring about what happened to him. How do you feel about him as a character? Were you ever worried about readers losing patience with him or misunderstanding him?
Michael: Jonathon goes through a lot of difficult things—with his father, with bullies, trying to cope with mental illness—and that made me care about him too. I had some small worries that he might be misunderstood, that certain readers might not understand how difficult mental illness can be, but that was also part of the reason that there are so many other voices in the novel—his mother, his father, his brother, his wife—and so many different elements—the newspaper articles, the psychological evaluations, the yearbook quotes. Those other elements and other voices tell the reader things that Jonathon can’t and I hope that that put the reader closer to Jonathon, what he was feeling and thinking and going through.
Me: I think they do – and I also like the way it turns the whole book into a kind of mystery – we find out gradually that certain characters might not be telling us the whole truth…
I’m very interested in your ‘Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard)’ project, which started when your friend asked if you wanted to participate in an art festival he was curating. You offered to write people’s life stories on postcards, and by the time you’d finished the first a long queue had formed. I just read a few on your site and I had to tear myself away, as I think I could sit here for the rest of the day and hear about people’s lives. They remind me of case studies in books about therapy – always the most interesting, juicy parts. Do you still get emails from people wanting you to perform this ‘service’ for them? Do you have any plans for a book? How does writing the mini-histories affect you?
Michael: The limited space of the postcard forces me to leave out everything except the most interesting and most important things about a person’s life. It has been a fascinating project and I still do get lots of requests, though I have had to tell people, for now, that I can just put their name on a list. I’m doing my best to work through a pretty big backlog of requests, which was created in part by the Guardian profile of the project and in part when Keyhole magazine, a literary magazine, asked me to write postcard life stories (instead of contributor bios) for every writer in their latest issue.
Writing the postcard life stories has been a moving, surprising, intimate, difficult, and fascinating experience—especially so when I’m writing one for somebody who has lived through a difficult life (and there are quite a few of these in the project). The one thing that I have learned so far, though, is that everybody, in one way or another, is amazing. Eventually, I hope to collect them into a book. I’ve had a couple of inquiries about it, but haven’t gotten around to writing an introduction to it yet.
Me: Oh I am glad there will be a book at some point. I think the project says something interesting about our potential power as writers – you literally become (the) author of those people’s life stories. I don’t know about you but because of that I see it as my responsibility to be as truthful as I can.
So – talking of being an author, shall we finish with your three favourite things and your three least favourite things about being an author?
Michael: I do feel a great sense of responsibility with the project. I do my best to get everything right and to honor the details of each person’s life.
As to favorite things, that question is a lot more difficult than it seems on the surface. My three favorite things about being an author are writing, revising, and publishing the book exactly as I want it to be. My three least favorite things are the waiting that is an inevitable part of the industry, finding a publisher, and that odd period between books when I’m not writing.
I hope you’ll visit Michael’s site and have a look at the book trailer and all the wonderful things people have said about his novel, but you’d be even more sensible if you went straight to Amazon UK (or Amazon US) and added it to your basket.