Michael Kimball writes your life story... and his own
Published: March 27, 2013
Michael Kimball grins like a kid when he talks about the season’s first softball practice with his team. The team is called Sir Lord Baltimore, but everyone knows them as the Sweatpants because publisher and writer Adam Robinson had a lot of T-shirts left over from his band of that name. “I hit one ball all the way out of our field and into the infield of the next field over,” Kimball says over tacos at Meet 27.
For Kimball, softball is a way of uniting his childhood and his adult life. “As a kid I was really good [at baseball], but when we moved to a bigger field [in high school], my body wasn’t big enough and I went from being a really good shortstop to not being very good, and I never played again,” he says. “Then, when I started playing softball, I still had the skills but my body was bigger.”
Kimball is a trim and fit 46 years old with wispy blondish hair and a distinctly Faulknerian mustache, but reading Big Ray (Bloomsbury), his 2012 novel that will be released in paperback this spring, it becomes clear that body size is an issue for Kimball—a realization that hits like a ton of bricks when he reveals that the titular 500-plus-pound father in the book was his own. “I changed a few things about the other people,” Kimball says. “But most of the details of Big Ray were my father and everything that happens to the narrator really happened to me,” he says.
Big Ray, Kimball’s fifth novel, is a strange, powerful book about the death of an abusive, larger-than-life father. It is narrated in small, paragraph-sized sections that seem to want to run up to the subject, take a swipe, and then disappear again for another sally from another angle, as if he runs the risk of being hit or choked if he gets too close. But despite that—or because of it—the style has a certain mature joy to it, the joy of taking stock of one’s life, of having survived. And, despite its autobiographical nature and themes of obesity and abuse, Big Ray does not come across as an Oprah-style confessional (it was chosen as the talk-show queen’s book of the week last September). The grotesque character of Big Ray also reads as a convincing stand-in for God—giving the book a theological undertone not unlike postmodern maestro Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father. (Kimball’s list of “dead father jokes” is a great compendium of black humor).
Kimball’s most recent book, Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard) (Mud Luscious Press), is a collection of the best examples of a long-term project that precisely hits upon the redemptive power of the autobiographical in writing. Kimball gets tears in his eyes when he tells the story an abused woman told him about her life at a public festival, returning without her husband to tell him the deepest and worst parts of her history, speaking them perhaps for the first time, because she believed, somehow, that there was power in the telling of the story.
The project began in 2008 as part of the Transmodern Festival. Adam Robinson, of Publishing Genius, was curating part of the festival and he and Kimball joked about what a literary performance might look like. Kimball suggested writing people’s stories for them as they waited. “It is, after all, the thing so many strangers say (and more must think) when they meet a writer, that the writer should write their life story,” as he puts it in the introduction to the collection.
He spent an entire evening interviewing people and writing down their lives. A few days later, a woman wrote him back and said, “You took a dark and difficult time in my life and made it manageable for me. It was kind of like postcard therapy.”
It was that note that caused Kimball to continue with the project, for which he created a blog on which to post and solicit stories. He eventually had his friend Sam Ligon ask him the same questions he asked his subjects, and created an entry for himself.
When I first started to discuss this story with Kimball, there seemed to be this strange, mirrored relationship between the kind of profile I wanted to write of him and the kind of postcard lives he wrote, so I asked if he would send me the questions he used, and received about 15 questions that ranged from basic factual questions like, “Tell me your name and age. Where you were born? What was your childhood like?” to more complicated and in-depth queries such as: “What is the best thing that you have done or that has happened? The worst? Do you regret anything that you have done or not done? What one thing makes you particularly you?”
When I answered these, he asked a few follow-up questions and eventually produced the postcard here (“#309 Baynard Woods)—under the same kind of deadline I myself was under.
Kimball’s book is full of characters from Baltimore’s literary and art scenes, such as Rahne Alexander (#133) and Stephanie Barber (#184), but it is greater than a series of portraits of the city’s demimonde. The longest story is about a warm and generous man named Monte Riek who struggled first with alcohol and then with crack for much of his life. The book is difficult to read all the way through because the thousands of years of lived experience pile up and overwhelm the reader, and it may be best undertaken in snippets, the way Kimball himself attacks Ray in his novel.
At first, Kimball added updates to the entries to help give a bit of publicity to a writer whose book was finally published, but eventually, some of them became difficult to write. In his own postcard life story, Kimball was forced to add an update about a triple-hernia surgery and a divorce. His wife had been such a strong presence in the initial postcard that the matter-of-fact update carries a heavy blow for the reader—and this is mirrored in many of the other postcards, because eventually divorce, disease, or death will strike us.
With the publication of the Postcards project and another round of publicity for the paperback of Big Ray, Kimball, who works as a textbook editor, is not sure where his writing will go next. But he was happy to report in his update that his softball team won the Druid Hill league championship. It doesn’t even things out, but that is life and there is a kind of redemption in its telling.
Michael Kimball will be reading from the Postcard project at Atomic Books on Thursday, March 28 at 7 P.M., and on Friday, March 29 at 9 P.M. as part of the Shattered Wig Series at the 14 Karat Cabaret.
Card Sharp: Michael Kimball writes your life story... and his own
#309 Baynard Wood: Read the postcard profile of City Paper's Senior Editor written by Michael Kimball
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