Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story
(on a postcard)

Most Violence Is Intimate

I have an interview with Ben Tanzer up at my interview column for The Faster Times, Writers on Writing. We talk about Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine, dialogue, narrative speed, pop culture references, and what characters want from fiction.

More interviews @ Writers on Writing:
Gary Lutz
Blake Butler
Rachel Sherman
Laura van den Berg
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Shya Scanlon's FORECAST: Chapter 32

FORECAST is being serialized semiweekly across 42 websites. For a full list of participants and links to live chapters, please visit www.shyascanlon.com/forecast. Also, FORECAST found a home at Flatmancrooked and will be released in hardcover in Spring, 2010. (Chapter 31 is at Picture Pack.)


32

I’d always had a soft spot for Handpepper. Though it had been difficult, at times, not to sympathize with his students (who’d always found him terribly boring, fatuous, and irrelevant) there was something unmistakably sincere in his form of oafish pedantry. It was clear that he cared about his students, and despite the fact that I don’t have children, I’d always kept myself abreast of the contemporary arguments proclaiming the decrepitude of our education system, and felt comforted by the observation that, if Handpepper lacked a certain grace in the classroom, he was at least unconditionally devoted to his students, and in this way, at least, ran counter to the seemingly unanimous editorializing, according to which one was hard pressed to find any good reason to attend school whatsoever.

I expect, too, that my small fondness was due in no small part to the fact that I’d never enjoyed such tender attention as a child. Too young to have any experience with school before The End, and yet too old, when the chance arose, to have sought enrollment in one of the facilities erected after people had normalized the social impact of living without power. The schools then were much like what I imagine they must have been like in pioneering days: without consistent or unified curricula, staffed often by undereducated or ill-equipped faculty; the whole process lit by the dim but inarguably stubborn bulb of basic necessity. Those parents who’d held it together through those first, harrowing years, and held out some hope for the future, eventually sent their children off each morning to what they knew was an institution of questionable authority and credential, but which was, nevertheless, undeniably there, was something, and more, was a labor of love.

Handpepper may very well have had his faults (out of politeness, I will avoid discussion of his more irregular habits – those ways in which he conducts himself behind closed doors need not worry us here, I think), but, at least in the days before Zara dropped out, he was there each day, standing before his class, springing back up with a smile to greet students who treated him with entitlement, disrespect, and disinterest. I think it’s fair to say that Handpepper’s dedication—like that of all teachers in those days—was admirable.

And truly, whose heart doesn’t go out to the hapless?

At the point when I was blessed with the fortune of meeting the only teacher I’ve ever had, when he brought me—a barely post-pubescent punk—under his wing and helped me escape northward from the increasingly crisis-ridden streets of Los Angeles, I willingly admit to more than a little haplessness myself. And while I this it’s a bit unfair to make any direct comparison between Handpepper and the Professor, it’s true that they share a certain dogged desire to help those around them. And if this desire would, in Handpepper’s case, sometimes manifest awkwardly or backfire altogether, it would be equally unfair to blame it on him entirely. But the Professor’s projects had always, by comparison, turned out quite the opposite, and so the very idea of blame was never, in my mind, evoked when thinking about him. I wouldn’t say that my feelings for him were blind, per se, but I admit to being both generally defensive and probably a bit myopic when it came to scouting out what may or may not have been faults, inconsistencies, and errors of judgment over the years, say, or in respect to certain ongoing issues of temperament and behavior.

I’m getting a little scrambled, I think, but it was with these concerns and perhaps much of the muddle that I was at the time in question watching Helen, Blain, and Rocket make their way through the old, iron gate and into a place which I felt certain held some degree of danger in store, and waiting, waiting, waiting for the Professor to return with what I hoped dearly would be information useful in somehow creating a winning strategy for Helen against what seemed were quickly mounting odds. It had been over an hour, and, time obviously being of the essence, I couldn’t help but grow a little frustrated. Just what was taking so long? In my experience, the Professor had access to whatever information he needed, whenever he needed it. Surely, though obscured by some dark mechanism, the information both about the warrant and, of course, the masks, couldn’t elude him for too long. Finally, the discovery that Asseem’s face, of all faces, had been used in the creation of the masks, meant that Helen’s destination was somehow intimately connected to the very thing that was haunting her. I found it almost too overwhelming to consider, frankly, and until the Professor returned, the time I did not spend persuading myself against going with my gut, going in, and forcefully removing Helen from the situation, was spent simply absorbing as much information about the proceedings as possible. Helen had her mask on, which meant that I would have to pay particularly close attention to what she saw, how she reacted, and what might be going on inside her head.

Once inside the park, Blain closed the fence behind them, and made sure it did not look like it had been tampered with.

“It may look neglected,” he said, “but no doubt someone keeps an eye on it.”

Helen nodded, looking around.

“Sure, but with any luck they’ll pretend they didn’t notice, and go get high on the buzz.”

Blain chuckled. “Wouldn’t doubt it,” he said. “And if it was getting high they wanted to do, this would certainly be the place to do it.”

“So you said. A lot of REMO addicts around here, are there?”

They were walking, not slowly, but cautiously. Blain was out in front a couple steps, and seemed to be at his ready. Helen, apart from trying to avoid stepping on Rocket, who was slinking around her legs, visibly shaking, was caught up in examining the dilapidated ticket booth, and the enormous billboard spelling out the rules, regulations, and basic elements of the release each visitor had to sign.

“It seems like such a relic,” she said. “It’s hard to believe it’s only been out of commission for…”

“About two years,” Blain confirmed. “Yep. I think it has something to do with the dampness of the air down here. Things rust, fall apart, rot.”

“It’s like a grave.”

Blain turned around, raised an eyebrow.

“Well that’s cheery,” he said.

“You don’t think it’s spooky down here?”

“No offense, lady, but I’m a criminal.” Blain was struggling to keep it light. “I’ll probably run into someone I know.”

It was Helen’s turn to chuckle. “Right,” she said. “Well, criminal or not, I’m lucky as hell I ran into to you two.”

Blain remained silent, walked, nodded.

Despite the elaborate metal carcasses that punctuated her walk with eerie reminders of the fact that Helen was, in fact, out of her element, she couldn’t help but be reminded of her pre-Brightening days tromping through the overgrown ghost-town that Seattle would become each night, or of braving the I-5 corridor that had split the city in two and provided a safe place for unsafe things. Zara had of course made these places, these paradoxically limitless liminal spaces, her playground, and because it was an exception to the control now maintained over disruption and decay in most parts of Seattle, it gave her a small, but significant sense of nostalgia, of enjoyment, and ultimately, she realized, of relief. They passed by a dilapidated wall about 3 stories high on which was written, in a Flinstones font, “Watch for Falling Rocks!” Sure enough, there were boulders of various sizes strewn about at the base of the wall. There weren’t made of actual stone, but they weren’t soft, either. Helen tried to imagine what type of lesson this “ride” sought to teach, and began to feel even better. What an absurd park, she thought, and smiled to herself. She vaguely wished she’d been able to visit before the place closed its doors, but being here now, imagining what it must have been like, felt a little like walking through a house the morning after an enormous Saturday night party she didn’t attend: the experience was sweet, an empathic festive tug coupled by the sensation of feeling startlingly clear-headed. It was a fantastic party, certainly, but what a relief not to be battling a headache, and being loath to run the errands that had been put off until Sunday.

Helen gave into the sudden urge to bend down and give her frightened four-legged companion a hug that she hoped would set him at ease.

Not wanting expose the poor dog’s weakness, she whispered in his ear. “Rocket, buddy, don’t worry. I have a good feeling about this place.”

Rocket frowned, and eyed her suspiciously.

“Hmm…” he said.

“Well, do what you want,” she said, standing back up. “But I’m here with you.”

Blain looked back.

“What’s that?”

“Nothing,” Helen said. “Just talking to Rocket.”

Blain’s expression lifted a bit, losing the serious lines that marked his vigilance, and he picked up a stick.

“Does he like to fetch?”

“You know, it’s funny, but I have no idea.” She looked down at the dog. “Rocket? Do you like fetch?”

Rocket’s tail began to wag a little, but he remained at her side.

In response to Rocket’s tail, Blain wagged the stick a little, trying to build the animal’s enthusiasm. “I should have brought someone for him to play with,” he said. “Wanna fetch, boy? Wanna fetch?” Blain began to jump back and forth, and dodge. He knew what he was doing, and it started to work: Rocket’s tail was now in full wag, and he’d left Helen’s side a bit. He looked back over his shoulder at Helen, who nodded, encouraging him.

“Go on, Rocket. That’s right. See? Let’s have a little fun!”

The dog turned back to Blain and his body followed the man’s, darting this way and that, crouching down and then taking small leaps forward, until Blain finally tossed the stick back in the way they’d come, where there was more open area, where Rocket would be familiar with the terrain. Helen noticed this last bit in particular, and as Rocket shot off after the projectile, considered the fact that Blain had obviously paid attention to the dog’s hesitancy, and was going out of his way to create an atmosphere of comfort and trust.

As if reading her mind, Blain stepped closer to Helen and, as Rocket was off scouting for the little stick, said, “No dog owner’s gonna be comfortable until their dog is.”

“Thanks, Blain, but really, I’m…”

“Plus there’s I love dogs.”

“Right, well, I think it’s great.” She paused. “And I know this isn’t the most controlled environment, but neither was the environment I grew up in.”

“You and me both, babe.”

Rocket came bounding back, and dropped the slimy stick at Blain’s feet.

“Alright boy, one more and then we’ve gotta get this show on the road.”

Rocket zigged and zagged, shot off again, this time to the side.

Helen scanned the park. Its large swath of underground terrain was cluttered with various shapes, both natural and unnatural, but it seemed basically broad and flat. She didn’t see any high fences or obstructive rides.

“So we just walk straight across?” she asked.

“Well, across, yes,” Blain said. He followed her gaze. “But first we need to go down.” He leaned close and pointed out ahead at what looked like the top few buckets of a dismantled Ferris Wheel, the arch climbing up out of the ground and diving back down into it.

“See that arch?”

“That’s what I was talking about back by the gate!”

“That’s the top of a Ferris Wheel.”

“That’s what I thought it was! That’s why I thought maybe all the rides might have been taken apart like that one.”

Rocket came bounding back, dropped the stick again, and sat, staring up at them, tongue wagging out of his mouth.

“You don’t get it,” Blain said. “That’s the top the ride, yeah, but nothing’s been dismantled.”

Her eyes widened. It dawned on Helen that there was much more to this park than she’d understood, and she left Rocket with Blain to jog up to a low brick wall a hundred yards ahead. She passed food stalls and game booths and realized that the few rides here on this level must be introductory, intermediate, for the weak of heart or non-committal. The real rides were below. As she drew closer the depression in the earth became more obvious, and when she reached the edge her suspicion was confirmed. The vast park revealed itself in all its enormity, a giant crater cradling all the rides Blain had spoken of, and a few more he hadn’t. The Cyclone Chamber butted up against The Quaker, which in turn stood dangerously close to Lighting Strikes! The Drought House was just a little farther off, cropping up, of course, right next to, simply, Plague. She scanned the big, deep hole, and saw that most, if not all, natural disasters were accounted for, along with some she wouldn’t have thought of, having, she expected, something to do with the extremely unstable and unpredictable nature of current weather systems. “The Vacuum” seemed a little far-fetched, for instance, but then Helen wasn’t sure if this indicated a disaster involving the absence of air, or winds that suck instead of blow.

Helen estimated that she was the equivalent ten stories above the bottom of the massive pit. She was close enough to make out a fair amount of detail, and read the big signs out front of the rides and other structures of the complex, but also far enough away that shadows and blind spots prevailed, ultimately, over her ability to truly master the vision. Movement in the corners of her eyes sent them springing back and forth within the maze of edu-musement, but she was unable to actually spot the source of movement, or convince herself entirely that there was any source at all. It was both enthralling and vaguely hypnotic. Helen swayed, gently, until Rocket rubbed against her leg, and she looked back to see Blain not far behind.

“Oh dear,” the dog said. “Let me guess. We’re going down there.”

Helen had to admit that it only added to the mysteriousness of the direction their adventure had taken, but she was optimistic. “Well, it’s a little strange, I admit. But Blain’s taking care of us, isn’t he? He wouldn’t lead us into danger.”

Rocket considered this.

“I suppose so,” he said. “Plus, he throws a mean stick.”

Blain caught up with them then, and joined them in taking in the view.

“It’s something, ain’t it.”

The sky moved above them, or what passed for sky passed for movement, and they stood beneath its blinking birds and surveyed the strange, shadowy board game before them before Blain said with a smile, “Shall we descend?”

And they did.

Chapter 33 is at Unpacking My Library.
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#225 Isla the Dog

The dog showed up on the back step of the house in the middle of the night. The people already had two dogs, Molly and Gretta, who were barking their heads off. The people thought they’d find a burglar, but when they turned the backlight on, the dog was sitting there looking up as if she were expecting them. She was. The dog had fleas and a round belly because of worms, so the people called her Little Mama. Unfortunately, the people couldn't afford another dog, so the next day the woman took Isla to the shelter and then she cried the whole way home. The woman cried until the man got home. The morning after that, the man went to the shelter and got the dog back and brought her home. The people named her Isla after a short story by Susan Steinberg. Isla is probably a black lab and rottweiler mix. Isla is the dog the people always wanted when they were kids. She's like a big stuffed animal that will never leave your side. Isla loves running in huge circles as fast as she can with a stick in her mouth. Isla loves dancing and when the woman sings "Hey Mickey" in her terrible falsetto. One evening, when Isla was just a year old, a huge black dog showed up at the carport while Isla was sitting outside with her people. His dog tag said his name was Gravy and he looked a lot like Isla, but Isla and the people never saw him again. Isla loves Molly and Gretta and will start looking for Molly if she isn’t where Isla is. Isla is so relieved when she finds Molly. When they go to the dog park, Isla squeals the whole way there. Isla introduces herself to every dog and every owner there. When her people are away, Isla stands on the back of the couch and looks out the window until her people get home. Isla loves to spoon in bed. Isla snores and runs in her sleep. After a while, the people bought a king-size bed—because Isla scrunched them up in the full-size bed—but Isla just lay diagonally across the whole thing. If the man gets home late, he sleeps on the sliver of bed that is left. Isla would love it if she fit in a backpack and could be carried around all day like when she was little. She thinks she's smaller than Molly and Gretta, maybe because she once was, but she isn't. Isla likes to curl up in the woman’s lap even though she weighs 60 pounds. Isla is the only living thing that the people have ever met who is always happy. Isla even enjoys going to the vet. And life doesn't seem as bleak now that Isla has her people and the people have Isla. Isla loves her people more than anybody ever will. Isla keeps them alive.
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By Everybody For Everybody (BEFE)

The good Jen Michalski asked me why I opened the life story project to everybody who wants one or wants to write one. The nice little interview is up @ JMWW. Thanks, Jen.
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Introducing Bridget Holding

Two weeks ago, I decided that the goal of the life story project is to write the life story of everybody (in the world). Of course, I can't write them all by myself, so I asked for help. One of the people helping is Bridget Holding. Here is a little about her: Bridget Holding is fascinated by the way people tick, and as a result became a writer, and then a psychotherapist. She helps other writers to bring psychological depth to fiction and biographical writing and she helps her psychotherapy clients to use autobiographical writing to enable healing. She lives mainly in Devon, which is a very beautiful part of the UK, with her cat. If you would like her to write your life story (on a postcard), please email her at bridgetholding [@] madasafish.com. She's really nice and a fine writer. You'll see.
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Eva Peters Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard): #223 Bridget Holding

Bridget Holding was born in Cardiff, in Wales, in November 1972, the older child of Simon and Anne. When she was six months old, her dad got a job working for the Australian government and they went to live there. Her earliest memories were of running around barefoot and spying cockatoos in the trees. When she was four and her brother Duncan was two, they moved to London. She loved primary school, where she was Head Girl and felt she could do what she liked. When she was ten, her parents split up but remained living in the same town, so she’s always had both of them. She was fairly indifferent to the all-girls secondary school she went to. At seventeen, she joined a model agency, but turned away from that world to go travelling in Asia instead. She went to University in another big city, did English Literature, but spent more time making films in London. She got into writing screenplays after working on feature films. The one that everyone’s heard of is The Full Monty. She once kissed Keanu Reeves at the Cannes Film Festival—well, ok, only on the cheek, but still! She’s written and directed a short film that was one of the winners of the Sky Moviemax Short Film of the Year Award. Feeling unfulfilled by the fashion and film industries, in her twenties she practised Zen Buddhism in a monastery as a member of the Tiep Hien order. Bridget was a professional screenwriter for six years, living with her partner in London. The relationship ended and she moved to Devon, where she has developed a passion for being outdoors, and has spent months at a time living in tents. She feels that nature nurtures her and inspires her writing. She loves supporting other writers, and trained for four years to be an art-based psychotherapist in order to better understand how to do this. Now she juggles writing, teaching writing for two Universities, and being a psychotherapist. Recently she’s found she’s in demand, to work with writers on deepening characters in fiction writing, to specialise in depth autobiography in non-fiction, and to lecture on the psychological underpinnings of creative process. She also runs workshops that use painting, clay, movement, and music to inspire and inform writing fiction and poetry. She loves her work because it brings her into contact with a wide range of people including well-known professional filmmakers, writers and musicians, children in war zones, patients suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia, and families following bereavement. Her novel is coming along nicely too, but the scale of it scares her. She has started working with Michael Kimball writing autobiographical postcards for people because it’s a wonderful synthesis of psychotherapy, writing, and her childhood love of collecting postcards. And there’s something so contained and pleasing about the form!
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Justify Every Sentence

I have an interview with Laura van den Berg up at my interview column for The Faster Times, Writers on Writing. We talk about What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, mythological creatures, endings, and what it means to justify every sentence.

More interviews @ Writers on Writing:
Gary Lutz
Blake Butler
Rachel Sherman
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Mountain Bike, Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?

Just in time for Halloween, I tore up my calf while out on a mountain bike ride. My shoe was squishy with blood loss by the time I made it home. I cleaned it up in the hopes that I wouldn't need stitches (the doctor laughed at this idea and said it would take at least a month to heal without them), but it was pretty gruesome and wouldn't stop bleeding.

The gash: 3cm wide x 9cm long. The number of stitches: 12.
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#152 Gérard Rudolf Is Not as Dark and Moody as People Think

Gérard Rudolf was born in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1966, but Rudolf is not his real surname (which was dropped, mostly for professional reasons). Gérard spent most of his childhood in Cape Town and it was dreamy, secure. When he was a kid, he was utterly convinced the world had been monochrome before he was born—all the photographs in the family albums, the old movies on TV, all of it black and white. He spent hours trying to figure out how and when the world changed to color. He roamed over the neighborhood with friends creating strange worlds in empty lots—all cowboys and Indians, and Star Wars, also some Huck Finn. Gérard studied the usual subjects, but school bored him. He stared out the windows. His head was never where his body was. It still isn’t. Gérard’s teenage years were in Johannesburg, and he played rugby to please his father, but never had any great interest in sports. At 15, he faked a neck injury to get out of playing rugby and that might be considered the beginning of his acting career. After school, Gérard joined the army for 2 years because it was compulsory and his family didn’t have enough money to send him into exile. When he was 18, he did a tour of duty in the Angolan War, and, one night, came under heavy fire. Everybody else scrambled for cover and returned fire, but Gérard just lay on his back looking at the stars. A warm feeling of tranquility washed over him. He had no interest in shooting at strangers. After that, Gérard resolved never to wear a uniform or take up arms again. He studied acting and became a successful actor in South Africa. He loved the collaborative nature of acting, all the oddballs and geniuses, and that no two days were the same. In 1993, his older brother died suddenly and that shocked Gérard into the realization that we only have right now. In 1998, Gérard founded a professional acting school in Cape Town—he wanted to give something back to the industry that had saved him from the 9-5. But in 2002, Gérard found himself burnt out and having a nervous breakdown. He thought Cape Town had fallen out of love with him. He walked around talking to himself, unable to understand his life was burning down around his ears. He felt as if he were sitting in a deck chair with a cold beer watching everything go up in smoke. Gérard quit acting, got divorced, and moved to the UK 2 days later. He is still trying to piece it all together. Gérard started writing to orient himself on the map and now he writes fulltime—his first book, Orphaned Latitudes (2009). He met his current wife, Hermarette (“H”), a psychiatrist, at his ex-wife’s art gallery in Cape Town. They were friends for a long time before things got so complicated years ago and his entire life imploded. He loves her heart and her kindness, her generosity and her intelligence, her dignity and her sexiness—also, her cooking and that she doesn’t take his crap. In 2006, his father died and Gérard became even more aware of his mortality. But Gérard is not as dark and moody as people think. He blames his face for this misconception.

[Update: Gérard Rudolf's first collection, Orphaned Latitudes, is just out from Red Squirrel Press.]
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Two Film Things Coming Up

Friday, November 13th, Dear Everybody (the short film) is going to be part of Creative Alliance MovieMakers (CAmm), which is an evening of shorts that also includes Travis Mays' adaption of Poe’s Tell Tale Heart, Ryan Thomas' premiere of The Debt Collector, as well as shorts by up-and-comers Hunter Nesbitt, Dankwa Brooks and Matthew Hahn.
Q & A follows. Doors/ bar open at 7pm. 8pm. $10.

Friday, November 20th, there will be a screening of I Will Smash You, part of a Shattered Wig evening at the 14K Cabaret that also includes Blaster Al Ackerman, Ingrid Burrington, and Sweatpants
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#222 Alan Carroll Reese: Romanticism and Melancholia

Alan Carroll Reese was born in 1950 in Sayre, PA, a sleepy railroad town on the Susquehanna River. The running water and train whistles were some of the first sounds that Alan ever heard and this informed his early romanticism and then his general melancholia. When Alan was 9 months old, he had a severe asthma attack and turned blue in the car on the way to the hospital, which might explain certain bizarre behaviors. A tracheotomy relieved the asthma attack, and, later, an incident that involved grave robbing cured him of any bizarre behavior. Besides that, Alan’s childhood resembled a Leave It to Beaver episode in many ways. Growing up, Alan spent a lot of time digging for dinosaur bones, sleeping in tree forts, having epic snowball fights, and playing baseball in an abandoned field. But there were also David Lynch elements to Alan’s suburban childhood. For instance, his grandfather liked to pretend that he could swallow his tongue. Also, when Alan was 9 years old, 3 neighborhood boys tied him to a tree and threatened to eviscerate him. They were just playing, but the trauma was real. About 10 years later, Alan was sitting on a bench outside of Woolworth’s when a friend invited over a woman named Alberta who then made funny faces for Alan, which made Alan smitten. At 19, Alan married Alberta and then, on their wedding night, they drove all night to Provincetown where they lived for 2 years. Alan loves that Alberta lived life as a comedy and that she had an unmatched capacity for selflessness. Over the years, Alan and Alberta had 3 children—Camille, Jesse, and Joshua—and none of them are sociopaths, which was a kind of relief. Alan is most proud that each of them is a distinct individual with a great sense of independent spirit and thought, and that each of them is also bound by compassion. Once, Alan met William Burroughs, who made him a cup of tea. Also, Alan has worked as an extra in 6 John Waters' films. Further, Alan cannot recall a time when he didn’t share living space with a dog. In 2002, Alberta died of a sudden heart attack and Alan woke up that day into a different world, a Twilight Zone version of his life. The places resembled the world he used to live in and the people behaved in familiar ways, but there was the distinct sense that it wasn’t right. There is no next for Alan. There is only now. Someday, though, Alan might find a mountaintop cabin to live in and, from there, he will send internal weather reports to the survivors of the oil wars and watch the beautiful glow as cities begin to burn.
Comments (1)

What People Do When No One Is Watching


I have an interview with Rachel Sherman up at my interview column for The Faster Times, Writers on Writing. We talk about LIVING ROOM, the third person, a beautiful sentence, loneliness, and touching.

There's also an amazing interview with Gary Lutz there. And there's a thing where Blake Butler and I talk about acoustics. In the next few weeks, there will be interviews with Brian Evenson, Laura van den Berg, Ben Tanzer, Joanna Howard, and Robert Lopez.
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