Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story
(on a postcard)

I'm Not Trying to Trick the Reader

I have an interview with Brian Evenson up at my interview column for The Faster Times, Writers on Writing. We talk about Fugue State, irresolvable narrative, the ending of The Open Curtain, and form as it relates to the novel, the novella, and the story collection.

More interviews @ Writers on Writing:
I Am Not a Camera: Gary Lutz
A Ribbon of Language: Blake Butler
What People Do When No One is Watching: Rachel Sherman
Justify Every Sentence: Laura van den Berg
Most Violence Is Intimate: Ben Tanzer
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DEAR EVERYBODY: The Innermost Feelings of Real Feeling

There is a really nice Chinese review of DEAR EVERYBODY at Bardon (scroll down), which says, in part, that "Dear Everybody ... touches the heart of hearts ... snowflake-like letters ... exquisite ... the innermost feelings of real feeling."
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#70 Elizabeth Ellen Is the Greatest Thing

Elizabeth Ellen's mother claims that she got pregnant on her honeymoon. She also claims that Elizabeth's alcoholic father beat her and that was why she left him on their honeymoon in Europe without telling him. Elizabeth's mother filed for divorce after returning to the US and because of this Elizabeth has no memory of her father before she was 8 years old, when she started spending part of every summer with him. After that, Elizabeth was rich in the summer (when she stayed with her dad) and poor the rest of the year (when she stayed with her mom). She was an only child, overweight, unsocial. She read a lot. She lived in a different house or apartment nearly every year until she was 18 years old, when went to college and majored in English. That first year, she was put on academic suspension and then things got worse. She tried to go to classes, but had panic attacks and stopped. Her grandmother continued to send her checks for her tuition, though, and she lived off those with her boyfriend for a couple years. A few years later, Elizabeth met her husband at the strip mall where they both worked and they got married a month later, though they didn't tell anybody, in part, because her husband feared that one of his friends would steal her. A year later she got pregnant. The eight-year marriage was incredibly stifling and emotionally stressful on a daily basis, but the divorce was amicable. It was an exhilarating time after that. Elizabeth and her daughter could do whatever they wanted and the simplest things brought them great joy. Around this time, she bought her first computer and began writing seriously for the first time in her life. She had always thought the greatest thing one could be is a writer and now she is the greatest thing. After that, Elizabeth met Aaron Burch online and they dated long-distance for a year before he moved across the country to live with her and her daughter, who is crazy about Aaron too. Elizabeth has a very full, very happy life with Aaron, Andromeda, and Heather (her step-daughter who stays with them some weekends), co-editing Hobart, and writing her own books. She never imagined that she would be this happy.

[Update: Elizabeth Ellen is not as happy now as she was before, but one thing good is that she has a new collection of flash fiction called “Mouthfeel” coming out with Paper Hero Press any day now, in a book called Fox Force Five, which is with four other women.]
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The Baltimore Grill

Baltimore Magazine made me their last page--The Baltimore Grill. We talk about rejection, an obvious motto for Baltimore, smashing things, the value of reducing somebody's life to a postcard, and the most generous and attentive reading audience I have ever been around.

[It's not online, but click the scan. It's kind of big enough to read.]

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#226 Greg Santos: A Romantic and a Traditional Gentleman

Greg Santos was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1981. His birth parents were Cambodian, but he was adopted when he was 4 months old by his Spanish Mom and Portuguese Dad. Greg was an only child and had a happy childhood. His parents gave him so much love and support. The family lived on a cul-de-sac, had bonfires, ate s'mores, played hide-and-seek, and built snow forts. Greg traveled a lot with his parents when he was younger—Scotland, Egypt, Martinique, Spain, Portugal, England, France, Mexico, Italy, Greece—but he doesn’t remember as much about those places as he wishes. Also, Greg owned a pet rock, had Sea Monkeys, and an imaginary flea circus. As a teenager, after watching The X-Files, Greg wanted to be a paranormal investigator in the worst way. Once, Greg saw a UFO (he swears). After that, he started The Bureau for the Investigation of the Unexplained and made his hair look like David Duchovny's. When Greg was 16, his father died. That Halloween, Greg dressed up in white face paint and a black trench coat like The Crow. He went to school that way because he didn't know what else to do. He still misses his dad. Eventually, though, Greg found solace in art, music, poetry, and, especially, theater. The idea that he could be somebody else was comforting. In college, he majored in drama and minored in English. In college, Greg also met Maryn (he was sick at the time and she gave him tea). After that, they dated for 7 years. Greg is a romantic and a traditional gentleman (for instance, he makes an effort to wear shirts with collars). Greg loved acting, but, eventually, he realized that he didn't want to speak somebody else's words. So Greg went back to school for a second degree in creative writing, which is how he caught the poetry bug, which is what took him to The New School for his MFA. Poetry allows Greg to write down thoughts he wouldn’t say out loud and make them into art. Once, he took lessons on how to be a clown and a stuntman. Also, Greg collects wind-up toys, antique books, small erasers that look like things, and nearly anything to do with elephants. Greg knows the professional wrestling isn’t real, but he still watches it, which his wife doesn’t understand. That is, Greg and Maryn are married. She is brilliant and makes him laugh. She is a classical beauty and his best friend. Greg is the poetry editor of pax americana and works for the New Haven Reads Community Book Bank, which provides free books and free after school tutoring. It makes Greg happy that he gets to spread the gospel of poetry—writing, teaching, and editing. He loves his life and his Maryn.


[There’s more Greg Santoa at Greg’s blog, Moondoggy’s Pad, Greg’s website, and Greg’s ebook, Thinking Things Through, which is just out with Pangur Ban Party.]
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Shape of a Box: A Video Review of Dear Everybody

At Shape of a Box, Jessie Carty gives a thoughtful video review to DEAR EVERYBODY in which she says that DEAR EVERYBODY is "a beautiful book, inside and out," among other nice things. Thank you, Jessie.
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#45 The Awesome Adam Robinson: A New and Improved Version

Adam Robinson has lived in a bunch of different cities, but that probably doesn’t matter. His childhood was not notable except for the fact that he often ate lunch in a bathroom stall during his junior year of high school and except for all of the God stuff that he grew up with. He went to a Christian college, but only because his brother, his Irish twin, did. The Christian college was awesome for Adam (though it must be noted that this word often accompanies descriptions of religious experiences) and it was there that he learned that life is really terrible unless everybody forgives each other. Adam continues to be a Christian in spite of the fact that Martin Luther consummated his marriage to Katherine von Bora in front of his friends (or, possibly, because of this fact; it isn’t clear). Said another way, Adam is a dark and sad Christian like St. Paul. Now Adam works as a technology buyer for an asset management company, but that doesn’t really describe him. It isn’t who he is. He is a guitar player for Sweatpants and the publisher of Publishing Genius and a writer of poems and stories and songs, but he cannot be fully understood in these terms either. It is better to think of Adam in terms of the time he jumped out of a speeding boat (that he was driving) and crashed it. The boat didn’t sink and Adam didn’t drown. The boat got stuck in some seaweed and Adam swam back to shore. Adam made a similar jump the time that he left behind his life in Milwaukee and ran away to Baltimore with Stephanie Barber, who is awesome (like Christianity, but in a different way). The experience was panicked and great. Another time, Adam was attacked while waiting for the bus and hit over the head with a bottle, but the attackers escaped with nothing of Adam's and Adam ended up with a bloody story to tell. One thing that should be learned from this: You cannot stop Adam Robinson. Also, it should be noted that the farthest Adam has walked at one time is 28 miles and
the farthest he has ridden a bicycle is 34 miles. He could go farther, though. He will go farther. In fact, there he goes now.

[Update: Adam Robinson's first book, Adam Robison and Other Poems can be pre-ordered here. Plus, there's a little video I shot called Poem Battling Flowers, which is different than any other reading you've ever seen.]

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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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