Michael Kimball, interviewed by Dawn Raffel
The author of Big Ray on obsession, love for an unlikeable character, and turning grief into art
Michael Kimball gained a devoted following with four brilliant novels (Us, Dear Everybody, How Much of Us There Was, and The Way the Family Got Away), all of which deal honestly and unconventionally with loss. His latest work, Big Ray, is his most powerful: A propulsive first-person narrative by a man mourning his abusive and obese (over 500 pounds) father's death.
Big Ray is one of the most extraordinary depictions of grief I’ve read—one that defies the conventional wisdom about how grief “works,” and that greets the reader with the shock of recognition. I believe almost every writer has a central obsession to which he or she returns again and again, and I would say that yours, throughout your entire body of work, is grief and how we live with it. Can you address that?
I'm often asked about death, but it's never quite the right question, so I appreciate your phrasing. When I started as a writer, I didn't know that how people live with grief would be my central obsession, but it clearly has been. Personally, biographically, 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. So it's not really a surprise in that sense, but I do find how inescapable the subject matter is a kind of surprise. I even tried to not write about grief in Dear Everybody, but so many of the letters are about different forms of loss anyway, and then the frame of the novel (which came late in the process) ended up reinforcing that. I have one unfinished novel that isn't about how people live with grief, but I just realized that might be why I never felt compelled to finish it. And now, the thing about Big Ray, about finishing Big Ray, is that I feel as if I have finished with what has been my central obsession for the last twenty years. I feel as if Big Ray is a kind of aesthetic, emotional, and thematic culmination. It's a weird place to be, and I'm trying to figure out what to do next. Do I get to have a second central obsession? I hope so.
I hope you get your wish, but please don't kill me for suspecting that your central obsession will find you again when you least expect it. I can see it in the DNA of your sentence-making. Most writers tend to use heightened language and metaphor when describing grief. Your sentences, your pattern-making, and your cadences evoke grief as much as they describe it: There is a plain, dis-armed, broken-open quality to the writing that is unnervingly effective. Was your approach to sentence-making a conscious, philosophical decision or did it emerge organically?
I'm sure you're right. I'm just trying to pretend I might be able to do something else—or at the very least wonder what that might be if I could. But sentence-making, my approach has evolved a bit over the years. Well, it evolved a lot between The Way the Family Got Away and How Much of Us There Was—and then it's been refined in many, many ways through Dear Everybody and Big Ray. And I used to do a lot more within sentences, but now do more between sentences and paragraphs. I like those links and extending those links, and I think it moves the narrative along in a good way. But, yes, there has always been an underlying quality in my sentences. There is a kind of sentence I go back to over and over again—a certain headlong syntax, a particular sense of detail, a deceptive simplicity, a tone that is full of feeling—those things that make a sentence feel right to me.
I don't doubt you'll do something else, and I'm very much looking forward to reading it! But I think our primary obsessions never fully play out, do they? "Deceptive simplicity" is a good way to describe your sentences. You make it look easy but it isn't, and while everything is linked, it's not obtrusive. For instance: "I couldn't get my sister to tell me what was wrong. She was crying and I couldn't get her to stop. She was sobbing and then she started saying my name. She was repeating my name. She was getting ready to say something difficult. My sister caught her breath. She told me our father was dead." It feels so real because there aren't any flourishes or embellishments. It's as if the "writing"—the fiction of it—disappears into the page and what's left is the feeling. On closer inspection it's a very carefully constructed composition. The dead father in question, Big Ray, is quite a despicable character, and yet the narrator's grief is no less for it, which seems particularly astute. So often there's pressure on writers to produce "likeable" characters. Was it difficult for you to create Big Ray?
So much of the character of Big Ray is based on my father, so creating the fictional Big Ray came naturally. Very early on, I decided I wouldn't hold back—that the novel would talk about abuse and obesity in straightforward terms, but also in an understated way and without being sensational. And I think the narrator's grief for this unlikeable character makes it all the more moving. It's easy to find Big Ray despicable for all the abuse, but the narrator still loves him. I like the range of feelings that this allows the narrator—love, hate, anger, all the black humor, a kind of acceptance (if not forgiveness). It is the complicated range of emotions that allows the narrator to experience the level of grief he does. And, in fact, personally, creating the character of Big Ray, writing Big Ray, was emotionally exhausting for me, but it also changed me. I was a different person—lighter, happier, released. I found a way to reconcile the love and the hate I had for my father and that gave me myself back.
Photo by Rachel Bradley
Michael Kimball is the author of five books, including the just-published Big Ray. His work has been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Bomb, and New York Tyrant. His books have been translated into a dozen languages—including Italian, Spanish, German, Chinese, Korean, and Greek. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), a couple of documentaries, the 510 Readings, and the conceptual pseudonym Andy Devine.