Moonshot Interviews Michael Kimball on BIG RAY, His Writing Method, and More

Moonshot’s Joshua Boardman interviewed Michael Kimball on his new novel, BIG RAY, his writing method, and talked past works as well as works yet to come.

MS: Although all your works feel so personal that I’m shocked when a character name is dropped which isn’t “Michael Kimball,” BIG RAY seems to be even closer to autobiographical account. You call the book “memoir as fiction”; explain this coinage a little more.

MK: When I started writing BIG RAY, it was going to be a memoir. I wrote everything exactly as I remembered it and I wrote everything as true as I could. But I eventually made BIG RAY a novel—in part because it seemed too messy as a memoir and also because I wanted more control over how it was told, a fiction writer’s prerogative. So this novel is a retelling of my life (and my father’s life) as a way to reclaim a part of my life. The character Big Ray is still mostly my father and the narrator is mostly me and my father did most of the things described in the book, but that character is a composite now. That is, most of the novel is still based on real events, in particular the father’s abuse and his obesity, as well as the all the events surrounding his death. Also, I decided to keep many of the devices of the memoir, so the novel still reads like nonfiction. I like the tension that creates.

MS: I understand the process by which you wrote this book is drastically different than anything you’ve written before. What was this process, and how do you think it affected the end product?

MK: I’ve never written a book in under three years before, but BIG RAY was written in an intense rush, three months start to finish. I was emotionally exhausted by the end of it, but also changed. 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.

MS: You’re developing something of a reputation for writing “slim novels,” as the reviews always are sure to point out. What compels you to pursue this length of work?

MK: I could write longer novels. BIG RAY could have been over 300 pages, but I decided to cut out lots of unnecessary material and description—all that set up and explanation. I wanted the book to move faster than other books. I didn’t want any of the filler that I read in so many other books. I like the tension that kind of tight narrative creates.

MS: The piece published in the “Correspondences” issue of Moonshot, “I Am a Providence,” seems like a departure from the rest of your work. When did you start working in a purely linguistic experimental vein, both professionally and on your own?

MK: If you consider THE WAY THE FAMILY GOT AWAY and WORDS by Andy Devine (my conceptual pseudonym), “I Am a Providence” isn’t so much of a departure. For years, I’ve been trying to find different ways to tell stories and write novels, whether it’s using a new language for children or alphabetizing stories or writing a novel that reads like a memoir.

MS: Is there any non-literature-based media that inspires your work?

MK: Oh, man, so much—it feels like everything I like inspires and influences me: counting cards in blackjack, playing pool with Adam Robinson, going to museums, all kinds of conceptual art, large installations, random number tables, psychological research on emotion, the DSM, learning anything new, etc.

MS: Walk us through how a day of writing might go for you.

MK: It depends on so many things, but when things are going well, which they aren’t right now, I get up and write in bed, longhand on a legal pad. Then I get up and type all of that into a Word document, making changes and additions and deletions, etc. That’s the first few hours of my writing day, but that hasn’t happened in a while.

MS: What are you reading now?

MK: I’ve been through so much life trauma lately that I’ve found it difficult to read. I haven’t been able to focus in that way for months.

MS: DEAR EVERYBODY is another experimental work, though in a different form—nearly multimedia, a sort of epistolary collage. You’ve also branched into postcards as a medium for storytelling. How did these two projects arise, and how do they inform one another?

MK: DEAR EVERYBODY published not too long after the postcard life story project started, but I don’t know that they informed one another so much. DEAR EVERYBODY was long finished by the time I started the postcards. I do think both of those projects (and US) informed BIG RAY. I feel as if I took the emotional sentences from those middle sections of US, some of the form from DEAR EVERYBODY, and the condensed ways of telling lots of story from the postcard life story project. BIG RAY feels like an aesthetic and an emotional culmination of sorts. So I’m still trying to figure out what comes next.

Michael Kimball is the author of four novels, including Dear Everybody (which The Believer calls “a curatorial masterpiece”) and Us (which was named to Oprah’s Reading List). His newest novel, Big Ray, was published September 18, 2012 (Bloomsbury). His work has been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Bomb, and New York Tyrant, and has been translated into a dozen languages. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard). Visit him at