>5 Q & A with Haven Kimmel

>I’m so excited I’m about to burst! Why? Because one of my favorite authors, Haven Kimmel, has so graciously agreed to be interviewed for my blog! She’s got a great blog herself, which you ought to check out for sure. But hold onto your hats if you go there—she corners on two wheels and it’s a crazy ride!

Haven will be reading from and signing her latest novel, Iodine, at Off Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi this coming Monday, September 8, at 5 p.m.

You can pre-order a copy of the book here and they’ll hold it for you to pick up at the reading. Or if you can’t make it, you can order an autographed copy and have it mailed to you after the reading.

So, what’s all the excitement about Haven Kimmel? For me, it all began with A Girl Named Zippy, her New York Times best-selling memoir about her childhood. Zippy is one of the books that gave me courage to begin my own memoir (still in progress) and to try to do it with Haven’s brilliant blend of compassion and truth. Yeah, I think that’s what it is. (I also love the old black and white photos at the start of each chapter. These sent me on a scramble through old photo albums to scan my own snapshots which I hope will become part of my book some day. What a ride, just going through those albums!)

Her next memoir, She Got Up Off the Couch, was more about her mother, and I read it in one sitting. More beautifully crafted compassionate candor.

And then she begins to let loose with her novels (my personal favorite was The Solace of Leaving Early) and somewhere in there she wrote two children’s books (her only books I haven’t read) that you folks with young children will want to check out. You can read all about her memoirs, novels, children’s books and poetry on her web site, but I just have to say I think she is a true Renaissance woman to be so brilliant in so many genres.

So, here we go… 5 Q & A with Haven:

P&P: I know you are a poet, Haven, and have read that you chose to go to seminary rather than going after an MFA. All of those factors play huge parts in the “backstory” for your memoirs and novels. I’ve got writer-friends in critique groups and others I’ve met at workshops who are at a similar crossroads right now—deciding about the MFA or “just keep writing” or get a different graduate degree. What advice would you offer them?

HK: MFA programs are different now than when I was considering them — that’s the first thing. The second is that they are extremely valuable in countless ways. Peer review and wisdom is priceless; many writing professors are brilliant; and students are forced to work, no excuses. In my own case, I didn’t want to learn more about writing, and I didn’t want to learn jargon (I still despise jargon), and I didn’t want to network or have some powerful person help me get published in journals. (That’s the reason many young people choose the MFA.) I wanted to think about the ideas that were most important to me, and at the time I thought the only worthy subjects for poetry were religion, love, and death. Whoops — that still seems to be the case. So for me it made more sense to go forth and work very rigorously on those ideas, and seminary was the place to do it. Also I was insanely confident — I admit that with reluctance — and I didn’t imagine for a moment that I’d stop writing if I studied a subject other than poetry itself.

P&P: I fell in love with your writing from the first paragraph of Zippy. Joshilyn Jackson taught a workshop I attended in August of 2007, and she recommended your writing. (She also told me to “go forth and blog,” which is why Pen & Palette exists.) Joss knew I had written a novel, but was struggling with the true story that was hidden in the novel, so I started a memoir instead. Zippy gave me courage and then She Got Up Off the Couch was the next shot in the arm I needed. I love how you wrote both of these memoirs with honesty, and yet without anger. You gave your (real life) “characters” the three-dimensional dignity they deserve, rather than writing any one of them as “all good” or “all bad.” Was this difficult? Were there many re-writes to get to that? Did you have lots of “watchers” slowing down the process?

HK: In one way the answer to that question is complicated, and in other it’s blindingly simple. With deliberation I applied something I heard Amos Oz say, which is that a writer much be perfectly sympathetic to every character he or she writes, even the villains. So I was mindful of that, but also all I did was tell the truth to the absolute best of my ability — along with the help of my family, who went over every chapter for accuracy — and in real life there are very few people who are entirely good or bad. In real life there are just a whole lotta multifaceted folks. COUCH was harder, because I wasn’t really the central figure. I also didn’t begin it until after my father died, because I didn’t want him to be hurt — not by my portrayal of him, but by the simple facts — and so I wrote the whole book in forty straight days, sobbing the entire time. I thought the grief would kill me — because there he was, larger than life, right in front of me every day. Also the story of my mother’s rise from the ashes had always had its own mythology: Mom = struggling hero performing Herculean task, Dad = relentless obstacle trying to keep her oppressed. I had to reconsider every detail of the story, from her point of view, from his (which changed everything I’d thought about him), from my own. He wasn’t the person trying to keep her on the sofa; he was a man trying to keep his family together, and he wanted the wife he’d always had, not someone with a PhD, when he himself never went to school past the eighth grade. I find that book funnier in many ways than ZIPPY, but it breaks my heart as well.

P&P: I like that you not only didn’t want your dad to be hurt by your portrayal of him, but even by the simple facts. As I continue to pen those “simple facts” of my own life in my memoir-in-progress, I’m always thinking about not wanting to hurt people I care about. The way you handled this in your memoirs is a big part of why you are such a great model for me, Haven. Which writers have been the most influential in your own work, and why?

HK: There are two types of generative writers in my life: those whose work I strive to equal, and those who make me feel as though I can write, after all. I’ll limit this to prose writers, because the list of poets is complicated, but my Strivers are: Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, John Crowley, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Henry James, Truman Capote, Don DeLillo, Kevin Brockmeier, Flannery O’Connor, Joseph Mitchell. (There are many more, but life is short.) The people who make me want to write are: Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Berg, Richard Russo, Clyde Edgerton, Allen Gurganus, John Updike, Lee Smith, Sarah Waters, Jonathan Coe, Fay Weldon. This list is grossly incomplete — sorry.

P&P: I also love Flannery O’Connor, Elizabeth Berg and Lee Smith—huge influences for me, too. Now, let’s get to Iodine. After reading your other novels, I was expecting something similar, so of course I was blown away by Iodine. It’s not the subject matter that surprised me—all your work is full of wisdom from the realms of psychology and spirituality and literature—but it’s the, I’m not sure what the right word is here—narrative frame?—that surprised me. Intermingling the straight narrative with the dream journals and the “regular” journals was brilliant. How did you come up with that? (And if I’m not describing it well, please set me straight!)

HK: You’re exactly right to say that the narrative frame of the book is the key to understanding it, as the narrator is so thoroughly unreliable. But in any novel there has to be someone you can trust, and so I devised this architecture: there are Trace’s dream journals, which contain hints about what is true but not necessarily so; there are her other journals, which are also puzzles; and there’s a third-person authorial intelligence, and that’s the voice you can trust.

P&P: Are you done writing memoir? Do you have a chap book in your future? Another children’s book? I’m amazed at your talent in so many genres! What’s next?

HK: I have another children’s novel in my future (although I haven’t begun it — don’t tell anyone). Next year I’ll be publishing a strange amalgam of memoir and scholarship called OUTLAW QUAKER GIRL, which is both a history of Quakerism and my experience of it. I’ve also completed a horror novel called THE FARM, which is, if I may say so, absolutely terrifying. I grew up reading Thomas Tryon and Shirley Jackson and Stephen King, and writing horror came much easier to me than I’d thought. I’m currently at work on the strangest book of my life, called SEVEN YEARS, which is a memoir of a marriage told in narrative poetry. THAT’S gonna be a big seller, I’ll tell ya. Americans love them some narrative poetry.

P&P: A memoir of a marriage told in narrative poetry—sounds like you’re gonna’ continue to push the edge of that envelope, Haven! Thanks so much for taking time to chat with us today.

HK: Nice talking to you—see you in Oxford!

OXFORD—that’s this coming Monday, September 8, at 5 p.m. at Off Square Books for Haven’s reading and signing of Iodine. I’ll be there, with a few friends from Memphis and Little Rock. And my best groupie smile!

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