a conversation with Haven Kimmel      


There's been some great, well-deserved advance buzz building around The Solace of Leaving Early. One early review said something about readers being unprepared for this book--in a good way!--after A Girl Named Zippy. It is different, but, again, in a good way! What was the inspiration for the story?

I have feared this question, because I must tell the truth, as my five-year-old has learned to say. I originally had the idea--like a lightning bolt! the way other people are inspired to do important things!--to retell one of my favorite novels, A Confederacy of Dunces, with Ignatius J. Reilly as a girl. Because some people I love, and I shan't name them, like my mother, don't worship that book as they should. I want to go on respecting my mother, but it's difficult when she says things like, "But Ignatius is disgusting. I don't understand why you love him." So I thought about it and realized that yes, Ignatius is a tad repulsive physically, but the heart of him is something entirely different, and that--if he were a girl!--if he were a girl, he could still be breathtakingly funny and superior and heartbreaking. So I began that novel, with Langston Braverman as the protagonist, and I must say that it was quite funny. I had a professor in graduate school then who used to go with me to a diner and read the chapters aloud as I wrote them (he could do a perfect imitation of her voice, as I imagined it) and he and I used to howl. I wrote 500 pages of that book, and it gradually went astray. It grew stinko. One night I dreamed about two little girls running over a field in the middle of the night, dressed strangely, and they were chanting something (I've forgotten what), and when I woke up I knew who they were and what had happened to them, and where I'd gone wrong with Langston, and I THREW AWAY ALL FIVE HUNDRED PAGES and started again. I could have just said, "I dreamed the story," but enough people consider me the Jüngian Poster Child, so I had to have that bit at the beginning about Ignatius.

Solace felt like a throwback to another era of literature; it was so subtle and intimate, even in its handling of big issues--faith, marriage, human nature, relationships. Langston has some ideas for novels, which runs like a satirical list of most contemporary fiction. Did you go through this sort of list before settling down to write Solace?

I do think you're right, that when I sat down to write the book again, I envisioned it as small and somewhat out of time (my editor, Amy Scheibe, had to make me put in some television sets--there were none--because I tend to forget that plenty of people watch television without ceasing in this country), using some of my favorite tightly written novels as an example. Langston's list of ideas is a remnant from when the book was a comedy. A great deal more time was spent on those faux novels in the original, and there were pages of her failed sonnet sequence. One thing I feared, as I saw the original take a sharp turn, was that readers would think I was punishing Langston (or myself), or that I was mocking her, when in fact I adore her, and did then. Anyone who has ever tried to write formalist poetry will understand her agony.

Amos is a pastor with degrees in literature and religion; Langston is a former Ph.D. candidate in literature who develops an interest in philosophy and religion. Do you find that literature and religion intersect naturally? Or is it more an issue of different but parallel faiths, one secular, the other theological?

I think of theology and literature as the strands of a double helix, which is not to say that there isn't as much godless literature as there is godless religion. Consider the roots of psychotherapy: Freud loved literature, Jüng loved art and iconography. I've now mentioned Jüng twice, which is a sure sign of something. But psychotherapy, for many, is a religious practice, as is reading, or the admiration of Vermeer, and for me, the questions of finitude, the ineffable, to worship or not to worship, are at the heart of the best literature, the best art, the best conversation. There's hardly any separation between the strands.

Sibling relationships play a key role in the book. The loss of three brothers--dead Jesse Wilkey, missing Taos Braverman, distant Samuel Townsend--deeply impacts their siblings. It's mentioned that Immaculata and Epiphany, despite their tragedy, are luckier than AnnaLee, Langston, or Amos because they have each other. What is it about the bond between siblings? How does it factor into the nature of grief?

I think I have been heavily influenced by my relationship with my sister, who is the one person besides my children I can't imagine living without. Our siblings are biologically more closely related to us than either of our parent--they share our DNA, in addition to our history--and so it seems natural and fitting that while we lose our parents and grandparents, our siblings see us through to the end. And just before I began the rewrite of this novel, my oldest and dearest friend lost her sister, at the age of 29, to liver cancer, and it was one of the most grievous events I've ever witnessed. My former husband lost a son, at the age of two, and while he had four daughters, that little boy was ever-present; I think all of his daughters felt the hole in the air, as the poet John Silkin called it, where their brother had been. Those factors in my own life all were brought to bear on the relationships in Solace.

Solace has an interesting twist on Plato's parable of love as a desire for wholeness in the parallel of lost siblings and found mates. AnnaLee, Langston, and Amos seem to recover a sense of completeness in love. Their relationships have this sense of two halves creating a healed whole: at one point, Langston can hardly tell Walt and AnnaLee apart, while shared references and opinions slowly bring Amos and Langston together. Does their loss inform their romantic relationships in some way?

Oh, absolutely, a very astute reading on your part. Alice, too, says that marriage is a matter of compassion, patience, a life well-lived, and I hope that in addition to the annealment of their sorrow, Langston and Amos's relationship is seen as a marriage of true minds.

At one point, Langston thinks about her Perfect Reader, who we later find out is an actual person (right?) but who sounds initially like an abstract idea. Is there such a thing as the Perfect Reader? If so, who is yours?

Yes, Langston's was real and mine is real; I'm very lucky that way. But I think all writers hold the abstraction before them as they compose, a Person who reads deeply and closely and can follow the thin lines of a web of thought or metaphor, someone who sees the architecture of a novel as well as its heart, and can also see and name the places that fall short or are banal or pedestrian. And that Person adores you when you get it right, and is pulling for you every step of the way, even when you fail, and just the fact of him or her is enough to keep making sentences and being true to characters. That's a lot to ask of someone. John Svara is my real Perfect Reader, and in the carton of drafts and reviews of Zippy there is the manuscript he corrected, and in the carton for Solace the same, and I've just finished a third book, and his battered and Post-It Noted edition is in a bag just above my first draft. But I also always think, in the abstract, of a man I went to graduate school with, Nate Smith, who was the the single best reader of anything, ever. I don't know that he's actually read anything I've written, but he is the model of a reader whose standards I hope to appeal to.

Speaking of readers, I loved that discussion of Faustus's tragic flaw: "he was a bad reader." It seems to inform a lot of the book's action.

That's at the heart of the book for me, too. Remember how Langston imagines her postmodern, subterranean novel, Tunnel, hinging on a typographical error or a misspelling, something like that? And then her first conversation with Amos occurs because he dials a wrong number, and she misses the significance? So like Langston. She missed the significance because she read badly, and AnnaLee tries to say it to her over and over, "Read the situation around you; read the people; read yourself," and Langston cannot, mostly because of her grief. And there are the fifty or so letters from Jack to Amos that aren't read carefully enough. But mostly I think of the problem of reading as being the problem of Christianity, specifically for Amos; The Book is what he struggles with, and the Book's relationship to organized religion. It's an old story.

On a lighter note, the names were just perfect, down to the most minor characters--Stinky Williamson who refused to potty train--and shops--Kountry Kids and Kousins with its "exceedingly bad taste." Are names important to you?

Oh, very. I love naming things the way other people like buying lipstick or drinking bourbon. I'm working on a book now where naming is very important and it's like a day at a carnival for me. My mother and sister share this; we all have an excessive number of pets, and I think we acquire them specifically so we can pretend we're Adam and Eve in the garden, pointing and saying, "Hippo." "Rhododendron." (These are not the names of our real pets.) I am bound to get mail from poststructuralists chastising me for my naiveté regarding the distance between the signifier and the signified, but what can you do, life is short.

Zippy, of course, was your childhood memoir. Is there a big difference between writing memoir and writing fiction? Do you enjoy one more than the other? And how does your first love, poetry, fit in here?

Writing Zippy was both easy and fun, because I got to finish an essay and call and read it aloud to my mother and sister, who laughed like fools and thought I was a genius. You can't really beat that. And all the material was right there; I just had to remember it, and check my memories with my family and friends. Writing a novel is entirely different, and while I was writing the third or fourth draft of Solace I thought I was surely engaged in the hardest work of my life, which I had also said while writing scholarly papers and giving birth to my children, so I'm not to be trusted. Everything is hard for me because I'm essentially so leisurely. But now that I've finished a draft of my second novel, my third book, I think I'm getting the hang of it, which I would sum up as: Just Go Ahead and Screw It Up. Seriously. I started my new book in the middle and just wrote around it, and got things disastrously wrong and didn't care, and called characters by one name in one chapter and another sixteen pages later, and what I realized was that I didn't have to be perfect, I had time to fix it. I cobbled together the broken parts of the first draft and started from word one (as my friend, the novelist Lawrence Naumoff, swears one must do) and rewrote it and fixed it, tightened it, screwed down the loose places. This ties into the next question...

You mentioned before that Solace was the first of a planned trilogy. Is that still part of the plan? Are you working on anything else?

The new novel, Rattlesnake Kite, is the second in the trilogy, and has as its protagonist a female pool hustler, and I've begun the third. They all take place in Hopwood County, Indiana, but in different towns, and there is only one recurring character, the funeral director, who has a cameo in Solace, a cameo in Rattlesnake, and a fairly major role in the third. And in all three books, a woman is writing poetry, mostly covertly, the way Ursula LeGuin says women have always written, usually at the dining room table in stolen moments. So yes, I'm still trying to work out that whole rascally poetry thing.

The Solace book tour kicks off at the end of June. Are you looking forward to it?

I am; I love touring. I love meeting audiences and booksellers. Writing is lonely work, which I think probably marks the eight millionth time that's been said, and then we get rewarded by traveling and talking to smart people. I'm upset about one thing, though: on the Zippy tour, I followed Amy Tan at almost every stop, and the booksellers would say, "Oh, Amy Tan was just here with her little dogs." And at the next store someone would say, "Amy Tan was here with her little dogs in a bag." This is not a lie. She carries tiny, actual dogs around with her in a bag, and sometimes their heads pop up during a reading. I was then and remain overcome with jealousy, but I'm not particularly fond of tiny dogs, so I decided to get one of those miniature ponies--those new seeing-eye ponies?--and take it with me on my tour, but I can't find one, and I don't think Doubleday would pay for it. But imagine! Then everywhere I went, some poor schmuck would follow me and the booksellers would say, "Oh, you just missed Haven Kimmel with her little horse."

Your writing is so vivid and naturally visual. Have you thought about turning your books into films? I couldn't help casting Solace as I read it.

I think Solace will be a film, yes. And I think Rattlesnake Kite is even more visual, since it is not actually a novel of conversation but of action (in some ways). I can't help but cast them, too. I mentioned to my daughter that the only person I can see playing Langston is Rebecca Pidgeon, and I was immediately reminded that I want Rebecca Pidgeon to play me, which is sadly true.

Oh yeah, I have to ask: did your sister ever make that shrine to you at her diner?

Of course she did. She's my sister, after all. (Although I wonder periodically if that baby picture of me on the cover of Zippy doesn't upset the digestion of some poor diners.)

-- interview by Kelley Kawano

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    Photo credit: Maia Dery