Michael Kimball Talks to Biblioklept About Writing Life Stories on Postcards

Michael Kimball’s latest book Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard) had its genesis in a performance piece at the Transmodern Performance Festival a few years back: Michael interviewed people for a few minutes and then crammed their biographies onto postcards. The project soon evolved into a blog, where Michael interviewed hundreds of people of all ages from around the world. The work is now collected in a book from Mud Luscious Press that features over fifty of the biographies, including the life stories of several contemporary writers, one dead U.S. President, a rooster, a T-shirt, a few cats, Edgar Allan Poe, and Michael himself.

In addition to Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard), Michael is the author of Big Ray, Us, Dear Everybody, and The Way the Family Got Away. He still holds the Meryl S. Colt Elementary School record for the 600-yard dash. Check out his website.

Michael was kind enough to talk to me about this latest book over a series of emails.

Kimball final cover copy

Biblioklept: What’s the hardest thing about writing someone’s life story on a postcard?

Michael Kimball: There are difficult things at different stages of the process. The first difficult thing is asking the right questions for the particular participant. The second difficult thing is being representative when condensing what I’ve been told. The third difficult thing is writing small enough to squeeze six hundred words or so onto a single postcard.

Biblioklept: When you started the project, it was a planned performance piece of sorts, but your description of it at the beginning of the book makes it seem rather off-the-cuff. Did you have a plan for the questions you would ask? How did the questions change as the project progressed?

MK: That first performance was definitely off-the-cuff. I had no idea what I was going to ask people and how I was going to write their life stories on a postcard. I mostly started with something pretty open-ended and then asked more specific questions about whatever I was told. As the project progressed, I developed a set of starter questions that elicited basic information and then asked more specific questions from there. Basically, I considered whatever I was being told to be important and then asked more questions about it.

Biblioklept: You interviewed people by email, in phone, in person — how did how you were doing the interview affect the process? Did you prefer one way over the other?

MK: I preferred the in-person interviews. There was a different kind of intimacy with those and there are a bunch of people I interviewed that way who are now friends. Of course, that wasn’t practical for lots of the interviews, since most people lived so far away from me. And the method did influence the process. With the phone interview and in-person interviews I was taking notes as fast as I could, but that was never fast enough. With the email interviews, it was easier for people to give me more detailed answers. Also, since I had the full text of their answers, I could use more of their language.

MKWYLS(oap)Biblioklept: Did you prefer to use as much of the subject’s language as possible? Maybe I’m getting into what you described as “the second difficult thing” — how much of yourself do you see in the pieces? I think there’s clearly a voice, a tone that unifies the pieces . . . I’m curious how much of the process was crafting or editing or revising or repurposing the subject’s original language…

MK: I tried to use the participant’s language wherever I thought it gave some sense of the person. At times, I thought of like using third-person close narration. Besides that, I was trying to be as objective as possible and I think that gave the life stories a certain consistency of tone. Clearly, I tend to write sentences a certain way, but beyond that I tried to keep myself out of it.

Biblioklept: What about pieces like “Chair” or “T-Shirt” — how did they come about?

MK: The first non-person one I wrote was Red Delicious Apple, which popped into my head almost fully formed, which happened because I used to almost always have apples on my desk, which just meant that I spent a lot of time with apples. But writing Red Delicious Apple opened up a lot of possibilities and so T-Shirt is written about my favorite t-shirt and Chair was written about a chair I once broke. And I have a great affection for animals, so I loved writing ones like Moose the Cat, Sammy the Dog, and Abby the Horse.

Biblioklept: You wrote over three hundred postcards. How did you choose which ones you would include in the book?

MK: The book would have been over seven hundred pages long if I had included all the postcard life stories, but it was difficult leaving any of them out. So, ultimately, it came down to trying to showing the range of the postcard life stories, which is why nearly every one I wrote about a non-human made it into the book.

Biblioklept: How did the Poe biography come about?

MK: That was for Gigantic’s Gigantic America issue. They asked me to write one of the great American bios that they printed on special card inserts and I suggested Poe, who had just had some anniversary of his life or his death.

Biblioklept: Several pieces in Life Story are about contemporary writers. Was writing about these writers different than writing about anyone else in the collection?

MK: Early on, it was other writers who seemed particularly keen on the project — Adam Robinson, Karen Lillis, Elizabeth Ellen, Elizabeth Crane, Blake Butler, etc. I approached every postcard life story the same way, but then let the participant tell me where they wanted to take it. I tried to ask questions that followed their answers.

Biblioklept: I imagine most people who asked to participate in the project were forthcoming with their answers. I’m curious though if you noticed any topics that people avoided or glossed over or maybe required additional prodding from you. Did you ever feel like your part of the interviewing process pushed your subject into uncomfortable territory?

MK: I didn’t realize it until later, but part of what made the project work was that people came to me wanting to tell their life story (rather than me asking them if they wanted it told). Still, there were a few times that people were reluctant to say things. There was one woman who was reluctant to talk about her husband and I couldn’t figure out why, but then they divorced not long after that. And there was one man who didn’t want to talk about his mother because she was really sick. But usually if there was reluctance, it was some kind of abuse or some other horrible thing that had happened to the person. In fact, I was reluctant to talk about the abuse I grew up with in my own postcard life story when it was initially written. In general, I tried to ask the difficult question, but then let the participant decide whether they wanted to answer and how much they wanted to tell me. And with particularly difficult life stories, I always showed the participant what I wrote and asked them if they were OK with it being public before I ever put their postcard life story out into the world.

Biblioklept: Talking about one’s own life clearly has some kind of therapeutic value. Do you think reading about one’s own life carries a similar value?

MK: Since starting the project, I’ve learned there are quite a few therapeutic techniques that involve narrative and telling (or retelling) one’s life story. Part of that process is hearing one’s life story told back or reading about one’s own life. There can be something useful in that perspective and there can be something reassuring about having a manageable version of one’s life story.

Biblioklept: What are you working on now?

MK: I’m very slowly working on two different novels and thinking about a third. I’m not sure if I’ll ever finish any of them.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

MK: I used to steal so many books, especially when I didn’t have the money to keep pace with my reading appetite and I couldn’t find the things I wanted to read in the library. I’ve tried to make up for that by giving away lots of books these days. I stole so many books that I’m not sure I can remember a specific instance. But it was always kind of thrilling and it seemed to make reading all the more exciting. Sometimes, if I didn’t like a book I would sneak it back into the bookstore.

Hitler’s Private Library — Timothy W. Ryback

In Hitler’s Private Library, Timothy W. Ryback works from Walter Benjamin’s assertion that “a private library serves as a permanent and credible witness to the character of its collector.” Ryback delves into the books–the actual, physical books–that Hitler studied and pondered, paying particular attention to the dictator’s annotations and marginalia. To be sure, there are plenty of political tracts–especially anti-Semitic writings, such as Henry Ford’s The International Jew–to be found in Hitler’s library, but far more fascinating is Ryback’s analysis of Hitler’s love for Robinson Crusoe, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, of all books. Hitler’s taste was varied–there’s an early infatuation with Max Osborn’s Berlin, an architectural guide to that city, an obsession with Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, and Hitler’s final day’s poring over a biography of Frederick the Great (he also comforted himself in the final days of his regime by rereading his boyhood favorite Karl May).

The Nazi party’s lurid mania for occultism is well documented, but Ryback brings a fresh perspective here, eschewing tabloid histrionics in favor of a measured approach to Hitler’s volumes of bizarre and arcane works. More troubling is the public misconception that the works of Schopenhauer and Nietchzsche some how gave philosophical weight to the Nazi’s crime spree; Ryback eliminates that notion:

For all the talk of Hitler’s exploitation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concepts of the “master race” or Arthur Schopenhauer’s notion of the “will to power” that Hitler used to headline the 1934 party rally and Riefenstahl cribbed as a title for her cinematic chronicle of the event, we have little credible evidence of Hitler’s personal engagement with serious philosophy. Most of what we know is tenuous and at best anecdotal.

In short, Hitler was a poseur who recontextualized bit parts of great thinkers into mind-numbing sloganeering for his own ends (luckily, no politicians today would be so crude). Ryback’s even-handedness here is indicative of the project of his book: his is not a psychological study; he never seeks to explain the motivations for Hitler’s evil actions, but rather report what Hitler read closely. What we get in the end is an historicized, contextualized account of a bibliophile who initiated book burnings and mandated reading lists.

Hitler’s Private Library is really a book about books and how what we read shapes and then testifies to who we are and what we did in our life. I am not particularly interested in Hitler or the (well-documented) history of WWII, but I found in Hitler’s Private Library both a fascinating dialogic analysis as well as a new narrative take on some pretty stale material. The philosophy of Walter Benjamin permeates Ryback’s book, which is also a big plus. I’m not sure if the world needs another book about WWII, but I’m always a sucker for books about books. Recommended.

Hitler’s Private Library is available in hardback and ebook on October 21st, 2008 from Knopf.

Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector

Even if Phil Spector hadn’t given us the recent spectacle of an outlandish murder trial, Mick Brown’s Spector biography Tearing Down the Wall of Sound would still make for a gripping read. Brown’s biography, simply put, is the definitive Spector book. At nearly 500 pages (including endnotes and an extensive bibliography), Tearing consistently treads the thin line between exhaustive and exhausting, but the source material–Spector’s insane life–is simply too compelling to ever earn a yawn. Just when it begins to feel that Brown has given us too much detail, we’re rewarded with yet another tale of Spector’s lunatic shenanigans. And whether he’s pulling a gun on the Ramones, drunkenly berating Michelle Phillips, praising Ike Turner and Yoko Ono, or fighting with the Beatles, Spectors’s crazy mischief is exactly the kind of stuff we love to read in a celebrity biography. However, lurid stories never trump the real reason to read this book: Spector as musical genius. There’s plenty here to please hardcore audiophiles, including long discussions of the evolution of Spector’s famous “wall of sound” and the producer’s tumultuous relationship with arranger/songwriter Jack Nitzsche. All the episodes of Spector’s life are here–his early teenybopper days with the Ronettes, his “making” of Tina Turner, his battles with the Beatles (both as a group and individuals), his “comeback” shot with the Ramones, and even his late disillusionment with, um, Celine Dion. These segments are bookended with a detailed consideration of Spector’s recent troubles, beginning with a secretive Spector secluded in his California mansion right before the alleged murder of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson, and a lengthy, journalistic afterword explaining the events of Spector’s much-publicized trial, right up to the September 2007 mistrial ruling. Heady stuff.

Photograph by Brad Elterman

Ultimately, Brown crafts Spector’s strange life into a bizarre bildungsroman; he paints Spector respectfully but never reverentially, revealing a Promethean hubris in his subject that veers into self-annihilation. At the same time, Brown’s Spector is an utterly American story, a classic reinvention tale. Even when Spector is at his most petulant, paranoid, and downright awful, Brown never lets us lose sight of the man’s sheer force of will and his enormous contribution to American music and culture. Brown’s book reminds us of the myriad ways Spector transformed our notions of pop music, but he leaves us wondering if Spector will indeed be able to rise like the phoenix from his latest debacle or if his upcoming retrial will be the end of the music.