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A Rising Literary Star 

An Interview with Haven Kimmel

by Pam Kingsbury


Haven Kimmel loves shooting pool, was once accused in Sunday School of loving animals more than God, attended seminary, and is drawn to sinners. In conversation, she's gracious, funny, focused, and kind, radiating good will.

While some writers might be tempted to take a break from traveling after having completed three books in three years, Kimmel is gearing up for a twenty-city book tour later this month. Like the farmers in her family, she understands, "When there's work to be done, you do the work."

In Something Rising (Light and Swift), Kimmel has created what may well be the first female protagonist who is a professional pool hustler. In her acknowledgements she writes, "I also learned invaluable lessons from David McCumber (Playing Off the Rail), and the incomparable Walter Tevis (The Hustler, The Color of Money.)"  Full of heart and fine writing, Something Rising (Light and Swift) earns a place on the same shelf.

At a conference several months ago at Berry College, one of the book critics in attendance said, "The memoir is replacing the first novel." Would you agree?

I think the book market is so difficult these days. Trying to sell a book is a huge task ... It's easier to have a hook with literary fiction. A Girl Named Zippy was what I wrote first and The Solace of Leaving Early sold at the same time as A Girl Named Zippy.

She (the book critic) is right. Memoirs receive more attention. I agree but that wasn't my experience. In my own case, with my own editor, my books could have been written in any order.

A Girl Named Zippy became a New York Times' bestseller which is a one in a million feat for a first book. Having a bestseller reflects the ways in which sales are reported. The books all have to sell at one time, in a single day. There has to be a huge amount of sales ....

A Girl Named Zippy was in the top five for many weeks, several months. The Solace of Leaving Early, a literary novel, sold and continues to sale. The novel will have a long life. It's beginning to be picked up by book groups.

When A Girl Named Zippy made the New York Times' bestseller list, I was glad for my publishing house, my editor, and my agent; but it didn't change my life ....

You attended seminary .....

And it's central to my life.

Those two and a half years were packed with  unexpected growth.

I had a child. I had been married for years to a much older man. I was thirty years old. I thought I knew myself -- another of God's jokes.

I changed. The amount of learning that came from opening up to a discussion of the invisible world and the religious practice across the world humbled me. Every minute of every day was a metaphor of God. I don't know what it means and am still trying to get to the bottom of that -- the philosophical question of the way you're told life ought to be lived; what it means to be a part of the human community; the ways in which questioning is a metaphor, part of the political task; and what's eternally critical to the artist, the human condition in all its' manifest forms.

I try to be aware of the fact of consciousness and every day being .......

The Solace of Leaving Early and Something Rising (Light and Swift) are part of a trilogy ....... Would you like to talk about the third novel?

The book's title is The Used World and I'm about half through with it. I'm on the last stretch.

I'll start the  book tour for Something Rising (Light and Swift) in mid-January. I'll go from twenty cities coast to coast. The Regulator Bookshop, in my home city of Durham, always hosts the first signing for all my books. We'll launch in Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles. Then I'll cross to Denver and the Vail Festival of Words. From there, I'll go the upper midwest -- Iowa City, Minneapolis, and St. Paul, followed by Manhattan. The long Southern tour includes Louisville, Nashville, Memphis, and Oxford.

I put aside all work and all human needs as I tour. It's like a marathon. It isn't so much traveling and being in airports that's disconcerting. It's waking up every day and wondering how to make the book new. How do you stay genuine to the work?

My children are extremely committed as I am. My daughter (Katherine, who attends Warren Wilson College) will be staying with my son Obadiah. He's also a committed little fellow. I grew up in the Midwest and when there was work to be done, you did the work. That's what it means to be a family. My loved ones -- family and friends -- allow me to be away graciously.

You grew up the midwest yet have a very Southern sensibility. Are you a Southern writer or a midwestern writer?

I'm a Southern writer.

The midwest is a geographical landscape. The pool table in Something Rising (Light and Swift) is a metaphor -- the flatness of the table and the striking from obtuse angles .....

Henry County (where I grew up) is a very Southern pocket of Indiana. A lot of people from Kentucky and Tennessee moved here for the industry bringing influences from their homes. My grandmother was from Tennessee.

I loved the Southern lifestyle and moved South. The fates took me to Biloxi, Mississippi when I was nineteen. My heart and soul resonate with the deeper south. I love Alabama. I feel very at home with a certain kind of Southern manner -- the putting aside of one's needs to remain well-behaved.

I maintain an apartment in New Orleans. I feel at home among the fallen and the sinners. So many of the population there have been man-handled by life; but they are still willing to take a non-judgmental approach to life.

Why did you choose pool as the central metaphor for Something Rising (Light and Swift)?

Pool is fun. I am interested in and vexed by the question of vocation. How does one find one's life's work?

The big questions for most people are where do you live, who do you marry, and what's your vocation. Finding a vocation seems harder.

I love pool and have played for years. The question of what the game means metaphysically interested me and everything grew out of a moment of clarity. I was walking down the street in Chapel Hill and saw a pool hall.
I had been writing about Cassie's inner life but her character wasn't clear. I was trying to learn and develop her.
Looking into the pool hall, at that moment, the one right thing about her character became clear.

Do you have any advice for novice writers?

Write, Write, WRITE!

Nothing comes of the desire to write. Or contemplating writing.

Writing is like carrying around an empty bucket. You have to fill it up with words even if they're crap. You have to be willing to write one bad draft after another.

It's a terrible commitment for me. I can not write a whole novel knowing I'll have to write it again. We've become unaccustomed to that kind of work in our daily lives.

What's your writing routine?

In the period I've been writing, I've published four books in four years. When Used World is out, I'll have published
three novels and a memoir in six years.

I haven't had much down time. During the genesis of the work, I have to allow the people to grow. Once I begin a project, I write the way a greyhound runs.  I use the early morning to take care of business. Then I'll write from around eleven until around midnight with breaks to pick up my son and take care of my five dogs.

Are there any books writers might have missed that you'd recommend?

South of the Big Four by Don Kurtz.

It's become part of my life's work to mention that book and promote that writer.

{Kimmel's essay on the book, "The Most Familiar Book I Ever Read," is included in Remarkable Reads: 34 Writers and Their Adventures in Reading (edited by J. Peder Zane and available in paper from Norton in February). She also has an essay included in the forthcoming, Killing the Buddha; The Hunter's Bible. In the anthology, thirteen novelists were asked to rewrite a book of the Bible. Kimmel wrote the chapter on Revelations.)}

Little, Big by John Crowley. Harper Perennial brought out his back list. The large format trade paper is breathtakingly beautiful. The book is gorgeous, strange, and deep.

The funniest book I ever read is Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend. I was rereading that book when I was pregnant with my son. I laughed so hard I went into labor.

I would recommend almost everything by Anne Tyler.

Who were your influences?  

Being a teenager is such a critical time for discovering one's own voice ..... My junior year of high school, I transferred from a rural, county high school to a lab school where I took a western lit class. I had never read anything. Really every day was a revelation to me. The ideas I formed there were a refining fire. I can still remember every book we read -- Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter (which I've read a few more times);
D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers; Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation Of Christ; The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter; Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse; and F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. Reading those books was one of the most humane educations you could experience.

What was your perfect day?

It's a day I've already had in memory. I was at my sister's farm in Moreland, Indiana. The temperature was in the 70s and the sky was a perfect blue. Everything happened by accident.

A horse got lost. We went looking for it on a tractor. We had a hay wagon behind the tractor and our children (the next generation) were with us riding in the wagon. There were yellow butterflies all around.

I roped a calf with my belt, then took a nap in the hay. When I woke up, a hawk was circling overhead.

We had a cook out and my dad came over. In the shadows of the fire, we saw bats, and they looked like airplanes in shadow. I found the skull of a cat in the barn.

Everything was there -- beauty, wonder, and spontaneity.

Haven Kimmel Official Web Site


Something Rising: (Light and Swift)
by Haven Kimmel
Free Press, 2004
Hardcover, $24.00 (270 pages)
ISBN: 0-7432-4775-2

      Southern Scribe Review




Orville, A Dog Story
Story by Haven Kimmel
Pictures by Robert Andrew Parker
Clarion Books, 2003
Hardback, $15.00 (32 pages)
ISBN: 0-618-15955-X

     Southern Scribe Review


The Solace of Leaving Early
By Haven Kimmel
Doubleday, 2002
Hardcover, $23.95 (258 pages)
ISBN: 0-385-49983-3

     Southern Scribe Review





2004, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved