The author behind the novel
Editor’s note: this is the last of a three-part series on the Valley Read selection, “The Solace of Leaving Early,” by Haven Kimmel. The author took time out of a touring schedule in promotion of a new book to answer some questions from the Vail Symposium’s Ebby Pinson.
1. EP: Mooreland, Ind., where the book is set, sounds a lot like Haddington, Ind. – did you use the small town dynamics of your hometown and your own upbringing as the basis of “Solace?”
HK: It’s hard to fathom, but Haddington is actually more than 10 times the size of Mooreland, so I drew on other Midwestern towns I’m familiar with – a bit of Richmond, Ind.; a corner from Yellow Springs, Ohio. There’s very little that’s autobiographical in the book, except the interior struggles of the protagonists.
2. EP: Where did you get the idea for this book?
HK: This book grew out of a conversation I had with my mother, concerning one of my favorite novels of all time, “A Confederacy of Dunces,” by John Kennedy Toole. Mom doesn’t love “Confederacy” (and yet I go on loving her), and she was explaining how she found the main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, too disgusting to sympathize with. I said, “Well, yes – he’s repulsive, but that’s the point. Imagine all the best things about him, the ways he’s blind to his own failings, his superiority, the great humor that grows out of that tension, but without the gross bits. Like what if he were a girl?” Just like that, Langston was born. So the first draft was actually a dark academic comedy, all in Langston’s voice.
3. EP: How did you develop the plot?
HK: Well, I got the plot wrong for a good long time: 500 pages. I saw the book going astray but was powerless to stop it. Then one night I had a dream about the two little girls, Immaculata and Epiphany (I saw them running through a field, very distressed), and I woke up and knew what had happened to them, the tragedy they had witnessed. So I threw the 500 pages away and started over.
4. EP: Where did you learn to write and when did you first begin to write? Your first book was non-fiction and “Solace” is fiction – was one easier to construct versus the other? (i.e. a comfort level of writing)
HK: I learned to write as most people do, by doing it year after year from childhood on while also reading a lot. I started writing atrocious short stories when I was nine or so, but this was when my vocational dream was to be either a rodeo clown or a prison guard. I didn’t think I wanted to BE a writer. My mom wrote fabulous short stories, and I used to beg her to let me read them (they were scary for a young child). So I saw someone who wrote very naturally, while she went about doing other things. It seemed to me that writing was just something people did, like crossword puzzles or tinkering with cars.
Writing “Zippy” was much easier than writing Solace, because all the material for “Zippy” was present from the beginning. I had to find the voice and craft the narrative, but once I’d gotten that part down the book just flowed. My next book is a novel, too, “Something Rising,” which comes out in early January. With “Solace” and “Something Rising” I had to learn the craft of fiction writing anew every day, that peculiar work of sitting still and listening for the absolute one best thing: one best name of a character, one best voice, one best development of plot. I’m at work on the third book in the trilogy, and I’m learning all over again.
5. EP: Who is your favorite author and why?
HK: Like most writers, I have affection for and have been influenced by countless authors, but I am probably most devoted to Anne Tyler. I love her subtlety, her humane vision, the sly way she makes her readers care about every character equally. She’s one of the only American writers with whom I feel an affinity of sensibility. I told a friend once that if I had to choose a single fictional world in which to live, it would be Anne Tyler’s Baltimore.
6. EP: What gave you the idea to tell the story only from the perspective of the two main characters instead of a traditional format? Was it difficult to keep their perspectives separate?
HK: The book was in Langston’s voice solely in the first draft, and Amos was a foil character to her. But what I discovered was that I found him more and more compelling, and as soon as I attempted his voice, I knew I was right to make the book half his. It wasn’t difficult at all to keep their perspectives separate; they were very much whole people in my mind, like deeply known friends or family.
7. EP: How did you decide on the ending? Did you “back” into the body of the story or did it evolve as the characters evolved?
HK: I didn’t know the end of the book when I began, and in fact the ending was slightly different when I presented it to my editor. The edits she suggested throughout the text brought the new ending about; it grew organically from those changes.
8. EP: Did the characters have a life of their own and help you develop the story or was their path set in stone from when you first sat down to write?
HK: Oh, no – my characters and plot are never fixed when I begin. I spend a great deal of time being surprised by who my characters are shaping up to be. I feel like a parent as much as an author, in that our job is to raise our children toward their own best selves, rather than toward any notion we have of who they are.
9. EP: Is it hard to finish a book and at what point do you know the story has been told?
HK: Knowing that you’ve reached the end of a book is just like reaching the end of anything else: if it doesn’t feel right, there’s probably farther to go or more work to do. I think one of my own idiosyncrasies is that I would never leave a protagonist stranded; it would worry me forever after.
10. EP: Is it hard to leave your characters once you have finished a book? If so, would you consider a sequel to this book or possibly re-introducing the characters as part of another book?
HK: It’s hard to leave some characters. Since “Solace” is the first book in a trilogy, these characters are revisited to some extent (they’re touched on very lightly), but I also feel an obligation to allow them their privacy.
11. EP: Why the title?
HK: It’s the central metaphor of the book – the heart of it, really. I can’t imagine this novel having any other title. (You can find an explication of the title – sort of – in the chapter called “At Intermission.”)
You asked also about the prologue, and where in the process it was written. I actually did write the prologue first, because there were certain things about the story I knew from the beginning. After the second draft was completed, I went back and revised the prologue a few times, not so much for content as for style.