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Memoir in Fiction January 21, 2013

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in literary fiction, novelography.
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MediaMonday for January 21, 2013: The Narrator in Fiction, a discussion focused on this essay by Steve Almond in January 11, 2013 New York Times magazine.

Michael KimballWrite what you know. This—along with show, don’t tell—is taught in writing classrooms across the globe. Many nascent writers use the write what you know principle to the point that their fiction is little but thinly veiled memoir. This brand of therapeutic writing often meanders without plot, features cardboard or predictable characters, and is overly sentimental. Fictionalizing real life with meaningful and authentic prose is not for beginners. Friday’s guest host is Michael Kimball, whose new novel, Big Ray, is as much memoir as it is fiction.

Big RayMichael Kimball makes no excuses for the autobiographical details found in his novels. His new novel, Big Ray, is based on the relationship between him and his father. His father wasn’t just grossly obese. He was mean. Cruel. Abusive. Predatory. Kimball admits to the shame he felt as a child growing up with an excessively fat father, how he was teased and ridiculed because of his father. All of this comes out in Big Ray, which Kimball admits began as a memoir.

It’s not just the excess pounds that weigh down the father in Big Ray. He’s a small, small man trapped in a huge body. Once a lean, mean Marine, Ray made only one automatic promotion from private to private first class after two years of service. By the time he is discovered dead in a chair in his apartment, Ray weighs more than 500 pounds. With short, addictive sections abounding with grit, humor, pathos and insight, Kimball plots the path to Ray’s destructive life. We never feel sorry for Ray, his meanness is too fervid. What we feel instead is relief that a person, any person, could escape the singularity of such a presence to achieve normality by ordinary standards. Though fictionalized for storytelling’s sake, we are impressed that such a person could write about an abusive parent with such honesty, journalistic acumen, and psychological understanding. Does Kimball—or his character Daniel—forgive his father for the abuse and excess of his life? Would you?

Michael Kimball is the author of five books, including Big Ray (which The Wall Street Journal calls “mesmerizing”), Dear Everybody (which The Believer calls “a curatorial masterpiece”), and Us (which Time Out Chicago calls “a simply gorgeous and astonishing book”). His work has been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The GuardianBombPrairie SchoonerPost RoadNew York Tyrant, etc. His work has been translated into a dozen languages—including Italian, Spanish, German, Chinese, Korean, and Greek. He is also responsible forMichael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), a couple ofdocumentaries, the 510 Readings, and the conceptual pseudonym Andy DevineBig Ray is published by Bloomsbury USABloomsbury Circus (UK), and will be released in January 2013 in Australia.

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