Haven Kimmel discusses A Girl Named Zippy
[A hand reaches out
and depresses a knob on a little blue tape recorder. Someone says "glamorous
park bench." Tapping sound. Throat clearing.]
Hello, and welcome to Interview. Let's just go straight to our guest,
author Haven Kimmel, and have her answer a few questions about her book,
A Girl Named Zippy.
You had some unusual experiences in the beginning of your life--a near fatal
staph infection, baldness until almost three, and, most memorably, your
first words at three years old: "I'll make a deal with you." How did this
unusual start affect your life?
I'm of the opinion (I share this with some contemporary literary theorists,
I think) that the word "text" is both broad and deep metaphorically, and
thus we can, without much shame or sense of personal responsibility, litter
our conversation with it. So let's say an individual life is a text; in A
Girl Named Zippy I simply read my life backwards. The person I am now is
essentially that weird little mute bald girl, only taller. And with hair,
obviously. James Hillman, in his book The Soul's Code, proposes the
"acorn theory" of psychological development. Everything in my book is
revelatory of my acorn. If I may say such a thing.
You describe the career aspirations of your friends--Rose the artist and
Maggie the "Solid Gold" disc jockey--and your own fluctuations between the
Mafia and co-owning a farm with your best friend Julie. At what point did
you realize you wanted to write?
Oh, I never wanted to be a writer. My only real dream was to be a rodeo
star. Wait, that's not true. There was a time I thought I'd make a good
prison guard, and my sister agreed with me. I remember that the first time I
heard the phrase "legislate morality" I thought that was probably for me,
and so I announced to the world at large that I was going to be a Supreme
Court justice. I had some ideas about what was moral, and they didn't seem
to be in keeping with the rest of the world. Finding a way to inflict my
values on the innocent greatly appealed to me. However, I was never able to
fulfill any of my career goals because I am essentially free of talent.
I started writing at age nine--automatically and without intention--like a
savant; much the same way, I imagine, Rain Man couldn't help himself from
counting jelly beans and match sticks. When I say I started "writing," what
I mean is that I copied Ray Bradbury's stories out of Twice-22 onto
my own paper and then showed them to my mom, declaring them my own. It is,
perhaps, rare for a person to be both a savant and a plagiarist, I don't
know. My mom was very supportive (some might even say enabling) of those
efforts, and of other examples of my creativity, such as the way I liked to
recite whole episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies, lying, each time,
about the ending. Sometimes the Hillbillies all died in a plane crash,
sometimes they were mauled by rabid possums. That sort of thing.
The turning point for me, the place I parted from Mr. Bradbury, was the
moment I looked at a story of his--let's say it contained a little girl
doing little girl things--and as I was copying it I decided that the story
could greatly benefit from an explosion out of the girl's nose. Perhaps it
was a special gift of hers. I'd veer away from the plot I was copying in
order to accommodate the nose eruptions, and soon I wouldn't be looking at
Twice-22 at all. Eventually I stopped copying and just began
inventing and then things really got ugly.
One of my favorite sections in the book described your agitation over the
power of poetry, particularly the famous repeating line of Frost's "Stopping
by Woods on a Snowy Evening," which everyone has wrestled with at some
point. Did you ever reconcile with poetry? Or even perhaps become inspired
by it? Who are some of your literary inspirations?
I would say, with only a slight measure of hysteria and hyperbole, that by
the time I was twenty-one I had given my life over to Poetry. (This prose
thing I'm doing is really an act of infidelity and I'm terrified Poetry will
find out.) I wrote poems exclusively and with great seriousness for at least
fifteen years, but as with all those other vocations, I wasn't good enough.
The level of my talent was egregiously distant from my aspirations. I wanted
to write as well as John Donne, Emily Dickinson, Rilke, Elizabeth Bishop.
(Elizabeth Bishop once said to Robert Lowell, "When you write my epitaph,
you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived." That's a perfect
epitaph for a poet, as opposed to mine, which would be: "She was
ridiculous.") There are some contemporary poets who are so good I don't
think I would be able to sit in the same room with them without
hyperventilating. I'm thinking specifically of Geoffrey Hill, Louise Glück,
Kay Ryan, Denis Johnson, and most especially, the brilliant Gjertrude
Schnackenberg, who is not only maybe the best poet alive, but has a first
name that begins "Gj."
I know you studied creative writing in college. Did you draw upon your
wealth of childhood experiences? How did this book get its start?
I didn't write much about my childhood when I was in college because I was a
poet and too cool for that.
The first essay I attempted to write was about Edythe Koontz, the old woman
who lived across the street from my house and who hated me for inexplicable
reasons. I started the essay in the autumn, twelve or thirteen years ago,
and did it secretly. I didn't even really let myself catch on that I was
doing work that wasn't poetry. Something about that particular season caused
me to remember Edythe, and I found that there was something about her I very
much wanted to say. She had recently died and had left no family, so I began
by writing down everything I knew about her. What I discovered was that what
remained the most vivid about Edythe for me were the things my parents
repeated to me, the details about her behavior and personal habits that
my mother and father had sorted out from the infinite details that make up a
real life. I had heard my mom say countless times in conversations with
people not from Mooreland, "Edythe walked to the post office every morning
at seven, where she would salute the flag while whistling 'The Star-Spangled
Banner.'" It's a small detail (just one of Edythe's eccentricities) but
brilliantly precise. Added to the other things my parents had recorded--the
way Edythe bathed only twice or so a year; the way she played hymns on her
discordant piano late in the night; her bathtub full of old newspapers--the
little picture of Edythe whistling at the flag became more resonant. I began
the essay and it went disastrously wrong; there was, in fact, nothing right
about it, it stunk to high heaven, and I put it aside.
Over the next few years I worked on the essay sporadically. Sometimes at
night I told stories about Mooreland into a small tape recorder, just so I
wouldn't forget them. As I was telling them I tried to remember the facets
my parents considered the most cogent, and built from there.
Years after first writing about Edythe, I took a writing class while in
seminary at the Earlham School of Religion. The professor, Tom Mullen, made
as the course requirement that we all begin a book-length project. I began
the manuscript for what I would later call Qualities of Light (and
which is now titled A Girl Named Zippy) in that course, completing
about fifty pages. When I left seminary and moved to North Carolina I put it
aside for three years, during which time I became pregnant, had my son,
Obadiah, and spent a year exclusively with him. After his first birthday,
when it became clear that mothering would not, strictly speaking, be enough
of an occupation for me, I started writing in the evenings, after Obadiah
went to bed. I decided to look over those essays I had written for Tom at
Earlham. None of them made it into the finished book (because they were
lousy), but some events were recycled.
Jane Austen famously said that "3 or 4 Families in a Country village is
the very thing to work on." You grew up in Mooreland, a small town in
Indiana; in fact, the book begins with a description of the strange
mathematic principle that maintains the town's population of 300. Why do you
think that small towns are particularly rich in material?
Just for a moment I'd like to savor the fact that a question posed to me
contains the words "Jane Austen." Also I'd like to consider the
Austen-village in relation to Mooreland. Oh, dear.
The simple answer, I think, is that in a small town more can be known about
people and events. I lived in Mooreland for sixteen years, in the same house
on the same corner, so I enjoyed a certain continuity (in terms of
information), as did my friends and neighbors. In some ways my own
continuity was multiplied by that of other townspeople, so that when I talk
to the woman who is still my best friend (I call her "Rose" in the book) her
history is as available to me as my own. Rose's story is not in any way the
subject of the book, but informs it. I once heard Vanessa Redgrave say in an
interview that she prepares for a part by deciding what her character
carries in her purse. The contents of the purse are never revealed to the
audience, but they are integral to the way Redgrave understands herself in
the role. There's a famous story (maybe anecdotal) about a stage production
for which an entire kitchen was built off-stage in order that the audience
would hear a tea-kettle whistle. There are limits, obviously, to the depths
to which realism can be provocative, but I know what a lot of people in
Mooreland were carrying in their pockets, their wallets, their purses when I
was growing up. In writing Zippy I didn't need to make an itemized
list; I just needed to stand, in memory, where I really stood and say what I
saw and heard.
Why do you think the memoir has become such a popular genre for both
writers and readers?
It seems to me that, ultimately, the study of history is our attempt to find
out how we are to live. Things are going very badly for a lot of
people--economically, spiritually, phenomenologically (by which I mean that
as a species we seem to suffer from the grief of temporality without
evolving from that suffering)--and others seem to have inherited more than
their fare share of grace. Memoir is flat out interesting, on the one hand,
and at another level it can be a tangible, artistic reckoning with
this most basic question, the question of how we are to live, a reckoning
and a sort of comfort. I'm thinking specifically of a memoir published in
the last year, Barbara Robinette Moss's Change Me Into Zeus's Daughter.
There was so much in that book I treasured (courage, beauty, delicacy), but
the most amazing thing to me was the way Moss revealed events in her life
that were so odd and so idiosyncratic--in some cases so extreme--that few
people, I'm guessing, would recognize or understand their content. But again
and again I thought of my own sister, Melinda, and the way Melinda and
Barbara Moss seem to share a certain posture in relation to life, and
I knew immediately that the book would be a comfort to Melinda. I sent her a
copy and by the time she finished it she was a little speechless (very
unusual for her, I must say). When she called me to talk about it, I said,
"Who knew?" Memoir is the voice of our common humanity, even in the most
I also have the impulse to say, as many people are currently saying, that
memoir is so popular among readers because as a culture we are unrepentant
and unreconstructed voyeurs, and that as writers we love it because we're
lazy and narcissistic. It does seem that as the genre du jour, memoir
reveals the best and the worst in our nature as consumers of literature.
Something that distinguishes your book from other memoirs is the
narrative voice. Whereas many authors look back at their childhoods from an
adult point of view, you maintain the viewpoint of your younger self, giving
weight to situations that many adults would otherwise bypass and vice versa.
Did you make a conscious choice to stick with this voice?
There is no single element in Zippy I worked on harder, longer, or
with more conscious deliberation than the voice. And, as you've noticed, the
voice dictated the content. I once heard Robert Morgan say that the voice of
a child is the hardest to get right, because one must be accurate and
convincing, which demands a kind of ignorance, but the adult intelligence
has to be the guiding principle. It's a tough mix to produce consistently.
Have your family and friends from Mooreland read the book? What do they
I think that most of the people who appear as characters in the book
couldn't love it more. My sister owns a diner called The Blue Moon just
outside of Mooreland, and she has the book cover framed and hanging on the
wall there. I feel certain that as the book produces more artifacts Melinda
will eventually put together a little shrine. My mom is the same: just
unabashedly supportive and delighted. My favorite reaction, though, came
from my old friend Andy Hicks, who is featured in the essay, "Favors For
Friends." I gave him the book in manuscript, and he and most of his family
read it. He sent me a letter and said they all wept when they finished it,
because they realized that someone had actually seen them; their
family had meant something to someone else. That feeling of having been seen
is so important to us all, I think, but consistently a surprise.
I agree. The way that you "see" each character shows that you clearly
have a deep bond with all of them; even evil Edythe and Petey Scroggs get no
less a loving treatment than, say, Andy and Julie and their families.
Related to that, I loved the inclusion of photographs. It made the memoir
more of a family album experience than just a regular book reading.
The photographs in the book were the idea of my fabulous editor, Amy
Scheibe, and I owe their inclusion to Doubleday's generosity. I love how
they look, and the way they complement the stories. I also had a great time
locating them. My sister and mom and I spent hours going through the defunct
ammunition box in which family photographs are stored. I am too limited a
writer to describe our reaction upon finding the photograph of Edythe, for
instance (none of us knew any pictures of her existed), but suffice it to
say our response was some combination of glee, pity, and terror.
Are you working on anything now?
I'm always working. I write like a fiend. My work ethic as a writer
is a direct outgrowth of the knowledge I'm virtually unemployable in every
In addition to Zippy, Doubleday has purchased my first novel, which
is titled (so far) The Solace of Leaving Early, the first book in a
projected trilogy. Solace is scheduled to be released in February,
2002. My impression is that having two books released within a year of one
another qualifies, within the classical definition, as an "invasion." I'm
working on the second book in the series now. And Houghton Mifflin has
picked up a children's book, which should be out in two years or so.
And, finally, does anyone still call you "Zippy"?
I have the feeling that over the next few months, everyone will call
Well, I guess we'll sign off. That's all for Interview. Good night,
[Static, a giggle, some crunching sounds, and then tape is shut off. They
weren't really sitting on a park bench. But that doesn't make it any less
Interview by Kelley Kawano, 2001. First published in Bold
Type. Reproduced by permission of Random House publishing.