First, there is her name: Haven. Fixing you with her big green eyes, Haven Kimmel explains, “I actually changed my name when I was 18. I asked to change it when I was 6.”
Her given name, she says, couldn’t have been worse had it been Brunhilde. “It was one of those diminutives that are so awful in an older woman. It didn’t fit me at all.” One of those monikers, perhaps, like Bambi, with which a future generation of nursing home residents is doomed to be saddled? Kimmel just smiles. “I never tell.”
As for Haven, “There was a folk singer in Kentucky named Haven Hughes. I heard it and said, ‘That’s it.’ ”
But it was as Zippy--a name her father gave his child in perpetual motion after a roller-skating chimp on TV--that Kimmel made a splash last year in the book world with “A Girl Named Zippy,” her memoir about growing up in Mooreland, Ind. (population 300). Written in her childhood voice, it is a laugh-out-loud peek into the lives of those who dwelt there in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Mooreland, Kimmel tells us, was a lily-white town with three churches but no taverns, “bordered at the north end by a cemetery and at the south by a funeral home.” Women had such names as Loverline and Deltrice, metallic Christmas trees were big, and vacation meant either visiting relatives in Tennessee or going camping. “Once I saw two people honeymooning in a pup tent smack in the middle of the bride’s parents’ yard.”
Now 37 and two decades removed from Mooreland, Kimmel lives and writes in Durham, N.C., and recently published her first novel, “The Solace of Leaving Early.” Set in a fictional small Indiana town, Haddington, it centers on two people whose mutual antipathy evolves into love and marriage after two orphaned girls come into their lives.
It is reflective and thought-provoking and, in places, very funny. Consider that the female protagonist, Langston Braverman, has a dog named Germane (not as in Greer, but “as in germane to this conversation”), whose civility, she is convinced, resulted from his early and repeated exposure to Emily Dickinson.
Haddington, Kimmel tells us, has neither a library nor a bookstore but does boast Kountry Kids and Kousins, “where one could acquire a wide variety of stuffed rabbits in gingham dresses and wooden little black children for one’s front yard.”
And when Braverman, a dropout from a university English doctoral program, returns to Haddington, it is to her parents’ home, a house clad in avocado-colored aluminum siding, with brown shutters, “thus causing it to look, from a distance, like a salad going bad.”
In its first draft--500 pages that she tossed out--"Solace” was an academic comedy told by Braverman, the tale of “someone persistently battling the lowering of her standards by the philistines of her hometown. It was a funny book, but it was not the book I should have been writing.”
So, having a two-book contract from Doubleday, which specified a novel as the second, Kimmel plunged in again, “operating on faith and panic.” She was determined to write a book that addresses “those really poignant questions about life and death and family,” feeling that a book that “doesn’t reflect the most important or beautiful or hilarious aspects of human life isn’t worth doing.”
At 257 pages, “Solace” tackles those questions. In it, there is a double murder that orphans two little girls, who take to calling themselves Immaculata and Epiphany, and see visions of the Virgin Mary in their backyard. There is an old love affair with a former professor that has left Braverman with a broken heart and a damaged psyche. There are the feelings of guilt and failure that keep preacher Amos Townsend awake nights. And, ultimately, there is a love that unites Braverman and Townsend.
In Los Angeles recently, Kimmel talked about life in Mooreland and life in Durham, where she lives in a 1930s house with daughter Katie Romerill, 17, and son Obadiah Kimmel, almost 6, by second husband Ben Kimmel, from whom she is separated. She talked of literature and, oh yes, litigation.
It seems not all of the denizens of Mooreland were thrilled with her depiction of them in “Zippy.” While her elderly neighbor, Edythe, who wore the same dress 23 days in a row and “clacked her false teeth together like a castanet,” had gone to her reward, Kimmel’s third-grade teacher had not--and her granddaughters were hopping mad over Kimmel’s description of her as both an incompetent and “the meanest woman in the history of the Mooreland Elementary School.”
Kimmel decided to take the offensive, collecting depositions from 50 other former third-graders, all corroborating her description. She faxed them to Doubleday, which forwarded the best to the litigious granddaughters, who promptly dropped their defamation suit.
But most of Kimmel’s memories of small-town America are affectionate. “Looking back,” she says, “it was almost all pluses.” She mentions the “radical freedom, the unstructured time” that were her childhood gifts. “My parents didn’t have any interest in making me take lessons in anything.” Mothers sewed, canned vegetables and went to church three times a week.
She thinks “Zippy,” recently out in paperback, resonated with readers because “there was no incest, nothing profound or dramatic or traumatic, just a little kid living her life in a perfectly normal place surrounded by eccentrics. In the memoir genre, there is a great deal of examining and self-indulgent suffering or victimization, and not everybody wants to read that.”
Her childhood was normal? Kimmel smiles. “I think I choose to see it that way.” But by her own description, her home was “pandemonium,” a place where her hamster Skippy drowned in her potty chair. Little Zippy never uttered a syllable until, when she was almost 3, her father tried to terminate her bottle. As recorded by her mother in her baby book, Zippy looked him square in the eye and told him: “I’ll make a deal with you.” The deal--to hide the bottle when company came--was a no-go, but Zippy the wordsmith was born.
The Jarvis family--Zippy, older sister Melinda, older brother Daniel and parents Bob and Delonda--were the stuff of TV sitcoms. Bob had a fondness for gambling and worked at something, although “none of us ever knew what,” Kimmel says. Her mother “was really a person living in her mind, and on the corner of the couch [reading science fiction], like she’d been in hibernation her whole life.”
Life changed for her mother when the women in her Quaker prayer cell encouraged her to take a TV-advertised college aptitude test. She did, and went on to earn undergraduate and master’s degrees at Ball State University in Muncie, teach high school and college and become a motivational speaker. She now teaches Shakespeare to maximum-security prisoners.
Predictably, all this upset the balance of the 27-year marriage, and when Kimmel was 12, her parents divorced. By 18, Kimmel was living on her own, waitressing in a diner and enrolled at Ball State. But she became pregnant by an Air Force man, married him, moved to Biloxi, Miss., and stayed home for two years with their daughter. “As everyone knows, that presents two options. One is to kill yourself. The other is to set your hair on fire.” She found a third--to write.
After her brief marriage ended, she returned to Ball State to get a degree in English and creative writing. A poet, she was “on a clear trajectory” toward a master of fine arts degree--until she looked around her and realized that most MFA candidates were “writers who wrote about writing and wrote about people writing about writing or writing about how they were not writing about writing about writing” or else were writing about “how their broken eyeglasses were a metaphor for their broken spirits. There was this incestuous circling around a very few subjects, and not the subjects poets should be dealing with.”
She began reflecting on a book she liked, Gail Godwin’s 1991 novel, “Father Melancholy’s Daughter,” the story of a young girl who becomes friend and caretaker to her rector father after they are abandoned by her mother. “I knew right then if you want to be a writer, you better be confronting the largest questions--evil, suffering, mortality, beauty.”
She called Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker seminary in Richmond, Ind., and said, “Look, I’m an atheist. In addition, I’m a sinner who falls from the grace of God every single day. Can I come to your seminary anyway?” They said yes. She stayed three years, studying religious philosophy and theology, but she never bothered to get her degree. “I learned what I needed to know.”
What she learned: “A great deal of humility.” She remains a nonbeliever, but a much more tolerant one: “When someone says, ‘God,’ I can’t assume I know what they mean.” She sees religion as the perfect metaphor for a writer, “trying to see the world from all angles and at the same time see the unseen world.”
“Solace” is the first book in a planned trilogy. She has completed the second, “Rattlesnake Kite,” to be published by Doubleday, and is working on the third. All three will be set in rural Indiana, but the only repeating character is a funeral director, “the one person,” she explains, “that everyone knows in rural Indiana.”
Kimmel is prolific. Due out next summer from a division of Houghton Mifflin is a children’s book, “Orville,” about a stray dog. She insists she writes like fury because she is otherwise totally unemployable. She has yet to suffer the agony of multiple rejections--two weeks after her first choice, a North Carolina publisher, rejected “Zippy” as not commercial, Doubleday snapped it up.
Kimmel’s tastes in contemporary literature are nothing if not eclectic. She likes Ray Bradbury--whose works she used to copy as a 9-year-old and claim as her own--and John Updike, and also John Crowley, the fantasy writer whose novel “Little, Big” is her “favorite book ever.” And she loves John Kennedy Toole’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces.” and its character, Ignatius G. Reilly, who wreaks havoc wherever he goes.
Kimmel says she owes a great debt to Anne Tyler, whose novels she has read and reread. “The whole secret of writing is in those books. She’s very, very sly. It seems as if nothing’s happening, but everything’s in them--life and death and birth. I really want to train that sort of eye on the world.”