Michael Kimball chuckles good-naturedly as he recounts the excruciating process that preceded the publication of his unconventional first novel, The Way the Family Got Away. Turned down by approximately two dozen literary agents, he finally decided to pitch his book directly to publishers. "In the span of about a year," he recalls as he sits in the living room of the capacious Charles Village townhouse that he shares with his wife, Tita Chico, and their four cats, "I accumulated 119 rejections for the manuscript." More often than not, Kimball continues, the letters expressed a similar sentiment: "'This is great writing, but we don't know what to do with it.'"
Kimball, now 40, was working as an editor at a New York City publishing house himself at the time of this spectacular losing streak (1998), when a colleague pointed out an item in Publishers Weekly touting the receptiveness of U.K.-based publishers toward non-mainstream
American fiction. Kimball immediately fired off his manuscript to a half-dozen U.K. houses.
Fourth Estate, a British imprint that is now part of publishing giant HarperCollins, knew "what to do with it." Issued in 2000, The Way the Family Got Away traces a loss-suffused road trip made by an unnamed family—father, mother, young son, toddler daughter—as they relocate from Texas to Michigan with a third child, a recently deceased infant, stowed in a tiny coffin in the car's trunk. Kimball tells his story, loosely based on an incident from his own family, in the alternating voices of the two children.
The novel resonated deeply with British reviewers and drew nearly unanimous praise; finally published in the United States in 2000, The Way the Family Got Away has since been translated into Dutch, Italian, Spanish, German, and Portuguese, with a Hebrew version in the works.
Born and raised in Lansing, Michigan, Kimball graduated from Michigan State with a degree in English education but never pursued that career path. After stints in Chicago and New York City, he lived for six years in Lubbock, Texas with Chico (who is a college professor and, also, an author). Two years ago, she snagged an assistant professor post in the English department of the University of Maryland, and the couple resettled in Charles Village. When not writing fiction, Kimball edits and rewrites college textbooks.
His second novel, 2005's How Much of Us There Was, again elicited a rapturous response in the U.K. but still awaits publication here. His third book, Dear Everybody, is scheduled to be issued this March in the U.S., U.K., and Canada. "It is a novel about a man who is writing letters of apology to everybody he has ever known," Kimball explains, "and, in doing so, tells his life's story."
Meanwhile, Kimball will, in January, inaugurate a local fiction-reading series featuring "mostly" Baltimore writers. "I'm hoping for a range of people," he says.
"There's a lot going on here as a writing scene, but it seems fragmented," Kimball adds. "People don't seem to know each other. That sort of surprises me, and that's why the idea for a fiction-reading series seems obvious. Hopefully, it will work out."