Features / Fiction / Interviews

Q&A with Kimberly Olson Fakih on Little Miseries and Little Graces

by Lisa Peet

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgKimberly Olson Fakih’s debut novel Little Miseries (Delphinium Books, January 2023) opens with the horror story about a distant relative who, at 14, was crushed between two coupling train cars; before he died, the family women showed up to attend him with an almost otherworldly dignity. True or not, the story goes on to become a mainstay of Castle family lore, scaring its wide-eyed children deep into the middle of the 20th century.

The novel’s subtitle—This Is Not a Story About My Childhood, gently crossed out on the book’s serene cover—offers a hint at the interplay of memoir and fiction at work in Fakih’s tale. The Castles of Des Moines, Iowa, may bear a close resemblance to her own family, but this is Fakih’s story to tell the way she wishes, and with a deft touch she moves between humor and tragedy as her young protagonist—also named Kim—grows into a hard-won understanding of how the world, and her family, work. Bloom caught up with Fakih to find out more about the balancing act of writing about childhood: what you knew then, what you know now, and what you realize you’ve known all along.

*

Lisa Peet: Was this novel in the works for a long time, or was there a tipping point when you decided it was time to write it?

Kimberly Olson Fakih: This was a very recent development. I’ve always had these ideas about my family floating around. The same awareness that the protagonist has in the story—what was up with that?—has lived with me for so long. After my husband died and I got back in touch with my birth family a bit more, my brother made a comment about, “How did you know to escape to New York?” I went, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Our family’s just nuts.”

We started going over family stories, especially my mother’s comments about my body type and things like that. And I said, “You heard that?” And he said, “Yeah, I always felt really sorry for you.” And I went, “You should have said that at the time.” And he’s like, “Well, I was 12.” So I started thinking about that, and I started thinking about my sister.

My parents had told me when my daughter was six, which is now 24 years ago, about my sister having reawakened memories about abuse at my grandfather’s hands. And I had been ruminating over that, thinking, I knew that. I saw the way he pulled her out of gatherings and took her aside. And I was always curious about that. It wasn’t just that she was his favorite, there was something else. And every time I tried to talk to my parents about it as a young girl, they just shrugged and poured another drink—you know, “They love their grandchildren, just leave him alone.”

In the last three or four years I had been writing these little snatches of memories. I started talking one night with two friends. One is Sandra Jordan—she started Orchard Books, she was at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, she worked at New American Library. And I was talking with her and Jennifer Campbell Brown, then at Four Winds–Scholastic, two friends who go back 40 years. And they said, “You have to write this stuff down.” So I started to really sort through it, probably the summer of 2019, and it just came out in a rush, like patchwork. Then I started to organize it and I saw the mystery unfold. I saw that I really knew what I knew when I knew it. Then I showed it to my literary agent. She sent it to multiple publishers in summer 2021, and Delphinium bought it in October and wanted to put it on their 2023 list. So it happened really, really fast.

LP: I’m not surprised that the book sold that fast, but it’s great to hear. You had written some of your family stories for children, right?

KOF: I’d written two books about my grandparents. One is for six-year-olds called Grandpa Putter and Granny Hoe, about my Democratic grandma and my Republican grandfather. It’s just a funny story. And then I wrote High on the Hog, very loving glimpses of the same grandparents. I had no vision of the black marks on my family in those books. But once I had a baby in ’92, I started to say, “Wait, this is parenting—where were my parents? Why did they give us away to babysitters? Why was it okay to leave us with grandparents for extended periods of time?” I never did that to my daughter. My husband and I didn’t drink for 20 years, because we always felt so distant from her when we had a drink. I just thought, how irresponsible were the ’70s—loud music and people drinking and smoking and things going up in flames.

LP: You capture the tone of that time so well. Do you have a really good memory? Were you able to check facts with people who were around then?

KOF: I sent a draft of the book to my brother early on, and, and he said, he said, “Oh, my God, I don’t remember any of this this way.” And I said, “So tell me the things you do remember.” He said, “I remember dad saying terrible things in front of you. Like, ‘I’m an ass man,’ and it being okay to talk about women like that, that casual misogyny.” Then he started to take certain things apart, and I said, “No, that’s true. And that’s true. And that’s true.” He said, “Where was I?” And I said, “You were the only grandson. You were entitled. You lived in your own bubble, so you didn’t see how cast aside [my sister] and I were in the hierarchy. You didn’t see that you were getting the biggest dessert—we were getting apples and you were getting pie. We were watching our weight, and you were getting graham crackers and frosting.”

He fact checked a few things for me, but most of it was memory. When my parents saw High on the Hog, they were reading it out loud when they were driving up to the lake. And at one point my father just pulled over off the road and said, “Was she following us around with a notebook while she was growing up?” I know I hit some nerves. And that was a really innocent book. So I guess I just have a good memory. My mother would say, “You hold grudges.” But you know, if you don’t want me to remember these things, don’t say them out loud in front of me.

IMG_2996

LP: Did you keep a journal as a kid?

KOF: I was a journal keeper. But I wasn’t writing down what my parents said, I was writing down the broken things—like when my brother got a haircut, because he had really long hair, my grandparents gave him new mag wheels for his car. And my sister and I went to my grandparents and said, “What can we do to get new bikes?” My mother said, “He’s a boy. He’s older. He’s their favorite, just go with it.” I railed against those things in my diary. I was always angry about the favoritism. I was always angry about my parents not speaking up for us. They would just say, “Get over it. Move on. You’re the middle child. She’s the beloved baby sister.” They had all these bad reasons for why things were the way they were. And I was always the one asking questions and not getting very good answers.

LP: You have two different framings at work in the book. You use your own name, and some real family names. But then the title asserts that it’s not a story of your childhood. I’m wondering if there was a similar push and pull of memoir and fiction as you were writing, and how you resolved that.

IMG_2785KOF: All the time. I submitted it to my literary agent as a straight memoir, and I saw early on they needed a hero. But this is the problem of childhood itself—there were no heroes. There were no judges, no sheriffs. There was no one riding into town and rescuing us. We looked around and there were just irresponsible adults everywhere. I loved the principal of my elementary school, Miss Lightfoot, but I couldn’t go to her and say anything, because I didn’t really know how to talk about what was happening to us. Martin Luther King was shot, and Bobby Kennedy was shot, and Apollo was happening. So many things were happening when I was 10 that it was like, how can you talk about anything that’s happening in your home?

[My agent] needed more of an arc. And I realized, well, I will fictionalize some things. I won’t make me the hero, but I’ll let there be more of a climax, more of a reconciliation, some sort of peace. I also knew there had to be something about me coming into my own. I did start to believe in myself as a writer when I was that age. I just tried to do my best to stick to the truth of the emotions of the time, and walk the line of what I knew without forcing too much else on it.

LP: I think the ’70s can seem so exotic for a lot of readers—those levels of parental irresponsibility, and the idea that people wouldn’t listen to a child.

KOF: You’re so right. I had really narcissistic parents. My father was born in 1930. He was the only child for 14 years—they didn’t think they could have children. He was this lovely little redheaded boy, and they farmed him out to the wealthier neighbors in Mason City, Iowa whenever they didn’t have food, so he would eat while they sat home and starved. During the real estate boom, right after the war, they had a little girl and she grew up while he was in high school and off to college. My father by then was fully formed, this redheaded smarty pants, beautiful tenor voice, the center of their universe and the apple of their eye. He just always wanted to be the smartest guy in the room, and he would put others down to make that happen.

My mother was a beautiful woman who married above her, I think. Connie was always trying to keep up. She thought she had to buy into my dad’s life and be the trophy wife and all of those things, so she had to adopt sort of narcissistic habits too, be the Tri-T, bridge club person. She loved the beautiful clothes that my father’s salary bought her. And it was just really easy to be that, and then just to drink. I think alcoholism is its own bubble. If you’re not drinking, there’s so much that can happen, but once you put that buffer in there, then the numbness starts to happen.

LP: Your protagonist, Kim, seemed to be set on the path of being a writer. Was that your goal growing up? And what were you reading?

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgKOF: My grandfather Olson gave me a typewriter when I was 13, a Smith Coronamatic that had a cartridge you could slip in, because he thought I could be a writer, and my aunt Susan gave me a thesaurus, Webster’s Dictionary, Manual of Style, Words Into Type. And a good book every year of my life from the time I was born—The Hobbit and all of Tolkien, and Up a Road Slowly. When I said I wanted to be a nurse, she was the one who said be a doctor. And when I said I wanted to be a sailor, she said, “You should be an admiral.” But I was pretty sure I couldn’t make my living as a writer.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgI was given a Newbery every single year by a librarian who gave books out to the 10 readers with the most checked out books, and I was always on that list. I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Island of the Blue Dolphins, things like that. But I also read Jane Austen early on. I read all my father’s Westerns on the shelf, like Louis L’Amour, Frank Yerby. I read Taylor Caldwell when I was 12. I would read Lenora Mattingly Weber, the Beany Malone books, and Maud Hart Lovelace. Anything that was a series I just devoured. And then I started reading a lot of nonfiction, like Eudora Welty and John Gardner on becoming a writer, just because people kept pressing those books on me.

I went to the University of Minnesota and was in the school of journalism, but I clashed heads with Walter Brovald, the dean of journalism, so I transferred to the School of English and got a literature degree instead. That’s where I saw the posting for the publishing course and knew, “Well then, I’ll go be an editor.” It was when I was working at Harper & Row, my first job, that I saw how easy it was to slip between editing and writing.

LP: There’s a very strong theme through the book of stories that both save you and fail you.

KOF: I was always bothered by fairy tales. I’m not comforted by happy endings. I’m deeply comforted by always being in the middle of a story. I tell myself, this is the middle, and I hang on to that—I don’t know the ending and I’ve got to see this through. That’s seen me through disasters, when my husband was dying, when anything has ever happened to me. I’ve told myself, please just get through this, because you don’t know the ending. That’s what I mean by “story’s seen me through,” that if you can just keep turning the pages and find out what happens next, you’ll be okay. It may not be a happy ending, but it’ll be something that will guide you to the next thing.

LP: And finally, I love the title. Did you always have it in mind, or was it a process?

KOF: We went through so many titles. It was The Castles of Iowa, because I was set on this idea of the things that had fallen down and were ruined, and then it was All the Little Miseries. At some point it got tightened to Little Miseries. It was the idea that none of this really added up to more than a hill of beans, but taken all together, it was a big deal. The story of the boy in the rail yard was a big version of children being in the way of adult things going on. Also, I always loved the way the women took over, and there was such grace in in the way that played out. I wanted that to be a highlight—that there’s a way through the little miseries if you keep your shit together. And the way through the little miseries is just the little graces, those moments like when they’re washing the baby at the end [of the novel], or when they’re watching the sun come up over the fields, these feelings that everything keeps rolling through.

Bloom Post End

Lisa Peet is the Senior News Editor at Library Journal and a card-carrying bloomer herself.

Click here to read Lisa Peet’s previous features

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s