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.