Maine’s other suspense master

Auburn-raised author Kimball hooks Stephen king – and many other readers

By Pamela H. Sacks

Michael Kimball has perhaps the best friend a writer of suspense could wish for: Stephen King.

Mr. King, the undisputed master of suspense and horror, read the manuscript for Mr. Kimball’s first novel, a comedy, and liked it so much that he smoothed the path to its publication.

Not long afterward, Mr. King and his wife, Tabitha, who also is a talented novelist, helped Mr. Kimball get started as a screenwriter for television and the movies. Later, their backing was pivotal in the publication of Mr. Kimball’s first suspense novel, “Undone,” which became an extraordinary international success.

How Mr. Kimball, a graduate of Auburn High School and Worcester State College, came to know Stephen King is an amusing tale in itself, and one that shows how a helping hand extended at the right moment can make all the difference.

With the Kings’ assistance, Mr. Kimball, 52, has gone on to become a critically acclaimed writer in the suspense genre. Last year, Portland Magazine named him one of “the 10 most intriguing people in Maine.”

Mr. Kimball’s latest book, “Green Girls” (William Morrow, $24.95), was released Dec. 1 to rave reviews.

“The best suspense stories are the ones that creep up on you, breathe on your neck and jump back into the shadows when you turn around. Michael Kimball plays that game with unnerving skill,” said The New York Times in a review. Mr. Kimball will be at bookstores in the area this month and in January to greet readers and sign copies.

Mr. Kimball and his wife, Glenna, who also grew up in Auburn, moved to Maine nearly three decades ago, when he landed a job as a public school music teacher. The pay was meager, so he needed to supplement his income. He had always liked to write, and he found he had no trouble selling his freelance articles to publications such as Yankee magazine.

In the early 1980s, he found himself without summer employment when a federal educational program for migrant workers was eliminated. He decided to write a novel.

“I thought, `I won’t have to do research.’ That’s how naive I was. I actually did that,” Mr. Kimball said in a telephone interview from his home in York, just over the New Hampshire border. “I made it up as I went along.”

He had finished the manuscript by August. At a loss about what to do with it, he put it in an envelope and addressed it: “Stephen King, Bangor, Maine.”

To catch Mr. King’s attention, Mr. Kimball added something else to the package — a copy of an article he had written titled, “On Farting.” It had been published in the Co-Evolution Quarterly, now the Whole Earth Review, the journal of the Whole Earth Catalog.

“I couldn’t think of anything else to send,” Mr. Kimball said with a laugh. “The journal called me `the leading nonmedical authority on the subject.’ ”

With the package in the mail, Mr. Kimball said he felt himself spiraling downward emotionally and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Mr. King called and turned everything around.

“He said, `I love this farting article. I’m going to read your novel,’ Mr. Kimball recalled, adding that the famous writer told him he got hundreds of manuscripts a week and had no choice but to toss nearly all of them out.

Mr. King was as enthused about Mr. Kimball’s manuscript for “Firewater Pond” as he had been about the article. He sent it to his publisher, which made Mr. Kimball an offer. “I quit teaching the day Stephen King told me Putnam’s was going to make an offer,” he said. “I told my wife, `If they offer me $25,000 I’ll quit.’ They offered me $7,500 and I quit.”

Mr. King went on to tell the Maine Times that “Firewater Pond” was his favorite book of 1984. Not long afterward, the Kings and the Kimballs were having dinner together, and Mr. Kimball mentioned that he had always wanted to write a movie script, but had no idea how to go about it.

Mr. King “pulled out a screenplay and said, `Here. Read this,’ ” Mr. Kimball remembered.

Mr. Kimball broke into the field with the help of the Kings’ connections, and went on to write screenplays for the next decade, many of them for two television series, “Tales from the Dark Side” and “Monsters.” At one point, Walter Matthau’s son hired him to update a screenplay by Alec Coppel, the master of suspense during the golden age of the film noir thriller. In the process, Mr. Kimball came up with an idea for a thriller of his own and it became his breakthrough novel, “Undone.”

Writing the book was pure torture, he said. With every draft, he got comments from friends, among them Tabitha King.

“I worked on it and worked on it,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe how much I worked on it. The last two drafts, people were just blown away.” Mr. King wrote a blurb for the book jacket.

“Undone” became a bestseller in London and Ireland and was sold to 13 publishers worldwide. Mr. Kimball was the first American to receive the Fresh Talent Award given by W. H. Smith bookseller in the United Kingdom.

He followed that success with another novel, “Mouth to Mouth,” which was published in 2000.

With “Green Girls,” Mr. Kimball started with a germ of an idea that evolved into a complex story about Jacob Winter, a Kittery, Maine, writer who discovers his wife, Laura, having an affair with his psychiatrist.

He loses all control and awakens in jail charged with attempted murder. Bailed out by a pair of mysterious women from his past, he finds himself watching helplessly as one jumps from the Piscataqua River Bridge, and the other entangles him in an obsessive romance.

Suddenly, Jacob Winter is the focus of a bizarre murder investigation that extends to the mountains of Colombia and an ancient shamanistic Indian civilization.

Mr. Kimball said he’s too antsy to read for pleasure. He views writing as a more active endeavor. “I crawl down into this deep hole and stay there for two or three years,” he said. “It’s all fantasy, but to me it’s all real, and I keep on manipulating what’s there.”

His wife, whom he married right after she graduated from Auburn High, has been a constant support. Mrs. Kimball, a first-grade teacher, gave her husband the money to buy his first word processor from a settlement she received after being hit by a town truck.

The couple have two children: Jesse, 30, and Sarah, 22. Both are gifted writers, Mr. Kimball said.

At the moment, Mr. Kimball finds himself at loose ends. He expected to be engaged in rewriting his latest novel, a suspense-love story. He sent the manuscript to his agent, who is his toughest critic. The agent said he loved it.

“I didn’t expect that,” Mr. Kimball said. “I’m thinking, `Now what?’ ”