ALTA ASKS

Talking with Kimi Eisele

In a surprising coincidence, the cover image for "The Lightest Object in the Universe" looked eerily like a piece of artwork Kimi Eisele had made for her book — and never showed anyone.
JADE BEALL
In a fun coincidence, the cover image for "The Lightest Object in the Universe" looks eerily like a piece of artwork Kimi Eisele had made for her book — and never showed anyone.
The Lightest Object in the Universe reveals hope and humanity amid a dystopian setting.

Kimi Eisele’s work shows the good that can come from a crisis. Her debut novel, The Lightest Object in the Universe, a tale of two lovers trying to find each other after the world falls apart, demonstrates not the depths of depravity that we’re accustomed to in postapocalyptic literature, but the possibility that lies within each of us. In Eisele’s work, governments fall, pandemics spread, the power grid fails, and climate change ravages the earth—separating friends and loved ones.

Watch Alta Asks Live: Kimi Eisele

But Eisele writes with an eye to hope. Carson, a high school teacher, travels across the United States to the West Coast to meet Beatrix, with whom he’s had an online relationship. Beatrix and her neighbors, including a young girl with unusual powers, have formed a cooperative community in order to survive. On his journey, Carson encounters those who would take advantage of him and those who are under the spell of a mysterious evangelical preacher. Much like Carson and Beatrix, Eisele’s narrative is propelled by ideas of human capability and connection.

Alta spoke with Eisele about The Lightest Object in the Universe.

EXCERPT: 

“The heaviest object in the universe,” Carson said, reaching for Beatrix’s hand.

His hand was warm and solid and soft all at once, and Beatrix suddenly felt buoyant, as if inside a quiet ascending elevator or hovering over the city in a hot air balloon.

Carson lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed the back of her fingers, his words finally landing in her ears.

“What?” she said, letting go and stepping closer to the frame.

“Grief,” Carson said.

They both stood looking at the photograph but also not looking at it.

Beatrix noticed something in the upper corner of the photo: an irregular dark mass above the boulder. Leaning in, she saw the shape was made of singular things, each with its own curve and arc. Birds.

“Good thing for the lightest then,” she said.

“What’s that?”

Beatrix felt her face flush. Warmth rushed into her chest. Love. Love was the lightest object, the thing that elevated you and kept you aloft.

She fluttered a hand at the image and said, “Birds.”

What central question does your work ask?
America has long been considered a “superpower.” Growing up in this country with a certain amount of privilege made me think often about its evil twin, entitlement. When I examined the origins of this power, I saw an electrical grid powered by subsidized fossil fuels and a system of economic exploitation and imperialism that served a few and hurt many. What would happen if America was stripped of these powers? If everything fell apart, how might we rebuild? What if the worst of times brought our best traits and helped us reimagine something better?

Do you listen to anything as you write?
I can’t listen to music with lyrics when I’m working with language, so I’ll listen to classical music or ambient music. I’m a huge fan of Icelandic sounds, particularly those made by the duo Jónsi & Alex, which help transport me from the glaring Tucson summers to somewhere considerably wetter and colder. I also listen to my two dogs, often nearby, breathing or bark-dreaming.

What obsessions, coincidences, or connections made it into this book?
Because the writing of this novel took me over a decade, I kept thinking I’d miss the boat, that the end times would come before the book made it into the world. There was the peak-oil moment, which set me a-sail, then the 2008 financial collapse, then the 2016 election. Five months before publication, the United States underwent the longest government shutdown in history. A year later, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. All of those things, in slightly different iterations, happen in my book, though I wrote them before they happened in real life. That’s either coincidence or prescience. But, as many of my characters note, anyone paying attention could see the writing on the wall, the flimsy house of cards.

Here’s a lighter coincidence: Somewhere early on in my writing process, I made an image for the book, not exactly a cover but something like it. I forgot all about it until my publisher sent me the actual cover design, which looked eerily like the one I’d made, though I hadn’t shared it with anyone.

What, in other disciplines, inspires you to create?
I listen to a lot of podcasts and love the art of conversation. I’m often inspired by conversations with scientists, philosophers, spiritual leaders, artists, other deep thinkers. I love when a thread of inquiry is picked up and carried or crisscrossed, tied and untied and looped back by a skillful interviewer talking to someone about ideas. I’m also a dancer. I’m usually a happier writer when I remind myself that sometimes language has to be coaxed from inside the body, from movement.

What’s on your to-be-read list?
Lidia Yuknavitch’s Verge. Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness. Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem. Sarah Kendzior’s Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America. Kerri Arsenault’s Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains. Even Stephen King’s The Stand, which I’ve never read. Sadly, the pandemic has interfered horribly with my reading attention. I’m finding better luck with audiobooks. I am listening intermittently to Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins and Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House: A Memoir—both are rich and haunting but in different ways.

Give us the elevator pitch for your book.
After a global economic collapse and failure of the electrical grid, Carson, a high school history teacher, heads west on foot toward Beatrix, a woman he met and fell hard for during a chance visit to his school. On the other side of the country, Beatrix and her neighbors turn to one another for food, water, and solace and begin to construct the kind of cooperative community that suggests the end could, in fact, be a promising beginning. Between Carson and Beatrix lie 3,000 miles and the Center, a place of deliverance promised by the evangelical preacher Jonathan Blue. Among those heading toward Blue is 15-year-old Rosie Santos, who travels with her grandmother, finding her voice and making choices that could ultimately decide the fate of the cross-country lovers. The Lightest Object in the Universe is a story about reliance and adaptation, a testament to the power of community, and a chronicle of moving on after catastrophic loss, illustrating that even in the worst of times, our best traits, born of necessity, can begin to emerge.

Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic based in Elk Grove, California. She most recently interviewed Luis J. Rodriguez for Alta Asks.

THE LIGHTEST OBJECT IN THE UNIVERSE
  • By Kimi Eisele
  • Algonquin Books, 336 pages, $26.95