Kevin Kling has been telling stories — on the radio and on the stage, in plays and in film — for about 30 years, not counting all the years before that when he was listening and practicing and gearing up to become a professional storyteller. But he didn’t feel that he was a real writer until his first book of stories, “The Dog Says How,” came out in 2007.
“Now I feel like I have really arrived, like I’m part of this great community of Minnesota authors, and now I can go up to these folks that I’ve admired for so long and look ’em in the eye. It’s a totally different feeling, being in print,” he said from his home in Minneapolis.
His new collection, “Holiday Inn” (Borealis Books), is a string of tales, tall and true, spun out across a year of holidays, which means we get a longer look at the quirks and adventures of Kling’s family. Unlike the families of many a memoirist, the Kling clan doesn’t mind being the subject of his work; these are a people who revere storytelling, and they’ll gladly help him corroborate what sounds like a whopper, or even refine it.
“Family will say, ‘We need more here, I don’t think you got that right.’ They’re pretty savvy to the fact that I’m gonna stretch things, but it’s all based in real stories. They’ll come to a storytelling and back me up on it. People will say, ‘That can’t be true!’ and there’s my mom, nodding her head,” he said.
In one piece, Kling revisits the several months he spent in the Shriner’s Children’s Hospital as a young boy. He was born with a congenital birth defect that gave him a short left arm, missing a wrist and thumb, and he needed surgery. So his parents, without warning or explanation, dropped him off for an extended stay at what turned out to be surgery plus recovery in a Lord of Flies-like children’s ward.
“Your parents couldn’t visit for at least the first month, because the theory was if they saw you, they’d remember you,” said Kling, marveling at the outdated health-care model. “My mom, early on, had a really hard time with that story. She says, ‘One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was drop you off at that hospital,’ and she didn’t like it that when I told the story at first, it seemed like I was just abandoned by her and my dad. So I added a part where she cried as she left and said, ‘Mom, is that enough?’ And she said yeah.”
That’s one way putting it in print is different: No more refinements allowed. “The ethereal world of storytelling is that you’re either there or you’re not. There’s a beautiful sense of event about it, it could only happen at that moment,” he said. “But there’s something about having the stories in a book that makes them lasting, and I wanted, once I was gone, for them not to go with me.”
Kling’s work has become warmer, more resonant, and cleaner over the years. His audience includes a large number of junior-high and high-school students, he says. While the other storytellers they might hear on the radio, such as the essayists on NPR’s “This American Life,” might tell tales of their own generation, with a bitter twist, Kling’s work is sweeter, funnier, and lets them in on the secrets of their parents’ generation.
“When I was growing up, there were guys like Bill Cosby, storytellers I just loved, and now for some kids, I get to be that character. I’m letting them in on this world that was their parents’ world, a world that is both familiar and different,” he says. “I learned that it is really important to write down what you know and what others know, things about your time and other times, and that your ancestors are really, really important.
“We seem so isolated now. We’re so crowded but we’re all in front of screens, and when do we get to feel a sense of belonging? It’s so important that we belong to a family or group or community, and stories can unite us. Last night I was out with some buddies and they told the funniest stuff, and I know it’ll sift in. I’ll be out somewhere and hear something, or I’ll read something in the paper, or I’ll read a book and it will spark a memory of my own. It’s an ongoing process. I really love it when a buddy of mine tells a story and I laugh my head off. That’s part of the process. It’s a pretty good job.”
Talk of the Stacks, 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, Central Library, Pohlad Hall, 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis.