Brian Kimberling: the twitcher of Evansville

The author's debut, about birdwatching in his native Indiana, is like Lake Wobegon on meth, he tells David Barnett

So, Brian Kimberling, the author of the captivating new novel Snapper – show us some ornithology. Kimberling, looking every inch the Southern Indiana boy brought up on fresh air and schnitzel (his hometown, Evansville, bears its German heritage with pride), glances around Hyde Park. It is the first long-heralded sunny day of a spring that has dragged its feet in arriving, and Londoners are out, blinking uncertainly, in force. And so are the birds.

Kimberling is 6ft 8in in his boots, and he scans the unexpectedly blue skies. "Parakeets," he says, almost nonchalantly, nodding at not one, not even a pair, but four vibrant green birds flitting about the tree-tops. It is fair to say I am impressed by Kimberling's birdwatching chops. He's managed to summon parakeets, like some corn-fed, blond-haired, bird-whisperer.

The photographer wants to know if Kimberling has any binoculars for posing with. Kimberling shrugs and confides: "I actually don't know that much about birds, British birds at least." But the level of detail and casually assured knowledge evident in Snapper, the book which could do for birdwatchers what Annie Proulx did for small-town newspaper reporters and gay cowboys, would tend to suggest that he's being over-modest. But it's not a book about birds; more a book about a birdwatcher, Nathan Lochmueller, who is employed by Indiana University to track and log the nesting habits of songbirds in a specific corner of woodland near Evansville.

Nathan is a drifter, at least in career terms, and falls into the job when his predecessor's car is hit by a tree. He's also a locus for the kind of quirky, off-the-wall incidents and episodes that give Snapper its aura of edgy charm: a friend gets a digit bitten off by a turtle; Nathan gets stalked through the woods by a gun-toting Ku Klux Klansman; he struggles to return to the authorities a bone his dog finds in a graveyard. And then there's Lola, the free spirit who Nathan, for all his burgeoning birdwatching skills, simply cannot classify, quantify, or tame.

When the Hyde Park photo-shoot is finished – Kimberling looking like some early-Nineties grunge band escapee far younger than his 40 years – I wonder if he would mind comparisons to Garrison Keillor's hypnotically drawled vignettes of his native Minnesota?

Kimberling grins. "When I was first pitching Snapper I described it as 'something that might be cooked up in a crystal meth lab in Lake Wobegon'."

Like Keillor's oeuvre, Snapper reads less like a conventional novel with a distinct story arc than a collection of snapshots of Indiana life, darkly humorous or unexpectedly heart-rending episodes, all with Nathan at their heart.

"Most people agree it's a novel," he says. "Some people say it's a short story collection." He pauses for a long time, then says, "I call it a book." He thinks about it again. "I thought I was writing related short stories, but they started talking to each other."

He does that a lot, Kimberling, takes long, measured pauses after a question, sometimes for so long that you think he's declined to answer. Near the end of the interview he tells me that when he was 15, he stole a pack of gum and was pounded so hard in his left ear that he went completely deaf – an It's a Wonderful Life-esque episode that is replicated, to some extent, in the book, and explains why he often takes a moment longer than most people to digest what he's been told or asked.

This being Kimberling's first novel, there's a lot of the author in the protagonist. Nathan's job ("birdwatching is no fitting line of work for a man" opines a Texan uncle) is precisely the one that Kimberling did for two summers when he was 22, in a landscape pretty much identical to the one he fictionalises.

He stresses again that he is not a bird expert, save for the specific species he had to track and chart in a square mile of woodland. "My brother is the real expert," he says. "I enjoyed the job, I got to spend a lot of time out in the woods. It was only two summers, though." He goes silent, perhaps pondering those lost, distant, twenty-something summers, and then grins. "Maybe I'm using the book to create that career for myself, 17 years on."

In 1997, Kimberling left Evansville and Indiana, planning to travel for a year and teach English abroad. He fetched up in the Czech Republic, Mexico, Turkey and ultimately England. The year has become many, and Kimberling is happily settled in Bath with his English wife and their four-year-old son.

Regency Bath must be a world away from Southern Indiana. "I love Bath," he says. But he evidently loves his homeland as well – Snapper is testimony to that. "Evansville is number eight in the list of the 10 most miserable towns in the US," he says with a mixture of slight embarrassment and perverse pride.

While designing databases and doing production journalism for periodicals with titles such as Irish Dancing Magazine and University Caterer, Kimberling began writing plays for a local theatre company. He then enrolled on the Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University, the course run by the novelist Tessa Hadley. "I was so lucky to get Tessa for all my classes," he says. "She encouraged me to write about Indiana."

Kimberling is currently on a US tour which takes him back to Evansville for the first time since he wrote Snapper. How will they take the book? "I'm sure my mother will let me know what people think as soon as I get there." He contemplates the old place for a while. "I think Indiana is a romantic place, partly because it's forsaken and forlorn. I love Indiana from a distance and wanted to commemorate the Indiana I grew up in."

Snapper, By Brian Kimberling

Tinder Press £14.99

"What kind of birds do you watch?" she said.

"All of them. I try to see how they interact. Some get along fine and some don't."

"I noticed that," she said. "I seen crows and blue jays give a hawk a hard time."

At that time I was most interested in brown-headed cowbirds, but Maud had a point ..."