Interview with Author Jen Michalski
by Ian Lashley McIntosh
Jen Michalski is a local author in Baltimore area who has published three books this year alone—the most recent being her debut novel The Tide King (winner of Black Lawrence Press's Big Moose Prize). In this gripping story about mortality and emotional connections, Michalski weaves together historical accuracy and magical realism with surprising ease, infusing the tale with 18th-century Poland, World War II, Montana smoke jumpers, and the 1940s country music industry.
Outside of her writing, she is heavily involved in other projects that promote reading and writing in Baltimore. Most notably she’s the co-host for the 510 reading series, a fiction reading series that takes place in Baltimore, founding editor of the literary magazine jmww, which is a quarterly journal that publishes various forms of written expression and art, and a cohost of the live-action Lit Show, a late-night literary experience for the Conan set.
Where did you grow up?
I lived in Baltimore until I was thirteen and then my family moved to the Eastern Shore; I wound up completing both my undergrad (St. Mary’s College of MD) and graduate (Towson University) work here. I’ve lived in Maryland all my life, and, no longer to my surprise, I might die there, too.
How has living in Maryland influenced your writing? Did moving to the Eastern Shore inspire anything in your writing?
Good question. I write about Baltimore sometimes, certainly less often than I did. When I think of writers who write so well about people and places, from James Joyce to Amy Tan to our own Alice McDermott, John Barth, and Anne Tyler, and even Jessica Blau, whose stories come so much from her life, I wonder what I could add to the conversation, and I’m not sure. My stories often start with a first sentence in my head, and I’m knitting loops to it, not entirely sure where it’s going. Place sometimes may not evolve until I’m a few pages in because the beginning scenes may be so interior. I never start out thinking “I want to write a story about Baltimore” or “I want to write a novel or a collection of short stories about the Eastern Shore.” I write about what interests me, and my interests are very broad.
I’m sure if I lived somewhere else more exotic, where my experience was less American, or less blue-collar middle class, I might feel more compelled because I would be coming at it from the experience of the other. For instance, I always nag my partner, who is Vietnamese, about writing down her stories of moving to America so young, right after the Vietnam war, and the cultural gaps and understandings in trying to live between two worlds. I find her history so fascinating. But I don’t feel like it’s mine to use in my writing.
Still, I think about my genealogy, and my Polish roots, and I would sometime like to explore it in more detail. I took baby steps with it in the novel The Tide King, but it wasn’t the expansive, determined effort that my family deserves. I’ve always been more interested in the psyche of my characters, although I acknowledge that place can drive a person’s psyche more than I’ve allowed in my writing to this point.
What kinds of books did you read when you were younger? What books from this time inspired you? Why?
I really loved Harriet the Spy as a child and recently wrote an essay about its influence on me as a writer for David Abrams’ (blog (The Quivering Pen):
As a child, I read all the usual suspects—Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, Choose Your Own Adventures, John Bellairs. In middle school and high school I also loved Salinger, like most kids, and Bukowski and read a lot of the classics. I think inspiration is an interesting word. I was pretty white bread, middle class—we went to Ocean City every summer for vacation, and I never even flew in a plane until I graduated from college. So, in that respect, reading really took me places—I know that sounds so cliché, like something written on a poster for the local library’s summer reading program (Oh, the places you will go!), but reading really did help me see and desire the greater, exotic world out there, whether it was solving mysteries in Hong Kong or France with Nancy Drew or settling the prairie with the Ingalls or even escaping to London with Oliver Twist.
So did you major in English in college? What college did you go to?
I majored in language and literature at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in the early 1990s, and then I got my masters in professional writing from Towson University.
Did being a language and lit major influence your decision to become a writer? Or did certain teachers?
You know, I was really lucky—the late Lucille Clifton and Michael Glaser, both former poet Laureates of Maryland, among other things, were teaching at St. Mary’s when I attended, so I was able to take classes with them. I wrote much more poetry in college, and then in the summer and during breaks I’d work on novels, which I never showed anyone. They were for my private enjoyment and, like a lot of writing, they helped me to organize my thoughts and tackle the experiences I was wrestling with in my life (broken homes, parental alcoholism, dating, coming of age, and also my sexuality at some point).
I think, because I started out as a poet (even though I was a pretty terrible one), I pay more attention to the sound and rhythm of my prose—there’s a beat, a syncopation as it moves along, and sometimes I hear what the sentence sounds like and then add the words to it. Language is so much more than moving ideas from point a to b. It’s a song—it has notes, a beat. It has volume. It was arrangements. It has a vocalist and sometimes a choir. It’s so rich and I hate to see it abused (particularly in genre fiction, where the writing is so flat).
So yeah, when I was studying at St. Mary’s, I was vaguely convinced I would have a career in writing—doing work for magazines or a newspaper, not poetry or fiction. (That was for fun.) When I graduated I interned at a small gay paper in Baltimore with strong arts coverage. I reviewed mostly art but also plays and music and reviewed books. I really wanted to be an arts writer for a bigger publication, so I went to graduate school at Towson and majored in professional writing. This was in 1997 or so. I did more fiction writing there, short stories and stuff, and I also wrote a novel during a independent study class. Still, I wasn’t convinced I could be a professional fiction writer.
In fact, it wasn’t until after I graduated, in 1999, that I knew that MFA programs even existed! I was so surprised you could study writing and teach it without having to get a PhD. Although I didn’t apply to an MFA program—at 27, I was finished with school—I started an online lit journal, jmww, so I would stay involved in the little scene of writers I discovered at Towson and didn’t want to leave (one of them, actually, was Dave Housley, who went on to form Barrelhouse magazine).
What kinds of things did you write about ?
I remember when I first began to write short stories, around the time I graduated from St. Mary’s, I felt that not only did things have to happen, but that they had to be unique in some way—I didn’t see how the “slice of life” that is prevalent in literary fiction could contain itself. As a result, some of my early work had more of a sci-fi or gimmicky feel. It was only after I began to read more short stories—Flannery O’Connor, Lori Moore, Raymond Carver, of course Joyce Carol Oates—that I felt like I could really move into a more literary direction, into quiet, everyday storms.
But I usually write to understand what’s going on in my head. I never had make-believe friends, but I’ve always felt like Haley Joel Osmond in The Sixth Sense—he sees dead people, and I see character people. Sometimes I see them in the real life, like ghosts, doing things around me—in the park, on the street—and sometimes they’re just living their lives in my head with their problems. I always joke that I could do hard time because my world doesn’t end when I shut the door or close my eyes—sometimes I close my eyes just to spend more time in my world of make-believe. I think I watched way too much Mister Rodgers’ Neighborhood growing up.
What’s the most challenging part about completing a work?
Sometimes I wonder whether I can do it better, should spend more time on it. I feel incredibly guilty if it comes too easy. But usually when I’m ready to write a story, so much of it has been worked out in my head that when I sit down, it’s like tipping over a full coffee pot—a hot, steaming cup of coffee comes out, ready to drink. Sometimes I leave it right there. But sometimes I’ll add cream and sugar and maybe it tastes better, but then I wonder whether the revisions are distracting from the hot, base taste of the coffee bean. I have friends who work over stories for years; usually it takes me a month to feel finished with something. Once or twice in my life I’ve put something away and finished it later, but I never force it. I usually start writing when the bath tub in my head has been slowly filling and I need to drain it before it spills all over the place.
When I’m laboring too hard over something, it’s usually because I’m thinking outside of it—like I’m thinking about where I might want to submit it after it’s finished, or what my writing group, if I’m in one at the time, would think, and I have to remind myself to write like it’s just me and the screen, the paper. Then I can return to that more natural place, where everything flows without those distractions.
That’s interesting—so, whether you’re thinking of publication or not, how much do you revise? When you write novels, do you have drafts or like above, do you try to keep things natural and unstructured?
In writing novels, I’m finding that there are so many more moving parts, and more revision is necessary to keep the log line and to pace well and to balance characters and plotlines. I actually do welcome some outside intervention, like my editor, because I short story, to me, is like knitting a sweater or an Afghan—it’s manageable, I can keep track of it, and if something goes wrong, I can usually unravel it and figure out where I missed a loop or something. But a novel to me is like scaling up a sketch into a fifty-foot mural, and I need someone far away from it to let me know that I’m getting the proportions right.
What generally inspires you to begin a work? You said something about a line in your head? Is it the same for novels and short stories?
Short stories are more first lines, but novels are definitely vague ideas. Sometimes, though, I never know if it’s going to be a short story or novel. In fact The Tide King and the novel I’m currently working on both began as short stories that just sort of outgrew their britches.
A short story growing into a novel sounds like a pretty big leap! What pushes you to make that distinction?
Sometimes I start with one premise, and while I’m writing I realize, if there are two characters, that they both have complications that are moving the story along. And that it will take more than fifteen or twenty pages for their stories to arc and fall. Sometimes, oddly enough, the character isn’t ready to finish the story. In the novel I’m working on now, it started as a short story in which a young woman driving an ice cream truck in Newport, Rhode Island in the early 70s has a strange, life-changing experience with a reclusive old movie star who lived in one of the mansions on Bellevue Avenue (loosely modeled after Betty Hutton). Naturally, I was vacationing in Rhode Island and lying on the beach, staring at an ice cream truck when the idea came about. But after I got nine pages into it and needed the wave to begin to break, so to speak, I thought, “I can’t possibly write this story in the parameters I’ve given it.” This old movie star wants a bigger part. And this ice cream girl wants to be more than an ice cream girl. She wants other choices to make. So she got a murder mystery to solve. And a love triangle. Sometimes the characters will demand things of you. In the same way, the novella “I Can Make it to California Before It’s Time for Dinner” (in the book of novellas Could You Be With Her Now) was a 3000-word short story that was published, but I felt as if I’d done narrator, Jimmy, wrong. He does something terrible and then I end the story, and he kept nagging at me, like he wanted to tell the rest of the story. So I let him.
So what happens in the ice cream story that’s now a novel?
So there’s a young girl (Kate) whose father owns a fleet of ice cream trucks in Newport, Rhode Island, in the 70s. One of the little boys she sells ice cream to is accused of drowning a little girl, so Kate enlists the help of an aging, reclusive movie actress (Grace Huston) to help her solve the mystery. Kate’s been raised by her father, so she’s lacking in social graces a bit, but she has a strong sense of justice and sticking her head into places that are none of her business. And she also finds herself involved, to varying degrees, with two men on the island, a university boy, Charlie, who surfs during the summer and a police officer, David, who’s involved in the case.
Would you say that Kate is very different from you? Are there any similarities or major differences?
I think Kate is a lot braver than I was when I was her age. We certainly share the same desire to create (for her, with art), but she’s much more willing to put herself out there and take chances. I didn’t become more like Kate until I was in my early thirties. I’ve always had a healthy fear of authority and have craved stability because my upbringing was financially and emotionally messy, whereas Kate doesn’t care if she has to wind up sleeping on a couch or in the back of a van in a strange city. So yeah, in a way, she’s more the person I wish I were when I was starting out.
What about The Tide King? Do you have an affinity for any of those characters?
I don’t feel that any of them are like me, but I am fiercely protective of Ela, the nine-year old who’s been alive since the late eighteenth century, and Heidi, who was abandoned by her mother when she’s young and is as ugly and poor but finds herself making difficult choices when she’s still also just a girl. And I enjoy the brotherhood of Stanley and Calvin, fellow soldiers during World War II who wind up taking very different paths in their lives. Oh, and I also feel sorry for Maggie, who lives alone in the Montana wild. She’s a proud and independent woman but also a fragile, scared girl inside. I always say this novel is not about immortality, but loneliness—there’s a lot of abandonment throughout. Maybe it’s my way of making sense of why I’ve always felt a lone, a little outside of everyone else, in my life. I don’t know. Could also be why I wanted to be a psychologist (but that’s probably a different interview).
How would you define your voice?
It changes from project to project. My book of novellas that published earlier this year with Dzanc (Could You Be With Her Now) has a completely different set of tones and sounds than The Tide King, which is more conventional. However, even the conventional sound of The Tide King varies from Rabbits Singing. Although I may use a certain vocabulary or cadence that can sound similar, the way an artist might use the same palette from painting to painting, the works are completely different in how they are designed and executed.
So it’s easy to overlook, with all your work you’re promoting this year, that you’re a big promoter of writers yourself—as the editor of jmww and a co-host of The Lit Show (with Betsy Boyd) and The 510 Readings (with Michael Kimball). What is the Baltimore writing community like?
The community is very close and very supportive. It’s small enough that if you want to do something, like start a reading series or a writing group or publish a magazine, you can do it, and people will even help you. It comprises writers, university professors, bookstore owners, nonprofit CEOs, press gurus, so it’s a very varied group with outreach in many different places. There’s no excuse as an undergrad—or even just a local writer---not to get involved when it’s right around you.
I mean, we have so many literary publications operating inside Baltimore, and I’m not talking about the ones affiliated with colleges—jmww, The Baltimore Review, Artichoke Haircut, Publishing Genius, Narrow House Books, Shattered Wig Review, Smile Hon, You’re in Baltimore, The Hopkins Review, and Cobalt. We have four or five fiction and nonfiction reading series and several poetry series (many of which are hosted at Minas Gallery in Hampden). There’s CityLit Project, which single-handedly brings the CityLit Festival every year, contributes significant programming to The Baltimore Book Festival, community outreach in underserved communities, and is even publishing books.
I think if someone has to ask me about the scene, then they’re not looking very hard. It’s everywhere—and I mean that. You can go out almost every night to a reading event. And everyone should do something—there was a talk at AWP this year about the symbiotic writing community, that you can’t just take, take, take. Even if it’s infrequent, all writers should attend readings to support other writers. Buy their books. Review their books or interview them for publications. Read submissions for literary journals. Not only does it help their platform but it helps one’s own as well. I’ve gotten some great opportunities (writing for Poets & Writers about Baltimore [url=http://www.pw.org/content/baltimore?cmnt_all=1]http://www.pw.org/content/baltimore?cmnt_all=1[/url], editing the anthology City Sages: Baltimore) by being actively involved in the community for so many years.
Sometimes it’s probably to my detriment that I get involved in so many things—I have a hard time saying no. But I think anyone can, with defined boundaries, participate in the community in a meaningful way. Even people with children and other responsibilities. Because there are so many writers with families and children and I still see them at 510 Readings, at other events. They come because they love literature and because we are the water that floats our own boats. It’s a tough industry out there, and you have to be savvy and dedicated to spending some of your time cultivating an audience and selling the product that you have so lovingly crafted.
That said, even if I never published another book, if I knew that no one would read another word, I still couldn’t stop writing. It’s like breathing. It’s my way of processing the world, and it’s my way of living in it. I feel wrong, like I’m constipated, if I can’t. It’s not a means to an end, per se. It just is. It’s just what I am—a writer.
Ian Lashley McIntosh is an avid reader and writer. He has completed his first novel in a series of eight books with hopes of getting the first published in the next two years. Originally from Winter Haven Florida, Ian now resides in the greater Baltimore area. He graduated from Stevenson University, Owings Mills, Maryland with a BA degree in English Language and Literature in 2013. When not reading or writing, he spends his time creating character bios, finding characters to be the most fascinating part of any story.