Distilling the Essence of Things: An Interview with Jen Michalski

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Jen Michalski is busy. Her third book, the collection of short stories From Here, releases from Aqueous Books next month. That’s after her novella collection from Dzanc, Could You Be with Her Now (2013), and The Tide King, her debut novel, which won the 2012 Big Moose Prize from Black Lawrence Press. Her debut story collection, Close Encounters, released in 2007. On top of all that writing, Michalski is the founder and editor of the online lit mag jmww. She also runs the Starts Here!, and interviews writers at Baltimore Fishbowl. For Atticus Review this month Michalski gives of herself yet again. Along with an interview about her writing (appropriately completed while she was on vacation), she reached out to writers and asked them for postcards and postcard-sized story accompaniments. Additionally, it was Jen’s great idea to offer a writing contest for readers of Atticus Review, with the winner receiving a signed copy of From Here.

Coming from experience, I can tell you that this is a lot of work, much of it without any promise of recompense. Jen does it simply because she loves literature, she loves stories, she loves sharing them with readers. That much is evident in the stories of From Here. These stories are filled with want, with characters aching to find their way back or to something, someone, some place. They are, quite metafictively, what we crave when it comes to story, why we crave stories. So it makes sense then that Jen Michalski is so busy. Let’s hope she stays that way.

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Jamie Iredell: You write in almost all the various lengths of fiction: the short story, the novella, the novel. When you begin a project, how do you know what kind of length the work’s going to take?

Jen Michalski: I actually don’t. When I was writing the novel The Tide King, I thought I was writing a short story about a father-son diving team exploring the wreckage of the sunken WWII battleship, the German Bismark. But, of course, it became a story that spanned two hundred years, with settings in Partition-era Poland, the European campaign of World War II, and twentieth-century America. Similarly with the novel I just finished, Rabbits Singing, I was on page nine and I started to worry because I didn’t think I would be able to wrap it up in 15-20 pages. In fact, it took 315 of them. Usually, although I like to work in the novel form, I approach every work thinking it will be short, that it will have a natural, quick resolution, but I am prepared that it will end when it needs to end. There’s no pressure and no expectations. I have no map; I just follow the trail and hope I don’t get eaten by a mountain lion. Half of the time I find the writing will end in a short story, and the other half of the time, it winds up ending as a novella or novel.

JI: Do you have any preference at all for these different forms, either as a writer or a reader?

JM: As a writer, I’ve kind of evolved over the years from short stories (with a small detour into flash for a year or two) into novels. I always like to think of it as when I was a little younger, I was more interested in distilling the essence of things into the short form, but now that I’m older, I like to linger in places–the process interests me more than an overarching statement. For instance, I’m perfectly happy to write 30 pages in a novel about a dinner party if I’m able to hold the reader’s interest and really get into the minutiae of what makes those interactions between those people really interesting (something I think writers like Joshua Henkin do well, particularly in The World Without You). As a reader, I love long books, something I can live in for weeks or months. I like real, three-dimensional characters who respond to their actual circumstances rather than approximations of people or stylistic representations, although I read and re-read many books simply for their language, both bare and luxurious. I read everything, if only as a basic level to keep up with what other writers are working on. I like to joke I even read Fingerhut catalogs, although I’m pressed to find the arc in them.

JI: How long were you working on the stories that make up From Here?

JM: These stories were written during a period of maybe five years, from 2007 to 2012. There were other stories written during that time, too, but these seemed to be the ones in which there were overlaps of emotional and physical displacement, and finding “home” however one can seems to be a theme in a lot of my work.

JI: Do you typically get into a “short story writing-mode” or “novel writing-mode,” or whatever? Or do you typically end up working on any number of projects at one time?

JM: I usually am juggling a lot of things at once, just because one’s intensity and interest can wax and wane in one project. Right now, I’m working on (with various degrees of seriousness) three novels, so depending on when inspiration strikes, I can write many, many pages for one project this week and a few pages of another the next. And some of it I just work on in my head until I feel comfortable writing it down, which is probably why I’m spacey as hell. But, because I’m kind of introverted, writing for me is really about internally processing, making sense of, what’s going on in the outside world and also in my head, and that changes from day to day.

JI: How would you describe the arc of From Here?

JM: “Orion” begins the collection. It’s very short and more stylistic; the characters don’t have names, and every sentence begins with “they.” I guess it’s sort of a departure point, a place to step from the edge of home and rules and enter the ethereal, floating world of displacement in which many of the characters inhabit. Surprisingly, though, many of the stories are very grounded in time and space. In the final story, the title story “From Here,” the protagonist Linney is literally straddling where she is from, New Mexico, and where she thinks she could be, New York, where she thinks will wind up being “home.”

JI: Many of the characters in the stories in From Here are of Eastern European descent. Does an interest in these characters come from your own family background?

JM: Somewhat. Obviously I’m more comfortable writing about characters in dirty, industrial cities who are many one, two generations at most, removed from the immigrant experience, much like I was. Even though my grandparents and their families spoke English just fine and understood the customs of the country, as it were, I still grew up in a very blue-collar, working-class family, Velveeta cheese and “downy-oshun” (ie, Baltimorean for “going to the seashore”) environment, a very small universe. All my relatives, for a time, seemed to be within a five-mile radius of each other! (My grandparents lived a street over from each other, and their families grew up blocks from each other in Southeast Baltimore after immigrating.) My brother and I were the first to go to college, and I never even traveled by airplane until after I graduated from college, overseas not until I was almost thirty. So very non-Updike-esque. I felt a greater affinity to Raymond Carver and Jayne Anne Phillips, who wrote about big explosions in very small worlds.

JI: I also get the sense that Jane Austen influenced your writing?

JM: You know, I’m not as much of a fan-girl as others can be (the Brontes were more my thing growing up). But I love Edith Wharton and Henry James and their examinations of the individual in society. I love Denis Johnson for the same reasons, though. Humans are social creatures, and so many people cannot figure out how to interact with others in the world, but when you think about it, there are just so many rules, spoken and unspoken, and they vary from culture to culture, between sexes, adults and children, rich and poor. Social interaction is actually very, very complex, and I love how these authors can really twist it even further sometimes. Even though it’s literary realism, there are unreliable narrators, withheld information, that they use, and it makes you wonder, even we’re all operating with the same emotions of love and hate, jealousy and pride, protectiveness, how we all get along so fabulously at all. Or who’s really, really happy, if it’s all just the product of advertising and media. I sound like such a pessimist here, but I really do love people, and I love studying and interacting with them. As a writer, you can never really run out of material.

JI: So many of the stories here deal with disruptions between family members. I guess this is what some readers might call domestic fiction? What intrigues you about the drama of everyday life in the relationships between family members?

JM: I love stories that are very exotic and very fantastical, of course–Laura van den Berg and Karen Russell come to mind, but, I guess as I result of living a sheltered childhood and only seeing vistas in the books I read, I became very attuned–and interested in–the exoticness and tension of the, as you say, domestic drama. Living in a Polish-American family or Ukrainian-American or even a Vietnamese family (as in “You Were Only Waiting for This Moment to Arrive,” which was partly inspired by having a partner who is Vietnamese, although the story is a lousy tribute) is exotic in its own way than being a WASP or vacationing in the Hamptons or a lot of New York-centric fiction, being a hipster in Brooklyn, etc. There is a lot said in Polish-American families, because we love to talk, but in many cases the most important things are left unsaid, so there is a lot of natural tension, a feeling of stoicism and suffering through pain, emotional and physical, rather than depending on anyone else, or confronting difficult situations.

Being gay has made me feel dislocated for a lot of my life–from participating in the same rituals–marriage, children–a lot of my friends have or having a relationship as a grown, sexual adult with your family (my grandfather still asked me on his deathbed when I was going to get married). For a long time I thought moving away, maybe to San Francisco, or another country, might make me want finally feel at “home,” and it took me a long time to realize that you need to be home wherever you are. I see a lot of my own struggles (trying to escape places, being caught between places, grudgingly accepting places) in the characters in this collection.

JI: It’s very interesting that you bring up the sense of displacement that you’ve felt in your own life, as that definitely resonates throughout From Here. Your characters also feel authentically themselves. You do a great job of living in your characters’ lives. How do you balance the sense of bringing yourself to your fiction, and letting the fiction be its own thing, its own people?

JM: That’s a good question. Often it’s the unease I feel that I place into someone else, like I’m stuffed my anxiety and longing and depression and euphoria into a blow dart and shot it into them to see what happens. I don’t know whether it was because I felt uncomfortable in my own skin but when I was little I always thought, for some reason, other people’s lives must be better than mine, so I’d study my friends, my cousins, my classmates, wear the clothes they were wearing, ask for the toys they had for my birthday, to see what their secrets were, what it felt to be them, whether I was doing it “right.” They probably weren’t any happier. But I think my life as a writer has continued along that path–wanting to know whether I’m doing it right as a human being.

 

Photo By: Let Ideas Compete

 




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About Author

Jamie Iredell writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. His books include Prose. Poems. a Novel.The Book of Freaks, and I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac. He lives in Atlanta where he works as a professor of creative writing.

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