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  • Joan Schweighardt

Spotlight on Jen Michalski

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

We’re thrilled to bring you our interview with author Jen Michalski, whose forthcoming collection, The Company of Strangers, reveals an America in which ideas of genuine community ring false and the spiritual backbone of family life is damaged, perhaps beyond repair. We talked to Jen about her new work, her previously published work (all of it highly acclaimed), what it means to dream a story, what it means to be a literary citizen, and so much more.

The details in your stories in your forthcoming collection The Company of Strangers feel both spot-on and totally fresh and engaging in and of themselves. But then something happens, something dark. Does the dark come first in your creative process and you write around it, or do you not know it’s coming until it lands?

Thanks so much, Joan! I will admit, my stories usually turn out dark. I’ve often wondered whether there can be happy stories—what is a story, really, but tension that is ramped up, a protagonist that wants something but cannot get it? It took me years to understand that stories should be both happy and sad, and in the stories in this collection, I did try to incorporate a little lightness and laughter, because even in the worst situations, there is often levity. It can be a defense mechanism—humor—but also hardwired into us, I think, to search for the light in the darkness, to live with a sliver of grace.

You have received all kinds of accolades and awards over the years for both your fiction and nonfiction, making it obvious that your talent was acknowledged early on. Did you ever want to do anything else besides write? Did you at any time have to take non-writing jobs while you got your career going?

I always thought I’d be in a band, either a rock band or an orchestra. I played clarinet and sax growing up, and over the years I’ve tried to teach myself guitar, bass guitar, and piano, but, except for the clarinet, it never came as naturally to me as writing. Still, if I ever stopped writing, I would jump head first into some type of music project. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to do both! I envy writers-musicians who do.

You have said that one of your novellas in the book Could You Be With Her Now came to you in a dream. Can you talk about the process of dreaming a story and what has to be done thereafter to get it to stick?

I feel like it’s cheating a little bit to wake up and have a fully formed story in my head, but it happens a lot! Things that swim about in my subconscious that I bring to the surface in my dreams have great natural tension and emotional power. There’s also an uninhibited nature to dreams that helps me write uncensored. I may not have written the novella “May-September” (the second novella in Could You Be With Her Now) if I was just playing around with the idea in my waking hours—I may have worried what people thought, and I may have shelved it. But, waking up after that dream, feeling the emotional energy of it, and hearing the “voice” in my head, I was completely excited to dive into it, and it came out rather quickly, almost like an exorcism or a purge. The emotional energy of a story is very important—once you have it, you’re more than halfway there.

Having read your wonderful article at TNB, I know that your book The Summer She Was Under Water was actually the result of two fiction manuscripts you were working on at the time and decided to combine, and that parts of the resulting manuscript came from a dream as well. How difficult was it to make the decision to merge two stories? Did one just overtake the other? Was anything left behind for a future manuscript?

Sometimes as a writer you play around, and maybe you dump bits and pieces of things you’ve been working on into one document to make sure you’re not working on the same puzzle from different ends. As it turned out, in Summer I was! In Summer, the protagonist has written a novel, and I realized that a novella I’d been working on, “A Water Moon,” could very well be the novel she had written, based on her own hinted-at traumas. It was strange, because there was a span of several years between the stories, as I had put Summer aside, so adding “A Water Moon” to Summer helped me to finish. Thankfully, both manuscripts had enough of a skeleton already constructed that they complemented each other rather than fighting for space. I think this is probably more common with writers than we realize. I read an interview with Louise Erdrich when The Night Watchman came out, and she remarked that she was having trouble writing novels and wondered if she’d ever write another one. And clearly, if you’ve read it, The Night Watchman is two novels that have been put together. It made me wonder if that’s how Erdrich managed to complete it—by looking at two unfinished works and discovering she was working at one thing from different angles.

You have said that initially you thought of yourself as a short story writer but then the stories started turning into novellas or novels. Given that your forthcoming book is a story collection, should we assume that you settled on shorter pieces, for the time being at least?

I’ve written so few short stories the past few years because I’ve been working on a 400-page novel since 2020. I do feel like I’ve moved on from short stories, but never say never! I wrote the novella “Schehzerade” at the end of The Company of Strangers fairly recently (in 2019), so it’s possible that once I finish the last draft of this novel, I might return to short stories. Admittedly, though, it’s getting more difficult to explore my thoughts in such a small space. I find, as I get older, I like to linger in narratives a little longer, really get to know the characters with whom I’m taking the journey—it’s like a motorcoach ride across a foreign country rather than riding the subway for one stop. Sometimes the most important, memorable things happen in the little moments—a look between characters, the way the street light shines on the sidewalk, a surprise thunderstorm—just like in real life.

Can you tell us a little bit about your novel-in-progress?

Sure! I actually started All This Can Be True during the pandemic and was inspired by it—a woman who falls in love with someone else while her husband is hospitalized and in a coma as the result of a mysterious pathogen he caught during an international business trip. However, as we got further away from the initial shock of COVID-19, the novel changed a little, too—in this draft, the husband has been hospitalized as the result of a stroke. However, the inciting incident still remains—this novel began largely because of this image I had in my head of a woman waking up to a phone call from the hospital telling her that her husband has emerged from a coma. After she hangs up, she turns to the person next to her in bed—another woman—with a look of shock but also panic. What happens if you have given your partner up for dead, embarked on a new life, fallen in love with someone else, and then your old life comes for you? What do you owe that old life? I was interested in Life as a series of coexistent truths—some of them diametrically opposed—but choices, good and bad, define a life in the end, not truths.

So many of the writers we’ve interviewed for our Spotlight feature practice good literary citizenship, and you are no exception. Can you tell readers who are considering giving up some of their precious writing time to help other writers what they can expect, if anything, in the way of rewards? And please tell us about jmww.

Whatever level of writer you are (unless you’re the aforementioned Louise Erdrich or Stephen King), you’ll need help along your journey as a writer, whether it’s others writing recommendations for you for graduate programs or writers’ retreats or reading a beta version of a story or novel or reviewing your novel when it comes out. On a basic level, if you don’t help anybody, nobody is going to help you. But you can’t reduce literary citizenship to a symbiotic relationship—if you love writing books, you started because of your love of reading them. It’s, above all, about a love for literature, not just your own work. And I think that’s what should drive one’s literary citizenship—a desire to see works of great renown in the world, not just yours. On another level, writing is very solitary, and citizenship fosters community. Which brings me to jmww, which I started not soon after I finished grad school in Baltimore. I missed workshopping with other writers, talking about books, and I didn’t know anyone in the local scene outside of school, so I just decided to try and become a part of it by starting a journal. I’ve developed lifelong friendships because of jmww (and the two reading series I hosted while living in Baltimore). Of course, we can all be a little introverted as writers, so I always recommend to commit yourself where you feel comfortable. For example, you can be a reader for a journal, and the experience is entirely online, usually—you don’t have to leave your house at all! Or you can attend readings, buy independent books at independent bookstores—it all adds up in the end.

Jen Michalski currently lives in Carlsbad, California. She graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland with a BA in English and received her MS in Professional Writing from Towson University. She was voted one of the best authors in Maryland by CBS News, one of “50 Women to Watch” by The Baltimore Sun, and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine (Best of Baltimore issue, 2013).

Her debut novel, The Tide King, was published by Black Lawrence Press (2013; winner of the Big Moose Prize and Best Fiction, Baltimore City Paper, 2013), and was followed by The Summer She Was Underwater (Black Lawrence Press, December 2017) and You’ll Be Fine (NineStar Press, 2021). She is the author of two collections of fiction, Close Encounters (So New, 2007) and From Here (Aqueous Books, 2014) and a collection of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books, 2013). She also edited the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press 2010), which Baltimore Magazine called “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. The Company of Strangers will be out in January 2023 but can be pre-ordered now at Braddock Avenue Books.

Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in more than 100 publications, including McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Washington Post, Poets & Writers, Writer's Digest, Psychology Today, and The Literary Hub. Several of her stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is the founding editor of the weekly literary journal jmww.

You can contact Jen through her Facebook and Twitter accounts or at jen.michalski "at" gmail "dot" com.

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