Jen Michalski interview, with Meg Tuite
Jen Michalski interview, with Meg Tuite
WOW! “1945” is incredibly vivid and that first scene is visceral, unforgettable:
He felt a stump where his left leg had once met his hip, the skin smooth and round like a baby’s head, a mossy substance covering the tip like afterbirth.
He would not hear the sound of husks swishing in the wind in the late summer, the smell of warmed dirt and motor oil and the sound of crickets and the glow of the moon from his window.
This excerpt was so visual for me. I felt like I was watching a film while reading this.
Congratulations on winning the Big Moose Prize from Black Lawrence Press for your debut novel, The Tide King, from which “1945” was excerpted. I’d love to hear more about it!
Thanks! There were actually a lot of threads that wound up becoming The Tide King. A few years ago, I began to tentatively to write a short story based on an old National Geographic article I read about a search-and-recovery mission of the German World War II battleship The Bismarck. As my curiosity grew, my short story idea became a novel idea that included 17th-century Poland and World War II, and my research expanded. I began to read and watch everything I could about World War II. At the same time, I was cleaning out some of the files in my writing folders and found fifty pages of a novel I’d begun five years before that and forgotten about. It included an enchanted herb brought over from Poland, burnette saxifrage, which gave eternal life to those who ate it. Suddenly, I saw the possibilities in combining the novels together, and they culminated in The Tide King.
Although there’s a bit of magical realism at play (in that people who eat the herb live forever) and a lot of history (the novel spans several hundred years), in a larger sense the novel is about loneliness. How do we connect with people when we know they will leave us behind, forever? What is the importance of making connections in this transience?
So did you have to do a lot of research for this novel? I’m rereading Jayne Anne Phillip’s novel, “Machine Dreams,” that moves through different eras and there’s a specific language that sets the time period. Was this something you struggled with or did it flow from the pen?
I actually love research! It really opens up what you can do with a story and even provides problems for the writer to solve if he or she is attempting historical accuracy. For instance, one of the chapters on which I was working took place in Kansas in 1951. While I was researching what movies a certain drive-in would be playing in Kansas in June 1951, I discovered that the town in question had flooded and had to work the flood into the story. (The scene was eventually deleted from the novel but found new life as a short story, “Everyone Goes to the Movies,” in The Newport Review.)
I wound up reading a lot about Partition-era Poland, about World War II and, for “1945,” how bodies are processed and buried during battle and where their personal effects are shipped. I also loved Norman Mclean’s Young Men and Fire, about the Mann Gulch fire of 1949, which also makes an appearance in the novel.
Can you talk about the decision to send the novel out to a contest? Did you send it to other publishers as well?
Black Lawrence Press was the first press I sent it to. A portion of the novel had been a semifinalist in BLP’s chapbook competition the year or two before, so I decided to take a chance and enter the whole novel into the annual Big Moose Prize, once it was finished, to try and capitalize off their previous interest. Plus, I was familiar with their roster and wanted to be a part of it. I don’t regret the decision¾I think there’s such parity these days between smaller presses and large publishers because of the Internet and because of distribution channels that in many ways it’s better to be with a small press, where editors are working on a small catalog of books for each season as opposed to a bigger publisher, where you may be lost among thirty other titles slated to release at the same time. There’s definitely more personalization in terms of more editorial control and in some cases artistic control—I definitely given a role in helping create/choose the covers of the books I’ve got coming out this year with Dzanc, Black Lawrence Press, and Aqueous Books.
I totally agree with you on this. What are you currently reading?
A have some books I’m writing blurbs for and one I’ve reviewing. I’ve also got Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You and Scott Nadelson’s The Next Scott Nadelson, which I picked up after I read with Josh and Scott in New York recently. I say with great pride that my reading list rarely includes someone I haven’t met either through jmww, The 510 Readings (the reading series in Baltimore I cohost with Michael Kimball), or from a reading in which I’ve participated. I find I’ve become completely absorbed and supportive of the literary scene and, in return, constantly surprised, intrigued, and challenged by its writers.
Do you feel your other jobs as teacher and senior editor of jmww help or hinder your writing life?
Sometimes it can be difficult to do everything (I also work full-time as a medical copyeditor), at which point I need to make difficult decisions and prioritize. I always find myself thinking of the week ahead and ferreting out hours in which I could possibly write, since I don’t have a set schedule every day. And sometimes it really only is a few hours a week! It would be hard, but if I needed to give up jmww to write, I would do it, no question. I’m a writer first and a journal editor second. However, I really feel that jmww and the 510 Readings and also my work with The Nervous Breakdown really keeps me abreast of what’s out there—as I mentioned previously, I’m constantly challenged and amazed by what’s out there, and I think as a writer you need to participate in the dialogue of reading other writers’ work and not wall yourself off and focus only on your own writing. Plus, writers are just great people. They’re wacky and a little crazy but mostly very sweet, and they have an usual amount of compassion and interest in others, which is why I supposed they’re writers in the first place.
What music inspires you?
Like everyone, I have such eclectic tastes! I love to use streaming stations on the Internet, and it really varies from day to day. I might listen to indie music one day, world music the next, classical the next, and jazz after that. I often wonder whether, because I and so many of my contemporaries were exposed to MTV growing up, whether we sort of keep a music video compilation of our stories or novels in our head. The idea of music telling a story certainly had its gestation during the music video revolution. And it’s certainly something that David Atkinson has tapped into at Largehearted Boy, where authors credit playlists for their story collections and novels.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up another novel. It’s sort of my love song to Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, which is one of my favorite books. It’s impossibly long and a little disappointing at the end, but Tartt can bring a scene to life, characters to life, like no one I’ve ever read. My novel, which is nowhere near as good, is set in the early 1970s in Newport, Rhode Island. An eighteen-year-old girl, Kate, drives an ice cream truck around the island and dreams of being an artist. A little boy, Emory, to whom she gives ice cream now and then is mentally ill, and when a little girl drowns at Second Beach, early during the summer, everyone thinks he did it. So Kate sets about to prove his innocence. She meets a reclusive old movie star who hires her to paint her portrait and whom Kate enlists to help her prove Emory’s innocence. There’s also a love triangle between Kate and Charlie, a surfer at Second Beach, and David, a policeman assigned to the murder. Even as sweeping as The Tide King was, this novel has been the most difficult one that I’ve written, in terms of pacing and plot. It’s the most difficult thing, but I really love plot and think it’s important, even above beautiful prose or imagery. It nothing happens, it’s not a story.
It sounds amazing, Jen! I look forward to reading it.
Give me a quote that speaks to your being.
“Do one thing every day that scares you.” Eleanor Roosevelt
I love Eleanor Roosevelt and that quote says it all. WOW! Thank you so much, Jen, for sending Connotation Press some of your pure brilliance and light!
In order to preserve the artistic arrangement of the writing, this piece has been created with Print2Flash Flashpaper.