Cobalt: Let’s start by talking about your new book, THE TIDE KING, which won the 2012 Big Moose Prize and is being published by Black Lawrence Press (August 2013). We have an excerpt of the novel in this issue. Can you provide us with a little context for the excerpt?
Jen Michalski: Sure. In this excerpt, in 1949, Calvin Johnson heads to Helena, Montana, in search of a fellow solider, Stanley Polensky, with whom he served in WWII. Johnson can’t be sure, but after waking up in a mass grave of dead soldiers after getting shelled, he dimly remembers Stanley shoving something in his mouth before he lost consciousness. He doesn’t understand the correlation between Stanley did and how it came to be that he’s still alive and has this uncanny ability to heal. He gets roped into helping put out the Mann-Gulch fire. In the actual fire, 12 smoke jumpers were killed, and Norman Maclean wrote a beautiful and haunting book, Young Men and Fire, in which he tries to piece together what happened many years later. It’s one of my favorite books, and I knew I wanted to included it somehow. In fact, a lot of the book is like that–a lot of things that I was interested in (female country music singers of the 1940s, World War II, Partition-era Poland). Fortunately, I was able to make it all work–I think.
Cobalt: What are some of your earliest influences as a writer? Was there one point in your life that you realized “this is what I want to do”?
Michalski: My earliest influence was Louse Fitzgerald and her children’s novel Harriet the Spy, about an upper east-side girl named Harriet M. Welsch, who spies on her classmates and the people in her neighborhood. She doesn’t do it out of malice, only curiosity, but when the notebook with her reflections is found by her classmates, her observations are very real, very raw, and they are very hurt. They tease and exclude her. It was a book that really spoke to me about the realities of youth—the cruelty of children, the need to tell white lies in polite society, to smooth things over, and somehow remain true to oneself. Harriet is a very three-dimensional, flawed character.
When I was a teenager, like everyone else, I suppose, I was really into JD Salinger—Salinger is so indulgent with his characters, their dialogue, and it was like he gave me permission to be indulgent as well, to be peculiar to embrace my peculiarities and those of my characters.
Cobalt: The Baltimore literary scene seems to be continuously expanding and gaining mass appeal. In 2010, you edited a book for CityLit Press called CITY SAGES: BALTIMORE. Can you tell us a little bit about this project?
Michalski: I had been co-hosting the 510 Readings with Michael Kimball for about a year, and I was astounded by how many fantastic writers were actively working in Baltimore (along with its rich literary history). Gregg Willhelm of CityLit Project really loved the idea, and we went ahead and sent out a call to writers and compiled, along Michael Kimball’s help, a lot of public domain pieces from Fitzgerald, Poe, Stein, etc.
Cobalt: Where do you fit into this thriving community of writers and editors, and what sort of opportunities/challenges may come up as a result of being part of it?
Michalski: Sometimes it’s hard to include everyone in everything. Actually, I think that’s a good problem to have—the community is so rich and diverse–we’re like a sports team with a very deep depth chart. Also, there are so many reading series and events going on that I have a hard time making it to everything. I try to attend one event every week, and sometimes I have to choose between two or three really interesting things even then.
Cobalt: You and Michael Kimball host monthly 5:10 Readings at Minas in Hampden. How did this reading series get started?
Michalski: Michael and I met on MySpace (I guess that’s really dating us)! This was maybe 2007. Gregg Wilhelm and I had hosted a string of monthly writers happy hours for almost a year (every month, we’d meet at a different bar), and Michael came to one of the happy hours. He was interested in starting a fiction reading series because he saw a need for one. I thought it was a great idea. Because of the happy hours, I’d gotten to know a lot of local authors, and Michael brought his group of local writers, along with writers from New York and other places, and suddenly we had a really deep list of writers to serve as our lineup the first year. I don’t know that we were expecting great things, but great things happened. The series has been really successful, standing room only almost every month at Minas Gallery, and I feel like a lot of people have come away from the series and thought, “Yeah, I can start a series, too” or “Hey, I see you every month–do you want to start a writing group?”
Cobalt: I feel like I know you pretty well as a writer (not that it will stop me from asking questions), but I don’t know you all that much outside of the literary world. How do you pass the time when you’re not writing/editing/hosting awesome reading events?
Michalski: It’s funny, because my girlfriend Phuong will tell you I’m pretty much writing 24/7, that I’m a writer/editor 24/7. I will admit to it being a sort of disease to me. I feel constipated, queasy, if I’m not writing and processing my thoughts and feelings in words. But I try to find a balance. Phuong and I jog a lot, and we like to travel. We have a Boston Terrier, Sophie, who is like my child. I just got a bike, and I’m going to try and not die in traffic this summer riding it.
Cobalt: Oh, please do be careful. Most of our “bike lanes” here end abruptly at heavy-traffic intersections, or are conveniently placed between driving lanes and parking spaces. Drivers tend to forget cyclists are people too. Now that I’ve said that: Where do you write? (I assume, based on your previous answer, that you are really just biking from one writing location to the next.)
Michalski: I write wherever I can, but mostly in bed or while sitting in front of the television. I don’t watch. I simply like to know things are still happening in the world while I’m in that other space. It’s almost similar to a fear I had when I was younger, of falling asleep. I didn’t like not knowing when I was going to become conscious again, if at all. Sometimes you can get so wrapped up in writing something it does feel like you’ve become unconscious and the world has gone on without you and you feel like Rip van Writer: “Wha? How long was I writing?”
About Jen: Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press; winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize), the short story collections From Here (Aqueous Books 2013) and Close Encounters (So New 2007), and the novella collection Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc 2013). She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of The 510 Readings, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a ‘Best of Baltimore’ in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, MD, and tweets @MichalskiJen.