Jen Michalski is the author of the short fiction collection Close Encounters, released earlier this year by So New Media. Her work has appeared in more than 35 publications, including McSweeney’s, Failbetter, storysouth, Word Riot, Hobart, and others. She lives in Baltimore and is the author of online quarterly JMWW.
Joseph Young: Your fiction is so much about intertwined lives, how people become affixed to one another. There’s the recent story from Houston Literary Review called “Her Life Forward, His Life Backward,” for example. It traces the lives of a man and woman and how they came together as lovers, her life told in normal chronological order, his told backwards, how they meet somewhere in the middle. And then there is the story “In Fetu” in your recently published collection of short stories, Close Encounters, which tells of how one woman seems to have inside of her two complete, and completely different, personalities, how these personalities fight for control of her life.
For “Her Life Forward, His Life Backward,” Why did you decide to tell the story in this manner? What do you gain by crossing up their lives like this that a more “normal” telling wouldn’t?
Jen Michalski: Actually, this story grew from a combination of factors. I had been in a relationship earlier this year with someone who was a lot younger than me, and it was fascinating to see where our connections to different ideas and cultural reference points were formulated and how we were connecting with these points in the present day. But the idea to tell the story in that fashion came because I wanted to write a story for an acquaintance’s journal and the subject of the issue was synchronicity. I’d written stories with differing vantage points, but never using different chronological tracts. It was fun.
As far as what I gain, I think literature can be physical words on the page, too, like poetry. The story is kind of like a constellation map of all these different points and the two characters’ tangents to and from them. It’s kind of how I view the world, through this physical mapping between time and people, so I think the story needed to told from this blueprint. I think it’s important to experiment with different forms as a writer and try to tell stories from multiple vantage points and forms. It brings up the question of true narrative, which I’ve always been interested in—can we trust the narrator’s viewpoint? It’s only one of many, and we don’t live in vacuums, so there’s so much that can be left out. How can we come to the true nature of a story? Does traditional narrative constrict that truth?
JY: “In Fetu”: Often your stories seem to be about an almost pathological condition of intertwining, people who have two conflicting personalities, as in “In Fetu,” or people who can’t seem to separate their personality from another’s, stories like “The Assistant,” in which an Oprah- or Martha Stewart-like character can’t seem to tell the reality of her personal assistant’s life apart from her fantasized version of it, who can’t let go of this fantasy, so much has she entangled it with the fantasy of her own life. Why do you think you come back to this theme so often? I can’t remember who said it, but one famous writer said we keep telling the same story over and over. Do you think this is true?
JM: I think it’s definitely true, although I’m not sure what my neuroses about intertwining are. I’m basically interested in the concepts of how people connect at all. We’re born alone, we die alone, and yet we spend a great deal of our lives figuring out how to try and meld ourselves to other people, out of fear or loneliness or biological urgings I don’t know. I think there is some connection there among us, some kind of Jungian universal archetype kind of thing. I’ve often wanted to crawl into people’s mouths into their bodies and be with them for a few minutes, think their thoughts, feel their feelings, experience what they experience. I guess, as a writer, I do that anyway.
JY: What do you think the consequence would be if we could crawl into each other’s mouths? Good or bad? Do you think writers can see into people’s lives or, when they write about other people, are they simply seeing other aspects of themselves?
JM: That’s a difficult question. First off, I don’t think people would allow that sort of invasion into their privacy! But I think part of being a good writer is trying to make sense not only of your own life, but also other’s lives, even if you don’t necessarily agree or understand them. I remember feeling particularly torn after writing a story called “The Mural,” about a young Hispanic woman who miscarries and tries to find new meaning in her life afterward. I wondered the entire time (and still do) whether I was just telling the story from the perspective of an urban white postmodern woman. However, I don’t really like labels, either. Although I’m a lesbian, I don’t really write “lesbian” fiction and have no desire to. I think, if you’re a good writer, your writing should be able to tap into the universal in such a way in which everyone can relate as humans. I don’t want to write specifically for or about anyone. But, at the same time, it’s hard not to write about what you know—it’s hard not to have your own experiences shade your work in some way.
JY: “Algorithm” = solving a problem with a defined set of steps. This is a story about a girl with some sort of disability in which she can’t tell people apart, not even family members, and ends up disappearing, permanently, from the special school she attends. First of all, can you talk about the title and where it came from? This is another story in which personality seems to be fluid, unfixed, not only the daughter’s with the disability, but later the son’s too, whose identity becomes so closely entwined with the daughter’s, after she comes up missing. Does tragedy or trauma, which almost every one of us experiences at some point in our life, play a big part in how our lives and personalities become fixed? Do we become “stuck” in this way, or can we regain some autonomy from our tragedies?
JM: I do think trauma can “fix” our personalities, and the challenge of being human is often to “unfix” them. We spend so much time replaying the primary relationships of our lives—our parents, our siblings, our teachers—in our adult lives in our relationships, and if those relationships are faulty, we have to find a way to make sure our subsequent thinking and interactions aren’t. The narrator of this story sort of ends at a crosswords in his life—living his life with the knowledge that his sister is dead and healing his fractured relationship with his parents the knowledge of this loss, or trying to find his sister and “return” to the relationships he had before she disappeared, which isn’t healing at all. It’s resisting change, which I think is very methodical in itself. It takes a lot of self-deception and elaborate guises to not transform, to try and keep everything at some level of comfort before the change happened.
But I actually had the title before I had the story. I knew I wanted to write a story with the title “Algorithm.” It wasn’t until I read a medical article about a girl with brain damage that affected her ocular mechanisms that the whole story came together.
JY: You had the title beforehand? Did this help to shape the story as you wrote it? It’s interesting to think about one word having a controlling influence over a whole story.
JM: Well, as you know as a writer, titles can often be the hardest part of a story, since they’re the first thing readers see. So it was nice to have a strong title beforehand. And I knew I somehow had to create the sense of methodology in the main character’s life even as it was disintegrating around him. Someone actually asked me a question after a reading about this: did I see what was going to happen, did I have my own “algorithm” for this story? Actually, I didn’t. I started writing and went into the character and what happened happened. And then the story ended for me, almost in one take.
JY: You also seem to have a fascination with fame and its consequences: “Commencement Speech, Whitney Houston, East Southern University, June 9, 2006,” in which Whitney Houston comes all undone in front of the graduating seniors, and “The Assistant.” Can you talk about that? Have you ever wanted to be famous? Do you think the consequences are often as dire as they are in these stories?
JM: I’m fascinated with fame insomuch as the current climate of hero worship. I think the current celebrities and our fixation with their lives is our own sort of modern mythology—I’m a big Joseph Campbell fan. You see this sort of hero worship and identification vicariously with their struggles in sports, in movies, and in celebrity gossip. Unfortunately, I think it kind of keeps us from going as a society. But mostly I like to poke fun at it because it’s all rather silly.
I would like to be a rock star, however. If someone said I could either be a famous indie star like Neko Case or someone like Miranda July I’d have to think really hard.
JY: Tell us about your new story collection, Close Encounters, from So New Media. How did you end up publishing with them? And tell us about the title. Obviously, I can see its thematic significance, the way people come together, merge with one another, but does it relate in some way to the movie of the same name?
JM: I actually had a short story, “Chiquita,” published with Hobart. Savannah Scroll-Guz, one of the editors, really liked it and another story of mine (“Discount,” published in the Pedestal) asked if I had a book-length collection for the publishing house SoNew Media, with whom she also works. So I got some stories together that I had the most of thematically (which, of course, were a bunch of weird ones), and Close Encounters was born. It took me a long time to come up with the title, and some people warned me against the instant connotations with the movie and UFOs, but I thought it was pretty fitting, as you said, about the intersection of people in weird ways.
I’m really excited about being with SoNew because they have so many great authors; an honest, vision of publishing authors who kind of started off publishing on the Internet, as opposed to academic print literary journals; and a DIY operation. (James handmakes each book.)
JY: Do you want to tell us about the cover art for your story collection?
JM: My cousin Natalie Wysocki (http://nataliewysocki.com/) painted it–it’s based on the story “In Fetu.” She had designed the first cover for the print anthology of the online quarterly I run (J MWW) that comes out once a year, and I was so pleased with it I asked her whether she also could do the cover for the book, since SoNew gave me artistic control over the design (another great thing about SoNew).
JY: You edit the online literary magazine, JMWW (http://JMWW.150m.com). Tell us when you began the journal and why. What effect has it had on your own writing?
JM: I started it about four years ago. It was originally my author website (and a crudely designed one, at that). I was kind of bored (and embarrassed) of promoting myself, and I thought it would be fun to publish other people and learn sort of the ins and outs of journal management. And really, to meet and connect with other writers, since we’re such an antisocial lot at timesI asked my friend Catherine Harrison, a fantastic editor and teacher, if she would help, and that’s how it was born. It’s great to be forced to read a lot of submissions because you see so many other styles and ideas and how writers have approached them. And it’s something we always tell writers—not only should you always be writing, but you should always be reading and learning about writing. Oh, and since so many people ask, it stands for “journal managed by wicked women.” And some men sympathetic to the wicked women’s cause.
JY: JMWW is an online magazine. Tell us what you think about online publishing.
JM: What I like about online publishing is its immediacy and also its accessibility. I always tell writers who eschew online publishing and always submit to print journals that, yeah, if you get published, you might have two copies of the journal, and you might pass them around to your friends, but no one, other than the subscribers, has a chance to read your stuff. Online work is archived, usually, and several billion people have the chance to read it. And, if they like one story, they can Google you and find a bunch of your other stories. The Internet is great marketing tool for writers because of its large archive, its easy searching ability, and the large potential of readers, non-literary and not, who have the chance to access your work.
JY: When did you start writing? When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
JM: I always say I learned to write right after I learned to breathe. I always remember writing little stories, as early as the first grade. I think it was more about how I made sense of the world than any goal to be a writer. I know I wanted to be an elephant when I was about four. I guess, barring the fantastical, I had to settle for writing.
JY: An elephant? How cute. It sounds like a riddle: How are writers like elephants? Feel free to supply a punchline.
JM: We both like peanuts and have big toenails?
JY: You have been working a bit lately on very short fiction—something after my own heart—haven’t you? How do you approach the different forms you work in, short stories, flash, micro? Do you know beforehand what form a story will take? Any thought of a novel?
JM: I’m really interested in making each word powerful, like a poem. In longer stories, you have so much exposition, backstory, connections, junk sentences, and in flash you try and distill the essence of one moment, and that moment reveals so many things to the reader about his or her own experiences. Flash pieces can almost be like free-association therapy to the reader, I think. But maybe I’m just getting older and have less patience and time (definitely less time) to write full-length stories.
I’d like to get together a flash fiction collection, which I’ve been working assembling. I thought we were going to do a collection of flash together?
JY: “free-association therapy to the reader.” How important is it to you that readers “get” your intentions in a story or flash? Would it bother you if someone’s interpretation of a story was hugely different than what you meant or thought to convey?
JM: Sometimes the shorter pieces I write are so internal and specific in their imagery I wouldn’t expect the reader to get the same thing I do from them, anyway. I love when people have different reactions and interpretations to my work—it’s like we’re creating this dialogue, this myth together. Good writing should be a springboard. It shouldn’t be the “be all, end all” on anything.
JY: What are you working on now?
JM: More flash, and I’m slowly trying to get back to longer pieces. In fact, I need to sit down and write a story that’s based on a dream I had. A lot of my stories come from dreams, which is no small feat, considering what a terrible insomniac I am.
About the author:
Joseph Young lives in Baltimore, where he co-runs the art blog BaltimoreInterview.com and keeps the microfiction blog verysmalldogs.blogspot.com. Look for his work in such magazines as SmokeLong Quarterly, Mississippi Review, Exquisite Corpse, Rock Heals, Eleven Bulls, JMWW, elimae, and others.