Meet the Writer: Jen Michalski

I want to thank Jen for taking the time to answer my questions. Read more about her here, and check out her blog, JMWW, for fiction, nonfiction, book reviews, and essays. 

What was the first story you remember writing about?

When I was four or five, my mother folded a piece of paper into quarters, and I remember writing (and illustrating) a story about my birthday. She would bring home all sorts of correspondence from the medical office in which she worked (in retrospect, those papers probably should have been shredded) for us to use as drawing paper. Instead, I wrote longhand novels in colored markers. Usually they’d dry out before I’d finish a book, so the first third might be in pink, the next third in purple, and the last third in teal. Sometimes they’d smell, too, like grapes or strawberries, if they were scented marker pens!

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I have always written, but I thought of it as a peripheral job, a hobby. I wanted to be an elephant when I was four, a police officer when I was 11 or 12, a doctor mostly through high school and the first year of college, and then I thought I wanted to write features for a local or regional magazine. Even now, I’ve written four novels, I still don’t consider it my job. It’s certainly not my “bread” job, the one that pays the bills. I just hope, when I finish growing up, that I’m happy above all else.

Do you think writing is an inherent or taught skill, or both? Why?

I think the essential talent, like being a good tennis player or chess player is an inherent talent, but to separate the wheat from the chaff, there will be a refinement of one’s skills, by reading a lot, taking classes perhaps, being open to suggestion. It’s like when you see those football players who get by, all the way through college, on raw athleticism alone, but they’re unable to take the next step in the pros because they can’t memorize the playbook or develop on-field intelligence. I think both ingredients are essential for any writer to be successful, as well as a big dose of humility to marry the two and make them work.

What was your least favorite class at any point in your education? Why?

I’m terrible at things like math and statistics and, oddly enough, things with rules. I am a medical copyeditor by trade and all day I work on articles, editing them for content and making sure they conform to a journal’s style. I LOVE having rules for what I do, and yet for things like the mortgage loan process and taxes, I am a complete idiot and have to let my partner handle everything. I would love to take a statistics class, but I know it would be my least favorite and I would hate it.

Are you reading anything right now?

I’m reading a book to blurb, and because it’s summer, I’m reading a lot of guilty-pleasure stuff. I’m halfway through Stephen King’s Dr. Sleep (as you know, The Shining is my favorite movie, so of course I would dive into the follow-up!). I’m also reading a novella by Dashiell Hammett, Woman in the Dark. I’ve never thought of noir as good literature, per se, but I am fascinated by the hue of the genre, the specific world, much like sci-fi, that it inhibits. And, I’ve heard so many great things about Hammett (even if I’ve watched The Maltese Falcon twice and still don’t get it) that I didn’t feel like I was doing my duty as a reader if I didn’t dive into something of his. Even if I don’t find myself picking anything up in my summer reads as a writer to use or respond to, sometimes it’s fun to read for pure entertainment! That’s so rare these days for me, particularly when I’m always trying to take apart the structure and themes and characterization of a book as I’m reading it.

I also just read Willa Cather’s novella My Mortal Enemy. It’s definitely different than her mid-Western and Southwestern-themed work and appears to be mostly autobiographical, regarding her relationship with S.S. McClure (whom she worked under at McClure’s Magazine) and his wife. I’m also reading a book about filmmakers who contributed to the war effort during World War II, like Frank Capra and John Huston. Like what I write, I read what interests me, and that varies greatly from week to week.

Are you writing anything right now?

I’m working on three different novels with varying degrees of seriousness. The first, which I’m about 100 pages into, grew out of a short story that storySouth published a few years back called “From Here.” In the short story, Linney returns home to New Mexico to visit her father, a hostel owner who is losing his battle to cancer, and her ex-boyfriend Hok’ee, a Pueblo Indian who didn’t make it out of state to college and suffered a traumatic brain injury in a dirt bike incident a few years back, limiting his opportunities further. Linney is visiting her past because she is forced to, even though she’d rather be home in New York, even as she realizes the past informs her, that she can never escape it. We as a society talk a lot about reinvention, but I wondered the opposite for Linney: reclaiming. What would happen if Linney tried out different kinds of “homes” (relationships, locations) in her adult life but then makes the decision to return home to New Mexico, to truly be “from here?”

The second novel I’m working on is about a girl growing up in a house with a mom who’s a compulsive hoarder. Hoarding isn’t the only problem in this girl’s life, but it’s one I’m interested in, when possessions begin to replace or fill a void in someone to the point that one is buried underneath physically; it’s the manifestation of overwhelming emotional burden. But the irony about clutter is, when you think about it, a Faberge egg from the Romanov family is no different in basic physical identification than a Burger King hamburger wrapper, i.e., a thing—it’s interesting how the human mind (and even other animals to some extent) places value and organizes hierarchy on objects. This novel is less conventionally written than the aforementioned one; the chapters are very short, almost flash pieces but not. The opening sequence appeared in Monkeybicycle a few months back.

The third novel I’m only five pages into but the energy for it is very strong and high. An older aunt in my family committed suicide recently, and I’m interested in trying to delineate the reasons as to why someone who, outwardly, is “healthy” and yet acts on this tragic decision. But I want to write around it, every perspective I can—every family member, every coworker, strangers on the metro, even inanimate objects in the person’s life, to sort of surround the question, to explore every layer, even square on the quilt of someone’s life, for a clue, however small or overlooked, although ultimately I don’t know that it’s ever a question we can answer with certainty, but I guess I’m just interested less in a statement than a mosaic of this fictional character’s life, in very much a Mrs Dalloway treatment.

Like my reading list, I get terribly unfocused and wind up working on a lot of different things.

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