Meet the Writer: Jen Michalski

Thanks so much to Jen Michalski for answering my questions! I have known Jen for many years now: she published one of my stories in her webzine, JMWW; she took me on as a book reviewer after I pointed out a typo in someone else’s book review (I still do this); we organized a virtual book tour together; and I love her writer-friendship dearly! Jen’s books are amazing regardless of how I feel about her. I mean, she wanted to be an elephant when she grew up, and that’s the best ❤

Grab the Lapels: What would you like readers to know about your book, The Summer She Was Under Water, which was released this week?

Jen Michalski: The Summer She Was Under Water is actually two books that somehow found their way together — a story about an estranged, blue-collar family that spends a weekend together at their old cabin by the Susquehanna River in Northeastern Maryland and nested inside it, a magical realistic novella about a pregnant man. They weave together toward a big reveal at the end — the mystery of the pregnant man’s fertility and the secrets that the family has buried.

Summer She Was Under Water front only for screen

GTL: Did you learn anything from writing your book?

JM: Never throw anything anyway! This is actually the second novel (the other was The Tide King) I’ve written in which I’ve united what I thought were two separate projects. They may have been separated by a few years, or a few months, and at first glance, they didn’t seem to have anything in common, at least on the surface. But then they made sense, in weird ways, and I combined them. Writing can be a long game, and whereas you think you might be working on separate stories for years, they just might be pieces of a bigger puzzle. I’ve learned to trust what comes out on the page, even if it doesn’t make sense to me at the time of writing it.

GTL: What is was writing process like?

JM: I think I’m a better starter than reviser. I don’t have a set writing routine and am mostly fueled by bursts of inspiration. I don’t like to go back and look at any of it while I’m working, just ride along with the momentum of the story. Sometimes if I begin to pick at a novel or story before I’ve finished what I think is the first draft, it begins to fall apart, and I’ve lost the impulse that inspired me to write it.

That’s not to say there isn’t a nice feeling, during that final revision, being satisfied with the whole of what you’ve done and giving it a final polish. But, by then, you’re separated from the work, more in first-reader mode, and nothing beats being in the throes of a story, living it in your head simultaneously while living your life. It’s kind of like having an affair, writing a book. You’re investing a lot of emotional energy into the story and especially the characters, trying to delineate their motivations, get into their heads, and make them fully realized. And I think the writers who do that well really love people, really care about psychology and circumstance and what drives us as humans. Nothing frustrates me more than cardboard characters, and I admit that colors my impression of the writer as a person!

jen michalski

GTL: Your last novel, The Tide King, was a book I gushed over. You’ve since published a short story collection (From Here), but novels are surely different. How has your writing process evolved since The Tide King?

JM: I’m not sure. Since I wrote The Summer She Was Under Water before The Tide King, it’s easier for me to see how I evolved from Summer to The Tide King — for one thing, I felt more comfortable with taking on scope. The Tide King spans several hundred years over several countries; in Summer, the events take place over a long weekend. And the latter is sort of my default mode when writing: very domestic set pieces with limited time frames, almost like plays. After The Tide King, I became more comfortable taking more risks, writing about places and people with whom I didn’t have much in common, doing the research and trusting the conceit I’ve built around the characters. Letting the characters age, finding their arc.

I also have discovered that I enjoy writing novels more than short stories. Short stories are like a fling to me — a one-night stand. They feel good, but they are what they are. You’re not going to get married and have kids with them. Novels are more like long-term relationships, something you invest in, as a reader and writer. I don’t find myself reading or writing a lot of short fiction anymore, although I think they’re a good springboard to writing novels.

The Tide King Michalski

GTL: What do you think reader reactions to The Summer She Was Under Water will be?

JM: As someone who knows me, I’m sure you know I never take the easy way out! I don’t consciously plan to be controversial, or write about taboo subjects, but I always write about what interests me, or what I don’t understand, in an attempt to find out where other people are coming from. And I wanted to explore in The Summer She Was Under Water the roles into which we morph when the traditional family structure falls apart — not be judgmental, or to take a stand one way or another, but to just understand other people. Writers should always be putting themselves in other people’s shoes; I don’t see how you can grow as a writer (or a person) if you don’t. Even though the book takes place during the summer, it’s not a “beach” read. And people will probably really like it or not very much at all. But for me, if the reader has a strong reaction, even if it’s negative, I know I’ve done my job.

GTL: What was the hardest part of writing The Summer She Was Under Water?

JM: The sex scenes. When you read it, you’ll know what I mean!



  1. The Tide King was fantastic. I’ll have to add the new novel to my to-read list if it sounds like it would be even half as fun.

  2. The Summer She Was Underwater sounds intriguing–a pregnant man? Love Michalski’s descriptions of her relationship with her writing being like an affair.

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