Meet the Neighbors: Q&A with Jen Michalski

Jen Michalski is the author of the novels The Summer She Was Under Water and The Tide King (both Black Lawrence Press), a couplet of novellas called Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books), and two collections of fiction (From Here and Close Encounters). Her work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including Poets & Writers. In 2013, she was named as “One of 50 Women to Watch” by The Baltimore Sun and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine. She is the host of a fiction reading series in Baltimore called Starts Here! and editor in chief of the literary online weekly jmww. We’re grateful she’s taken the time to answer some questions.

Q: You come with high praise in that a contact suggested that I interview you as a “great Maryland writer whose work engages sexual identity.” What are some ways in which you’ve done that?

Thank you! I’m very flattered to hear that. I don’t think of myself as someone whose work engages sexual identity specifically, but as a lesbian I’m sure it influences my writing to some degree. Mostly, I’m not afraid to write about things that interest me, whether it’s incest, sexual abuse, May-December same-sex romances, murder, or transgender characters. I’ve always been interested in the “other” and unconventional narrators, i.e., people on the margins without much representation in literature, and placing myself in their shoes. I think my interest has a lot to do with not really seeing myself reflected in the books I read growing up, and it’s made me think even more, as an adult writer, about those voices that have been left out in addition to my own.

That said, it’s a great time to be a writer now, because not only is there so much diversity on the shelves, but also readers are actively seeking out other perspectives, whether they’re sexual, racial, or political. Years ago, I remember being a little worried about publishing a collection of novellas that included sexual abuse and a May-December same-sex romance (Could You Be With Her Now) for how people would perceive me or my work. I don’t think I would have the same concerns today. And I think it’s wonderful that writers are being allowed to not only push past the boundaries, but that they’re being encouraged to as well.

Q: How do you stay connected with the literary scene in Maryland and Baltimore? How can I get more involved?

I’m glad you asked! I’ve been involved in the scene for many years, and beyond reading, reading, and reading, I think making connections in the community is the most important thing for any writer to do. I’ve always been a little introverted or, at least, I need a lot of time to recharge after social events, but I’ve been editor in chief of the literary weekly jmww since the early 2000s and spent more than ten years hosting reading series (The 510 Readings and Starts Here!), so I’m living proof that you don’t have to be some high-octane, gregarious, outgoing person to get involved in the literary ecosphere.

Where to begin? If you want to get an overview of the community, I would start by attending The CityLit Festival, which is held every April at the University of Baltimore. The festival attracts fantastic regional and national authors for readings, panels, and talks, and there’s a marketplace where you can pick up all sorts of information about writing programs (including the University of Baltimore), literary journals, and writing organizations in the area. A similar offering would be The Maryland Writers Association’s annual conference: there are plenty of panels and lectures on craft and specific genres (like mystery writing or children’s books), and there’s usually an agent or two there.

If you want to jump in, get on the ground and meet and hear writers, there are several excellent reading series in the city: monthly series like Writers & Words in Remington and Hey You, Come Back! In Station North, almost-weekly readings from Writers LIVE at Enoch Pratt Library’s central branch, and the Ivy Bookshop hosts writers practically every night at their Falls Road location. Readings are places in which I’ve made the most meaningful bonds with other writers, and other opportunities can arise as part of those connections, whether you secure an invitation to read at said series, find people with whom you can start a writing group, or maybe you discover a local press that’s publishing work to which you really relate and you buy a book from them or you volunteer to be part of their staff or maybe they dig your work so much they publish you.

Putting yourself out there can be hard, no doubt, but even if the thought of going out to talk to other people makes you break out in hives, there are so many great literary journals operating in the area, such as the Baltimore Review, the Loch Raven Review, the Delmarva Review, and, of course, the Little Patuxent Review, for whom you can volunteer to read submissions or review books or interview authors, all online. At jmww, we’re continually looking for interns and volunteers to fill these roles, and they’re great opportunities to gather some publishing credits and build your resume all within the comfort of your home or coffee shop.

Q: Why did you found jmww and is the work of that journal?

I founded jmww after I graduated from Towson University with my masters in professional writing. I had taken a few fiction-writing workshops as electives in the program, and I enjoyed the camaraderie, the deep focus on craft, the writing deadlines, all of which I missed after graduation. Overall, I just really missed a community of writers to whom I had access. Although I was in a writing group for a brief period after graduating, it fell apart because of scheduling conflicts, and I wanted to do something with more staying power. Therefore, one weekend I bought a book on HTML, created a very basic website (for years I hard-coded everything before moving to WordPress), and two other graduates of the program (Catherine Harrison and Megan Calhoun) agreed to come on board as fiction editors.

We first started out as an online quarterly, and over the years we’ve transitioned to an online weekly. We’ve also published print issues, poetry chapbooks, attended AWP, hosted readings for our authors, and offered online writing seminars. I don’t believe in any overriding esthetic for the journal, because my own output as a writer is so eclectic, so we just try to publish good writing. If there are memorable, realistic characters and unbelievable tension, we don’t care if it’s sci-fi or noir or literary. We love publishing new writers just as much as established ones, and we take particular pride in promoting everyone’s work. There’s nothing better to me, short of my own forthcoming publication, than having another writer’s work in the queue, ready to publish the next day and share with the world. We especially get excited around nomination times for the Pushcart, Best Small Fictions, Best of Net, and so on.

Q: I’m sending you these questions the night before the midterms, so politics are on my mind. Is there a connection between politics and literature? And if so, what is it?

Absolutely. Barbara Kingslover says that a book doesn’t tell you what to think; it asks you what to think. And I think as writers we go even further: we ask readers to consider a different point of view, to immerse themselves in the struggle of another person, another society, another world. And that invitation toward persuasion is political. Books have caused me to change my opinion many times, and I think, because of their emotional potency, books are very powerful ways to start a dialogue, to upset people’s expectations, to find a way to slip under their skin. And even if it’s a negative reaction, and someone hates your book, you elicited a response from that person and created a bit of a rift in their world. And an emotionally intelligent person might stop and think, “why have I reacted so strongly in this way?” and maybe continue to examine that thread and themselves further. Which is why I think books are so important in schools, particularly ones that are actively targeted for banning. In addition, I think all writing is political, even genre fiction, because “traditional” genre is sort of enforcing a status quo, you know? And that is political, insomuch that it’s a call to resist change. But even the borders of those genres are starting to become more permeable, and there’s a lot of crossover and deeply innovative, original work.

Q: What are you working on now?

As I mentioned, I’m an eclectic writer who runs an eclectic journal! I just finished a women’s fiction novel with a lesbian protagonist, which might surprise some people. However, I found that, when I was promoting my other novels, people would come up to me after readings and say something to the effect of, “you’re funny in person” (which, if you’ve read my fiction, you’d understand their surprise, too). I knew I wanted to challenge myself and write something that was kind of funny and accessible. Of course, someone still dies in it, but it wouldn’t be a Jen Michalski novel if there wasn’t something a little dark. I’ve also been working on a sci-fi YA graphic novel with lesbian protagonists—we have a comic team with an artist, a letterer, an editor, and me—and it’s been a challenging project, at least in terms of writing in a completely different way, i.e., conceiving the story through story boards, where everything has to be accounted for, every gesture, facial expression, location in space. And I’m also working on converting the comic into a standard YA novel. I’m kind of all over the place. I’ve been pretty terrible at creating a brand for myself.

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