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.