5 Questions for Jen Michalski, Author of The Tide King

Michalskiblue

Baltimore-based author and editor, Jen Michalski.

When author Jen Michalski was featured in the Baltimore Sun this summer, the headline called 2013 “a prolific year” for her. That phrase is appropriate. Michalski, a mainstay of the tight-knit Baltimore literary scene, will have three books published between January 2013 and April 2014.

But for a writer as hard-working as Michalski, “prolific year” is also misleading. In addition to working on her own writing, Michalski edits the Baltimore-based journal jmww and frequents local literary readings.

Michalski and I spoke about her not-so-sudden success last weekend, and we followed with an email exchange. I had recently read The Tide King, her stand-alone novel (Black Lawrence Press).

thetideking_cover_lorestrials_4Laura Shovan (LS): With three books published within an eighteen-month period and a feature in the Baltimore Sun, one might be tempted to say, “Jen Michalski is an overnight success.” Those of us involved in the local scene know that you are a longtime literary community activist. Over the years, how have you balanced supporting other writers—through projects like jmww, the 510 Reading Series, and the City Sages anthology—with staying committed to your own writing?

Jen Michalski (JM): I don’t know, really! It all works out, somehow. A caveat—I like to keep busy. I have this manic mental itch, and there are so many other things I would attempt to scratch it with if I weren’t so involved in the writing community: I want to learn to play the bass and trumpet, attend the symphonies and opera, surf, and knit. I often wish the days were twice as long, or that there were two of me!

That said, ironically, my projects don’t leave a lot of time for writing. Fortunately, I do a lot of my work internally, in dreams and also subconsciously; and by the time I write it out, I’ve worked it over and over in my head and it’s pretty much the way it will be on the page. Writing also just comes when it’s ready, not when I try to force it, so I don’t feel pressured to set aside an hour a day and wait for something to happen. Finally, it helps that I’m a self-employed medical editor, which means my schedule is pretty flexible for when the writing does erupt.

Ultimately, though, being involved in the community is inspiring to me as a writer. All writing is a dialogue between writer and reader, and when I’ve attended a great reading or accepted a great piece for jmww or just talked with another writer about his or her inspiration or process or even kids, I am compelled to respond in my own way somehow, whether right away or subconsciously, a few months later. I feel like these outside projects fertilize the garden, in a way.

Salon Series, New York

Jen Michalski

LS: We talked about the way different threads of research came together as you were constructing The Tide King: the last “witch” burned in Poland, your family’s immigration story, a National Geographic article about the sinking of the Bismarck, both your grandfathers’ WWII experiences. All of these, except for the Bismarck, are key themes or events in The Tide King. Would you describe your research process? How do you know when something you uncover is going to work for the book?

JM: Research excites me because I never know what I’m going to turn up. In fact, I no longer lock myself in a plotline early on when I’m writing or researching the novel. When I’m researching I’m like a boat in the ocean; I can glide along in lot of different directions and trajectories before seeing land again. And then I might wind up landing in Cape Town when I thought I was going to Madrid!

Even though my research is driven by things about which I’m passionate, I just try to remain open to what I find. If I really wanted to set the novel in Alaska but when I’m Googling I read about a fishing village in Nova Scotia that really excites me, I go with it. In that sense, I know something is going to work when I become excited about it, when the story suddenly opens up and expands. Sometimes, though, the research just gets cut, and I’m okay with that. I wrote about 600 pages of The Tide King and only wound up using 300. I don’t feel they were wasted pages—they were just sort of the outtakes you wind up seeing on movie DVDs. (In fact, a lot of the deleted scenes did wind up being stand-alone stories that were published.)

I also try to stay loose through the various revisions of the novel. The first draft is so different from the second, the second from the third, and so on. Although the characters and the basic plot may stay the same, all the scenes, the setups, can have changed from the first to third draft. It used to be something that frustrated me, because you want to keep the energy of the first draft or idea without watering it down through the revisions. But often the revisions take it to a better place. Now, I try and concentrate on just digging through the research, the draft writing, knowing that I’m going to hit pay-dirt down the road—I trust my intuition will guide me to where I need to be. I am a writer entirely in the moment of writing. I never think about when I should be finished with a particular novel, whether I’ve spent too much time on it, and I also never wish for a novel to end. I try to have so much fun writing it that I’m disappointed when I’ve done all I can and it’s finally finished, that I have to find something else to do.

LS: Early in the novel, Barbara, an herbalist living in rural Poland in the 1800s, discovers a patch of burnette saxifrage that’s been struck by lightning. The herb, she realizes, has extraordinary healing powers. You said that this story, while not scientific, is drawn from both history and folklore. How did this element of magical realism become the novel’s inciting incident, the thing that draws these characters—who span over 100 years—together?

JM: The decision to use the herb, for me, was definitely, the “aha” moment. When I first started writing about Stanley and Calvin in the European theater of World War II (which was inspired indirectly by a story I’d read about the battleship Bismarck in National Geographic), I didn’t know what was going to happen with them. In the back of my mind I knew I didn’t want to write a war novel, even as I wanted to honor my grandfathers, who both served and never talked about it. But I kept writing, figuring that what to do next would occur to me by the time I got to that crossroads. And it did—one day, I was looking through some story files on my computer and found fifty pages of this other novel I had started many years before and forgotten. It featured the enchanted burnette saxifrage. I wondered, “What if one of the soldiers, Stanley or Calvin, gives it to the other?” Burnette saxifrage became the lynchpin—it could tie centuries of family and people together by the nature of its “curse.” It also provided a conceit, the curse of immortality and how humans deal with loneliness and time passing. But I was many months into research and writing before I realized the true story of The Tide King—and it turned out I’d been working on it for years without even realizing it.

LS: The friendship of WWII buddies Stanley and Calvin is central to The Tide King. However, the female characters shape the trajectory of Stanley’s and Calvin’s lives. How did you come up with Stanley’s love interest, little person and country music star Cindy? You said that Cindy’s daughter, Heidi, drives the second half of the novel. Can you explain what you meant?

JM: I don’t really know why I made Cindy a little person. I know I wanted to include country music because I was reading a lot about 1940s and 1950s country music, Patsy Cline and the Browns and Hank Williams Sr. So I knew Cindy would be a country music star. I always am drawn to the different, the “other.” I’ve written before about people with disabilities because I’m interested in their perspectives, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to include this twist in Cindy’s character.

Also, in a way,  although I didn’t realize it at the time, she becomes kind of a foil for Ela, who is also a little person in that she’s a two-hundred-year-old woman trapped in the body of a nine-year-old girl. Ela wants to die but she can’t, and Cindy wants to live on forever, immortalized as a country music star.

But Cindy and Kate (Calvin’s first love) drive the story. Calvin and Stanley never get over Kate and Cindy, and they are both driven through life by them in different ways. For one, it is a helpful, positive coping, and for the other, it’s not. I think it’s a very human condition, our “muses,” and the thin line between the destructive and redemptive nature of them.

Heidi’s story, even as it comprises the last third of the novel, is kind of a surprise to the reader, I think, and it was intentional on my part. For Ela and Calvin and Stanley and everyone else who comes in contact with the burnette saxifrage over the course of two hundred years, their information is very incomplete. They ingested the herb and did not know it, it wasn’t forced upon them, or they’re not aware of the breadth of its repercussions. Heidi is a character who is given full knowledge of the herb, knows what it can do, has seen how it affects those who take it. And, at the novel’s end, she must make a choice about the herb, and she is the only one, to that point, with the agency to decide whether or not she should take it, what should be done with it. I wanted to explore that freedom to decide one’s fate, through Heidi. To that point, the herb, or the search for the herb, for answers, had been the driving force.

LS: The one question you said most people ask about The Tide King is: Will there be a sequel? Explain why your answer is no.

JM: I think it’s good to leave the reader with questions. Life isn’t tied up in a bow, and I don’t think stories should be, either. There is no happy ever after—life just ends, and there’s nothing we really have to drive ourselves through it except our hopes—our hopes to be happy, to fall in love, to be successful. Which, on the face of it, are all human constructs, not real. And that’s what the characters in The Tide King have at the end—their hopes, however slim and unrealistic. There’s nothing that Calvin or Ela or Heidi could do in a sequel that would change the course of humanity, of the human condition. It’s sort of an old story, the follies and hopes of humankind, that doesn’t need a sequel. I thought that was the most fitting, realistic ending of all.

Jen Michalski lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She was voted one of the best authors in Maryland by CBS News, one of “50 Women to Watch” by the Baltimore Sun, and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine (Best of Baltimore issue, 2013). Her novel THE TIDE KING (Black Lawrence Press) was voted “Best Fiction” by the Baltimore City Paper. She is the author of two collections of fiction, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS (So New, 2007) and FROM HERE (Aqueous Books, 2014) and a collection of novellas, COULD YOU BE WITH HER NOW (Dzanc Books, 2013). She also edited the anthology CITY SAGES: BALTIMORE, which Baltimore Magazine called “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww and hosts the monthly reading series the 510 Readings in Baltimore.

For more about The Tide King, see the Baltimore Sun’s review. Also consider reading up on Jen’s previous book, COULD YOU BE WITH HER NOW, reviewed by LPR earlier this year. Jen’s book FROM HERE is due to be published by Aqueous Books in April 2014.

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Meet the Neighbors: Free State Review

A journal such as ours requires a vibrant literary and artistic environment to thrive—and even survive. In appreciation of the various cultural entities around us, we present “Meet the Neighbors,” a series where we provide you with personal introductions to a diverse assortment.

Barrett Warner with bean truck

Barrett Warner with bean truck (Photo: Bruce Leopold)

The Free State Review website caught my eye with an elegant layout and excellent photography. And kept my interest with statements that revealed a strong sense of identity. There was a focus on “place and experience.” On “authors who live the poem—story—essay before they write it” and provide “some glimpse of a genuine moment in this high concept world, reflected pieces of the real.” And exhibit “engagement and grace.”

That was what I’d tried to achieve in my own work. I would’ve been happy to submit a story had the 3000 word limit not stopped me short. Undaunted, I decided to do the next best thing. I contacted the editors—there seemed to be four—to ask, “So, what is your story?” One of them, writer and reviewer Barrett Warner, was pleased to oblige. Here’s how he responded:

We never had a sign that said, Right now, start a new literary review. There weren’t any voices in the winds. No beautiful angels flying into our minds, nesting on our sternums, singing in our ears. We just found each other.

Editor Hal Burdett found himself when he retired. It took him 81 years, 60 of those spent writing columns in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Times and other Metro newspapers. Raphaela Cassandra found Hal. The May-December pair next found poet J. Wesley Clark. It wasn’t hard to spot Jim. His familiar beard has grown through ten US presidents. He has published 11 poems a year for over 50 years in well over 300 literary magazines. His books include Daughter of the South County, Asleep With Whippoorwills: New & Selected Poems 1970-1995 and I Am Paraguay.

Jim found me. I’d been dodging success as a poet for 30 years and begun focusing on book reviews and essays. I’d written 35 in the previous year, enough to see a lot of new writers and styles and exciting presses. I was thrilled and jealous, especially when writing reflected experience that was “street” but had a polished sense of craft.

All of us had a feeling that writers in the region shared a dream about life. We also knew that elastic forms existed all over the planet. Creating Free State Review was a way to combine them—writers who smelled of seawater, writers who had metal parts and others scented by chlorine or mud. The language seduces us. When words are set beside vigorously lived moments, the experiences dazzle and the art moves us deeply.

We knew that we needed a website, whatever that was, but we had no idea how to advertise that we were accepting submissions except by word of mouth. We wagged our chin-choppers for three months before anything appeared in our box. The first parcel we considered included poems by Chris Toll, Edgar Gabriel Silex, Barbara DeCesare and Jessica Lynn Dotson. The first three were veterans, having eight books between them, but Jessica was a new arrival. She wrote about auto mechanics and had only had one poem posted—and that on a site since abandoned.

Others slowly handed over some poems or an essay or a short. Some such as Rachel Adams and Scott King were strangers who came to us the way that editors sometimes have of sensing other editors. Some such as Beth Spires and James Robison were friends who wanted to go on the journey. There was only one rejection for that first issue. Our raft was a big one, and the Argo could make a sailor out of any cowboy.

The first issue

The first issue, Winter 2013

The press given about our first issue, its growing distribution (Hal, like all good newspaper reporters, is a fanatic about distribution), our crazy launch at Ram’s Head in Annapolis and the rising murmurs about our next issue were impossible to predict, especially given the small number of submissions.

I’d been courting Bethany Shultz Hurst for almost a year, following her work in literary journals across the country, anticipating a book that I wanted to review. After we accepted her poems, she became a finalist in the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition, as did the local author Katherine Cottle, who had some great titles with Apprentice House. Similarly, our new poet Jessica subsequently had poems accepted by five other journals and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

We’ve since come to pride ourselves on seeking and finding authors on the rise, at times weeks, at times months shy of a break-out year. In the next issue, there are two authors, Kevin Lavey and Dan Ferrara, who would make me shake.

I found Kevin’s story in a pile of rejections for a fiction contest run by the Maryland Writers’ Association. It was the only one that I liked. Kevin and I met for coffee at Artifact and talked it through three or four revisions before we accepted it. A month later, he received a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award for Fiction. Dan Ferrara—who knows where this cat’s going to prowl in six months? Mostly the demons chase us, but every so often a certain writer turns and chases those demons right back. Ferrara’s got a purr that would scare any hungry coyote.

A reporter asked last month if there was a particular writer that I hoped to get into our journal. Yes, I answered, but the perfect writer has no name, no zip code. We’re searching, turning over stones, hoping that he or she will find us. Perfection isn’t a state, it’s just a single moment in a changing, stirred-up world. Here’s the dope: we’re trying to meet those moments and connect and put them into print.

It’s partly beginner’s luck that we found so many talented authors, but the fact is that we’re not beginners. Hal had came up at The Sun under HL Mencken, and that wizard’s two literary journals had sparked an early interest for the enlightened conversation that the arts bring to our day-to-day. Jim was a foreign correspondent in Mexico and Cuba. We’re an older Sunshine Club of hard-knocking dreamers.

So we’re different from other new magazines started by much younger types with lots of energy and visions of changing the world or maybe doing something with their MFAs. We’ve seen so many movements and presses and writers come and go, even actual revolution. You develop an instinct for sensing when you’re glimpsing a real modern-day Icarus and when it’s only a wad of feathers passing overhead. Jim says, “The first step in writing from the gut is to have plenty of guts.”

Ours isn’t the coolest, hippest journal out there. We’re no Fence, Coconut, Dzanc or Mud Luscious. We’re no Adam Robinson. And we don’t know all those stars making life-changing one-shot films or posting about zeroism or “the new severity.” We’re too old school for that. We still enjoy reading without having to plug in something, all the more so if we’re snuggled under a quilt. And we believe in public readings, in the live poetry scene, in bringing words to people’s ears and not just their eyes.

Raphaela is helping us with this, setting up readings at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, East End Book Exchange in Pittsburgh, Minás Gallery in Baltimore and Mystery Loves Company in Easton. Her take is that life is too messy without literature. Raphaela designs robots at the Naval Academy and helped attract St. John’s College astrophysicist and poet Jim Beall to the Review. His “Odysseus” includes images such as “axe murderer” and a boat run aground in the mountains “wrestling with legacies” as he speculates about the poet and dreamer in each of us.

Hal could talk the leg off a dead mule, but it’s not all a sales pitch and I believe him when he talks about empathy. He says,

In the modernist world, the heroes are all lonely creatures. They deal with their mortality all alone. There’s not much tension in that, but these Free State Review authors focus on moments of separation and slipping away, the husband taking a job somewhere else, the father endlessly repairing his car in a late night garage but driving nowhere or a brother’s suicide. Empathy is the perfect countermeasure for 21st Century isolation.

This is why Free State Review is not just a journal. It’s a love affair. Maybe we saw something for a moment and suddenly knew that our lives would be different. Knew this in spite of our eyes being bloody from staring at nothing so long. We saw it and knew that we wanted this love, this flash of hope, this electric profile that was there for an instant, then was gone. So, this time we decided to follow it, to see where it led and—chanting some and jigging some—disappear into its miracle of words.

As someone who is new to the world of literary publishing but not the world at large, I wish Barrett and his band of seasoned beginners all the best. And remind them that small literary journals like ours have a cultural influence that is disproportionate to their size.

Note: See the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses piece “Independent Presses and ‘Little’ Magazines in American Culture: A Forty-Year Retrospective.”

Dear Elvira: Bad Writing and Every Beholder’s Eye

Elvira Rivers

Elvira Rivers

Before we bade adieu to audacity (the theme of our Summer 2012 issue) and began to entertain doubt (the theme of our Winter 2013 issue), I slipped in something that any literary review of repute requires: an advice column, complete with a fictional columnist. If you haven’t yet met, allow me to introduce Elvira Rivers, whose brief bio appears below, and promptly present the current query.

Dear Elvira,

At a recent book bash, I became increasingly incensed by a bunch of editors carrying on about bad writing. Who do these elitists think they are, making pronouncements about what constitutes a crappy manuscript? I’m becoming convinced that all they want is to prevent people like me, who won’t waste time obtaining an MFA, from joining their exclusive club. You seem like a sensible sort. Wouldn’t you agree that bad writing lies entirely in the eye of the beholder?

Fondly,

Fred

Dear Fred,

I am sensible, so I do agree. Bad writing lies in the eye of the beholder. Every beholder. Smack-dab in the eye, making it as easy for even an editor to spot as, say, bad paving.

You see, while I reside in a picturesque place, the road that takes me to and fro is far from pleasing. And the imperfections there are painfully apparent to me even though I never wasted time obtaining a civil engineering degree or even accruing the minimum qualifications required to apply for a flagger position on a respectable road crew. And they are obvious to everyone else in the environs except, apparently, the poor paver.

What often jumps out first in both bad writing and paving is a lack of proper preparation. If a surface is cracked or offers inadequate structural support and our writer refuses to lift a finger (or move a mouse) to correct this, defects will inevitably emerge through the best-constructed overlay and consequent deformations can cause catastrophic failure.

If said writer isn’t ready in terms of craft, obtaining an MFA couldn’t hurt; however, if the shortfall concerns subject matter, graduate school rarely helps. An MFA hailing from, say, Chappaqua who decides to write stories about, say, meth labs in rural Michigan is at a distinct disadvantage to, say, Bonnie Jo Campbell, the author of the award-winning American Salvagewho’s lived in the Kalamazoo area all her life. (And, incidentally, has an MFA in creative writing, as well as a BA in philosophy and an MA in mathematics.)

And, while some would say that writing only about what one knows would merely result in a surfeit of stories about English professors seducing MFA students, those someones rarely insist that writers of such limited experience are as assiduous in filling the cracks in their knowledge as, say, Ian McEwan, who–at the height of his career–spent two entire years–as a matter of course–diligently work-shadowing a neurosurgeon before starting his critically acclaimed novel Saturday. (And, yes, he also has the equivalent of an MFA.)

Bad paving, bad driving, Oella Ave

Bad writing is as easy to spot as bad paving and bad driving on Oella Avenue (Photo: Ilse Munro)

Now, put a bad driver on that precarious pavement and there’s sure to be some serious trouble. You see, my particular road is narrow, sometimes turning into a single lane, with steep climbs and descents and sudden sharp turns. Inexperienced or impaired drivers readily put everything in their path in peril, as do those overconfident ones who show no consideration for objects or persons.

I regularly see the former on my street, their shaky hands at the wheel, wandering across lanes, running out of road and rolling down embankments. The latter I remember from my Boston and Cambridge days, their tall trucks stuck under overpasses on Storrow and Memorial Drives along the Charles River, where large signs say, “CLEARANCE 11FT 0IN.” They’re the same ones that I now observe attempting impossible turns into access roads and ending up wedged between street signs and utility poles, their goods, alas, undelivered.

In bad writing, it’s equally easy to see when an author is out of control. Some use the excuse of automatic writing, citing Jack Kerouac’s notion of “first thought, best thought” and his refusal to revise. (And add that Kerouac was a college dropout.) But a closer look at good writers shows, more often than not, that’s a carefully crafted illusion. In her memoir, Joyce Johnson–who definitely did know Jack–revealed that he revised regularly and rigorously. Which is why his seminal novel On the Road didn’t end up in a ditch.

Similarly, it’s hard to miss the sort of bad writing that occurs when an over-confidant author under-delivers, almost by design. I’m not referring so much to brash early efforts such as A Clockwork Orange that acclaimed authors later repudiate as to works penned at any point in a career that show little regard for readers because, one can only assume, such authors feel that they are so patently brilliant that they deserve a pass. Consider McEwan, whom I normally admire. With Sweet Tooth, he correctly calculated that the clumsy contrivances used in lieu of more potent prose wouldn’t be called out by more than one or so critics the way that they would’ve been were he someone of lesser repute.

Bear in mind that at the beginning of each work–no matter how outré–the author enters into a contract with the reader to render certain goods, the literary equivalent of kitchen cabinets. When that author has the arrogance to violate that agreement through artifices such as dei ex machina, contrived epiphanies or trick endings, the reader has the right to feel cheated. Not that I don’t delight in surprises. But they only constitute good writing when, as occurs with minor masterpieces such as George Saunders’ “Puppy” and Joshua Ferris’s “The Dinner Party,” the reader is complicit every single step of the way.

Speaking of good writing, I maintain that the transportation analogy also works there. It’s as hard to miss as trains rumbling along the track across the river, parallel to my ruined road. In a Poets & Writers piece, a literary agent seconds what another has put in his Publishers Marketplace profile: that what he looks for is a book that makes him miss his train stop. (Actually, it’s “subway stop,” but that’s more or less along the same lines.)

Sincerely yours,

Elvira

PS I could’ve added bad weather, which typically comes from getting too much of an otherwise good thing, to the bad paving and driving but then it would’ve been necessary to address overwriting, which would’ve been a bit excessive here. Fortunately, that and other cases are covered by the likes of David Sedaris, George Saunders and Margaret Atwood in the video Bad Writing, which can be purchased for a pittance on Amazon.

About Elvira

Elvira Rivers, une femme d’un certain age, was born on a certain date in a certain place. Her father was the storied Tony Thames-Avon, a British actor and playwright, her mother the celebrated Latvian beauty Daiļa Daugava-Gauja. When Thames-Avon-Daugava-Gauja met Percy Pocomoke-Patuxent, she made surname consolidation a condition of marriage. The Rivers were inseparable until their divorce two years later.

Elvira went on to cure the common cold, design couturier gowns and write The Great Latvian Novel, while Percy vacillated between painting and poetry, then poetry and prose. He eventually acquired a Harvard MBA and left to run the London office of the venerable Boston investment bank Duck & Cover. Back in the USA, he was convicted on 14 counts of fraud and conspiracy and is currently serving an 11-year sentence.

To encourage her former husband to return to the literature and art he so loved once, Elvira sent him frequent letters. After finding herself uncharacteristically incapable of making ends meet–her nest egg had suffered substantial cracks during the 2008 crash–she approached Little Patuxent Review about writing a column helping creative types such as Percy better navigate life’s unruly waters. She has been with us ever since.

Note: Elvira is not related to the late mother of our online editor even thought her first name and the middle name of that witty woman are identical. She is also not connected to the winking woman shot by Ewing Galloway, though the resemblance is remarkable.

Book Review: Jen Michalski’s Could You Be with Her Now

Jen Michalski explores what it means to be vulnerable in a modern society.

Could You Be With Her Now

Jen Michalski’s new book.

At first blush, it appears that the only thing that the two novellas that comprise Jen Michalski’s collection Could You Be With Her Now have in common is that both are penned by the same author.

In the first novella, I Can Make It to California Before It’s Time for Dinner, the protagonist is a 15-year old intellectually delayed boy named Jimmy who thinks that he has walked to California when he happens into a house where a bikini-clad girl is sunbathing in the yard. The girl, Jimmy thinks, is his favorite TV character Meghan, and his encounter with her sets off a series of events akin to silent, miniature explosions of mounting small destructions that can’t be undone.

In the second story, May-September, perspective shifts between an older woman, Sandra, and a younger one, Alice, who initially come together over a business transaction—Sandra hiring Alice to help her launch a blog about her life for her grandchildren to read. Their interactions slowly transform into something else, a relationship that indelibly changes them both.

In both stories, Michalski deftly explores what it means to be vulnerable in modern society, what it means to be invisible, powerless, voiceless—either from mental or physical frailty–but struggling to matter in the world just the same. How carelessness and resentments on the part of family members can inadvertently thrust their vulnerable loved ones into situations that bring unexpected, unwanted, painful consequences.

What sets Jimmy on his misadventure is his older brother Josh’s careless selfishness. Josh, who wants to watch the TV that Jimmy is already watching, pushes him out the door with the directive to find the TV character Meghan, a directive that Jimmy takes seriously. Jimmy, of course, gets lost, but this is the experience with the girl he believes is TV Meghan and that sends him down the rabbit hole as a modern-day Lenny:

Megan bites my hand. I push her away. She is smaller than me and falls against the glass door. I feel bad and put my arms around her to pick her up. We are half the way up. She hits me in the chest and the face. I get mad like when Josh hits me and leaves marks. She hits me in the face again and it hurts bad. I put my hands on her neck and twist real hard, back and forth. She puts her hands on my hands but I am bigger. Her face turns all red and its’s kind of funny how red.  She keeps moving and kicking and I try to stop her. We are half the way when she falls asleep on me. She is so heavy I let her fall and then I wait for her to stop make-believing because people on TV are always doing make-believe.

Later, after Jimmy returns home, unaware that he has fatally hurt the girl, Josh once again puts Jimmy in harm’s way through a misguided attempt to protect him. Josh’s carelessness about Jimmy’s feelings and thoughts, about Jimmy as an individual prompt him to decide what’s best for Jimmy in a way that emphasize Jimmy’s vulnerabilities, bringing about inadvertent consequences—including his brother’s abduction–that change Jimmy and his family in ways that cannot be undone.

Similarly, Sandra, the older woman of May-September, realizes how narrow she has allowed her world to become after meeting Alice. Neither Alice nor Sandra can explain their sexual attraction, but in the short time that they have to develop their relationship, Sandra emerges, bit by bit, from the shell in which she has spent years encasing herself and Alice begins to feel less lonely and more purposeful after a bad breakup.

Just as Sandra is on the brink of re-discovering herself, she suffers a health setback that enables her daughter Andrea to rob her of the one thing that vulnerable people lack the most: choice. Under the guise of looking after Sandra’s best interests, Andrea treats her not like a child but an object, deciding her future and fate without discussing it with her, effectively imprisoning her behind the bars of the vulnerability that aging brings.

Sandra, on the brink of becoming a butterfly, sees her chrysalis turned into a thing from which no butterfly can ever emerge. And a piece of Alice, who lovingly nurtured Sandra’s transformation and was affected by her forced future, dies with Sandra’s dreams. Here Sandra comes to terms with the future that she neither wanted nor envisioned:

It was getting colder now. She played the piano, a little bit at a time. Until she got her strength. Haydn and Gershwin and Mozart. Mozart for Jack, always. No Beethoven.  She played the piano while the women Andrea hired packed her things, while men took her furniture. She played the piano until they were ready to take it, and when they did, she left.

Although the vulnerable characters in both stories suffer for their susceptibility to the careless hands of others, fate and time, the book offers hope. If Jimmy fails to understand the extent of the hurt that he inflicted on the girl, he also fails to grasp the hurt that was inflicted on him. If Sandra’s future becomes the one that her daughter envisions, she still retains the one thing that cannot be stolen: her music. And Alice, who hibernates after the abrupt end to the budding love with Sandra, emerges into the light of her own spring.

Jen Michalski

Jen Michalski

Michalski’s double novellas, written in a deceptively simple but lyrical style, are aptly paired in a book that deserves to be added to anyone’s must-read list.

In addition to Could You Be With Her Now, Jen Michalski is the author of the novel The Tide King, a winner of the The Big Moose Prize, and the short story collections From Here and Close Encounters as well as the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore. She is also the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, co-host of the 510 Readings and the Lit Show and an interviewer at The Nervous Breakdown

Print Issue Preview: 30 Authors and Artists Address Doubt

LPR Doubt Cover

Introducing our Winter 2013 Doubt issue. Cover art: The Ideal City, Fra Carnevale (?), at the Walters Art Museum. Cover design: Deb Dulin.

For our first 12 print issues, you’ve had to wait for the launch party to sneak a peek at what’s inside. But seeing that 13 is a lucky number and our Issue 13 comes out at the start of 2013, a most auspicious year, it’s time that you caught a lucky break. Therefore, we’ve set it up so that you can preview the text of two pieces in advance. And, unwilling to leave things entirely to chance, we’ve armed you with cheat sheets, as well.

All you need to do is turn to our Winter 2013 Doubt issue page, where we present the complete table of contents, and click on two highlighted items. Those are Laura Shovan’s “Editor’s Notes” and the Clarinda Harriss poem. Then see what these two literary ladies have to say about that in the sections below.

Of course, if you’re one of those rare individuals who’s completely comfortable with uncertainty and doesn’t doubt his or her ability to make it to the launch, we wouldn’t want to spoil any surprises. Simply skip what’s written here and head straight for Oliver’s Carriage House this Saturday, where we’ll be sure to save you a good seat.

Your Cheat Sheet for “Editor’s Note”

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but doubt is the agent of change.

In our 13th issue, 30 writers and artists examine the role that doubt plays in marriage, religion, art and identity. Doubt can be triggered by small moments such as watching a handyman at work fifteen feet in the air [i] as often as it comes from the force of a failing marriage [ii] or a tsunami’s destructive power [iii].

There are those who live in a perpetually agnostic state, calling into question everything from religion and community to the self and one’s perception of reality [iv]. For these doubters, something as simple as a taste of honey harvested from a backyard hive can be enough to restore faith in society [v].

Human culture would not evolve without such proof-seeking minds. If nobody questioned status quo thinking about how the autistic mind works [vi], what it means to be a painter in 2013 [vii] or who created a Renaissance masterpiece [viii], human history could not move forward. Whether the results are “correct” or not, the process of change begins when one doubter pulls apart what is accepted and puzzles together facts and observations to create a new theory.

The product of doubt, whether one has scrutinized a childhood memory [ix] or re-envisioned a character from the Bible [x], must be a new way of looking at the world. Our hope is that you, the reader, will engage in the inter play between doubt and change as you read this issue of Little Patuxent Review [xi].

                                                                                                — Laura Shovan

…And another for “Blasphemy is the Child of Faith and Doubt”

Because of or despite the fact that I come from agnosticQuaker/atheistEpiscopalian parents, I have always been obsessed with the what-ifs implicit in biblical lore. And I have always been fascinated by the much underrated or downright dissed female leads in that lore–Eve, Lilith and, of course, Mary Magdalene, who I have known since childhood was the wife of Jesus. (What is UP with a few current scholars acting as if they had just discovered that Jesus was married?) In addition, I love to re-tell old stories with some crucial part left out–like, suppose Cinderella got zapped to the ball WITHOUT THE DRESS? In a poem written years ago and published in Sybil-Child, I envisioned her standing ragged and astonished at the top of the stairs descending into the ballroom, then pulling off her filthy kitchen togs. Standing there gorgeously naked. No wonder the Prince fell for her.

  — Clarinda Harriss

Note: You can pre-order copies of the Doubt issue now from our Individual Issues sales page. And order some back issues, too. Check out what’s in those in our Issues section.

__________________

[i] Award-winning poet and children’s author Jacqueline Jules makes her first appearance in LPR with the poem “Standing in the Air.” It explores the way in which everyday moments, in this case observing someone repair a roof, can create self-doubt. Jules uses dialogue to establish the character of the workman, which contrasts with that of the speaker. (p. 50)

[ii] The short story “Mediation” by Lisa Lynn Biggar was submitted for our Summer 2012 Audacity issue, but Fiction Editor Jen Grow felt that the piece was a better fit for the current theme. Biggar uses dramatic irony to explore a modern love triangle. (p. 70)

[iii] “Japan 2011” is one of two poems in this issue by Elisabeth Dahl of Baltimore. Dahl’s use of form in the poem mirrors the poem’s theme, the devastating 2011 tsunami. (p. 30)

[iv] There are several pieces in this issue that examine the nature of reality and how it affects views of the self. I particularly like the use of pop culture detail in Kim Jensen’s poem “Perimeter.” (p. 45)

[v] Cynthia Grier Lotze’s timely poem “When You Began Keeping Bees” is filled with sensory images. Home beekeepers in our local community, Howard County, Maryland, recently won a battle against a zoning law that limited backyard beekeeping. (p. 80)

[vi] Lauren Camp’s poem “The Dam of Asperger’s” uses spacing and other form elements to mirror the difficulties a teacher or parent might face communicating with a child on the autism spectrum. (p. 46)

[vii] This fall, LPR art expert Michael Salcman and I visited the Baltimore studio of painter Leonard Kogan. See the LPR Facebook page for photographs from our conversation. (p. 16)

[viii] In the first LPR essay featuring a classical work of art, Michael Salcman posits an alternate “author” of The Walter’s Art Museum’s masterpiece, The Ideal City. (p. 35)

[ix] This  issue includes several pieces in which contributors view a childhood experience through the lens of adulthood. Check out P. Ivan Young’s “Nerf Football,” one of a series of poems about urban childhood friends, and Bruce Alford’s evocative prose poem “What to Leave Out.” (pp. 27 and 68)

[x] Frequent contributor Clarinda Harriss acts as a voicebox for the biblical characters Eve, Lilith and Mary Magdalene in her three-part poem “Blasphemy is the Child of Faith and Doubt.” (p. 66)

[xi] Among the powerful pieces not mentioned is Le Hinton’s poem “No Doubt About It (I Gotta Get Another Hat),” a tribute to the late Baltimore poet Chris Toll, who leaves behind a rich legacy of visual and linguistic experimentation. (p. 82)

Dealing with Doubt: After Midnight

Between belief and disbelief, certainty and uncertainty, trust and distrust lies doubt. Doubt can be deliberate questioning or a state of indecision, resulting in a reassessment of what reality means or a paralyzing suspension between contradictory propositions. An uncomfortable condition, as Voltaire observed, but preferable to certainty, which is inherently absurd. Or some surprising gap stretching intellect and emotion, resulting in delight. Join us in this intriguing gray area as we prepare our Winter 2013 Doubt issue.

Dewy Defeats Truman

Harry Truman holds up a copy of the Chicago Tribune at Union Station in St. Louis, Missouri on November 3, 1948. It was a foregone conclusion that he would lose, so the Tribune ran the infamously incorrect headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” (Photo: Byron Rollins, AP)

During the summer of 1987, when I was 19, I lived by myself in a furnished studio apartment in New Port Richey, Florida. I had come from Illinois for a newspaper internship after my sophomore year in college. I had a blast at work but spent most of my free time alone.

I’m one of six kids from a raucous Irish-Catholic family, so the solitary life was novel and enjoyable. Throughout that internship, the only time that I actually felt alone–the only time that it might have been a comfort to have my brothers nearby–was the night that I awoke in terror. I’d been thinking about a story I’d written that day when a thought drifted into my drowsy mind: I might have spelled Tom Weightman’s name incorrectly.

Weightman was the county school superintendent. I didn’t remember checking the spelling. My stomach churned. What spelling did I use? I called the main newsroom in St. Petersburg in hope of…what? That the paper hadn’t been put to bed? That I could correct the mistake? I wasn’t even sure that it was a mistake. It was late, and the paper had gone to press. My panic escalated. But the only thing worse than self-doubt was self-deception. I had to know. I got in my car and zoomed through the humid night. I unlocked the empty newsroom’s back door and got to my desk. I don’t remember how I checked my story, but I did. I had spelled it correctly. Or maybe an editor had made it right. It didn’t matter.

Journalists are taught to get it right. Getting it wrong means that you have made a factual error, and factual errors require correction. No one likes to make mistakes, and people with life-and-death jobs–doctors, cops, firefighters–probably think that a potentially misspelled name is a poor reason to have a panic attack and make a midnight run through Pasco County. But fellow journalists will empathize. We all feel the white-hot shame when an error creeps in. If my brothers had been there that awful night, I still would have felt alone. They wouldn’t have been able to help. They weren’t journalists.

The first big mistake that I made was at my college paper. I covered a faculty member’s memorial service and, inexplicably, listed the wrong day. The editor-in-chief tacked a copy onto the newsroom bulletin board with the mistake circled. Even in that bustling newsroom, I felt completely alone. And knew that I never wanted to feel that way again.

But, of course, I did. I was a prolific reporter in college, during internships and in my professional career. When you write that much, you inevitably make mistakes. I printed the wrong telephone number for a social services program. I wrote that a man accused of sexually abusing a child had made incriminating statements to police; he hadn’t. I misread a Department of Transportation document so badly that I said that a controversial road project had been brought back up for consideration. That was a doozy: not just an error in a story, but an entire story in error.

No matter what the reason was for the slip, the resulting misery was always the same. Eventually, I arrived at a strategy to stave off madness: I beat myself up for a day, then moved on. The newspaper policy of printing corrections on the front page was perversely helpful. The stronger my public humiliation was, the less I needed to beat myself up.

Given the cruel dimensions of this occupational hazard, it shouldn’t have been surprising that when salvation–in the form of the Internet and the resulting online newspapers–finally did arrive in the early 2000s, it was wrapped in treacherous packaging.

I work at the Ocala Star-Banner, which publishes both in print and online. The latter has a crucial advantage: stories can be adjusted moments, hours, even years after they’re posted. I can quickly correct a spelling, a date, a dollar amount. I can even unpublish an entire story. Transparent corrections–noting when and where adjustments are made–don’t sting like their print cousins. If anything, online corrections are admirable evidence of a reporter perpetually at work. The errant reporter’s shame need last only a moment.

Corrections page

An example of an online corrections page, appropriately from January 6, 2013 (Epiphany)

The flexible Internet also helps prevents errors from seeping into inflexible print. Since stories usually post online before the print deadline, readers and colleagues can spot problems and contact me. Both the print and online stories can be corrected long before the presses roll.

A July 2012 Newsweek cover story asked, “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?” It cited research on how prolonged Internet exposure makes people more lonely and more depressed, less connected and less focused. Perhaps it does. But as a journalist who is a maniac about getting things right, my newspaper’s Web operation makes me less lonely and less prone to depression, more connected and more focused. The digital world brings more people to the process early on, when there’s still a chance get it right. I’ll always doubt myself a little, but now I have an ally in the previously debilitating battle against time.

The treacherous side of this salvation is that the Internet poses a business challenge for newspapers. Readers are shifting from print to digital, but the majority of revenue still comes from print advertising and circulation. Unless the news business figures how to get ad dollars to follow eyeballs, traditional news organizations will continue to struggle.

I want the best of both worlds: maintaining accuracy but writing with a digital safety net, keeping print products financially viable but allowing the more forgiving online world to flourish, practicing journalism vigorously but relegating those panic attacks to the past.

As I reconcile these two worlds as a writer and editor, I also do so as a part-time journalism instructor. I teach JOU 3101-Reporting one night a week at the University of Florida. The course has tough grading standards, including 50 points off for factual errors. Many of the students have never received less than a B in their lives, but it’s not uncommon for them to flunk the first few assignments.

Most of the class time is dedicated to writing a deadline news story. I provide data sheets larded with land mines: inconsistent spellings, incorrect addresses, fuzzy facts. Terrified of making a mistake, my students check and cross-check every word and confer in panicked voices. Emotionally exhausted, they hand me their stories just before the 10 pm deadline as if offering steak to a lion. I receive late-night emails, the cyber-equivalent of my midnight run, begging forgiveness for a mistake they have–or think they have–made.

It doesn’t need to be this way. The landscape has changed considerably since my stressful college days. Today’s students will work in a digital world where accuracy is vital but errors can be quickly corrected. Perhaps the lethal grading system, where one factual error equals failure, should be ditched in favor of a more modern one: factual errors cost points, but not a fatal number. This certainly would improve morale.

Then again, nostalgia and habit aren’t the only reasons to stick with old standards. With new technology, doctors can save patients who a generation ago were doomed. But med schools would never go easy on students who couldn’t handle the basics, even though initial errors can be corrected with advanced medicines and procedures. Judges can check case law on courtroom computers. But law schools would never excuse students who couldn’t prepare a properly cited legal brief. For journalists, getting it right is as important now as in the days of hot type. Technology can eliminate crazy midnight drives but can’t teach what the panic can: this is serious and I never want to feel like this again.

The Internet, with its fast and flexible beauty, has loosened time’s unforgiving grip on me. But the midnight run through Pasco County hardened me into the kind of journalist who doesn’t need too much saving in the first place. My students will inhabit the digital world. But they will arrive there with memories, never far beneath the surface, of those panicked nights in my classroom when all they wanted in the world was just to get the story right.

Online Editor’s Notes:

  • I doubt that there’s a soul with a publishing and/or research background (and a conscience) who won’t cringe a bit while reading Jim’s piece. And while the Internet has made it easier for us online types in many ways, it’s actually made it more gut-wrenching in others. I feel slightly sick each time I push the LPR blog’s Publish button because I know that what I post will be instantly available for the world to see, not just for a single county once the presses stop rolling. And while I love being able to fix facts–not to mention those awfully awkward sentences–anytime that I please, I can’t in all cases. Our valued subscribers, who receive the posts in their electronic inboxes in near-real time, are irrevocably exposed to each “soft” launch.
  • A propos Jim’s discussion of the mixed blessings brought by the Internet, it’s worth mentioning that Newsweek merged with the news and opinion website The Daily Beast in November 2010, forming The Newsweek Daily Beast Company. In October 2012, it was announced that Newsweek would cease print publication with the December 31, 2012 issue and transition to an all-digital format, Newsweek Global.
  • A writer for Forbes took issue with the Newsweek piece as well, stating, “I’ve been spending a lot of time on the internet, you see. And it’s making me crazy. Specifically, I’ve been spending time on the Daily Beast’s website, reading a Newsweek covery story titled ‘Is The Web Driving Us Mad?’ And I can answer resoundingly in the affirmative. The web—at least this particular corner of it—is indeed making me quite mad. Lazy, alarmist pop science writing usually does.” Doubt is a reliable antidote.

More Words = More Reasons to Revise

Big news! Little Patuxent Review finally upped the limit for fiction submissions to 5000 words. We’ve been gradually heading in that direction over the past few years, but this opens up LPR to even more great stories by talented writers who’ve been unable to pare down their pieces to 3500 words. I can’t wait to see what comes in during our Summer 2013 Music issue submission period. It should make for terrific reading.

I don’t envy myself, though. My role in chosing pieces to publish will soon become more difficult than ever. More words mean more ways that a story can go astray. A higher word count makes some writers less rigorous when it comes to revision, so I suspect I’ll see stories that have expanded to 5000 words when fewer would have done the job very well.

My advice: Before you submit, revise!

Fortunately, revision is my favorite part of writing. No writer that I know gets far without it. Revising is writing. There’s no separation.

Jack Kerouac On the Road

Jack Kerouac’s manuscript of On the Road. (Photo: AP)

“What about Jack Kerouac?” I can hear one of my former students asking as I write this. “What about “first thought, best thought” and the spontaneous purity of the initial draft?” All good questions. I’ll get to them in a moment. But first, try not to delude yourself into believing that you’re a misunderstood genius.

It’s an occupational hazard, I know. I tend to think that my own first drafts are brilliant—that I’m brilliant! Get ready, world, here I come! Until a day or so later, when I reread my words and realize that what I’ve written is dung. Oh, maybe my story has its moments–some beautiful sentences, the kernel of a good idea–but it’s also laden with grammatical errors, huge holes in plot or logic and mixed metaphors galore. And don’t get me started on punctuation: how I love a good dash, can be overzealous with parentheses and am errant with commas.

So I start revising. And revising. And revising.

I put as much space between me and the piece as possible. A few days, a few months, a few years. Because what needs to be changed in a piece is never fully apparent in the first few passes. When I feel that I’m finally finished revising, I go back and do it again. At some point I show my former-masterpiece-turned-modest-work to a writing friend. Based on what he or she says, I revise some more.

Most good writers that I know do this. Yet, there is this notion among new writers that revision spoils the original intent, that it takes away the energy and zip, or worse, that it deadens the personality of a piece so that everything sounds as though it was shaped in the same writing workshop. Kerouac regarded revision as a form of literary lying. (Never mind for the moment that Truman Capote regarded the “first thought” approach as typing, not writing.)

Funny thing about Kerouac. Yes, he typed On the Road on a continuous, taped-together 120-foot roll of paper and touted it as a single, spontaneous, complete draft. But this September, Joyce Johnson, former girlfriend and accomplished author, blew his cover. In The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, she claims that rather than having written his seminal work in a three-week blast of energy, he actually spent years revising it and carefully crafted each paragraph.

Joyce Johnson The Voice is All

Joyce Johnson reveals what “spontaneous” writing really involves.

As reported in “You Don’t Know Jack…,” Johnson reveals just how much of Kerouac’s approach came about through a disciplined and self-punishing journey to find an authentic linguistic and literary style. Fortunately, that style came into being somewhere between the margins of the working-class French-Canadian neighborhood in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he grew up, and the elegant lyricism of the writers he admired. And that–not the myth–is what makes Kerouac a writer worth emulating.

Very occasionally, a story will emerge from me nearly fully formed. Those works are rare gifts but still require the scrutiny of my internal editor. For me, revision is important because it uses a different part of the brain. It requires more decisions, more meditation, more intuition, more listening, more music and rhythm. Exacting and deliberate revision is what adds depth, emotion, texture and personality to a piece.

My point? Being a misunderstood genius gets in the way of being a great writer. Besides, you can save every version of every draft you ever write. If your revised version is not what you want it to be, go back to the beginning and start again. Which is to say, revise.

Online Editor’s Note:

As Jen indicates, revising a piece of fiction is a demanding but subtle process. Books attempt to tell you how it’s done, but I don’t know that I’d recommend them. You’d be better off simply mastering the basic elements of literature and becoming familiar with sophisticated views on the subject. Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them for the former and James Wood’s How Fiction Works for the latter are, in my humble opinion, perfect.

Recommending books to help you with editing your own manuscripts so that they’re submission-ready is easier. Here, all you need is something that tells you how to (1) make sure you don’t get in your own way and (2) not give exacting editors such as Jen peripheral reasons to reject your work. I started out with Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, and that worked as well as any. There are others that would do, no doubt.