In her novels, novellas, and numerous short stories, Jen Michalski writes about topics as varied as the colors of the rain. She’s tackled murder, incest, romance, loneliness, and other subjects, coming at them all from different angles and with different perspectives. In her debut novel, The Tide King, which I reviewed here last month, and her forthcoming novel, The Summer She Was Underwater, Michalski explores her subject matter with magical realism, only one of the many tools she wields so well. 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). In the interview below, she talks about writing with magical realism, labeling of authors, understanding loneliness, and more.
SW. What tempted you to stray from the straight-and-narrow path of reality to explore certain themes in your fiction? Given that it’s always daunting to try something new, why did you think magical realism would work for you?
JM. I guess I never really thought much about being a writer who uses magical realism—it’s a genre I’ve never really warmed to as a reader, just because so much of what I’d read felt surrealistic for surrealism’s sake. But then about 10 years ago, I picked up Haruki Murakami’s short story collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. I was enchanted by one story in particular, “The Ice Man,” about a woman who marries a man made of ice and moves to his country. It’s more a metaphor of the difficulties in making connections with people, particularly people of completely different cultures, themes that I find myself exploring in my own work—being an outsider, and also my partner is Vietnamese, and her culture is very much cloaked in unspoken rules that I often find myself fumbling with. Anyway, most of my stories explore fissures in domesticity and had been fairly straightforward to that point, but reading Murakami opened me to the possibilities of exploring the same issues wearing a different pair of glasses.
I have to say that in retrospect, though, maybe magic realism has always been something I’ve been circling, on the periphery. I read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut in college as an undergrad, and I remember writing a story right after I graduated about a female philosopher having trouble with her girlfriend who meets a humanoid alien at a bar. The alien tries to convince her to return to his planet of logic and reason, a planet of divine providence, where she’d be a better fit, but in the end she chooses to stay at her own messy emotional planet—a place where she may always feel out of place but where she knows she ultimately belongs. I feel like that about my life and writing in general—it’s an uncomfortable place for me, at times, but I ultimately know I belong there.
SW. Did you experiment with magical realism in short stories before you tried it in a novel?
JM.I remember experimenting a little in flash right after I began to read Murakami—Pindeldyboz published one of the stories, “The Reading Room,” and I wrote a story, “Neighbors,” in PANK, that had its beginnings in real life but I added a little twist. But I always thought I’d leave it there—the stories were fun to write, but I’ve always been more interested in novels, and I didn’t think there’d be any place for magical realism in them.
SW. Since your next novel also contains magical realism, are you concerned about being labeled a magical realism author? Do you think your fans will expect that of you and be disappointed if you decide to write a totally realistic novel in the future?
JM. When The Tide King published, I was actually more worried about being labeled a sci-fi writer (because it’s listed in Amazon and Barnes & Noble under the subgenre of science fiction). And once, at a writing conference, I overheard someone refer to me as a “small press writer,” as if it were the kiss of death. (For the record, I’m extremely proud to be a small press author.) I think what people label you is out of your control, and you just have to write the stories you want to write, write them well, and figure out your audience for them. The only concern I’ve had is that I write a lot of different things—not only realism versus magical realism, but the subject matter I explore varies so greatly. I’ve written about a teenage murderer, about incest, about a May-December romance between two women. The novel my agent is shopping now is a murder-mystery set in the seventies featuring a young autistic child. I am drawn to characters on the margins, difficult topics. And I worry that someone who reads The Tide King might not want to read, say, Could You Be With Her Now. But as a reader I know I am willing to follow a writer wherever she wants to go, as long as it’s honest and well written, and I hope readers will make a similar investment in me.
SW. At what point in writing The Tide King did you realize you needed the magic herb to tell the story you wanted to tell?
JM. I honestly don’t remember! I feel like when I write sometimes I’m in such a trance. Both The Tide King and my forthcoming novel, The Summer She Was Under Water, were fragments of novels that I pieced together. In The Summer She Was Under Water, I was writing a very straightforward story about a dysfunctional family spending a summer together at the lake. At one point I put it aside and wrote a magical realist novella, Water Moon, about a man who realizes he is pregnant. His pregnancy is a metaphor for a shameful secret he is carrying, that he committed incest with his sister. At some point I began to think, “Is this novella actually the core of Summer, and am I just afraid to write about it?” So I pieced Summer and Moon together.
In The Tide King, I thought I was writing a more historical novel about the relationship of two soldiers during World War II, a tribute to my grandfathers, who both served but never really talked about it. But then I opened a file on my computer one day and found 50 pages of a novel I’d abandoned years before about a magic herb that a man gives to his granddaughter (and I really can’t recall why I was writing that one). But the two separate novels seemed to be circling around each other, in terms of theme, about what it means to connect with people, and be human. I realized I was writing a novel about loneliness, and the herb at that point just became a MacGuffin to tie everything together. For both novels, I used magical realism in very different ways to solve a problem, of connecting two very disparate stories together in each instance.
SW. Loneliness is a many faceted theme. Can you talk more about the “loneliness that people can’t fill”?
JM.I struggle with this a lot in my own life, and I think everyone does. There’s a great looking outward for happiness—for some people it’s money and fame and respect, and for others it’s love. We’ve been taught, for some reason, through mythology and religion and popular culture, that we are incomplete, that we have to find our soul mate to be happy. It’s a lifelong struggle to go inward and find strength, love, and acceptance there, and to realize that everything else is just icing. But we are humans, ultimately, social creatures. We procreate, we connect. What does it mean to have meaningful relationships with family, with friends, with lovers? A lot of fiction is about connection at its core, and as a writer you have to find new, fresh ways to explore it.
SW. Ms. Webster says in The Tide King that “you have to find the home in yourself because everything else is so much window dressing.” What’s your definition of home?
JM. I think, being comfortable with yourself, loving yourself. Trusting yourself to know your needs and know how to fill them. Like I said, there’s a great fear, I think, to go deep inside, to find that you’re lacking. It’s such a scary, terrible feeling to open that door and find a dark, empty closet. So much so that we try to fill the closet with other things from the outside. But to be in the closet, alone, and feel safe and strong and content. And discover there’s actually a window in there covered with dirt that just needed a little cleaning.
SW. Which character in The Tide King speaks for you? I would guess Kate, but it could be someone else.
JM. I think there’s a little bit of me in every character. Like Stanley, I can be well-meaning but never feel completely sure of the right thing to do. Like Heidi, I struggled to fit in at school and dreamed of a way out. Like Ms. Webster, I feel in a better place being alone with myself. Like Kate, I can be ambitious, and like Calvin, I’ve struggled to find my way, but I’m never complacent where I am.
SW. The title of The Tide King refers to King Cnut, whose subjects believed he could turn back the tides. What is the significance of King Cnut to the story?
JM. The proverbial story of Cnut, the King of England, is that he set this throne by the sea and commanded the tides to stop, to not wet his feet. Of course, the waves crashed in and wet his robes. There’s been debate about what Cnut meant by this act—was he arrogant? Was he saying that the power of kings is useless? For me, I interpret it as the latter. In the same way, the gift of immortality for Calvin and the others in The Tide King is useless. I had been thinking a lot about the great Dionysian culture of youth in our society, 60 is the new 40, etc., but what is the point of living forever if you will constantly be left behind, faced with loss? Death is important in context—it’s part of a cycle. There’s no beginning if there’s no ending. There’s no friction if there’re always sunny days.
SW. What do you hope readers remember about The Tide King?
JM.I hope that people will think about what it means to be human, and how time is finite, and what it means to live the best life for yourself, no regrets, but most importantly that the most important love is the love for oneself. It’s an acknowledgment of the gift of life. It’s such a gift to be human, and sometimes that gets lost when we concentrate on the little things we lack and think we need to be happy.
SW. As a reader, what makes a story or novel memorable for you?
JM. Stories that stay with me, ones in which I still think about the characters long after I’ve finished the book. Stories in which I find myself inspired to write stories in response. I think stories are a conversation, a dialogue, and if you return the book to the library or put it back on the shelf after you’re finished and never think about it again, then the writer hasn’t done his or her job.
SW. What would you like readers to know about your next novel, The Summer She Was Under Water?
JM. It was a difficult topic to approach, incest, because readers do correctly assume that as writers, we have a lot invested in our stories. That said, it doesn’t mean they’re true to us, or true stories at all. And I think I incorporated magic realism in this work precisely because the topic was so difficult, and I wanted a little bit of distance from it. But the realness of family dysfunction is true to me, and I think to anyone. I’ve always been fascinated that we assume we really know people with whom we share proximity, in this case, family. But we sometimes spend 70, 80 hours a week with strangers at our jobs, in the community, and we aren’t expected to know what makes them tick. So why would we necessarily know what our mother really thinks, or our father’s inner life? I think we can know the habits of people, their tendencies, but we can never really know who they are, or what they’re thinking. And I think that’s why people read literary fiction in most instances—because they are desperate for clues.