Jen Michalski is the author of Close Encounters, a collection of short stories published in 2007 by So New Media. The title comes from the “strange little world lurking in a lot of my writing,” said Michalski.
Stories feature “in-fetu twins, personality disorders, missing children, surrealist airports, little girls who find time machines in their neighborhoods, and Whitney Houston.”
Michalski has another collection coming out in early 2013 from Dzanc Books. It will include a novella I Can Get to California Before It’s Time for Dinner. Her novella May-September won first place in last year’s Press 53 Open Awards.
Michalski spoke to Baltimore Gay Life about her recent writing, the 510 Reading Series, and wrestling with the term “gay writer.”
GL: The relationship between Sandra and Alice in May-September takes place more in the past than the present—Sandra is constantly reminded of her husband, and past loves, both male and female, while Alice replays the relationship with her ex-girlfriend. Why did you choose to write the novella this way?
JM: When I thought about the characters, they’re both people stuck in their own pasts. Sandra, an older woman reflecting on her life as a result of her memoir project, is acknowledging that she has regrets in her career, her marriage, and her loves. Alice is a younger woman who is having trouble moving forward because of a recent breakup. I think they are drawn to this stasis in each other—they interact mostly in this suspended “way station” of Sandra’s apartment. Only when they decide to take a risk and literally come out together into the world, emotionally and physically, do they encounter these barriers to the relationship—how people perceive them, health issues, financial/power issues, family issues—that they didn’t see in the pure, idealistic place in which it had formed.
GL: I noticed there are small indications that the novella is set in Baltimore, but if you weren’t from the city, it could be anywhere. Why did you not really root this story in any specific place?
JM: I think the story can take place anywhere; I tried not to make it too specific. I was more interested in the interior places of the novella (the apartment, the meeting places), than really rooting them anywhere, because the characters are suspended and rootless. Only Sandra’s definite destination (Florida) is revealed.
GL: I read online that you don’t want to be labeled a “gay writer.” Why?
JM: I have wrestled with this term, “gay writer,” for a long time, and how to react when people ask me if I am, because I don’t want to sound dismissive. It’s not about not wanting to identify with being a gay person—I’m proud of who I am, but my sexually is not something I can separate from the rest of me. For instance, I don’t want to be called a “woman writer,” either. There’s a huge effort to place you into this genre or that genre to target book buyers, when, in reality, we’re all so different. I just think it’s so magical when you pick up a book by someone you don’t know and don’t even know what the book is about, and you just read a great story.
GL: How did you get involved with hosting the 510 Reading Series, and why is it important for the Baltimore literary scene?
JM: Gregg Wilhelm (of the CityLit Project) and I were hosting monthly writers’ happy hours in Baltimore as a way for local writers to meet and network. I met the novelist Michael Kimball, who had just moved from New York, at one of them. He didn’t understand why there weren’t any dedicated fiction reading series in Baltimore. I really couldn’t answer why, but I was happy to try and start one together. We found that there was a great need for this sort of thing—I think we’ve had close to 200 writers come through the series, from as far as South Africa, Toronto, the UK.
GL: Where can we find you in the coming months?
JM: I’m always at the 510 Readings, every third Saturday at 5 p.m. at Minás Gallery. I’m the editor of an online lit quarterly, jmww (jmww.150m.com), and I interview other writers at the online site The Nervous Breakdown (thenervousbreakdown.com/author/jmichalski/). I like meeting other writers in Baltimore and am happy when someone comes up, even in the supermarket, and introduces him or herself. I love that Baltimore is such a small place and that I always run into people when I’m out and about. It makes me feel like my family is very, very large, and it’s a comforting feeling.
DETAILS: JenMichalski.com for information on current publications, bio, and to purchase her work. Close Encounters, by Jen Michalski, So New Media, $10. 2010 Press 53 Open Awards Anthology, Kevin Morgan Watson, ed., ISBN: 978-1-935-70807-0, Paperback, $16.