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Recent Work By Jen Michalski

Scott and Jen

 

By the time my debut novel came out in 2013, I had honed a one-word answer for when people asked me what the book was about: loneliness. Of course, it was about a lot more than that (immortality, magical realism, an enchanted herb, partition-era Poland, World War II, 1940s country music stars), but people can relate to loneliness—who hasn’t felt, at some point in their life, on the outside looking in? But now my second novel, The Summer She Was Under Water, has come out, and I’m struggling with that one-word answer. Often, I say the book is about a dysfunctional family, another great sales generator (just ask Jonathan Franzen or Gillian Flynn). That answer feels disingenuous, though, because there is a much more direct (and more uncomfortable), word to describe it: incest. Brother-sister incest, if you want to be really specific.

I first heard Emily Mitchell read over a year ago at a reading series I host in Baltimore. I have a bit of a crush on female writers who explore literary oddity with sci-fi strains (although I have had a hard time defining exactly what that means—I’m thinking a mix of Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Ursula Le Guin, and Shirley Jackson), and I was excited to host an author from just a few miles down the road, teaEmily-Mitchell_0035-3297705591-O-199x300ching at University of Maryland, who was exploring similar themes in her work.

She read a story from a forthcoming collection of short stories about a newly divorced mother who takes her daughter to a store to pick out a Companion, a robotic pet designed to help children cope with challenges and build confidence and empathy. Only the divorcee is surprised that, of all the animals her daughter could get, she chooses a spider.

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Michelle Brafman’s debut novel, Washing the Dead (Prospect Park Books, 2015) is, above all things, about the healing power of love and forgiveness, about letting go of the toxic wounds of betrayal and hurt. In fact, Brafman experienced a similar transformative purge; she admits that she felt “fluish” at times when writing it. The novel, told in first person by Barbara Blumfield when she is 17 and also when she is  53 (the two narratives woven together in what Brafman calls a double helix), centers on her family’s expulsion from their Orthodox Jewish community after her mother has an affair with a gentile. After Barbara is called back to the community thirty-five years later to perform the ritual burial washing of her beloved teacher, she is forced to confront her mother’s sins and secrets, as well as her own.

 

JEN MICHALSKI: Washing the Dead explores themes of exile, forgiveness, and redemption in an Orthodox Jewish community in Milwaukee, and you start it off with a bang: an affair. So where did that come from?

MICHELLE BRAFMAN: Yes, the inciting event in the book occurs when the main character, Barbara, discovers that her mother is having an affair, and so begins the family’s exile from their spiritual community. I’ve been told that the story reads a bit like a mystery, and as you read on, you learn that nothing that happens in these opening pages, including the affair, is as it seems. Affairs are complicated, I think. Perhaps they are often less about succumbing to some hot sticky lust and more about escaping an unbearable emotional intensity or healing old wounds or filling unmet needs for love or myriad other motivations. I wasn’t thinking so clinically, though, when I decided to use the affair as a means to launch this family into the diaspora. The idea evolved from digging into my characters’ family history and imagining how the carnage from their secrets might be expressed via misdirected and destructive efforts to secure love.

jerry.gabriel.high.rezJerry Gabriel’s second collection of fiction, The Let Go (Queens Ferry Press, April 2015) is old school. The reader is transported back to a golden age of the long, simmering short story, with its distinctly American milieu—the working class rust belt, boys at the cusp of adulthood, simmering cold war politics. As writer Charles Baxter notes, Gabriel’s characters are “barely hanging on and fear the let go”—of jobs, of identity, of innocence. And yet it’s hard not to feel the affection Gabriel has for them. The collection is less a suicide note of the American dream than a love letter to the tenacity of those caught it its clutches.

 

JEN MICHALSKI: The first thing that struck me after finishing The Let Go (and this is something my girlfriend points out to me all the time, for I do the same thing in my writing), is that, in addition to their mid-western milieu, so many of your characters are at the cusp of manhood (late adolescence or early twenties). Do you feel that your own crossover into adulthood had an impact on your writing life that is reflected in your choice of younger protagonists, or do you feel you are finally at a safe, wise distance to examine the folly of youth (and too close to write about, say, parenthood and mid-life). Or is it something else completely that drives you towards the troubled young souls in your work?

1904040_737060239645068_532688268_n(1)I’ve been interested in origin stories lately. They usually tell the birth of an otherworldly being, like a Superman, or the those real-life tales of bravery among middle-American folks squeezed in between pictorial layouts of the Royal Wedding or Justin Bieber’s new mansion in People magazineI find the most interesting origin stories, however, are the seeds in normal life that, for writers and artists, create narratives. Reading short fiction and novels, I often find myself wondering about the understory, the creative pulse that drove the artist to write or create the work, in addition to the day-to-day struggles they experienced during the process. Outside the matrix, if you will.

220px-FlowersForAlgernonIn my seventh-grade English class, we read Daniel Keyes’ novella Flowers for Algernon, the first-person narrative of a mentally challenged janitor, Charlie, who briefly becomes a genius after undergoing an experimental procedure. It was my introduction not only to an unreliable narrator but also to one whose unusual speech patterns and perspective on the world opened to me the possibilities of the “other” in literature—whether those others were disadvantaged, culturally different, sociopathic, or just plain crazy. It’s difficult enough for writers to get inside the heads of ordinary characters with ordinary problems; writing from the mindset of a person whom one might not even understand—say, a serial killer—or just not empathize with—a narcissist—can seem downright impossible. And when writers succeed, what does that say about the writer?

ElisabethDahlBaltimore-born Elisabeth Dahl has published short fiction, essays, and poetry but scored her debut novel, Genie Wishes, in an unlikely but emerging market for writers—middle grade (MG) fiction. Genie Wishes, which was released in April 2013 from ABRAMS/Amulet, is the story of Genie Haddock Kunkle, who, when the novel opens is starting fifth grade with her best friend, Sarah. Fifth grade brings a host of little earthquakes for Genie—she is elected class blogger and is forced to speak her mind to the entire fifth grade, a new girl—sophisticated Blair—joins their class, and worst of all, Blair and Sarah are becoming fast friends. As Genie approaches the first major crossroads of her young adult life, Dahl handles her with grace, charm, and quiet insight. I spoke with Elisabeth about the difficulties of transitioning from literary fiction to MG and why the books of our youth still hold such power over us.

Paula Bomer’s debut novel Nine Months (Soho Press, 2012) has had a long gestation period. On and off for the past 10 years, Bomer had sent Nine Months to agents and publishers, rewrote it, put it away for a long time, unwrote it, and then gave it one last shot, scoring with the rising Soho Press. Since its release in August, it’s has won accolades from The Atlantic, Library Journal, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. When I caught up with Paula, she’d just finished the west coast part of her book tour, getting stuck in Los Angeles and then Chicago a few extra days to ride out Hurricane Sandy before heading back to her home in Brooklyn.

Keith Scribner has never been one to shy away from trouble. His first novel, The GoodLife, fictionalized the 1992 real-life account of an Exxon executive’s kidnapping, and his third novel, The Oregon Experiment (hardcover, 2011, Knopf; re-released as a paperback in summer 2012 by Vintage Contemporaries), plunges the reader deep into the heart of the wily Pacific Northwest, home of the WTO protests and an actual secession in the 1940s (involving parts of southern Oregon and Northern California). In The Oregon Experiment, now in paperback, a young couple, Scanlon (a professor), and his pregnant wife, Naomi, have recently moved to Douglas, a small town in Oregon, so Scanlon can collect material for a scholarly book on mass movements that he hopes will catapult him onto the cushy tenure tract back east. Naomi, a perfume designer who has suddenly lost her sense of smell, must make sense of a strange environment in both the lush Northwest and her now-foreign, lactating body. For Scanlon, meeting Clay, a local anarchist, and Sequoia, the leader of a local secessionist movement, is a dream come true. The book, he thinks, will write itself. Unfortunately, it does not contain the ending he envisioned.

I had the good fortune of speaking with Keith about The Oregon Experiment, the heart of conflict, the best way to search for Molotov cocktails on the Internet, and um, breasts.

Author, academic, and analyst Mikita Brottman never set out to write bestsellers. She didn’t even set out to write books. However, she has never shied away from exploring her interests, and as a result, has authored 10 books on various subjects ranging from cannibalism to our obsession with celebrity car crashes, with a lot of serious academic theory sprinkled in between. Her latest, 13 Girls (Nine Banded Books, 2012), is a unique look at victims of serial killers. In 13 chapters, each focused on one victim, Brottman creates fictionalized but largely faithful accounts of the murders but with a surprising twist. Instead of the usual “true crime” angle, Brottman presents these crimes through different prisms and perspectives—police transcripts and interviews with coworkers of the victims—bringing the crimes alive and showing how they ripple with various levels of intensity and frequency through the communities they disrupt.

Karen Lillis, known to the online world and beyond as the Small Press Librarian out of Pittsburgh, has also written three linguistically innovative, emotionally intense books, full of identity and naming and power (both sexual and personal): i, scorpion: foul belly-crawler of the desert (Words Like Kudzu, 2000), Magenta’s Adventures Underground (Words Like Kudzu/New York Nights, 2004), and The Second Elizabeth (Six Gallery Press, 2009).

Tania James could send many postcards. She was born in Chicago, raised in Louisville, lived in Boston and New York while obtaining degrees from Harvard and Columbia (where she received her MFA in fiction in 2006), and now resides in Washington, DC. Perhaps it’s only fitting, then, that her first collection, forthcoming from Knopf (May 2012), is called Aerogrammes. I highly anticipated this collection from James, whose debut novel, Atlas of the Unknowns, was described by The San Francisco Chronicle as “the most exciting since Zadie Smith’s White Teeth,” and I wasn’t disappointed. James’ charactersturn-of-the century Indian wrestlers, traditional Indian dance instructors, chimpanzees from Sierra Leone, and self-appointed editors of DIY scriptology magazinesstruggle with identify and family in funny and heartbreaking ways. Their blood runs like ink into your bedsheets, and although your threadcount ruined, you can’t quite toss it away.

Laura Ellen Scott had a lot of wishes granted in 2011: a collection of microfictions, Curio, from Uncanny Valley Press, a promotion to Full-Term Professor in the English Department of the Mid-Atlantic college at which she teaches, and the publication of her first novel, Death Wishing, with Brooklyn’s fab Ig Publishing.

Mona Simpson is the author of five novels, including her latest, My Hollywood (Vintage Contemporaries, 2011), in which she examines the complexity, and also the currency, of raising a child. In it, Simpson, who believes that novels are “explorations of how to live,” revisits and elevates an important but often-unsung familial lynchpin, the domestic worker, and the overlapping, often-conflicting allegiances between parents, children, and “the help.”

Myla GoldbergSometimes the most repressed memories can be unearthed in the blink of an eye. Or, for Celia Durst, the protagonist of bestselling author Myla Goldberg’s third novel, The False Friend, they occur in the blink of a Volkswagen Bug sighting. As she remembers the popular “punch-buggy” game she used to play with her childhood friend, Djuna (before she was abducted), Celia also remembers a terrible secret about that day she has never told anyone. But when she returns to upstate New York, her childhood home, to unburden herself of what she remembers, no one believes her. Whose story, or memories, are real? Only Myla Goldberg knows for sure, maybe.