Jen Michalski has been a force in the Baltimore writing scene for years, providing support and community for writers by hosting a well-known reading series. She joined us to talk about her new novel, The Summer She Was Under Water.
This is such an interesting book in that it seems relatively simple on the surface, but then dives into extreme emotional depths. How did you come up with the idea?
It wasn’t the book I started out to write. It was probably in 2006 that I started writing it, and initially it was about a family vacation by the lake and initially, [the main character] Sam and her friend Eve were going to get together. But it just felt like a really standard coming out novel, and I didn’t feel anything good or bad about it. So I put it aside and thought, 'Maybe this isn’t the novel I want to write, maybe it’s just one of those aborted novels.'
In between, I wrote some short stories, had some other ideas, and wrote a novella called Water Moon about a man who’d been pregnant. I’m not sure how that came about, but I really liked the voice, and that he had this secret he had to carry to term. I wrote it, but didn’t really do anything with it—what can you do with a surrealistic novel about a pregnant man?—but I kept thinking about it, and there was just something about that novella that was trying to tell me something about the novel that I’d stopped writing. Maybe it wasn’t that Sam was a lesbian, maybe there was something else that was causing her so much distress. So I spliced the two texts together a bit, and it became clear to me what the real story was.
Not to give too much away, but incest plays a role. What was the response to that?
There was a lot of, 'You’re a good writer, but I can’t really sell this.' And that was fine. I researched, and there are novels out there with incest in them. Some of them are memoirs and obviously those are more justifiable, having the cathartic experience of writing about incest. Nabakov wrote a novel with incest in it, Iac McKeown wrote one, so there have been other authors who have dealt with it, I’m not the first one. I don’t judge things, I just write about things that I don’t understand and put myself in the shoes of someone I don’t understand, and I try to understand them by channeling myself through that person.
There was one criticism that the characters were too cynical. I realized that I put the worst of myself in Sam. A lot of us are this way, and I was this way too for a long time, that when something bad happens, we feel like we are owed an apology, and we’re bitter about it. Sam feels very violated and wants someone to apologize, like she can’t move on. And I think it’s once she realizes that it’s how she chooses to live, that’s where the healing begins, not while waiting around for her abuser to tell her he’s sorry. It’s how we learn to keep living, and I think in the end Sam starts to learn that we can still be mad at each other, and we may never have a relationship with one another, but we can at least try to find a way to be in each other’s lives. I think a lot of people and families everywhere deal with these kinds of issues that there aren’t easy answers for, and you just have to make the best of the situation.
You have a day job, which is writing related, but I’m still wondering how you find time for your own work.
I usually write in bed at night or on the weekends. I don’t really have a set schedule, and I’m not the type of person who has to get up every day and force myself to write something. A lot of the work is in my head, it percolates there until it’s ready, and then I’ll sit down and it has to come out right then. A lot of it happens when I’m dreaming. There’s a lot of emotional energy in dreams, and I’ll wake up after a really strange dream that has affected me so profoundly, and I’ll want to find a way to bring that energy to the page. I feel like I’m cheating, but I take a lot from my dreams to.
How do you come up with your characters?
It’s interesting, sometimes what you want from the character isn’t how they evolve. When I started writing this book, I had this picture of Eve as this girl I saw at the Club Charles one night drinking whiskey and a beer and reading. And it didn’t seem like she was waiting for anyone, and it was late and she was by herself. I thought, 'I wonder what kind of person finds solace in a dimly lit bar,' and I thought it was kind of ballsy. And then this girl who became Sam came in at started talking to her, and I suddenly became more interested in why this introverted, tightly-wound person would come in during the middle of the week and talk to this other person. And then all of a sudden, the book became about Sam.
I always say that the characters thwart you on every level when you try do something. It’s not even a voice, but something will say, 'this is what’s going to happen,' and you’re like, 'Oh.' And maybe you’re half way through the novel and everything has changed.
What is your ideal creative environment?
One of my big fantasies, and it’s terrible, is that I always wanted to have a book that was successful enough that I could go and be a hermit and write what I want. I guess all musicians just want to go in the studio and be like Kate Bush and do anything they want.
What do you try to get out of writing?
It’s hard to say. Writing is not like a goal, it’s how I analyze the world. I can’t articulate what’s going on to you in words, I need to write it down so I can make sense of it. It’s really the only way that I know how to interpret the world. If I stopped writing, I would feel really confused.
Even if I was never published again, I’d still be writing stories for myself. I don’t know how to stop. I have all these other people in my head who aren’t real, but they feel real to me. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the night and I’ll follow along with the soap operas in my head. It gets crowded in there, so it’s good to write them out.