Jen Michalski‘s first collection of fiction, Close Encounters, is available from So New (2007) and her second is forthcoming from Dzanc (2013). She is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press 2010) and the lit quarterly jmww.

Q (Meg Pokrass): What book are you closest to?

JD Salinger’s Nine Stories. It’s a collection that I read and find something new each time, even though I’ve been reading it since I was fourteen or so. Nine Stories made me want to be a short story writer rather than a novelist. I read it when I feel lost or unfocused. I’m continuously amazed by Salinger’s treatment of character and setting and dialogue. In the opening for “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” the scene in which Muriel speaks to her mother on the phone is all dialogue and so natural and so revealing of her personality, of her relationship with Seymour, of their entire shared backstory without sounding cheap or expository. And I hate so much dialogue, usually, at the beginning of a story, or anywhere, because it usually is so artificial and expository. But Salinger does things with language that would sound or feel absolutely awful if anyone else did them. And characters, too. Like Teddy, or Franklin Graff, or Boo-Boo Glass.

Salinger keeps me traditional in a lot of ways. Sometimes I try more experimental things or shorter pieces but when I think about what has moved me the most, it’s Nine Stories, and I’,always trying to craft a story to Salinger’s point of perfection.

Do you have/have you had a mentor/mentors?

I’m not sure if there’s a single person I’d consider a mentor. Neither my bachelor’s or my master’s is for creative writing, so a lot of what I’ve learned is just from reading and being rejected. Oh, and I’m in a writing group, too, which helps. Aside from that, there are a couple of people who I show my work to pretty consistently and whose opinion I trust. I would be totally in the market for a mentor! Maybe I should take out an ad on Craigslist.

What methods to you use to get creatively “unstuck”?

I guess I’m lucky in that I don’t ever feel particularly uncreative or stuck. I don’t force it–I don’t sit down and write everyday or at a specific time because I know that it’ll just come out when it’s ready. I dream a lot and do a lot of my work in bed–awake or sleeping. Or like last weekend, when I had a half a day to write and I sat down to work on a story that had been kind of swimming around. Yet when my fingers hit the keys another story came out, one that I didn’t even know was there. The other one is still waiting to emerge, but it’ll fight its way out when its time.

I like to think we have a lot of writing teeth. Some are slow and painful or impacted, and you pay a lot of attention to those. But then you wake up the next morning and you’ve cut a completely different tooth that you didn’t know you had. And the trick is to let all the teeth fall out on their own. If you try and pull them, the gums retain the memory of that loss. And maybe it affects the next tooth growing out of that hole. I’d like to think I’ll always have teeth coming in, but who knows? I have teeth now, and that’s all I’m going to worry about.

What are your favorite web sites?

There are so many writers’ blogs, so many journals I try to read every day. I’ll tell you the non-writing sites I go to daily (actually, they’re really boring): Wikipedia, for everything; the NIH publication database, for my freelance copyediting work; Craigslist, to look at free stuff (I always have this idea I’m going to pick up a piano and learn to play it); Snopes, to debunk all the forwards I receive; and Slate, Salon, New York Times, and the Baltimore Sun for news and culture. I’m a boring Internet person. I never do YouTube or watch television on Hulu or anything. I’m like a 65-year-old woman who knows how to use e-mail. Pretty soon I’ll be writing in all caps.

What are you working on now?

I edited an anthology that I’m really excited about, City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press, 2010), that’s coming out in April. It’s a collection of authors, dead and alive, who’ve lived and written in Baltimore. Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein have stories beside Anne Tyler, Alice McDermott, and Stephen Dixon, who share space with Madison Smartt Bell, Laura Lippman, Jessica Anya Blau, Geoff Becker, Michael Kimball, me. It’s the first anthology of its kind for Baltimore. It basically came about from my co-hosting of the 510 Reading Series with Michael Kimball. We’ve hosted so many great Baltimore authors that nobody knows about in our suburbs, down our streets. An anthology seemed only fitting to create awareness of our great literary tradition and the writers carrying it on.

I was also excited to find out that Dzanc is publishing my second collection, a novella/short stories, in 2013. I also just finished a novel and another novella and am trying to navigate the bigger world of agents and publishers, which is totally terrifying and like walking in the dark. Mostly, though, I started another novel that I’d like to finish the first draft of this year. I’ve found that it’s so hard for me to write longer forms. Most of the time when I sit down to try and work on the novel a different tooth, a short story, pops up. Maybe I should just accept this facet of my dental makeup.

Can you tell us about anything about the focus of your upcoming novels and your novella?

One novella will be in the Dzanc collection–I Can Make It To California Before It’s Time For Dinner. It’s the first-person POV of a mentally challenged boy who accidentally kills a neighborhood girl and runs away, hitching a ride with a trucker, who turns out to be a real piece of work. I also just finished a novella about a thirty-something woman who has an affair with a woman in her late sixties. Both novellas are very sparse, clean, and I’m proud of the direction my writing went with them.

The novel I’m working on is about a girl who meets a man from late grandfather’s regiment in WWII. During the battle of Hurrgen Forest, her grandfather fed the man an old Polish herb of immortality, attempting to save him after a mortar explodes his leg. Of course, the grandfather doesn’t believe the herb, passed onto him by his mother, is real and leaves the guy for dead. But the herb suspends and regenerates the soldier’s life. The solider finds his way home after the war, is suspended at 21 forever, and doesn’t know why. His wife dies, his friends. His children are old. He figures it has something to do with the herb and leaves his life behind, becomes a wanderer. He eventually finds the granddaughter, who still has some of the herb from her grandfather’s things but has no idea of its powers, either. And then stuff happens from there. It’s very much a novel about loneliness, though.

The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is an editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and her stories and poems have been published widely. She blogs at

  1. paula

    Fantastic. Jen’s recent success proves that something is right with this world.

  2. Joseph Young

    nice job, you guys. btw, jen KILLED at literary death match. truly a great head off between her and mike young.

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