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Jen Michalski

Website: JenMichalski.com

Jen Michalski lives in Baltimore. Her fiction has appeared in more than 25 publications, including McSweeneys, Failbetter, The Summerset Review, Word Riot, and Thieves Jargon. She is the editor of the online e-zine JMWW

Short story collections

Close Encounters (So New Media, July 2007) 

Reviewed by Sara Crowley

Interview with Jen Michalski

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Jen Michalski: I didn't set out writing a particular collection, but these stories were culled from a period of five or six years, with the earliest being The Disappearers. It was the first thing I wrote and published when I first started writing short stories again (back in 2003) and is more of a novella, at 50 manuscript pages.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

JM: No. I have since, because you always have to be aware of marketing these days, ie, "I have five stories in which teenage girls are the protagonists. Should I write a few more and try to sell a collection about young girls, or maybe add some stories about boys and concentrate on youth?"

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

JM: The stories chosen were in response to So New Media, my publisher. The editorial board publishes a lot of independent, quirky, edgy stuff. I had another collection I'd been sending to university press contests and stuff, but it seemed too careful, stoddy. So I looked at all my "quirkier" stories and noticed their themes of celebrity and also human connection or alienation, hence Close Encounters came to be.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

JM:  That's a good question. I've found as a journal editor for JMWW that stories don't necessarily define a writer. Everyone has stories. But a lot of stories are more suited to the oral tradition, the intimate sharing among friends and even strangers. Literature is the myth, or an epic, like the Iliad, something that gets written down and passed along as a form of art. It has a lesson or a conscience, a message, underlying and weaving the fabric of the plot. Going to the store and getting broadsided is a story, but a written story about the same thing, and maybe the protagonist's child dies and they feel guilty because they berated the child on the way for dragging them out for a lollipop in the first place and how words can be as careless and random and hurtful as any bad driver. That might be literature.

TSR: Do you have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?

JM: Sometimes I worry more about who might not like my stories than those who do, especially when I give a reading. Critics or the indifferent are more difficult to convert. But mostly I write for myself, what I'd like to read, and I write as if the story will never see the light of day.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your
collection, anything at all?

JM: I would ask them how they would continue any of the stories. Stories have an ending, but they never end, and often I find myself thinking about other people's stories, about what would happen next.

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

JM: It feels great! I'm not going to lie to you. I'm happy when I get feedback on a particular story. One person told me they thought about a particular story afterwards as if they'd watched a movie instead of reading a story. I really enjoyed hearing that.

TSR: What are you working on now?

JM:I'm trying to finish a novel that I started years ago. My strength is definitely short fiction, and although I don't write for the market, it's hard to get collections of short fiction published. I don't know why--I love the low commitment of short stories. You can read one or two on the plane, wait a few weeks, then pick it up and read another. You can introduce it into your life at your pace. Novels seem like a much bigger commitment to me. In a society with such a short attention span, you'd think short stories and flash fiction would be very popular. So, yeah, I'm trying to challenge myself to do something I wouldn't normally do, ie, writing a novel and committing a lot of my energy to one project. I'm still writing short fiction in between. I'm also about to begin editing a collection of Baltimore writers with another local author.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

JM: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Huraki Murakami, Specimen Days (3 novellas) by Michael Cunningham Right Livelihoods (3 novellas) by Rick Moody