A Conversation With Jen Michalski, Author of The Company of Strangers

January 10, 2023

Jen Michalski is the author of three novels, three short story collections, and a couplet of novellas. Her latest novel, You’ll Be Fine, was a 2021 Buzzfeed “Best Small Press Book,” a 2022 Next Generation Indie Book Awards Finalist, and was selected as one of the “Best Books We Read This Year” by the Independent Press Review. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Poets & Writers, The Literary Hub, Psychology Today, Writer’s Digest, and more. She’s the editor of the online literary weekly jmww and currently lives in Southern California. The Company of Strangers is out today through Braddock Avenue Books.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on the publication of The Company of Strangers. I really enjoyed it. I’m also a big fan of Braddock Avenue Books. This is your first book with them—how did you hook up with Jeff Condran and the BAB team? How’s the experience been?

Jen Michalski: Thanks, Curtis! I don’t know when I’ve never not been aware of Braddock Avenue Books—I remember doing some readings with Aubrey Hirsh when she was promoting Why We Never Talk About Sugar almost a decade ago, and I really enjoyed your novel, Lovepain, and the years in which they published the Best Small Fictions series, Tyrone Jaeger’s books, Cliff Garstang, so they’ve always been on my radar in terms of independent presses publishing quality authors—and also one of the places that champion short fiction, which are becoming more difficult to find. So yeah, I was definitely excited that Jeff Condran dug the collection and offered me a contract. The editing process has been really top notch, and I absolutely love how the books look physically. So much in the independent press world is out of your hands, so it’s been nice to feel secure with an experienced press, that they have my back.

Last year you published a novel, You’ll Be Fine, and when I look back on your career, you have a steady back and forth between novels and story collections. How do you compare the process of writing a novel and a story collection? When you start a novel, do you see it all the way through—or do you go back and forth between a novel and cycles of stories, depending on what’s calling you? What are the challenges and rewards unique to each of these endeavors?

Good question! I don’t always know, starting out, when I’m writing a short story and when I’m writing a novel. Usually I have an idea for the story, a point of view, and an arc of some kind, by the time I’m sit down to write. But sometimes I’m eight thousand words in, and I realize, “I either need to break this idea down into a smaller frame or I need to see where it goes and how I feel when I get to say, fifteen thousand words.” More than once, I’ve found myself in the no-writer’s land of the novella—in fact, the last story in this collection, “Scheherazade,” was something I envisioned as a ten or fifteen page short story but wound up being fifty pages. What I find is that I fall in love with some characters and I’m not ready to leave them yet. I know there’s something that I need to help them with, and I keep writing until I find it and leave them at that proverbial fork in the road to make that decision for themselves. So, no, the approach isn’t much different, but the results may vary.

As far as alternating back and forth between publishing novels and collections, I think the even ratio has been mostly happy accident, although I tend to have, like a lot of authors, a lot of coals in the fire. I usually work on a novel steadily for many years, but there are little spots in-between when I need a break or I’m stuck and a new idea catches my attention and I’ll wind up writing a story or two. More than once, surprisingly, that story has also turned into a novel, and I’ve found myself working on two novels at once! I love working on multiple projects, writing in different gears. I never feel trepidation when firing up the laptop, because I know if I encounter a roadblock in one place, there’s always a detour. For me, it’s just working a different corner of the puzzle for a while. Of course, the big payoff is always the novel, but the disappointments can also be greater too, after investing many years in a book.

That’s interesting—I do the same—but I have to be careful, because sometimes I find one project subconsciously bleeding into another—sometimes it’s a tone or vibe—and sometimes it’s something more concrete, like a scene or even a character. When I put one manuscript away, I have to box it up with a note of where it stands and where I envision it going. Have you ever had any spillover between the projects you’re juggling? And if so, has it led you down any unexpected paths?

I’m not careful of it at all, actually, because sometimes I discover I am working on the same thing, just with different approaches. For instance, The Summer She Was Under Water began as two projects, years apart, that I realized were actually one. I think this is more common than we realized, as I’m convinced that Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman had the same genesis—two stories that Erdrich combined.

I really enjoyed these stories. I found your characters very relatable—all of them slightly unmoored, lost to one degree or another—yet all still yearning and searching and trying somehow to connect. As you consider the world—and yourself—can you identify where these tides are coming from and what they’re speaking to in our current landscape?

I always thought when I got to college that I would major in psychology or pre-med—I’ve always been interested in the “why” or “how” of people, but I wound up majoring in English instead, unsurprisingly. I’ve always seen my writing, even as a teenager, as sort of field notes on humanity. Writing has always been my way of getting into other people’s heads and seeing how they deal with situations, trying to understand how other people work. How people connect when there’s so much noise in the way. It’s also because I often feel as if I have no idea what I’m doing in my own life and I need help! As a child, I remember mimicking my friends’ and cousins’ habits, their likes, because I had a bit of a “grass is always greener” mindset, that other kids were happier, more confident, knew something I didn’t. I suppose we all did that, though, right, as a way to relate, or imitation as flattery or something? I remember having a crush on Dickie, a pitcher on my little league team (who, you may notice, makes an appearance in this collection!). Anyway, because Dickie chewed his fingernails, I began to chew my fingernails. It took me years to stop chewing my fingernails after that.

As to the broader perspective, I mean, I feel like everyone’s been kind of lost since COVID-19. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as many people are questioning structures (office work, mindless consumerism, capitalism) that may be outdated. We’re living in the climax of a story right now; the only scary thing is the denouement.

It’s interesting that you mention COVID. Has the pandemic found its way into your work? I feel it, crouching outside my storylines, but I don’t know when—or if—I’ll be able to address it directly. And perhaps I never will for fear of addressing something that will hopefully just be a memory someday. Have you wrestled with it yet—or is it on your radar?

I went in whole hog at first—the first draft of my novel-in-progress included a mysterious virus that had begun to encroach on the West Coast from Asia. I was having a great time with it, thinking I was writing the next bestselling thriller, until a year later, when suddenly it seemed stale, and I took it out and resigned myself to the fact I was again writing the usual literary fiction novel.

I often talk to my students about access points—how an author finds their way into a fictional world. For some it’s a situation, for others character or mood or setting. Do you have a go-to access? If so, can you return to one of the stories in this collection and tell us how it evolved from that moment of access?

This is a great question! Usually for me it’s an image, or a sentence. Often I just hear a voice, too—the cadence, rhythm, of the sentences. Other times, it’s just a riff off a seemingly innocuous thought. For “Eat a Peach,” I’d just visited the farmer’s market in Beverly Hills. I’d gotten a free sample of toffee from the Littlejohn Toffee Company and browsed the peaches. Then, as I was sitting in the food court area, I thought about how easy it would be to meet someone there for, say, a first date, but also how easy it would be to slip away, into the crowd, if you decided you wanted to bail. The rest of the story coalesced around that. The best stories (for me) take a moment from my own life, like a projector slide, that I reimagine the scene to life with different actors, wanting different things.

The book’s cover of surfers on a beach brings up a question about place. We know each other from your Baltimore days, but now you’re in California—and I wonder how this move has found its way into your work. Do you find yourself bringing an east-coast lens to your new life—while at the same time, looking back on your old home with a new perspective?

FYI, the cover for The Company of Strangers is one of my own photos of Carlsbad State Beach, near our house! We get to enjoy some of the most incredible sunsets on the Pacific here. Ironically, most of these stories predate my summer 2019 move to Southern California, except for “Scheherazade.” I always thought that, when I was in Baltimore and writing a lot of stories based there, that setting was important, but now that I’m in a strange land where everyone surfs and eats fish tacos, I find myself drawn to the same interior landscapes of characters that I was at home. I mean, the stories in Company are set in a variety of places—Nantucket, Los Angeles, Michigan, New Mexico, Arizona—but many of the characters are struggling with the same desire for connection. I’ve realized, for me, that setting provides great texture, like a corduroy shirt, or anchoring bass riff, like the one in “Billie Jean,” but the most important thing is still the person wearing the shirt or Michael Jackson’s voice singing the song.

One of the most important choices we bring to our stories is point of view. In your collection, you have first, second, and third person—along with direct address. When you set out to write a piece, is point of view pretty firmly established—or are there stories you finish then toy around with other points of view before finding the one that works best?

It’s rare that I will change a point of view of a story. I usually can’t even begin to write it if I don’t hear the “voice” in my head. That said, I don’t have a particular preference for any point of view and find them all useful—usually the type of story I’m writing will dictate the point of view, but it’s an innate decision, like changing a gear on a bicycle, not one with which I consciously grapple. I will say that if I use second person I tend to do so in much-shorter stories, because that point of view can be harder to sustain over time. The titular story actually started out as a genderless second-person story—I didn’t want the reader to assume that Casey was either a man or a woman, and it was interesting to see how my writing group read it when they thought the character was one gender or another. When it was accepted by Frigg, however, Ellen (the editor) persuaded me to reconsider. I guess the short answer to this question is that I do consider form often, how stories are told, but it’s baked into the story before I ever sit down to write it—the same way, I guess, someone writing a song on the piano is going to write in A-minor or whatever, without consciously debating with themselves about it, because that’s what they know that particular song needs.

What’s next?

I’m cleaning up the final draft (I hope!) of that aforementioned novel in progress, called All This Can Be True. Even though the COVID-19-inspired theme is no loner, the inciting incident still remains—I had this image in my head of a woman waking up to a phone call from the hospital telling her that her husband just woke up from a coma. After she hangs up, she turns to the person next to her in bed—another woman—in a panic. What happens if you’ve given up someone for dead, started on a new life, and then your old life comes calling for you? What do you owe that old life?

I remember reading Ann Clausen’s The Dive from Clausen’s Pier many moons ago, in my twenties, even before I started writing and sending out work. It always stuck with me, and, subconsciously, I think I’ve always wanted to write my own version of that. I love that fiction is actually a dialog between writers and readers—that I’ve responded to Ann Clausen’s work in this way, and that some future someone will respond—hopefully—to my response. Like my characters in my stories, I’m always yearning to connect.

Curtis Smith’s most recent novel, The Magpie’s Return, was named an Indie Pick of the Year by Kirkus. His next novel, The Lost and the Blind, will be released in September 2023.


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