Upstairs at Minás Gallery in Hampden, dozens of friends and well-wishers throng Jen Michalski after she reads an excerpt from “May/September”—the affecting, bittersweet story of a tentative younger woman/older woman romance that appears in her just published two-novella collection Could You Be With Her Now. The reading is part of the monthly 510 Readings series at the gallery. Normally, Michalski co-hosts the series with author Michael Kimball, but this particular afternoon she has deferred those duties to a guest host to take the spotlight herself, and now, post-reading, she’s gripping-and-grinning amid a hail-the-conquering-heroine-returns atmosphere—and, not insignificantly, signing a gaggle of copies of her book.
Could You Be With Her Now, published in January, is merely the first in a three-book 2013 Michalski barrage, with a novel, The Tide King, scheduled for release in May, followed by a short-story collection, From Here, in November.
“Holy moly, the girl’s on fire,” marvels Jessica Anya Blau, the author of three novels, including the upcoming The Wonder Bread Summer, and a visiting assistant professor at Goucher College and teacher at The Johns Hopkins University. “Jen is the quiet, sweet girl in the corner, the one watching fools like me who sometimes shout to be heard. But then she goes off and writes and writes and writes, and her voice is bold, daring, and demands to be heard.”
That voice will be heard often this year, as Michalski darts hither and yon, locally and nationally, reading from her trio of books, notably a gig at this month’s annual CityLit Festival at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where she’ll preview The Tide King. The novel combines memory and myth to chronicle three generations of a Polish family as it migrates from Europe to the United States.
By year’s end, Michalski jokes, people will be sick of hearing about her. “It’s a good problem to have, though,” she concedes. “It’s either going to be the best or worst year of my life.”
Born and raised in Baltimore, Michalski—40, openly gay, and living with her partner in Butchers Hill—grew up the daughter of “voracious readers,” trekking to the library each Saturday to devour children’s literature. Few of the books she read, however, “were reflective of what I thought was a child’s life,” she explains. “I enjoyed them for the escapism, and I wanted my life to be like those books, to be Nancy Drew or Encyclopedia Brown or Laura Ingalls.”
Then, around age 10 or 11, she discovered Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. “It was a revelation to have a really conflicted, complex character in a child,” she notes. At that point, “I already had undercurrents that I was different somehow, and I didn’t know why. I was looking for some sort of reflection of ‘the other’ in work, to find myself.” Harriet came the closest to the way that Michalski felt about herself. “I often wondered if she’d become a lesbian.” (Fitzhugh, Michalski ultimately learned, was, in fact, gay.)
Michalski wrote poetry while earning her bachelor’s in English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 1994, after which she worked as a staffer at the gay newspaper Baltimore Alternative, whose editor encouraged her fledgling fiction writing. Simultaneously, she returned to school, graduating from Towson University in 1999 with an MS in professional writing, at which time she began freelance editing medical journals, her day job ever since.
All along, she continued to write fiction, and, in 2004, created the online journal jmww in an effort to find like-minded writers. (It’s now published online quarterly and in print form annually.) And, in 2008, she launched the 510 Readings with Kimball, providing a vibrant forum for local, regional, and national fiction writers.
The author of four novels, including his most recent, the critically acclaimed Big Ray, Kimball lauds his 510 co-host’s work. “There is a great imagination and generosity at work in Jen’s writing,” he says, “no matter what the form: story, novella, or novel. And her range is amazing.”
The 510 series, matching Kimball’s laconic yin to Michalski’s crisp yang, has often been cited as an important cauldron, burnishing the city’s authorial reputation. “We both know lots of other writers,” Kimball explains, “and while there is some overlap, we both know lots of different writers. Together, we’ve been able to introduce a much larger range of writers to Baltimore.”
The series also inspired CityLit Press’s debut offering, City Sages, a 2010 anthology that corrals prose pieces by celebrated Baltimore writers, past and present, from Poe and Mencken to Anne Tyler and Madison Smartt Bell. Michalski served as its editor. “She ran with the idea and decided what to include, the balance of current writers with writers from Baltimore’s literary heritage, the order of the contents,” says Gregg Wilhelm, founder and executive director of CityLit Project, which oversees both the annual CityLit Festival and Press. “Jen’s a seasoned editor, keen judge, and—important for projects of that nature—organized.”
City Sages serves as concrete evidence of what Wilhelm considers Baltimore’s current thriving writing scene, one buoyed by a crucial, previously missing element: cohesion. “There have always been great pockets of literary activity happening here,” he notes, “but no real sense of community. CityLit Festival helps create that community, along with the 510 Readings, the nonfiction New Mercury Readings, various poetry reading series, and the programming found at library branches and bookstores.”
Kathy Flann, an assistant professor of fiction and creative nonfiction in the English Department at Goucher College, senses that newfound cohesiveness, too. “Baltimore has a richness in terms of its number of astonishingly good writers,” she contends. “They just quietly do it. Baltimore’s writing scene is like Baltimore itself: the best parts of a big city—the buzz, people who move here from all over, the concentration of talent—and also the best parts of a small town—the friendliness, the chance for everyone to know everyone. I think also, like Baltimore itself, the writers here have a sense of humor about themselves.”
And the city offers writers certain advantages, both tangible and intangible. “You have the privacy and the community, the relatively inexpensive rent—compared to D.C. or New York—and the community will support you rather than compete with you,” explains Kendra Kopelke, associate professor in the School of Communication Design at the University of Baltimore and program director of its MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts. “My students move here from all over the country and jump right into the scene—or create their own.”
Right now, Michalski finds herself in the eye of this writing whirlwind as both author and aggregator—or, as Wilhelm terms it, “poster child and lit nurturer.”
While she acknowledges that her three books are being published by small literary presses—and not a mainstream behemoth such as Random House—she also sees the situation as part of a continuum, recalling advice given to her by a friend who found himself in a similar position: “Just treat these books as the stepping stones to something bigger. Put all of your energy into promoting them and getting your name out and getting people to read them, because you’re building your brand, your CV, your platform for that bigger thing, whether it’s the novel that you’re working on now or the one after that.”
She welcomes the possibility of commercial success without being obsessed by it, fixating, instead, on her craft, the process of writing. In her novella “May/September,” which Michalski says came to her in a dream, she describes the “May” character, a budding fiction writer, this way: “Alice wrote about all the things that everyone wrote about and she didn’t know why hers would be any better or different but she knew it didn’t matter because she could never stop.”
As with Alice, writing is encoded into Michalski’s DNA. She can’t keep herself from doing it, and it induces both euphoria and drudgery: “I love that first draft when you’re just riffing. It’s this amorphous thing that you haven’t molded yet—hearing the rhythm of the story and running with it. What I hate is going back and plotting it and breaking it down and making sure the pacing is right—all the nuts and bolts.”
But, in the end, that painstaking process pays off: “What happens is that the second and third drafts are completely different from the first draft, and you would never have thought that it could’ve gotten better or different or scarier or more tender, and it does.”
For Michalski, writing, more than anything else, crystallizes her sense of self. “I understand through writing the same way that some people understand through reading,” she says. “It’s part of how I interpret the world.”