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Today is the first stop of Jen Michalski’s virtual book tour celebrating her new collection, From Here. The twelve stories in From Here explore the dislocations and intersections of people searching, running away, staying put. Their physical and emotional landscapes run the gamut, but in the end, they’re all searching for a place to call home.

Jen reading

Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King, winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize, and other works listed below. She is the host of the Starts Here! reading series, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and tweets at @MichalskiJen. Find her at jenmichalski.com.

Read more by and about Jen:

Short Story: “Human Movements

Short Story: “Lillian in White

Interview: Talking about The Tide King

Novella Collection: Could You Be With Her Now

Fiction Collection: Close Encounters

How Jen Michalski Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Jen for saying yes!

  1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I’m not sure it’s a question of “want.” I’ve been writing since I learned to write, and even if I never published a word again, if no one except me read another sentence that I wrote, I would continue to write. It’s as natural to me as breathing, as seeing, and definitely how I am able to organize my thoughts and understand the world. If I couldn’t write, my ability to be “Jen” would suffer as a result. It’s not about making an observation or a statement or wanting people to listen to me as some sort of authority. It’s the way I dialogue with my mind and with the outside world, a conversation.

  1. How did you go about becoming a writer?

It wasn’t a concerted effort, at least to writing fiction. I majored in Language and Literature at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in the early 1990s, and I wrote some bad poetry during those years, but I never thought about being an “author” per se. I had always written novels, but they were more for my own enjoyment and trying to figure out who I was.

I graduated from St Mary’s thinking I would write features for magazines and newspapers, or be an editor, and I got my MS in Professional Writing from Towson University a few years later still thinking that. One of the classes I took at Towson, however, was an independent study, and I wrote another novel that someone actually read–my independent study professor, who also happened to be my advisor. She encouraged me to submit it. I sent it to a couple of places and was rejected, but I began to wonder what would happen if I wrote another novel and submitted it. Then, after I graduated, I started the literary quarterly jmww to sort of remain involved with the writing community. Over the years I got to meet other, more successful writers, and learned you could get an MFA in creative writing (seriously, I didn’t know) and all this other fun stuff. So, I started writing and sending out short stories. I guess this was about 2004, and I haven’t stopped.

  1. Who helped you along the way, and how?

My grandparents, both maternal and paternal, were very working class but voracious readers. My dad’s mother read a lot of mysteries and Ellery Queen and would give me the issues when she was finished, and my mom’s dad, who loved Westerns and historical romances, would take my brother and me to the library every Saturday morning. Coming from a family who only went to the beach, which was two hours away, one week every summer, books offered me vistas I didn’t know even existed, helped me nurture a great curiosity about people and the world.

When I graduated college, I reviewed art and books and the occasional play for The Baltimore Alternative, and my editor then, Rawley Grau, read a few of my stories and made me feel as if I had a little talent. I also was enamoured of his life as an editor and aspired to have a career in the writing arts.

These days, there are so many people–the many editors who have published my stories; Gregg Wilhelm, with whom I have worked for years to try and maintain a vibrant, fun writing community here in Baltimore; Savannah Schroll-Guz, who gave me my first break (and book) at So New Publishing; Michael Kimball, with whom I co-hosted the 510 Readings over 7 years and who has been instrumental in encouraging me to take some risks as a writer; Ed and Ann Berlin of The Ivy Bookshop, who work twice as hard as everyone else in making sure writers have a voice in Baltimore; Steven Gillis and Dan Wickett at Dzanc; Diane Goettel and Angela Leroux-Lindsey at Black Lawrence Press; Cynthia Reeser at Aqueous. Years of writing groups here in Baltimore, and happy hours. My family and friends and my partner, Phuong, for their unwavering support.

  1. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Without coming off as incredibly pretentious, I’ve always been struck by Beethoven, who began to go deaf around 26, when he was working on “Pathetique.” He wrote to his brothers about wanting to commit suicide but decided to continue living and creating art. At one point, he didn’t even know that his work reviewed a standing ovation until he turned around and saw everyone in the music hall clapping. If Beethoven didn’t throw in the towel, then how can the rest of us? And I think we should work in that vacuum as well, deaf and blind to applause, to reaction, good or bad.

  1. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

It is always about shouting the words into the wind, into the tempest, because they need to be purged, not because they need to be heard.

*Tomorrow, visit The Next Best Book Club blog to follow the tour and read an excerpt of From Here plus Jen’s insights from the passage: what she was thinking while she was writing, the funny trail of thoughts that got her there, and a whole lot more!

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I immersed myself in new situations and surroundings all the time—I lived in South Bend, Indiana; Philadelphia; Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic; Rottenberg am Neckar, Germany; Caracas, Venezuela; Austin, Washington, DC, and Tel Aviv. I had a baby. All of these things make the world absolutely new—or maybe they made me new, and forced me to reinvent language and my relationship to it.

sulak photo

Marcela Sulak was born and raised on a rice farm in South Texas.  She attended The University of Texas at Austin, where she received a BA in Psychology and Honors English.  She received an MFA and an MA at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, winning the William Mitchell Award for Best Graduate Creative Thesis. She holds an MA in Religious Studies from VillaNova University, and her Ph.D. in English is from The University of Texas at Austin with concentrations in Poetry and Poetics, American Literature, and a certificate in European Studies. She is a four-time recipient of the Academy of American Poetry Prize, and has won five FLAS prizes for the study of Czech and Yiddish. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Immigrant (Black Lawrence Press, 2010) and the chapbook Of All The Things That Don’t Exist, I Love You Best (Finishing Line Press). Other poems have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as  Guernica, The Black Warrior Review, The Cimarron Review, The Notre Dame Review, Fence, The Indiana Review, The Cortland Review, Quarterly West, Third Coast and No Tell Motel, among others.

Website: http://www.marcelasulak.com/

2389082Read more by and about Marcela:

Book of Poems: Immigrant

Chapbook: Of all the things that don’t exist, I love you best

Translation: A Bouquet of Czech Folktales

Poem at Guernica: Marriage

Poem at Cortland Review: Jerusalem, a ghazal

How Marcela Sulak Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Marcela for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

I am not sure I wanted to become a writer. I wanted to become a reader. I grew up on a rice farm five miles outside of a town of 250 or so (the town was not incorporated), so I read a lot.  All the time, in fact. And when my siblings and I were outside, our immediate world was mediated through the stories my father and my maternal grandparents told about it—we grew up a mile from where my father did, and ten miles from where my mother was raised. I grew up with the expectation that everything around me contained a story.  I suppose I began to write in order to have a dialogue, to add to the family conversation with the land and with one another, and with the books I read.

The world portrayed in books never matched the world of our rice farm, though; we did not have snow or really much of a change in seasons. We had no highrise buildings or elevators—I must have been in high school before I saw either an elevator or an escalator. And since this was the end of the twentieth century, not the end of the nineteenth century, I realized later, my experience was unusual.  At any rate, after I left the farm, I found the world a pretty exotic place. It gave me the sense of a foreigner everywhere I went. Somehow, this feeling seems to be conducive to writing.

413vaBo3gmL._SX240_2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

I read a lot, everything in the public library and school library. I began to keep a journal when I was twelve and have kept it ever since. I try to free write in the journal for at least 30 minutes a day—everything from new words to recipes to names of birds to things that happened to me or things I saw. I also studied literature at university and creative writing in graduate school. But what really helped me become a writer was simply the practice of reading and writing.

Also, I immersed myself in new situations and surroundings all the time—I lived in South Bend, Indiana; Philadelphia; Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic; Rottenberg am Neckar, Germany; Caracas, Venezuela; Austin, Washington, DC, and Tel Aviv. I had a baby. All of these things make the world absolutely new—or maybe they made me new, and forced me to reinvent language and my relationship to it. They certainly forced me to renegotiate my relationship to the world. This can be exhausting, but there is nothing like the perspective it gives you.

I did my MFA straight out of undergraduate, but that was really too early for me. I needed to expand my horizons first.  I worked as an English teacher, free lance writer and university adjunct instructor for ten years, then went back to graduate school, and that’s when I started publishing poems in journals. I also translated poetry, and my first book-length translation of poetry was published before my first book of poems.  As for my poems, I just kept writing them, editing them (by which I mean throwing most of them away and cutting the others quite a bit) until one day I had enough that weren’t completely awful to start thinking about a book.

41DI6lVn0dL._SY320_3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

In sixth grade my teacher introduced me to her friend, Mrs. Mickey Huffstutler, who was a “real poet.” I think she even drove me to meet her at her house in another town the first time. Mrs. Huffstutler introduced me to prosody and received forms, and told me I needed to frame my highly subjective impressions of the world, and to write more concretely—to use nouns and verbs instead of adjectives. Also, I needed to give the reader a frame or a place to enter the poem, thereby introducing me to the idea that my poem might have a reader apart from me. She also introduced me to the concept of a writing community, by introducing me to the Poetry Society of Texas.

At the University of Notre Dame, where I received my M.F.A., I was greatly aided by John Matthias, Sonia Gernes and Jacqueline Vaught Brogan, and later, at the University of Texas, where I received a Ph.D. I was aided by studying prosody with Tom Cable, and poetry with Tom Whitbread, David Wevil and Khaled Mattawa. They were all exceedingly generous and helpful. When I was an undergraduate, Joseph Malof and Kate Frost both at the University of Texas, taught me to close read modernist poetry and Shakespeare, and that has been life-changing.  Today I am helped a lot by the writers with whom I’ve studied, and with whom I remain close, and writers whose work I’ve admired.

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

I am inspired by Veronica Franco (1546-1591) a Venetian courtesan who was one of the most eloquent writers of her period; she also was a prolific writer in many genres. By her eloquence (and perhaps her connections) she defended herself against accusations of witchcraft before the Inquisition and was acquitted. She allied herself with the most distinguished families of Venice, and all who traveled there, yet she publicly defended her fellow courtesans and spoke out against their mistreatment by men. I love how she lived by her wits; indeed, she often wrote for her life.

Veronica Franco (Image from wikimedia)

I admire those who look beyond their own difficult lives and give voice to those whom no one else defends.  To do this well, you have to use new forms in fresh and energetic ways, so as to give the reader a stake in the story. Muriel Rukeyser, C.D. Wright and Lola Ridge write the kind of documentary poetry that puts the reader in a sort of jury box.  And perhaps most of all I an inspired by Nazim Hikmet and Taha Muhammad Ali, whose writing reaffirms their deepest humanity despite the fact they were placed in the most dehumanizing of circumstances—imprisoned and evicted from their home, respectively.

5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Read as widely as you can the best books, poems, stories and essays you can. Try to be as compassionate as possible. And write every day. I learned a lot by imitating the poets I admired in order to learn their tricks. Also, only send your work to journals you yourself enjoy reading.

I got humble, and I got to work. That was the day I became a writer.

Photo credit: Miriam Berkley

Photo credit: Miriam Berkley

Bryan Furuness is the author of the novel, The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson, available in February 2013. His stories have appeared in Ninth Letter, Southeast Review, Freight Stories, and elsewhere, including the anthologies Best American Nonrequired Reading and New Stories from the Midwest. He teaches at Butler University, where he edits for Booth and is the Editor in Chief for the small press, Pressgang.

Web site: http://bryanfuruness.com

cover_lostepisodes(1)Read more by and about Bryan:

Novel: The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson

Break-up Letter: Evolution

Parable: Parable of the Lost Finger

Prayer: Ecclesiastes II: Son of the Philosopher

How Bryan Furuness Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Bryan for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I grew up in the Eighties in a town where the only bookstore was a tiny shop in the mall (a Crown Books from which I once stole a Garfield bookmark, but that’s another story), but by nine-years old I learned how to work the inter-library loan system to get just about any book I wanted. And I wanted a lot of books. I was omnivorous and voracious—a real tiger shark of a reader. I wish I could still read so much so fast.

Anyway, I knew that somebody, somewhere was writing these things, but I never met an author, so I imagined them as these glamorous, semi-mythical creatures. I saw pencil mustaches, velvety loafers, throaty laughs, long cigarettes, an audience hanging on every word. Their natural habitat was a cafe—another place I had never seen, but imagined. That’s where they smoked their cigarettes through ivory holders and drank their absinthe.  The writer was rich, semi-dissipated (which took the form of an unknotted bow tie and a forelock dangling over his eyes, devil may care!), and drove an awesome low-slung MG.

The weird thing is, I never imagined a writer at a desk. I always imagined them at a cafe, or speeding through town in an open convertible, or occasionally on safari. In my daydreams, the writers had always just mailed their manuscript off to their editors and were free, free, free.

Yes, I am now aware that these visions have absolutely no relation to reality.

These visions persisted through college, where I often thought, “I want to be a writer,” or sometimes, in my bolder moments, “I will be a writer,” all of which kicked the prospect squarely into the future, allowing me to focus my present energies on playing Sink the Bismarck, a game in which the loser has to drink an entire bucket of beer, without any pesky interruptions of writing.

I was not very good at Sink the Bismarck. I got very good at drinking buckets of beer.

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After I (somehow) graduated, my fiance bought me a present: Hemingway’s collected stories. His bio mentioned that he’d published his first story at age 22. I felt a sharp pang in the area of my liver. I was twenty-two. I hadn’t ever actually finished a story, much less published one. Holy crap, I thought. I better get on the stick. Also, I better stop saying things like “Holy crap.” That’s not very writerly.

That’s when I started writing. Like most things in my life, it took a long period of daydreamy aspiration before I got to work, and the catalyst was the feeling of inferiority, being “behind.” So, you know, superhealthy.

I didn’t write a lot at first, or even steadily, but over several years I worked up to a consistent daily habit. It got to the point where if I missed a writing session, I’d feel weird and “off” the whole day, like I’d forgotten to brush my teeth. Over time I realized that you could write things like Holy Crap, because that was how some people (read: this guy) really thought and talked, and so was true to one facet of the human experience. And I realized not only how silly my early daydreams about “being a writer” were, but also how very white and dude-ly they were, too. In a large sense, these were the years in which I found out how wrong I’d been about so many things, and how I had a lot to learn and a lot of work to do. Again, I felt behind. Again, it propelled me.   

Another weird thing that happened during these years. The more dedicated I became to the act of writing, the less interested I became in “being a writer.” In fact, I privately scorned people who wanted to “be a writer”—especially if they weren’t actually writing—conveniently forgetting that was how I started, too. I forgot that things like desire and belief can precede action, which is a pretty dumb thing for a writer to forget. And I had yet to learn anything about literary citizenship, or even that there was such a thing as a literary community.  

It’s only recently that I’ve been able to reconcile “writing” and “being a writer.” The two aren’t opposed, I see now, but provide balance for one another. Writing is solitary; being a writer is wrapped up in community. Writing is action; being a writer is a kind of reflection. Balance.  

Plus, being a writer is pretty excellent. It’s not the cafe life of smoking jackets and absinthe that I imagined, and I’ve never been able to grow that sexy forelock, but any job whose main requirements are daydreaming and telling stories is a pretty freaking good one.  

2.
How did you go about becoming a writer?

At the turn of the century, I was working for the Indianapolis Star as an advertising guy. It was an okay job, but I hated it. Hated it. I was beyond unhappy; I was angry about working there. It had almost nothing to do with the job itself, which paid me pretty well and gave me a decent amount of freedom, and everything to do with identity. I didn’t want to be a salesperson; I wanted to be a writer. I was writing a little in the evenings, but what I did with the majority of my hours didn’t match up with my idea of myself, and that dissonance was making me crazy. I think I was afraid of losing the idea of myself as a writer for good.

So in late January of 2000, I began looking into MFA programs in creative writing, only to realize that I had just missed the deadline for 95% of them. Then I stumbled upon Purdue. Which had a February deadline. They were a new-ish program back then, and Purdue wasn’t exactly known for its prowess in arts and humanities—all of which is to say that I wasn’t real hot to go to Purdue to study creative writing. But what the hell, I thought. It would get me out of sales. So I shot off an application to Purdue, with the vague idea that they would clap their hands excitedly when they saw that I had decided to grace them with my presence. https://i0.wp.com/chamberfour.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/civilwarland-190x300.jpg

Over the course of my writing life, I have received many rejections, but none have ever come back so fast as that one from Purdue. I’m pretty sure it was in my mailbox the next day, leading me to believe that someone at the university had grabbed my packet out of the postal worker’s hands, pulled my story out of the envelope just far enough to read the first few lines, then thrust it back into the postal worker’s bag, saying, “No, no. Don’t leave this flaming pile of shit on my doorstep.”

Reading that form rejection, I was stung. Shocked. I remember standing at my mailbox, trying to swallow, but my throat wouldn’t work.   

That was the day I realized that I might not be as awesome at writing as I thought. That was the day when I could have given up and become an angry salesman, but instead I started writing more. Reading more, too, a lot more. Taking graduate non-degree classes at Butler and IUPUI, eventually going on to get my MFA at Warren Wilson. I got humble, and I got to work. That was the day I became a writer.

3.
Who helped you along the way, and how?

Oh, so many people helped me. You know that quote by Obama that got so much play at the end of the summer, the one about how, if you built a business, you didn’t build it by yourself? Well, I am not a self-made writer. Robert Rebein at IUPUI taught me how to revise by having me work on (and re-work and re-work…) a single story over the course of a semester. Debra Spark taught me how to read like a writer. Erin McGraw not only taught me eight million things about writing, she modeled how to teach, how to be a writer, and how to be fierce. My agent pushed me to make big changes to my book, then advocated for me and sold the thing.

That book—it’s built from other books, too. Lightning Song by Lewis Nordan was a model for the book, as was Girl Talk by Julianna Baggott. I learned how to thread a secondary character through a book from Walter Kirn’s Thumbsucker, and Dan Chaon, unbeknownst to him, taught me more than a few ways to build backstory.

All of which makes for another good reason to “be a writer”—so I can give back to the community, and help a few writers at least a tenth as much as other writers have helped me.

4.
Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

I distinctly remember the first time I read Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders. My burgundy Lay-Z-Boy, the upstairs room, afternoon sun slanting across the carpet. His stories were magical and gross and so, so funny, but more than anything, I was stunned by the fact that his characters sounded like guys I had grown up with. They sounded like the voice in my head. I remember looking up again and again, thinking, You can do this? You’re allowed to write like this? And that’s when I realized that my writing voice didn’t have to sound like a neutered British person with a thesaurus fetish.

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I know: that lesson is probably totally obvious to everyone else. I’m a slow learner. But then I found out I wasn’t the only one. Saunders himself spent several years writing a failed novel in which he was trying to sound like Hemingway. It took him a while, too, to give himself permission to use his own voice, his own sensibility, to make his own noise.

You remember earlier when I said that writers used to seem like mythical creatures? The fact that Saunders’s voice sounded familiar made him real to me. The fact that his background didn’t include prep school and backpacking through Europe, but instead a working class childhood in Chicagoland (like me!) and a series of weird jobs after college (like me!) made it seem like maybe I could be a writer, too. Which makes me love him even more.   


5.
What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

The most important thing is to make space for writing in your life. A physical space is helpful, but a temporal space is essential. Protect that space. Be a dick about it. Your biggest supporters—the people who love you, the ones who tell you, “Chase your dreams, dude!”—will also be the ones who will undermine you hardcore. They’re not doing it because they want you to fail; they’re doing it because they love you and want to spend time with you and don’t understand why you’re shutting yourself up in a room and shouting NOT NOW and JESUS, WILL YOU PLEASE STOP KNOCKING at them.

At first it will be hard and you will feel like the worst person in the world, but the good news is that, over time, these people will learn to expect and respect your writing time. And when you try to violate it and hang out with them instead of working on that hard scene, they’ll say, Why aren’t you writing? Go back to the room. Later we’ll order Aurelio’s, and Dustin will see how many straws he can wedge into his nostrils, but for now, get out of here. Quit whining, put your fingers on the keyboard, and see what happens.