WIPs Conversation: Jen Michalski on Her Work in Progress

JEN MICHALSKI is author of the novel The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press, winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize), the short story collections From Here (Aqueous Books 2013) and Close Encounters (So New 2007) and the novella collection Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books 2013). She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of The 510 Readings and the biannual Lit Show, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She is also the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, MD. https://twitter.com/MichalskiJen

Jen, I really enjoyed this excerpt from The Tide King. It’s a compelling story, and really gives the reader a great sense of what young soldiers endure when called to duty, specifically here related to the Second World War. The war novel, as a form, dates back as far as literature itself. Was it a subject about which you’d written before?  There a many specific facts and fine details lending authenticity to the narrative. What type of research was involved in writing about Stanley’s foray into war?

This was my first foray—and interest—in World War II, or any war. And when I first began the project, I had a completely different scope of interest. I’d read a story in an old issue of National Geographic about a father and son team in a submarine searching for the sunken World War II German battleship The Bismarck. In the epilogue of the article, the reader discovers that son died in a car accident soon after they’d returned home, and I thought this would be a great short story, but I wasn’t sure how to approach it. But one night, I started writing about a soldier going to war (which is the basis of this excerpt). Then, all of the sudden, it became a novel spanning two hundred years, with fire jumpers and country singers and other things. Although both of my grandfathers, who have passed on, served in World War II, they served in noncombat positions, so in addition to hours and hours researching the Internet and watching Ken Burns’ PBS miniseries The War, I read Eugene Sledge’s memoir of the Pacific theater, With the Old Breed, which was featured in The War and also the miniseries The Pacific, and Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers. There’s also a great nonfiction book, Soldier From the War Returning, by Thomas Childers, that examines soldiers’ reintegration into society after the War, that I used for sections later in the book.

What was exciting was that, reading about the war, I really began to understand the deep bonds and appeal of so-called “Greatest Generation,” the shared sacrifice among soldiers and also the front at home. I really wish my grandfathers were still alive so I could talk to them about it. I have my paternal grandfather’s ring from the Army, and my maternal grandfather left behind a lot of pictures and artifacts from his time in the war, as well as little newsletters he put together and sent to all of his old war friends that I was able to find and save, but it’s not quite the same.

The point of view in the excerpt switches between Stanley and Johnson, and enables to reader to understand the close bond they share, even when outwardly the characters may not display it. While Stanley would appear the story’s protagonist, does the narration get inside the heads of other characters, besides Johnson, over the course of the novel?

Yes. In addition to Stanley and Johnson, there’s a little girl named Ela, whom the reader meets in 17th-century Poland and whom Johnson winds up meeting in the 1970s. I won’t explain how that happens; you’ll just have to read the book! And Stanley’s daughter, Heidi, also is an important character, and her own POV, in the last third of the novel.

Stanley’s mother claims the herb saxifrage will ward off death, suggesting intriguing possibilities to come. And in the excerpt Stanley uses it not for his own sake, but to try and save Johnson. Was the healing herb something you’d written into the story initially, or was it first included in a later draft?

The healing herb was actually part of a different novel I’d written thirty pages of maybe ten years ago. And I can’t remember how that novel came to me, or where exactly it was going, but after writing about Stanley and Johnson, I opened this file one day, looking for something else, and I saw possibilities. I saw a story about a bewitched herb that is passed down through a Polish family and the people who wind up taking it. Do they live forever? Are they cursed? On some level, it’s a novel just about a man who lives forever, about loneliness, how difficult it is to forge connections with people.

Quite a time period in Stanley’s life is covered in the excerpt. Does The Tide King’s narrative span a great deal of years and a great many people? Also, what does the title itself refer to?

Yes, I suppose two-hundred years is a long time! The Tide King came from King Cnut the Great, who ruled over England and Denmark during Anglo-Saxon times. It was rumored that his powers were so great that he could stop the tides at his feet. It became a bit of a metaphor for the book, that the people who eat this herb have the power to heal, to never die, but they are stranded in time, watching others being born and dying, unable to summon the greatest power of all—to be mortal.

Very excited to hear that The Tide King is coming out from Black Lawrence Press next spring. Can you talk a little about the process involved that led to its upcoming publication?

I’ve always respected Black Lawrence, and a version of this story actually was a finalist in one of their chapbook contests, so when the Big Moose contest came around last year, and I was finished with the manuscript, of course I entered. When I got the call from Diane Goettel last March to tell me I won, it was Monday morning, I didn’t recognize the number, and I figured it was a telemarketer or something and was going to let it go into voicemail. Thank goodness I answered! BLP is actually an imprint of Dzanc Books, who is coincidentally publishing a collection of my novellas, Could You Be With Her Now, in January 2013. So I’m very happy very happy to be in the BLP-Dzanc family for the foreseeable future!

Thanks, Jen. Is there anything else you’d like to mention or explain to readers?

You can preorder The Tide King at a discount–$16.95–by going to Black Lawrence Press and clicking on my author page. It’s a great way to buy the book directly from BLP—they get the whole cost of the book instead of a percentage, which is what happens if you go through, say, Amazon, and buy it, and that money goes back into BLP to publish more authors.


Read Jen’s excerpt from The Tide King, “Go to War, Stanley Polenksy”