Jen Michalski is no stranger to controversy. In 2010, Dzanc Books published her couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now, comprising “I Can Make It Home Before It’s Time for Dinner,” a first-person narrative of a 14-year-old mentally challenged boy who accidentally kills a girl on whom he has a crush, and “May-September,” a May-December romance between two women. Michalski tackled immortality and magical realism in her historically realistic debut novel, The Tide King, and in her second novel, The Summer She Was Under Water, just released from Queens Ferry Press, she says, as she describes in a recent essay at the Nervous Breakdown, “goes there.” The protagonist, Sam Pinksi, spends a Fourth of July weekend at a family cabin, the first in 20 years on the Susquehanna River. There, she must confront a chaotic history of mental illness, alcoholism, and physical violence, and struggle to find perspective in the pulse of things familiar and respite from the shame of the taboo relationship that courses through her.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on the book. Queens Ferry did a nice job—it looks really beautiful. I’m always interested in learning about a novel’s origins. Can you trace this back to a scene or image that first attracted you?
Jen Michalski: The novel that wound up being Summer isn’t the one I set out writing, but, that said, my first image was of Eve, Sam’s friend. She had a large part in the first drafts, she and Sam
even wound up together in them, and I worry sometimes that she still feels very large in the novel, her presence strong, when her role has been reduced quite a bit since the first drafts. But the first image I had for the novel was glimpsing Eve sitting alone at the Club Charles in Baltimore one night. She sunk a shot of whiskey, chased it with a Natty Boh, and went back to reading her book. I wondered whether she was waiting for someone, or whether she was perfectly content reading in the dim, red light at the bar at Club Charles in the middle of the week without latching onto her smartphone for dear life. I wondered who she would be meeting, and why. Then I imagined Sam coming in and sitting down next to her, and I was immediately interested in why an uptight, quiet, protective, responsible person like Sam would feel compelled to come out in the middle of the week and meet with this brazen stranger. Sam kind of took over from there, when I had originally started with Eve–It’s funny how that the story, your characters, continually circumvent your own ideas.
CS: I found myself thoroughly grounded in your sense of place. I’m familiar with the book’s geography—which made for a more intimate reading experience. I thought you did a wonderful job of establishing the locale of this riverside vacation cabin. What drew you to this setting? What about this place made it indispensable to the story you wanted to tell?
JM: The family of an old friend/college roommate owns a cabin on Susquehanna River in Maryland, near the Conowingo Dam, and during our college days we’d go up sometimes for a long weekend. It was such a fascinating place, the cabin, the way it was built, with all the additions and repurposed furniture and items brought up by the family over the decades, so much that it almost seemed like a museum of the family. In fact, it seemed very much a character in a story, with all its history, and I knew I wanted to immortalize it somehow. People think of the vacation home as a place to escape problems, but I imagined, because of its remoteness, this spot would also be a place in which problems could be agitated and magnified, with people in such suffocating proximity.
CS: I admired the book’s structure. The main narrative takes place over the course of a holiday weekend, yet other chapters take us back into the characters’ deeper histories. Then there’s the running thread of the main character’s recently published novel, a metaphorical tale of a pregnant man that parallels and supports the present’s unfolding events. How did this structure come to you? What dimension did you want it to bring to the story?
JM: The main narrative and the metaphorical tale were two separate stories I’d written. Actually, at one point, many, many years ago, when I was still writing the novel thinking Eve would have a big part in it, I put it away, completely annoyed and bored with the coming-out narrative. It just felt so stale, so overdone. In the interim I wrote some short stories (one of which was called “Everything We Ever Wanted” and formed the basis of the chapter in the novel “When Sam Met Michael”) and also a metaphorical novella, called A Water Moon. After I’d finished it, I kept thinking about Summer, even though they were completely different in tone and subject matter. And I wondered if I was avoiding the big secret that Summer wanted to tell by concentrating on Sam and Eve and whether the big secret was actually contained in Water Moon. So I wove them together.
It’s interesting to me how writing is so full of surprises. Someone accused me once of writing to try and control things, which I found funny, because it never feels like I’m in control at all! Whenever I try to move a story in a direction I think will work, it’ll ground to a halt. It’s only when I give in and follow this sentence that a character has said to another one, without writing the sentence I had planned to write, when I just follow along like a transcriber, only then does the actual story get told. The same thing happened to me writing The Tide King, my first novel, as well—two completely different stories that would up actually belonging together.
CS: One of the book’s main themes was the examination of personal histories—how they shape and define us—and how we struggle against them. Often times the children we are—the wild one, the peacemaker—are the adults we become, and maturity is a process of recognizing and working with these understandings of our secret roots. Is this an accurate assessment of where you were going in the novel? As a writer, presenting these deeper histories can be a fine line—we want our readers to know our characters, but at the same time, we want our stories to move forward. How conscious are you of this dichotomy as you write?
JM: I think you’re very perceptive in that we get stuck in the “narrative” of our lives—how we’ve been raised, the expectations placed on us versus who we actually want to be. And even if we’re drowning in the narrative of our lives, it’s the hell that we’re used to, that makes us feel safe. It’s more frightening to change the narrative and become happier and have power (!) than it is to wallow in victimhood. And I think that Sam kind of discovers that—although the excerpts from her “book,” Water Moon, give the reader the backstory, the why, all it does for Sam is keep her, as Eve says, “living in the past.” She could have written a different book, an empowering, redemptive one, but she writes one from the place of a victim. And she can’t move on, can’t grow, until she identifies her own culpability in keeping herself in her victimhood, instead of blaming it on her family, her brother.
CS: When I’m working on a novel, I often immerse myself in the challenges my characters face. Do you think we, as writers, sometimes use our characters in order to figure things out about ourselves? Did you come away from this book—with its explorations of histories and relationships—with a deeper understanding of yourself?
JM: I definitely agree! What happened with Sam and her brother Steve didn’t happen to me, but I think I put some of the worst parts of myself in Sam—the person who’s unhappy, who feels she got the short end of the stick, who wants some kind of acknowledgment or apology that she got the short end of the stick, when the real healing comes from within, not from the words of other people. I don’t make the characters do what I would do in facing these situations—as I’ve already illustrated, my characters seem to thwart me on every level—but I do wind up learning a lot about myself when writing about others. It reminds me of how psychologists say that children play as a way to learn to navigate social situations, that they’re sort of practicing for the real thing. And I guess, in a way, writers are people who have just never stopped playing.
Curtis Smith is the author of three novels, five story collections, and two essay collections. His most recent book is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Bookmarked, part of Ig Publishing’s new series where authors are invited to write about a book that influenced their lives and careers. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and son.