Jen Michalski’s ties to Baltimore run deep. Until she moved to Carlsbad, California, two years ago with her partner Phuong and their dog Myra Jane, she’d lived in Baltimore most of her life. A fixture on the local writing scene, she hosted two highly popular reading series, edited the Baltimore-themed anthology, City Sages: Baltimore, and founded the weekly online literary journal jmww. And even though that sounds like a full-time job right there, she actually works full-time and still manages to be a prolific writer. She’s authored three novels, a novella, three short story collections, and well over a hundred short stories and essays.
Jen’s latest novel, You’ll Be Fine, is the story of 35-year-old Alex, who takes a leave from her job as a writer in Washington, D.C., to return home to the Eastern Shore after her mother, with whom she had a complicated relationship, dies of an accidental overdose. Waiting for Alex is her brother Owen, who has been living at home. Still smarting from a recent breakup with her ex-girlfriend, Alex is eager to find closure from an even older relationship—with her high-school love Juliette. Matters get complicated when Carolyn, editor of the local newspaper, begins to show more than professional interest in Alex, and Alex’s Aunt Johanna, who has transitioned to a woman, comes from Seattle and reveals a family secret.
According to Midwest Book Reviews, Jen’s latest book is “rich in psychological tension,” while Kirkus Reviews says it “has plenty of heart . . . . An enjoyable story about an adult trying to grow up.”
You’ll Be Fine will come out Aug. 2.
We caught up with Jen to ask her some questions about her latest.
Baltimore Fishbowl: What was the seed for writing You’ll Be Fine and what was the journey from there to completion and publication?
Jen Michalski: A lot of my ideas come from dreams, but this time I found inspiration in my real life. After my mom died several years ago, I was spending a lot of time at her house on the Eastern Shore. My brother and I were going through her things, and our tempers were flaring a bit over dumb stuff. I remember thinking about how, no matter how much you mature and grow as an adult outside the home, whenever you’re with family, you always seem to revert (at least I do) to the person you were during your formative years, when you spent a lot of time with your parents and siblings, and a lot of conflicts you thought had been resolved bubble up. I remember being perpetually angry when I was a teenager, at being closeted, at being an outcast, and my brother, unfortunately, bore the brunt of it. Although my anger this time around was at different things, it still felt very much like I was taking it out on my brother, and I wondered how I could write my life out of this negative feedback loop.
Anyway, the first few drafts of the novel were called Siblings, with Alexandra (Alex) and Owen as the siblings, and it wasn’t until later that I developed the main secondary conflict — Aunt Johanna’s family secret.
BFB: That’s interesting. It also raises a question so many readers ask fiction writers: How much does your main character resemble you? And also, is the character of Johanna based on someone you know?
JM: I think there’s this general belief by readers that you write from your own experience, fiction or nonfiction, but Alex and I aren’t really very alike. We both have a brother, and also a mother who passed, but I feel much luckier than Alex in that I didn’t have any unresolved conflicts with my mom when she died. In fact, our relationship was in a really good place, although I have to say that, even if you don’t have regrets or unfinished business with someone who dies, it doesn’t make the grieving process any easier. I didn’t identify with Alex while writing the novel, either, but I felt bad for her because she and her mother had a difficult relationship and Alex’s only coping mechanism was to evolve to be very much like her — short and sarcastic with people, pushing them away. In fact, some of the readers came away feeling that Alex was unlikeable, but I don’t mind because I was trying to explore the way that one’s own pain can turn you into the same sort of bully who hurt you, perpetuating the cycle. It’s definitely one of Alex’s challenges in the novel—to open herself up to those around her and not be such a smartass all the time.
Johanna is not based on anyone I know, either. In fact, she was very much a surprise in subsequent drafts, when I was thinking of ways to throw another monkey wrench into Alex and Owen’s relationship — why not have a family secret? Why not have an estranged parent return? Why not turn the tables on the deadbeat dad trope and have a parent who very much wanted to parent but was afraid of rejection because of their lifestyle?
BFB: In many writers’ hands, these questions — not to mention the book’s issues of death, homophobia and substance abuse — would be treated with kid gloves. And yet the book has surprising laugh-out-loud moments of humor, like when Johanna grabs someone’s laptop and a chase ensues. This streak of humor is less overt in your other books. Did you intentionally set out to use humor or did it just emerge on its own?
JM: I prefer to write about what interests me and not think about genre. At the time I started writing You’ll Be Fine, family dynamics were very much in the forefront. I was determined, however, to write a family comedy and not a family tragedy, like The Summer She Was Under Water, so yes, it was intentional. I’ve also noticed over the years, at readings or wherever I’d meet people who’d read my work, they always seemed surprised that I was funny in person, I mean, so much so that they’d tell me! And it bothered me that if you’ve only read my previous novels, you’d think I was a serious, sensitive, possibly dour person, when I don’t see myself that way at all. I love laughing and making people laugh, so I’m glad I was able to make you laugh! I was pleased that I could interweave You’ll Be Fine with weightier themes as well. Although I often refer to it as a family comedy, I think it’s a very balanced novel.
BFB: You moved to California two summers ago. What do you miss most about Baltimore?
JM: The literary community, for sure! There’s really something unique about Baltimore’s writers and readers and the constellation that’s created by all the writing programs, independent bookstores, reading series, and nonprofits. There’s a real sense of belonging for both novice and more experienced writers, and a real sense that when one of us succeeds, we all do. I also miss snowballs and soft-shell crabs.
BFB: What’s next?
JM: I’m working on a novel about a woman whose husband wakes up from a coma after she’s prepared herself to move on with her life (and with someone else). I guess I’m drawn to the bittersweet, but I’m now more aware that not every page of a book has to be emotionally wrought. It’s also my first novel to be set in California — The Summer She Was Under Water, The Tide King, and You’ll Be Fine were all set in Maryland.
Jen Michalski will be joined by James Magruder to discuss their latest books at a Writers LIVE! event at Enoch Pratt Central Branch Library on Tuesday, October 26 at 7 p.m. Register to attend here.