"Writing is constantly about love and loss"
An interview with Jen Michalski, author of The Summer She Was Under Water
Jen was kind enough to answer some questions I had related to some themes in her latest novel — specifically, an artist's fiction versus their reality, impatience in writing, the nature of human relationships, and more. Below are Jen's answers, which we exchanged via email.
The “present tense” story in this novel takes place at the Susquehanna River and the image of water appears throughout, which can be read both literally and metaphorically. What drew you to using this as a central image in the novel?
When I was in college my roommate’s family had a cabin there (her family built it the same way the Pinskis did in the book—floating lumber down the river on raft, in the days before roads were built), and we used to go up a couple of times a year. It was very isolated, and beautiful, and it’s remained vividly with me through the years. I always wanted to use it in a novel, and I found that its isolation would be a perfect powder keg if people who were estranged from each other had to spend any amount of time there.
Sam Pinski, the main character, has strained relationships with most of the novel’s other characters; however, each relationship is strained differently. How difficult was it to create this multi-faceted character and make her believable?
It wasn’t too hard! I think, at some point in our lives, we’ve experienced strained relationships with our loved ones. And I am familiar with the dynamic of the blue collar family. My twin brother and I, third-generation Polish Americans, were the first in our family to go to college. So it’s often felt like I live in two worlds at times. But I think, while you might grow apart from friends with whom you don’t have much in common any more, you’re always connected to your family, for better or worse. They’re a lot like slinkys; you are all growing at different rates, apart and together, and the spring stretches and contracts continuously, but they’re always connected.
The hardest part was that, although there are many people in my family like Sam’s parents and her brother, I didn’t want Sam to be me, so I had to be very aware of what I thought were my reactions to Sam’s family as opposed to hers. And I felt it was more important to make Sam flawed. To not necessarily make her likeable, or a martyr, but real. Someone who clearly loves her family but wouldn’t actively choose to spend time with them, were they not related by blood. And she never quite reaches the closure or growth she needs in the novel, even, but you get a sense that she’s sort of headed in that direction. It’s a lifelong process for everyone, and I didn’t think Sam should be any different.
Though the characters, settings, and events in any novel are fictional (or fictionalized), readers occasionally assume they have some basis in the author’s reality. Because of this misconception, did you have any reservations about centering the story around Sam and Steve’s taboo relationship?
I had a many reservations that waxed and waned over the course of the year before publication—even a month before publication, I remember wondering whether it was too late to pull the book. But then I’d go back and read the story, and I was happy with how it was written. I thought it was a good story. And that was more important to me than what people thought. Ironically, I didn’t consciously set out to write this story. In the first draft, Sam gets cold feet about getting married to her boyfriend, Michael, because she begins to develop feelings for her friend, Eve. I put it aside initially because it felt tired, a standard coming-out novel. In the years between, I wrote a magical realist novella, A Water Moon, about a man who finds himself pregnant. The pregnancy is actually symbolic of some heavy truths he must carry to term. Although the structure, subject, and language were so completely different from Summer, somehow, the two projects felt connected to me. I slept on it, and when I woke up I realized I was still working on Summer the entire time. The pregnant man was Steve, Sam’s brother. And Steve was telling me what Sam couldn’t, was perhaps too ashamed, too confused to tell me: Sam wasn’t having cold feet because she was a repressed lesbian but because of something more dark, confusing, and painful. It was only coming to Summer from a different perspective that I was able to get away from its convention, from its predictable storyline, from what I was comfortable with happening.
I try not to judge what I write, either when I’m writing it or after it’s written. I tend to sort of trust the process. I write a lot from dreams and intuition, and I feel like what needs to come out on the page does, and the decision I make consciously are the editing ones.
The story is told over the course of four days, with all past events being told through flashback or within the context of the “present”. How did this structure help you tell the story more effectively?
I figured I couldn’t have the Pinskis together for more than a few days without them killing each other, but I also didn’t want the powder keg to blow up halfway through the novel. So it seemed like a good idea to weave the two stories together, the surrealist one and the real one, along with a few flashbacks, so that both stories come to a head at once. And sometimes the flashbacks will mirror the present, or comment on them, ie, the flashback of Sam having dinner with Michael’s family is sandwiched next to the first time Michael has dinner with Sam’s family, to show the stark differences. It’s actually the first novel I wrote (I wrote The Tide King, my first published novel, after this one), so I feel like my idea of how to structure a novel may be different now than it was then. I can’t even say I’d structure it the same way if I wrote it again, now, in my forties. But that is the magic and wonder of writing.
Describe your writing process in three words.
When I can. My life is pretty stuffed to the seams, so I don’t really have a set writing schedule or ritual. A lot of stuff just percolates in the back of my head, or sometimes I’ll be up half the night in bed (I’m a terrible insomniac) thinking about what needs to happen next in the story or novel in which I’m working. And then, in the hour here or the weekend afternoon there I have free, I’ll sit down and flush all that stuff out of my head. I write with the fear that it may be another week (or more) before I can sit down and write again, so it’s pretty feverish when it happens.
If you could meet one of the characters from any of your novels, who would it be and why?
This is a great question! I’m going to restrict it to published work. I think I’d like to meet Ela from The Tide King, the immortal girl who’s been nine years old for over two hundred years. I’m sure she’d be a wealth of knowledge, and experience. And sadness. Now that I’m at mid-life, and my parents are dead, I catch myself wondering, since I don’t have children, what’s left out there. I can’t imagine having to live two centuries, trying to find meaning not only in the day to day, but also in the scope of it.
Writers can be superstitious about their process — do you have any superstitions around your writing?
I’m not terribly superstitious, but I wish I was more patient. I write like I’m going to die next week, and my legacy needs to be wrapped up immediately. I want to take more time, with the current novel I’m working on, and do another revision. And then another. Really get everything right. Of course (and maybe this is where superstition comes in), every draft I undertake turns up being wildly different than the last, with sometimes only the characters and setting the same. I mean, we’re always growing; it makes sense that our novels are actually always in progress, too. We just have to consciously decide to end them and move on to the next thing. Which is hard. It’s always a terrible breakup and mourning process to me. Writing is constantly about love and loss for me.