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Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Jen Michalski

Interview by Tara Laskowski (Read the Story) September 18, 2017

Jen Michalski

Photograph by Alex Hockett

Man, this story took me back to my high school/college days. Can you tell me what inspired this piece?

I was listening to an album by a girl band out of Washington state, and a lot of their songs are about feeling isolated at parties, drinking out of boredom, bad relationships—a lot of twenty-something angst. In fact, they even have an anthem, sort of, about being a slut. It sort of took me back to my own college days, and even though I enjoy this band’s music a lot, I obviously don’t relate on a lyric level as a forty-something with a mortgage. But I wondered whether, when they are in their forties, they’ll still play these songs at shows, even though they will probably have moved past them, because their fans would demand it—would they have to play “Cool Slut,” and how would they feel about that? Would Kurt Cobain still be playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” these days?

The story started as a single sentence in my head: “They didn’t come for you; they came for 1994.” I just went from there, how sometimes your biggest creations are both opus and curse, particularly if it’s something you’ve done in the moment, not thinking about it becoming the defining arc of your career. And, I think, as writers (and creative people in general), we are prone to a similar pigeonholing. If we captivate a certain audience of readers with a specific story or novel, they may not let us grow up in the same way that they have—we’re always expected to write that story or novel, or something like it, to feed someone else’s nostalgia. We get sort of pressed into place.

Let’s talk about the title. When Sequoia first wrote to us and told us the title of his pick, my first thought was, “Oh, shit.” And then I looked in our queue and saw your name and let out a big sigh of relief. But the title does have that in-your-faceness about it. Were you nervous at all about it?

A little, but not really. I didn’t choose it for the shock value—it just seemed the most fitting title, metaphorically and ironically. It’s definitely the bluntest title I’ve ever given a story. But I hear you—as a journal editor, sometimes a title (like “Pussy” or “Dick Man”) will pop up in the submissions queue, and you’re like, “Oh, boy—can the writer really pull off this story under the weight of such a title?” Unfortunately, in my experience as an editor, the answer is no, so thank you for taking pity on me with this story.

OK, take me back. Give me ten songs I should put on my nineties playlist (mix tape?).

I hope you make this into a Spotify playlist! SmokeLong should definitely have a Spotify channel.

[Editor’s note: WE DO! Thanks to this interview, we were inspired to create a soundtrack for Issue 57. Find it here.]

Anyway, I had to think back very hard to what CDs and tapes I had back then! In no order (and a little indie/DC-centric):

  1. Sweet and Low – Fugazi
  2. Universal Dawn – Eric’s Trip
  3. Allison – Slowdive
  4. Only Shallow – My Bloody Valentine
  5. Things You Say – Sleater-Kinney
  6. Plants and Rags – PJ Harvey
  7. Range Life – Pavement
  8. Frou Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires – The Cocteau Twins
  9. 57 Waltz – Velocity Girl
  10. Star Sign – Teenage Fanclub
  11. Nancy Drew – Tuscadero
  12. Penpals – Sloan

What’s the best and worst concert you’ve ever been to? 

I used to go to shows a lot in the 1990s, back when I was in my twenties. I feel really lucky to have been able to see shows at both 9:30 Club locations, the Capital Ballroom, The Black Cat, Ottobar, Hammerjacks, the 8×10, the old Fletcher’s. I didn’t realize how many I had gone to until I got into my forties, and now it’s a big production, a once-a-year-thing, and all I think about is “Did I bring my earplugs?” or “Will they go on before midnight? I hope they go on before midnight.” I actually go to more classical than rock concerts these days.

I’ve never been to a bad concert, but the weirdest thing that ever happened was once I had tickets for what was supposed to be Sleater-Kinney’s last show at the 9:30 Club in 2006 (they were touring for The Woods, which was supposed to be their last album). Before they came on, the club blew a generator or something, everyone was evacuated, the show canceled. Fortunately, they were able to reschedule for the next night, and I was fortunate enough to be able to drive back down from Baltimore and see them.

Also, I was happy to take my mom to see Paul McCartney a couple times before she died. At the time, I was worried more about him passing away than my mom, but now I’ve come to accept that I will probably pass away before Paul McCartney.

What is your next writing project?

I just finished a novel that is unlike any other novel I’ve ever written in that it’s not so fucking sad. In fact, it’s supposed to funny (I hope—I’ve discovered my sense of humor is different than most people’s). Although someone dies in the beginning of it (a mom, at that), it’s more of a blackish comedy with an uplifting ending. If it were a band, it would feel it had outgrown its indie label and is waiting for one of the majors to pick it up.

About the Author

Jen Michalski is the author of the novels The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press), The Summer She Was Under Water (Queens Ferry Press), a couplet of novellas Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc), and two collections of fiction. She’s editor in chief of jmww Journal and host of Starts Here! reading series.

About the Interviewer

Tara Laskowski

Tara Laskowski has been editor at SmokeLong Quarterly since 2010. Her short story collection Bystanders was hailed by Jennifer Egan as “a bold, riveting mash-up of Hitchcockian suspense and campfire-tale chills.” She is also the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, tales of dark etiquette. Her fiction has been published in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, and numerous other journals, magazines, and anthologies. Tara lives and works in a suburb of Washington, D.C.

About the Artist

Alex Hockett‘s work can be found at Unsplash.

This interview appeared in Issue Fifty-Seven of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Fifty-Seven

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