For Jen Michalski, a prolific year

For Baltimore author Jen Michalski, 2013 is shaping up to be the Year of the Book Party.

In a nine-month period, the 41-year-old freelance medical copywriter is having three works of fiction in different genres come out with three small, independent publishers.


In March, Dzanc Books combined Michalski's two haunting novellas about fragile lives and released them under the title, "Could You Be With Her Now?" while a short story collection, "From Here," comes out in November under the auspices of Aqueous Press.

But Michalski is most excited about the publication this month of her first novel. "The Tide King," published by Black Lawrence Press, mixes hyper-realistic wartime scenes with such magical elements as an enchanted herb. The action ranges from 17th-century Poland to German positions in World War II to the U.S. in the 1970s.


"I've spent so much time sitting in a little room, writing what comes out of my head on a little laptop." Michalski says. "Having three books come out in the same year feels great. It's as if a gold brick has fallen out of my pocket. But it's been a lot of work, and I try to keep it in perspective."

It's not as though Michalski is a literary newbie. Everyone in the Baltimore book scene already knows who she is.

After graduating from Towson University in 1999 with a master's degree in professional writing, Michalski founded an online journal and a monthly reading series and is co-host of a b-annual staged Lit Show at the Creative Alliance.

Michalski's first book, a short story collection called "Close Encounters" was published in 2007. Three years later, she edited the anthology "City Sages: Baltimore." And as recently as last month, an essay about her grandfather ran on the Psychology Today website.


Sunday afternoon, Michalski and her friend and fellow Baltimore novelist Jessica Anya Blau will discuss their work at the Barnes & Noble in Charles Village.

"As long as I can keep writing," Michalski says, "I'll be happy."

When did you start inventing stories?

When I was 4 or 5, my mom showed me how to fold a piece of paper into a book, and I wrote a story about my birthday party. I kept diaries the whole time I was growing up.

It may be that writing is even a crutch, because I'm actually a little introverted. Writing is my way of communicating outside my head. It helps me process the experience. Some people can talk so easily, but for me, it's a very long haul from the back of my head to my mouth.

Writing is like lightning. Words go so much more quickly from the back of my head to my hand.

Which form do you like best — short stories, long fiction or full-length novels?

Once "The Tide King" was done and it worked, I started a second novel. I'm almost finished with it. The payoff with a novel is so much greater than with short fiction. A short story is much simpler, while a novel has so many moving parts. It's much more mentally taxing to make a novel work. I feel like I've moved from the Monday crossword puzzle to maybe the Saturday puzzle. I'm not up to the Sunday crossword yet.

What was the inspiration for "The Tide King"?

I was actually in the tub. I had this huge pile of old National Geographics, and I read a story about a father-and-son team in a submarine searching for the Bismarck, the German battleship that sank in the Second World War. The article had a coda that said after the father and son came back to the United States, the son died in a car accident. It was so moving, and I wanted to write about that story.

But after I started writing, it became a story about two soldiers who had served in World War II. Both of my grandfathers were in the war, and they never talked about it.

The plot about the enchanted herb was from a different project altogether. One day, I opened my file of old stories, and it popped up. But it was as if these two different plot lines completed one another. It was as if I'd had all these beads, and I'd finally found the necklace that would string them together.

Why did you decide to enchant an actual herb called burnet saxifrage? Admittedly, it is an awfully cool name.

It probably came to me in a dream. Most of my work has its roots in dreams. Or sometimes, a first sentence will come to me and then I'll have to figure out the rest of the puzzle, I'll work it out in my head and then write down the solution.

I knew that I wanted the herb to develop magical powers because of the stupidest reason possible. I didn't want to hang it on any religion. I wanted the cause to be something natural and irrelevant, but that would cause this huge chain reaction across continents and centuries.

I also had been thinking about how useful or useless the gift of eternal life would be. This society is so obsessed with being young and living forever. But if you became immortal, you'd have to be sure that everyone else was immortal, too. Some of the characters in "The Tide King" live forever, but they can't connect with people.

It made me wonder: How do we connect with people when we know that in the end they're going to leave us?

One of your themes seems to be loneliness. Where does that come from?

I've always felt that I'm one pane removed from everything, like I'm walking around in a bubble or behind a sheet of glass. Writing is my way of asking, "How do I get out?"

Perhaps that's because of having a sexuality issue when I was growing up. I felt different, not as natural and not in line with my peers. I didn't feel like I was supposed to feel until I was in college and I started dating women.

If someone gave you an herb conferring immortality, what would you do?

I wouldn't eat it. I would personally stay as far away from it as possible. Instead, I would probably donate it to the Smithsonian.

If you go

Baltimore authors Jen Michalski and Jessica Anya Blau will engage in a literary conversation at noon Sunday at the Johns Hopkins Barnes & Noble, 3330 St. Paul St. Baltimore Sun reporter Mary Carole McCauley will moderate the discussion. Free. Call 410-662-5850 or go to johns-hopkins.bncollege.com.

About the book

"The Tide King" will be released July 30 by Black Lawrence Press. 525 pages, $19.95.

[In an earlier version of this story, the publisher of "The Tide King" was misidentified. The Sun regrets the error.]