The book contains two novellas. The first, “I Can Make It to California Before It’s Time for Dinner,” tells the story of Jimmy, a mentally challenged 14-year-old boy who, echoing Steinbeck’s Lennie Small, accidentally kills a neighborhood girl. The story, told from Jimmy’s first-person perspective, unfolds with a razor sharp tension created by the reader’s fuller grasp of a reality that Jimmy cannot process.
When Jimmy winds up hitching a ride with an untrustworthy and questionable trucker, the reader is brought face-to-face with incomprehensible acts that occur every day, underlining our inability to protect innocents from danger.
In “May-September,” the book’s second novella, a young writer named Alice is hired by the much-older Sandra to blog her memoirs for the benefit of her grandchildren. The two women quickly develop a fondness and love for one another. Despite the rapidity with which the bond between the women is developed, it never feels forced or contrived, as an unusual love story unfolds.
The narration of “May-September” shifts seamlessly between Alice and Sandra and the past and the present, which gives the reader a fuller picture of the two women’s lives and the circumstances that have brought them together.
In one scene, Michalski manages, with sparse prose, to give the reader a glimpse into Sandra’s life as Alice looks at a collection of photos to be put up on the blog:
“The photos were black and white, color bright, and faded. Torn edges, pin holes in corners, cigarette smelling, coffee splattered. Children in jumpers clutching dolls. A man with horn-rimmed glasses reading a book. The same man and Sandra standing in front of a jaguar convertible in a driveway, his fingers curling around her waist…Grade school, Sandra’s teeth as large as her eyes. Her high school graduation in 1958. Her marriage in 1960. Andrea’s birth in 1963. Sandra at the piano, various years, her hair long, blond, then bobbed, then cropped close to her skull.”
As different as they are, each novella shows Michalski’s distinctive ability to explore difficult situations with a realistic and heartfelt sentiment. Gay Life had a chance to catch up with the author as her newest book was released:
How did the structure of the book—two novellas contained in one book—come about?
It wasn’t really intentional. They were both written at different times. The first one was written in 2008. May-September was 2010. I had a dream that was pretty much the novella and I woke up and I really wanted to write about it, but I didn’t think it would have an audience or interest. But as a writer, you don’t really get to choose what you write, it just sort of happens.
After I had these two novellas and I thought, well, that was a great experiment but I didn’t really know what to do with them. I pitched Dzanc [the eventual publisher] with the idea of putting the two novellas together, inspired by the writer Josh Weil’s The New Valley.
The novellas are really different but they seem to play off of each other in different ways. People who have read the book find different things in common with the two novellas, things that they like that I hadn’t even really thought about.
Both novellas contain topics that are a bit taboo in our culture, particularly the first story. Did you give much consideration to how your audience would react to the somewhat difficult material?
It’s funny that you ask because I’ve always written a lot of, as my family would say, ‘disturbing’ things, but I’ve always had the shield of the small press or just independent journals or places where people don’t really see the work a lot. There may be an avenue for a critical acclaim, but you don’t have to worry about seeing your book on Amazon.
So now that this book has a good distributor and it is going to be in places I do worry about it more now because I wonder how people are going to react to this, but I was really sincere with what I wanted to do with each story, so I just hope that people can see that sincerity in the writing.
I was always really touched and moved by Flowers for Algernon. It was one of my favorite stories growing up. The first time I read it I didn’t understand it at all. I didn’t understand what was happening to Charlie. I guess that really stuck with me and I really wanted to experiment and have a Faulkner-esque sort of reality where the reader can figure out what’s going on but the character can’t because of their limitations or compromised reality.
I read that you do a lot of writing in your head. Did you live in the space of the main character, Jimmy, when you were writing the first novella? The story is told from his perspective, why did you make this narration decision?
I was really intrigued by having these parameters of language where I could only use certain words and have a certain understanding of the world. I guess I lived in Jimmy’s reality that way, but I always knew that at some point I could never really be Jimmy, there was a buffer, a safety, a knowledge.
When I first wrote it, it was a short story and I thought I was done with it, but then it just kept bothering me. Sometimes the characters will tell me that they need to be explored more and I guess in that way, I wasn’t Jimmy, but I felt like Jimmy was still in me somehow saying, ‘You really need to tell my story because I really don’t feel like you’ve given me my due.’
Jen Michalski’s new book, Could You Be With Her Now, by Dzank Books. Find info on how to purchase at JenMichalski.com.