Welcome back, Jen Michalski!

This month we are celebrating the titles that we’ve acquired in the past six months. These manuscripts came to us through our open reading periods and our 2017 Hudson Prize. Today we bring you Jen Michalski, author of the novel, The Summer She Was Under Water, which will be published in December. This will be Jen’s second novel with Black Lawrence Press.
Have a manuscript you think we’d like? During our November Open Reading Period we are looking for poetry (chapbooks and full-length collections), short fiction (again, both chapbooks and full-length collections), novels, novellas, nonfiction (CNF, biography, cultural studies) and translations from German. Also, our Big Moose Prize for the novel is currently open to early bird submissions.

author new bigThe Author

Jen Michalski is the author of the novels The Summer She Was Under Water (Black Lawrence Press, December 2017) and The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press), the collections From Here and Close Encounters, and a couplet of novellas called Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books). She is the managing editor of the literary journal  jmww and host of the monthly fiction reading series, Starts Here!

On writing The Summer She Was Under Water

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.


Sam drags their bags through the screened porch and into the cabin. The cabin, two hours’ north of the Pinski home in Baltimore, has been in the family for generations, built pipe by pipe, before the road was built, lumber and shingles and nails floating downstream on rafts in the Conowingo Creek on the days her grandfather and father and uncles had the day off from the steel mill. The cabin is a place Sam knows almost as well as herself; it has evolved, addition by addition, in the same way her limbs have grown awkwardly outward. A case for beauty could be made, for each, Sam considers, but only if one considered very hard.
Sam winds through the living room and two bedrooms, built one after the other along the way, like a makeshift parade dragon—before reaching the last room in the back. Inside it a sliding door opens onto a deck that snakes along the front of the cabin, facing the vein of water. The room has been used for entertaining over the years—there is a padded bar from the seventies in the corner, along with her brother Steve’s elaborate stereo system that he lorded over as a teenager in the late eighties. Various sofas from the Pinski home have found retirement here after their springs broke or their cushions started to reek or their patterns became hopelessly out of style. One of the sofas has a stowaway bed in it, and it is here where Sam has been sleeping for most of her adulthood. The crocheted owl still hangs on the wall, as well as a Bananarama poster that she had put up back in her teens. On the bar remain a few ancient, dusty, mid-priced bourbons and vodkas, along with a bottle of Peppermint Schnapps, its contents solidified. She can smell citronella but can’t find its source.
Sam stops in the adjoining room to leave Eve’s bags, the room she and her older brother, Steve, shared growing up. There are two beds, one of them in the loft, but no window. The fights over who got to sleep in the loft, even though it was the hottest and most suffocating place in the house, were legendary and started even before the Pinskis drove up to the cabin. Both Steve and Sam would corner their mother privately in the kitchen or in the aisle at the grocery store, pleading their case for the right to stay in the loft. Eventually their mother made up a calendar for the whole summer, breaking down the days that Sam or Steve would have it, but that did not stop them from bartering and trading among themselves—a McDonald’s coupon for a free sundae from a classmate’s birthday party, a handful of Bazooka Joe gum carefully stockpiled for such an occasion, and sometimes just the more traditional forms of negotiation—hair pulling and stomach punching.
Sam remembers the nights in the loft, dangling a thin rope, to which was tied an army figure or a recovered toy from the southern creek bed, down to the lower bed where Steve waited sprawled on top of the sheets. Sometimes he would be a bear, and his fist would devour the army figure or algae-spotted Barbie head while he growled, or he would be a tornado, grabbing the end of the rope and swinging the figure wildly into space. Sam would concentrate on the spinning object until it made her dizzy and she’d have to pull the rope up, lie in bed still for a few moments. Sometimes Steve would be quiet, listening to their parents fighting, their father breaking an oar on the kitchen counter, heaving the toaster oven against the wall. Steve’s fists would ball, whiten, while the rope swung limply between them. Sam would climb down into his bed, mash herself into the corner wall with the spider webs and moldy wood, and those nights nobody slept in the loft.
Her mother has been assuring Sam for weeks that Steve is making the trip down from New Jersey, although Sam is not sure what is so different this time than, say, any Christmas or Easter or birthday for which he never bothered. If he is coming, she is not sure what she will say to him. She does not even know whether she wants to see him. The past she thought she’d shed always seemed to slide down her neck and into the small of her back, her body tight, when she wasn’t expecting it. Like when she was happy. Or when she was jogging or eating walnuts. Or when Michael proposed to her.
She knows one thing for certain: this time, Steve can have the fucking loft.
As she packs the old red cooler full of beer and iced tea she imagines him charming the women at the skunky New Jersey roadhouses where he ambles through “Nebraska” and “Born to Run,” in Thunder Road, his Bruce Springsteen cover band, his voice rumbling and mucous, his forearms shiny and sinewy and licked with sweat. Tramps like us, baby we were born to run. She thinks about his stupid Christmas and birthday cards, late, irregular, recycled. Why did he have to think about her at all? And her mother, always talking like Steve was five minutes away, down the street, ready to shovel the walk when it snowed. A perfect son. They wished. Over the years, Sam’s family has wished many things about Steve. They ranged from small wishes, like steady employment and calling more often, to larger ones such as healthy relationships with women and staying out of trouble with the law and kicking various narcotic habits he’d pick up here and there like change on the sidewalk.
But when her mother mentioned Steve might be visiting the cabin this summer, Sam sent him her book, the one she wrote about him. She sent him her words and she wondered whether he would read them, understand them, what he would say about them. It was possible that he would not show up, stupid bastard, or would be in jail, or off on “tour,” or strung out somewhere between Brooklyn and Trenton. But she had begun the last chapter, and it was up to him to decide how it ended.