Michelle Wildgen admits that in books and movies, she's not generally a fan of dystopian scenarios. "I almost never respond to that," she says over coffee at Café Zoma, near her home in the Atwood neighborhood.
"Most of what you see is post-apocalyptic, but I was interested in what happens on the way to the apocalypse. Where's the pre-apocalypse? And do people tell themselves it's something else?" she asks with a wry smile.
That combination of dark prognostication and sly wit has garnered Wildgen high praise for her second novel, But Not for Long, which was published in October by St. Martin's Press. Set in Madison, the novel concerns three residents of a sustainable foods co-op by Lake Monona. The normal pattern of life breaks down as a blackout hits, gas becomes scarce and other troubling events occur.
"By all rights this should be preachy, terrible fiction. But the tone is so far from didactic, and the characters are so skillfully developed, that it succeeds," wrote a New York Times reviewer. "What if the apocalypse comes gently, this memorable book asks, not with a bang or a blaze but with the silence of refrigerators no longer buzzing and the 'fuzzy dandelions of candlelight floating past the curtains'?"
While the context of But Not For Long invokes current environmental and technological fears, it's not an "issue book" to Wildgen. Observes the author, "For each character, something is untenable and has to change, and that comes out due to outside pressures."
Madison is familiar territory for Wildgen. She finished her bachelor's degree in English at the UW in 1997 and continued to live here until 2000. She left to pursue her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College and remained in New York for several years after that. She and her husband returned to Madison in 2007.
A native of the Akron suburb of Stow, Ohio, Wildgen didn't start out as a UW undergrad. "I transferred here because I liked the city so much," she says. "Stow is a perfectly pleasant place to grow up, but I felt like it could be anywhere. So when I came here, I loved the fact that Madison had its own particularity; it didn't feel like just any city."
Aside from novel writing, Wildgen works as senior editor of the literary journal Tin House and as a part-time editor for the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Now with two acclaimed novels under her belt (the first was You're Not You, selected by People as one of its top 10 books of 2006), Wildgen is one the writers making Madison a hotspot for both fiction and nonfiction.
Both Lorrie Moore and Jacquelyn Mitchard made the bestseller lists this fall with their latest novels. Kevin Henkes was recently lauded in a New Yorker piece that took to task most other creators of children's picture books. And UW professor Sean Carroll's Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species was nominated for a National Book Award in the nonfiction category.
Wildgen is in the early stages of planning her next novel, which she claims will be much lighter than But Not for Long and You're Not You, about the relationship between a woman with ALS and her caregiver. "The books I've written have been somewhat serious, but I'm not really a dark, depressing person," she laughs.