Expanded from her award-winning short story, Michelle Wildgen's debut novel, You're Not You, tells the story of a college student who becomes the caregiver for a woman with ALS. Wildgen took her undergraduate degree in English at UW-Madison, with an emphasis on creative writing.
Now a senior editor at the quarterly literary journal Tin House and an editor at Tin House Books, she has also been published in Best Food Writing 2004 and Best New American Voices 2004. She reads from her work at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21, at the Wisconsin Historical Society's main building on the UW Library Mall, as part of a Wisconsin Book Festival program that also features novelists Heidi Julavits (The Uses of Enchantment) and Rae Meadows (Calling Out).
The Daily Page: When, where and how did you conceive the idea for "You're Not You" as a short story?
Wildgen: I think it was my first semester of grad school. I had known some people who'd worked as caregivers, and some people who'd employed either caregivers or just some help that included a little physical aid here and there, and I thought the relationship was mysterious and intriguing when you really pondered the basic acts of it. I had a story due, so I started with the idea of two women and a bed.
If you have worked as a caregiver, what were the circumstances? If not, under what circumstances might you work as a caregiver?
I have not; I don't really have any experience with anything medical, etc. It would be more about the person than anything, I think. If I met a person I thought would be interesting to be with so much, at such close quarters.
Why did you decide to elaborate on the short story in novel form?
I'd written many stories that, once finished, were pretty much done for me, and felt no need to revisit the characters or their situations. But in this case there were scenes I'd cut from the story, ideas I still thought would be interesting to explore. I had the sense with these people that in the story I had only caught them in one moment, so I wanted to see what I could do. I'd never written a novel, and I wanted to try, even if I failed.
How much research did you invest in both the short-story and novel versions? How much of your research involved ALS per se, and how much of it touched on sexual, marital or interpersonal dynamics?
I spoke to people with experience with ALS and caregiving to get a sense of what a daily routine might be like, what physical issues would be relevant, and read some books and websites on ALS to get some background on it. Very little of my research covered sexuality or marriage or relationships -- what mention I did see was very general -- which was part of what I found so interesting. But I tried to get just enough info to be natural and conversant, not so much that whatever nascent plot or ideas I had might be overwhelmed. That said, one major plot point changed after I read a nonfiction book, though I wouldn't want to go into detail here...
When you were writing, to what extent did you rely on Bec as a proxy through whom you could best view, understand and relate the narrative? Did you develop an emotional attachment to her -- or, through her, to Kate?
I could see through Bec how awkward and novel the experience would be for someone totally new to this job and this relationship, and also how she trains her sights on Kate and wants to know every little thing about her -- in that way she stands for me as an author more than as a person. And I think I share some of Bec's qualities, often her worst ones, of indecisiveness or thoughtlessness, her assumption that her actions don't really carry weight.
I'm definitely attached to them both, though I wanted each to have room to behave badly, to make questionable decisions, not have me the loving writer make them well behaved and happy. When I gave them moments of fear or worry or bleakness, I could feel that too; in moments when they were content, I would take genuine pleasure in that as well, as though the meal were on my table, the fire in my fireplace.
What are the most significant advantages and disadvantages of cultivating a novel from the seeds of a short story?
The advantage is that you have a toehold on your characters, understanding them, feeling you know them. Still, you have to be ready to change your view of them, or shake up things in the story that you decide not to sustain in a longer work. The disadvantage is how hard it is to break apart the story and make it into the pieces of a novel. They have different rhythms. The beginning, which is probably always hard, was especially difficult here, just trying to find the footing and the pacing. After years of work on the novel, the poor short story is like this ancient thing I only faintly recall.
In retrospect, do you view the original short-story version as a novel in abridged form -- a narrative that was meant to be a novel all along, or a novel trapped in a short story but trying to get out?
Actually, they're totally separate things to me -- so much so that I'm almost surprised when people ask about them together, though it's natural to do. Anyway, at the time I wrote it, the story was a story and that was all I was trying to make it. And to make it a novel was in many ways an experiment at first, to try and see what I could do, and in order to be at all successful at it, I had to try to obliterate the story version from my head.
Based on your own experience with You're Not You, what advice might you have for other writers who want to take one of their short stories and expand on it as a novel-length narrative?
I'd recommend starting with a blank page, not with a version of the story you then move around and cut and add to and such. I think you probably want to forget the original form, its pacing and such especially, as much as you can. Keep in mind the thing -- the image, the question, the emotion -- that makes you want to write larger, but don't worry about replicating what you did in the story; move beyond it.
How did you develop Bec and Kate's speech patterns, and how did you keep your ear tuned to their dialogue?
They came naturally and intuitively to me. I tried to let their similar senses of humor come through, but not to make them too much alike, to remember that Bec is still young, impulsive, more likely to burst out with whatever she's thinking.
Has anyone approached you about taking an option on You're Not You for a movie? If it is adapted for the big screen, who would you envision in the roles of Bec, Kate and Evan?There's been talk. But even if nothing ever happens with that, it turns out fantasy casting (and soundtracks) is big fun. I like Catherine Keener as Kate, and someone like Michelle Williams or Maggie Gyllenhaall as Bec. Despite the pooled efforts of all my friends, we have not yet come up with a good Evan. Someone said Bill Pullman or Viggo Mortensen, but I'm not seeing it.
Amazon.com customers who bought You're Not You also bought Sweet Ruin, by Cathi Hanauer; My Latest Grievance, by Elinor Lipman; Cage of Stars, by Jacquelyn Mitchard; Halfway House, by Katharine Noel; and Once Upon a Day, by Lisa Tucker. If you were going to recommend a second book to go with You're Not You, what would it be, and why would you recommend it as a complement to your novel?
How about MFK Fisher's The Gastronomical Me? She puts me to shame and I accept that. Her use of food to tell all the other stories -- and her food descriptions in their own right -- are delicious, cool and intelligent, emotionally incisive.
How does your editing work affect your writing? And what lessons from your own writing do you take to the office as an editor?
In good and bad ways. I don't take submitting nearly as much to heart anymore because I know how impersonal and subjective the process is, how often another editor goes crazy for a piece I didn't love. And you learn not to get too precious about hacking up your own work -- I've read so many stories that would have been so improved if the author could have brought herself to cut the first 6 pages, the extra poetic paragraphs, etc. But at times the emotional toll, knowing as I write rejections that every person labored over and loved this story that I didn't love at all, can infect what you do when you sit down to write. It can give you a feeling of hopelessness. I try to keep the two things in as separate a headspace as I can.
When, where and how do you prefer to write?
At my desk in the mornings, after breakfast and before screening any manuscripts.
As a University of Wisconsin alum whose work was included in the collection Best Food Writing 2004, and as an author who has used food in your fiction as a vehicle for character development, what was the most memorable restaurant meal you enjoyed while in Madison?
There were many, a lot involving fried fish or late nights at the Greenbush. But I would say that the first meal I had at L'Etoile, probably 10 years ago now, is pretty far up there. (It involved fish with caviar.) But I have even fonder memories of making fresh pasta every week with market vegetables: tomatoes, beans, summer squash, basil, and mozzarella or Fantome goat cheese -- it was a revelation how little I could do to it and how glorious it would be. God, I love that market.
Among the other presenters at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival, who are you most eager to see and hear?
Hard to narrow it down. But I'll go with Marjane Satrapi, Jane Hamilton, and Lois Lowry, whose A Summer To Die I read in fifth grade and is still stark and beautiful.
What was the last book you read that you would recommend to a friend, and why would you recommend it?
I loved Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children. Loved its reach and richness and yet its light touch too. It reminded me how you can tell a story about the characters' inner lives and professional lives, rather than big crazy plot twists (The donkey speaks! I grew a second head!), and yet it's still a page turner.
Why do you live where you live?
I moved to New York -- just outside the city, in Westchester -- for graduate school and stayed for the restaurants and the chance to keep working at Tin House.
Do you have any tattoos?
Nope. I would have been susceptible to a two-year tattoo in college, if such a thing existed.