Michelle Wildgen is a senior editor at the literary journal Tin House, novelist, essayist and editor of the anthology Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast. Her 2006 debut novel, You're Not You, made People magazine's list of top 10 books for that year, and a movie adaptation is now in development. Set in Madison, her new novel, But Not for Long, centers on three residents of a sustainable foods co-op (Greta, Hal and Karin) as they confront a series of unsettling crises, including an extended blackout and the sudden appearance on their porch of Greta's estranged and inebriated husband.
At this year's Wisconsin Book Festival, Wildgen is scheduled to appear with Novella Carpenter (author of the memoir Farm City) from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 8, at A Room Of One's Own Feminist Bookstore. In a wide-ranging Q&A conducted via email in anticipation of her festival appearance, Wildgen discusses the genesis and evolution of her new novel and its characters, the challenges and rewards of writing it, real-life apprehensions and anxieties, courage and what she always carries with her.
The Daily Page: What was the genesis of But Not for Long -- where were you and what were you doing when you conceived it?
Wildgen: It evolved rather slowly. I was experimenting with these new characters in various scenes, just to see if any ideas got traction. I wrote a scene that later I deleted of the three co-op members in their living room, revolving through their heads while they all refused to state aloud what they were thinking. The book took shape through a few more scenes like this: Will showing up on the porch, Hal and Will's ill-advised visit to Mrs. Bryant, while I started to see where it might go.
Why the Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday structure?
As I kept writing it became clear that the book would take place over a pretty condensed time period. I kept tightening up the time frame so I could stay within the confines of the blackout and the immediate crisis. Actually, it wasn't until the very end that I added in the days to divide the sections.
As you were writing But Not for Long, which of your principal characters proved the most difficult for you to get to know -- and why?
Karin was tougher for me, somehow. I think partially because she herself is a little diffident and uncertain -- whereas a character like Greta, who's in such extreme emotional straits, was very easy to see and feel. But Karin is a watcher, less tightly wound, and I got to know her in moments when she surprised me with sudden decisiveness, or by reacting with real urgency to something -- most clearly when she was the one who thought nothing of jumping into the lake.
When you were done writing, which of the characters was the most difficult for you to let go of -- and why was it so tough?
I think Will. The shift into his point of view gave me a bit of a chill when I wrote it, as if I'd known him all along and had just taken a step to one side and landed straight inside his head. He's an immensely frustrating character, but also, for me, always interesting, with moments of unexpected awareness despite how out of it he appears. I think that is why he stays with me -- here is this terrible drunk, who's driven his wife more than halfway crazy and seems to have a toxic effect on almost everyone, but inside his head it's clear he knows how ill he is, how isolated, and he feels it very keenly. He just has not figured out how to change, or been able or totally willing.
There's an undercurrent of disquiet and apprehension running through But Not for Long. What renders you apprehensive in real life? And how do you cope with such anxiety?
I feel apprehension and anxiety about a wide and varied array of things, from reviews to social faux pas to whether I should be buying only local organic meat or whether I can use less gas and just stop at the nearest store to the insanely fractious political climate and all the attendant battles therein. I cope with these fears and uncertainties with unpredictable outbursts and not sleeping and staring piercingly into the darkness for hours at a time. But I also rely on hard-core gallows humor and -- literally -- the relief of looking out the window and seeing that people are out walking, buying groceries, and life is moving forward.
To what would you attribute your aptitude for subtle or nuanced character dynamics?
I hope I do have that aptitude, and as for where it might come from -- good question. I think it's related to the kind of anxiety I mentioned above, but tuned to a different frequency. You get into the habit of paying very close attention to people, how they behave and how they interact, and when I investigate my own feelings about things, I usually find about six conflicting layers. So I try to find the same layers in my characters.
Let's say But Not for Long is optioned for a movie. Who would you cast in the roles of Greta, Hal and Karin? And who would you prefer to direct it?
This is an embarrassingly enjoyable exercise. Let's see: How about Michelle Williams as Karin. Can we age Maggie Gyllenhaal an extra 15 years and have her play Greta? It's a fantasy, so why not. Maybe Joaquin Phoenix as Hal, if we can get him to shave his beard and return to acting. For a director... Alfonso Cuarón, whose Children of Men was a real inspiration for this book.
Every once in awhile throughout the book, there are some lines and phrases -- "Her naked face had a pallid sort of meth-lab drabness," "contact lenses crisping in her eyes," etc. -- that are so vivid they're almost tactile. Is there one that gave you the greatest pleasure to craft? -- and if so, what was your reaction to writing it?
Those phrases tend to just arrive in the flow of writing -- sometimes I go back and toy with the words, but for me the best ones are the ones I don't overwork. I'm partial to the contact lens line you mentioned, and to Greta's descriptions of the kind of poisonous rage that has taken hold in her marriage to Will -- an anger that should wither the wood frames of the doors, blight the ficus, ferment the apple juice in the fridge. I mainly react to these phrases by turning them over in my head a lot, listening to them. Of course, sometimes, later on, you come to wonder what you loved so much.
What lessons learned from writing You're Not You did you carry forward and apply to writing But Not for Long?
I found I worked best when I was writing toward something -- to raising a plot question or trying to answer it, to giving my characters particular issues to worry about as well as the overarching ones. But also that when I am moving people around and they don't feel alive to me, I step outside the whole thing and just start writing about them, which usually turns up a new way of seeing them.
How did the challenges and rewards of writing But Not for Long compare to the challenges and rewards of writing You're Not You?
I loved being able to just move through different people here, which of course I couldn't do in You're Not You because it's first person. Overall, this one felt really different -- more uncertain at every turn than writing You're Not You, because with YNY I knew where it would go and my challenges were in deciding how I'd make it happen. This was much more the writing equivalent of digging your way out of prison with a spoon -- I figured things out in such tiny increments, it seemed. But that uncertainty was what I was aiming for, because I didn't want to feel I was following a template I had seen before.
Madison readers will find quite a few familiar references in your new novel: Morrison Street, Mickey's Dairy Bar, Camp Randall, Oscar Mayer and so on. But at other times, you're more circumspect -- leaving, for example the "vibrator store on Willy Street" unnamed. Why not call it A Woman's Touch? And for whom might Susan Leung be a proxy?
Susan Leung isn't a proxy for anyone that I can think of -- just a random invented newscaster. With something like A Woman's Touch, I often make those little shifts for totally personal reasons -- not secrets, just for reasons like the fact that I named and discussed A Woman's Touch in my first book, and I didn't want to repeat myself in every book. And in the course of a brief aside, as "the vibrator store on Willy Street" phrase is, it feels unnecessary to take the time to specifically name it. So, not for a deep or political reason, just because sometimes I've hit that note before, or for the pleasure of not being bound to the real world.
What can readers expect from your appearance at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival, and how can they best prepare themselves to get the most out of it?
They can expect a reading that focuses on some of the cheesemaking/farm visit sections of the book, in honor of my being paired with Novella Carpenter reading from her book about urban farming. As dark as the book can be, they can expect something that's also funny and very sensory -- I do like to read scenes that really set you up so you can see and feel it all. I would say they can prepare for this, and almost any endeavor, by eating some good local cheese.
When you appeared at the 2006 Wisconsin Book Festival, you were living in Westchester, N.Y. What led you to move back to Madison?
Fatigue. My husband and I had been in N.Y., commuting into the city, for seven years, and at first we thought we would never leave. But I would come here and visit my friends and family and be reminded every time that several layers of annoyance, inconvenience and expense get scraped off one's life here in Madison, even if -- crushingly -- there is currently no ramen joint. Plus, we have what, four or five farmers' markets per week? That's heaven. Those markets could be held half-submerged in a fetid swamp and I would still be there every week, fondling the eggplant.
As a Madison resident once again, which other presenters at this year's festival do you most look forward to seeing?
I'd love to see Lynda Barry, and would really like to hear Michael Perry read as well-- I just read Pop. 485 and need to read Coop next. Harvey Pekar would be great, because I know very little about graphic novels and comic books and I'd be fascinated to hear what he has to say. And Bich Minh Nguyen, whose book Stealing Buddha's Dinner I really liked, would be on my list as well.
During a 2006 Wisconsin Book Festival interview for Isthmus, you noted that the last book you'd read that you would recommend was The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud. Three years later, what is the most recent book you've read that you would recommend -- and why would you recommend it?
I invariably freeze up and forget everything when asked this, but I can tell you that on my desk right now is Stephen Elliott's The Adderall Diaries, because I find his combination of brutal frankness and tenderness so compelling, and I would always recommend any of Antonya Nelson's recent collections because she is so, so tart and unexpected and hilarious.
The theme of this year's Wisconsin Book Festival is "Courage." How do you define courage? And who or what best exemplifies your definition?
Sometimes it's just the ability to engage in debate in a calm, intelligent manner instead of a knee-jerk, raw-nerve kind of way. But also the willingness to reach toward other people -- to be willing to stretch yourself beyond your little world. I have some friends who have exemplified this for me -- and I admit that I list these as qualities to strive for, not ones I am terribly good at.
What do you always carry with you?
Something, anything, to read.