Street Talk

Jen Michalski

Jen Michalski lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She was voted one of the best authors in Maryland by CBS News, one of "50 Women to Watch" by The Baltimore Sun, and "Best Writer" by Baltimore Magazine (Best of Baltimore issue, 2013). Her novel The Tide King was published by Black Lawrence Press (2013; winner of the Big Moose Prize and "Best Ficton," Baltimore City Paper 2013). She is the author of two collections of fiction, Close Encounters (So New, 2007) and From Here (Aqueous Books, 2013) and a collection of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books, 2013). She also edited the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called "Best of Baltimore" in 2010. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww and host of the monthly reading series The 510 Readings in Baltimore.

Conjuring Immortality: An interview with Jen Michalski, author of The Tide King


Braddock Avenue Books: Both the backdrop for the magical aspects of The Tide King as well as the properties of the herb burnette saxifrage, is Reszel, Poland. Is your use of this herb and the story you have woven around it based in Polish myth or legend?

Jen Michalski: A little of both. There is an actual herb, burnette saxifrage, and an actual witch, Barbara Zdunk, who was the last person executed for being a witch in Poland. My idea to enchant the burnette saxifrage was based an old story about three scythe-wielding sisters who went from town to town, bringing death. One sister fell behind, and the other sisters didn’t wait for her, and she got mad. So while they were busy in the town, she went a town ahead and gave the villagers burnette saxifrage to eat. She told them it would save them from her sisters. I think the real purpose of eating burnette saxifrage was protection against dysentery, but I loved the literal interpretation with the sisters, and thought, what if an herb could bestow immortality if eaten? I did some research and isolated some areas in Poland where burnette saxifrage could have possibly grown, given the topography of the land, and came up with Reszel, which is in the northeastern area of Poland, near the Baltic—there actually is an old Bishop’s castle here, which served as a prison during the partition era (and is now a really cool hotel), and it did burn in a fire, along with the town, supposedly at the hands of Barbara Zdunk. So that’s where the fact meets fiction in The Tide King, so to speak.

BAB: Throughout The Tide King, you don’t hesitate to engage with moments that might be very difficult to write about, such as Calvin Johnson’s multiple deaths, or his intense emotional reactions to those he loses throughout his life. There are even moments that could make a reader particularly squeamish. I’m thinking of a section very early on in the book when Calvin and Stanley use the body of a fellow soldier as a barricade on Omaha Beach.  

Michalski: I’m proud to say that, as a writer, I’m not afraid of many squeamish things, as anyone who’s read Close Encounters or Could You Be With Her Now can attest. However, in real life I’m incredibly squeamish! I always wanted to be a doctor but couldn’t get over my dislike of the smell of blood and disease and the knowledge that cutting and tearing into someone, during say, a surgical procedure, was causing them great pain. (Also, I was incredibly lazy in college.) But with The Tide King, although there is literal immortality for some of the characters, I wanted to emphasize it doesn’t occur in the absence of pain, physical or emotional. Plus, World War II was incredibly queasy, and I wanted to make the novel as historically accurate as I could.

BAB: The Tide King is grounded very distinctly in our own world, but also contains elements that gesture toward the fantastic. Would you consider the novel to be a work of magical realism, and did you set out to write a novel that could fit into this category?

Michalski: I set out to write a realistic, historical novel based on a premise that could be viewed as magical realist. In fact, sometimes I would have to cut scenes because my research was leading me in a different direction, away from the storyline. For instance, I really wanted to include a scene in Kansas, where Calvin and Kate, his girlfriend, would meet up and go to a drive-in movie. But in researching that specific town in Kansas that had a particular drive-in showing a particular Hitchcock film, I found that the town also suffered a devastating flood that weekend. Originally, I tried to work it into the story, but it eventually was cut and wound up being its own story “Everyone Goes to the Movies.” Other times, I simply couldn’t write about something because it was conflicting with actual historical timelines, etc.

I enjoy magical realism, but I wanted to answer my premise as if it were possible. I didn’t want to create any more rules within the context of what I was doing unless I had to. It bugs me, particularly because there seems to be so much of it these days, when magical realism goes off in all these different directions without a basic set of rules to ground the reader.

BAB: Your novel deals with some of the big questions: life and death, if it is preferable to be immortal or mortal. What made you interested in tackling such questions, and how have you incorporated them into The Tide King?

Michalski: I’m very interested in the theme of loneliness and how we forge connections with each other. I had begun to write a novel about an enchanted herb many years ago that I filed away after 50 pages and forgot about. Then, a few years ago I was reading an old National Geographic article about a father-son diving team who were interested in finding the sunken WWII battleship, the Bismark. There’s a code at the end of the article that reveals that the son had died in a car accident after they returned to the states, and I wanted to write about that. But when I started writing, I started writing about a solider (Stanley) in Germany. Around this time I opened up that old enchanted herb file by accident when I was looking for something else, and suddenly, the whole book was just kind of there in front of me: what if a soldier gave the enchanted herb to another soldier, hoping to save him? What kinds of butterfly-effect repercussions would occur if, every few centuries, a person did not die? How would these immortals connect with other people, with their environments? There’s such an emphasis on youth in our culture these days—dying has sort of been cast aside, when it’s a very necessary component of everything’s cycle. If it were to be removed, it renders everything in the cycle pointless. There’s no closure.

It’s a useless gift, as King Cnut, the actual tide king, finds out. There’s a story about how King Cnut, the King of England from 1016 to 1035, set up his throne on the shore and ordered the tide to halt before his feet. Of course, it didn’t, and to prove a point, he said, “Let all me know how empty and worthless is the power of kings.” Of course, he was comparing kings to God, but I took it and ran with it. Immortality is a useless gift. You are a ghost on earth, caught between worlds.

BAB: You make reference to several noteworthy works in The Tide King, such as Beowulf, The Great Gatsby, Tom Swift and His Planet Stone, to name just a few. Did such works, or others, influence your writing of the novel?

Michalski: I never know how to answer that question—aside from the National Geographic article I was reading about the Bismark, I didn’t really have any other books in mind when I was writing The Tide King, although I did a lot of reading to research the novel, particularly on Poland during the partition era and World War II, the country music scene, and the Mann-Gulch fire of 1949 (which appears in the book as well). In fact, like most writers, I tried to stay away from making any comparisons to other works when I was working on it.

That’s not to say that other works don’t influence my writing—the novel I just finished, Rabbits Singing, I call my love letter to Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend. And I was very aware of Virginia Woolf and Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon when I wrote the couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now, that Dzanc published earlier this year. The Tide King was completely new territory for me—it was not the kind of book I thought I’d write.