Michelle Reale is an academic librarian in the suburbs of Philadelphia whose work has been published in Word Riot, Pequin, jmww, Dogzplot, Smokelong Quarterly, elimae, and many others. Now that her first chapbook, Natural Habitats, is out from Burning River Press, jmww editor Jen Michalski caught up with Michelle to discuss the writer’s interiors, family, online writing communities, and more.
Jen Michalski: I love the title, Natural Habitats, particularly the alienation the narrator feels in what should be comfortable, intimate settings. Someone told me once that they didn’t mind crying so much because it had become a known quantity to them, that there were no surprises in that sadness. Sometimes I felt like that reading this chapbook. I guess this isn’t really a question, merely an observation.
Michelle Reale: I like your observation about feeling comfortable with the alienation aspect of the book. I have always felt an outsider status, whether real or imagined. In the essay that precedes the stories, I write about the home that I was raised in and the “cleft” it caused in my brain when we moved, which was on the day of my 16th birthday. It was the only place I have ever felt at home. That sounds strange, I know, and I (a write!) can’t explain that in any logical way, so it just comes out in my fiction.
JM: It’s weird, because the stories feel so familiar, like old shoes. We are those girls who Uncle Jimmy may or may not be…or we’re their friends. And we’re those mother’s daughters. And it’s hard to read and not try to think about how much is always the true story and just concentrate on the pulses, the sharpness, of the words. But I remember reading in a interview somewhere that you love to “make a mountain” out of a mole hill. Still, the stories are very unnerving, so I guess you’ve done your job as a writer!
MR: Yes, I do make a mountain out of molehill, but I think that most fiction writer’s do, don’t they? There is always some kernel of truth in my stories. Sometimes that is my starting point–sometimes it comes in later on in the story. I have to strongly assert, though, writing “truth” is not what I am after at all. I am not interested in fictionalizing my own experiences in any identifiable way. I know that creative non-fiction is all the rage right now, but it just isn’t for me. I don’t want to undermine my own imagination when I am writing fiction.
Since most if not all writer’s write on two levels, the conscious and the subconscious, I would say that themes of alienation rise organically, if you will, in my fiction . They rise out of my own preoccupations . Where other people see happy places and happy people, I will always see the underside of things: vulnerability , damage and aloneness. That seems to surprise people about me , because while I am quite shy, I am rather open and friendly. I try to reach out. Then people read what I write and can’t seem to reconcile my personality with my words on the page. Sometimes that bothers me.
JM: Okay, how about an actual question: Do you feel like the stories chosen sort of chose themselves, along with the theme, or did you have an idea in mind and then go through your body of work?
MR: One of my favorite pieces in the chapbook is “Natural Habitat.” That story wrote itself. Everyone is displaced. Even the rabbit, allowed the run of the house and pooping all over the place is displaced. The father who comes home and wordlessly goes to his boys, passing by his wife who taunts him. The young girl whose parents are moving away, goes to this woman for comfort and finds none. Those who are actively suffering themselves, often cannot offer solace to those in need. Maybe this is the story who really distills who I am. I felt comfortable in this story—it was so crystal clear in my mind and came to me lucidly, like the kind of dream you have that seems so real.
JM: Do you have a favorite piece? Is there a piece that distills the essence of who you are and where you are as a writer? Are there pieces that feel more remote now, that you’ve grown away from, either stylistically or emotionally?
MR: Sadly, yes, I felt so far away from some of the pieces—they actually shocked me when I read them again! When I submitted the manuscript I felt that the stories were good (though, of course, not perfect). My writing has become stronger in a year, and will, if things progress naturally, become stronger the more time passes! I feel like I will always be an apprentice and I write with the sensibility of an apprentice. There will always , always, always be room for improvement.
JM: Family, obviously, is a big part of Natural Habitats, yet few writers ever discuss their families. What is your relationship as a writer to your family? Do they follow your work? Is there an ever an awkwardness or tension between Michelle as writer/analyst and Michelle, daughter or sister or aunt? Or do you keep the worlds separate?
MR: Ah! My family and my writing. That is an interesting question. Well, I can honestly say that my family is proud of my writing. I am also a literary journalist and a professional book critic and have been for many years. That side of my writing is fully developed so my family took that side of my writing in stride. Their relationship to my fiction is interesting. My father, for instance, read the story bonding and said “I NEVER used four-letter words!” He is still not convinced that story is not about him or our family. My mother tends to laugh at stories I find painful! (She is a bon-vivant and a real optimist—the opposite of me!) My husband is very supportive but admits to not really “getting” my stories. My children are amazingly supportive of my work and follow it closer than anyone. My co-workers , who I love, never, ever mention my fiction, which is perplexing to me. With that said, I never want to foist my writing on anyone who may not be interested and I am pretty squeamish about guerrilla self-promotional techniques!
I think there is a bit of an awkwardness with Michelle the writer/mom/wife/aunt, or whatever. It is often difficult to reconcile all the different sides of ourselves to everyone , but I am better at it now, than I have ever been. I assert my “writerly” side more now, not because I want to play a part, but because I want writing as both an activity , but also my passion to become fully integrated and seemless with the rest of my life.
JM: You’re a very active and popular member of the online writing community! What are the pluses and minuses?
MR: I am so incredibly grateful for the online writing community and try to be as active as I possibly can in it. It is chock-full of some of the most amazing people—good human beings who are also wonderful writers. Facebook, Zoetrope and Fictionaut are godsends to me and has helped me , probably , in just about every area of my writing. With that said, there are downsides, too, I suppose. I can allow myself to get distracted if I stay too “plugged” in. I need to shut the noise off once in a while. I really don’t work from prompts and I am becoming less of a workshopper, except for the little writing group I belong to on Fictionaut which I love. I am trying to learn to trust my own voice just a little bit more than I used to. I realized that was a real important step for me as a writer: to trust myself and the work. As well, I am a bit troubled by a lot of the self-promotion going on. I would much rather see us all trumpeting one another’s work. At the same time, we all want people to know we’ve got something up! Still, the good outweighs the bad any day of the week, and I am grateful for all of it.
JM: What are you working on now?
MR: I am currently working on short, short stories, and a thematic collection told in prose poems, something that I am getting into more and more.
JM: What was it like working with Burning River Press? It’s a handsome little chapbook.
MR: Can I wax rhapsodic about my experience with Burning River? Honestly, it could not have been better. Chris Bowen has to be the kindest editor with the keenest eye that I have ever met. I felt gently guided by him during the entire process. It was exciting , actually. The book itself, as an object, I think is beautiful. May I say that? I don’t want to sound at all egotistical, but it is a sweet little thing. That was ALL Chris. I provided the photo , a ramshackle housing estate in Wales, and he did the rest. He is singularly dedicated to the Ohio literary scene and Burning River Press. He believes that art should reach out to the larger community which is why he encouraged me to have a charity attached to my chapbook. He’s remarkable. I am trying to think of ways I can continue to work with him!
JM: I noticed you read recently for the New Zinzer Reading series. Wow, the circa Pittsburgh scene is something, huh? Sherrie Flick, Karen Lillis, Savannah Schroll Guz, Jason Jordan, Scott McClanahan. Kind of reminds me of Baltimore. With you living in Jenkintown, 25 minutes from Philly, how involved are you in the local scene?
MR: I had such a great time in Pittsburgh! I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Savanna Schroll Guz and Karen Lillis–remarkably talented women doing amazing things both with their own work and with making and keeping Pittsburgh a vibrant literary scene. I would have loved to have met Jason Jordan, Sherrie Flick and Scott McClanahan. I look forward to going back. I had a great time reading at the New Yinzer . Such welcoming people and a great crowd! A college student named M. Callan blew me away with her poetry. I have to admit that I am not really involved in my local literary scene, although, that is a goal of mine at some point. Right now I am “laying track” , just writing and learning as much as I can. I am not a “joiner” so getting “involved” in the way most people think of it (physically showing up!) is not going to be the way I do things. I would , however, love to visit different areas—like yours down in Baltimore. Great things going on there, too!
JM: Any advice for writers just getting their feet wet? Where do you see the publishing world in five years?
MR: My advice would be to turn a deaf ear to all of the cynicism about writing from those who are jaded and who watch the “market” like hawks for what might or not be “marketable”. Write what you need to write, not what others say the market demands. What do they know? Be competitive only with yourself. Love the work—because at the end of the day , that’s all that matters. Just write. I mean it. Just start wherever you find yourself and go for it.
I am not a great prognosticator, but as a librarian I am aware of the power of the written world and the accommodation in our society to be open not only to story and the many and varied ways of telling it , but also to the modes of making it available , whether it is in electronic or paper format. I will say, though, I think small presses are releasing some of the best writing out there that’ve I’ve seen in a long time. Just think, a (very) small press title just won a Pulitzer Prize. Five years ago I would have never thought that possible! In another five , it can only get better!