Michelle Wildgen is senior editor of Tin House Magazine, an editor with Tin House Books, the author of the novel You’re Not You, and the editor of the anthology Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast.
Jennifer Uhlich interviewed her for small spiral notebook, Spring 2006.
Their opening exchange:
Read the full interview.
JU: Let’s start with the writing of the novel. How long did it take? What sort of feedback did you seek out along the way? How was it expanding a short story? That, to me, seems like one of the hardest things to do — I always have a tendency to view stories that get good receptions as done deals, varnished and ready for display.
MW: I first wrote the story in graduate school, I think the very first semester. I kept returning to it and messing with it for a few months. This was around 2000, 2001. Then I let it sit till after I finished school. I knew it was time to try to write a novel, and I thought I might ease the way a bit if I worked with characters I already knew. I’d written nine or ten stories in school but this is the one in which I was aware that I was only catching the characters in a portion of their lives. Other stories, as you say, were over and done for me, but I thought there was more here.
The initial process of expanding it was really difficult, especially the first three months or so. I had spent years learning how to condense and cut cut cut. To try and relax and be expansive without chattering on about nothing was very hard, as was trying to find my footing in the opening pages, which changed countless times. It was a huge relief once the image and form of the story began to dissipate and I could see it more as the messy pieces of the beginning of a novel. I had a weeklong residency at Hall Farm in Vermont a few months after graduating and I trucked up there with my 60 pages, a plotline for the book, and a plan to come home in a week with a full draft of the novel. I didn’t realize that was totally crazy until I actually did it. A total skeleton draft, just terrible, but something to work with, which is everything.
Overall, from starting the novel to sending it out was about two years. But I’ve worked with and thought about these characters for close to 6 years now, come to think of it. Wow. I was afraid to turn away from the novel at any point because I had to know I could finish it. I was done with grad school, as I mentioned, which is not very well suited to novel writing anyway. But I knew some incredible writer/readers I had met there and at Bread Loaf and at Tin House, who helped me immensely. One read it twice, first the awful second draft and then again when I had made a big change in Kate’s plotline, a change that really solidified and pulled together the whole novel, actually. Thank God, because if he only had the image of that early draft in his head I’d still be embarrassed.
The Page 99 Test: You’re Not You.