But Not For Long

Michelle Wildgen, novelist and senior editor at Tin House Magazine, wrote Madison Magazine’s February 2009 cover story on the city’ss most interesting restaurant menus and the chefs who create them (). Perhaps more impressive is People magazine thumbed up both of her works of fiction, including her most recent But Not For Long (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, $24.99).

If you’ve spent any time in the liberal enclave that is the east side, Wildgen’s carefully carved characters in But Not For Long will resonate immediately. Yet while the places and personalities are ubiquitous on the surface, the talented Wildgen digs deeper, and the result is anything but cliched or monotonous. On the contrary, the lives and times of the three main characters and a city in crisis will surprise and at times startle you. I found the experience fun and fascinating, and from a creative writing perspective, brilliantly developed and delivered. As an editor whose job it is to introduce and re-introduce readers to the Madison narrative each month, I can honestly say Wildgen’s fictitious depiction has made our city and its real-life idiosyncrasies exciting and new again for me.

So read on, and then buy her book (heck, buy both), especially if you’re looking for the perfect gift for a favorite Madisonian.

How hard was it to write a work of fiction based in your real-life hometown? Some writers tell me the personal frame of reference really helps. Others find it too distracting to turn truth into fiction.

Madison was the first real-life city I ever tried to depict in fiction. Before that, all my stories took place in some unidentified locale, and so it was an experiment for me to try and use locale instead of avoiding it. I didn’t find it too difficult, however, partially because there is a certain freedom in describing a city like Madison—it’s not New York City, which everyone in the world has taken a crack at depicting. So I felt as if I had some breathing room to try this and just see how it went. Sometimes, just to remind myself I can and should make things up, I would insert a street that doesn’t exist, a restaurant or whatever that doesn’t exist. I wanted to remind myself it wasn’t my job to take dictation, but to invent.

It was a particular pleasure to write about Madison when I was living somewhere else. But when I moved back, midway through writing But Not For Long, I felt much more bound to the city as it is and not the one I’d imagined. Yet in some ways that was helpful—I went and looked at the actual neighborhood where it’s set and saw that dock pulled up from the park on Morrison Street and sitting in the snow, and that became an integral part of the novel’s opening and a thread throughout the book.

I was haunted by your “open-ended conclusion,” as Publishers Weekly calls it, for days. And surprised, too. Honestly, I thought you’d wrap things up through the eyes of a different character. I’m curious about how the writing process led you there (I’m generalizing so as not to spoil the ending!).

I always resist the wrapped-up ending—it can be immensely satisfying, it’s true (after all, “Reader, I married him” is a pretty neat wrap-up and I love that one), but it can also feel reductive and didactic. As a reader I tend to love the feeling that I know the direction a character is headed and how they’ve changed, that I can sense how some of the threads will tie up, but I don’t need to see them all set aright. And, too, the various problems Karin, Hal, Greta and Will have don’t lend themselves to neat solutions either. Every one of these people is going to have to make a change, and I think you do feel them settling into that new life, but I didn’t want to make things too smooth. It’s tricky to pull off, though, because you do want a satisfying feeling of movement, just without hitting everyone over the head.

I love how People magazine categorizes the book as a “look at the green movement,” when here in Madison the environmental elements you weave into the story feel like a mere sliver of our cultural DNA.

Right—there are other aspects of the city and region in here too that they don’t have space to discuss: Hal is a small town Wisconsin boy, a former hunter, for instance, and I really wanted to have that sort of thing in here, some gesture toward Madison’s other aspects. It’s one of the things I love about Madison, its little pockets. But Not For Long definitely takes place inside a pocket, the kind where there is   an abundance of reusable hemp coffee filters and recycling bins. But as far as the look at the green movement goes, I think sometimes that has as much to do with the reviewer having about 200 words to work with as anything else.

Sorry to dwell on People, but I had to laugh at their compliment to you for making morel hunting and cheese making “improbably interesting.” Again, sliver of Wisconsin life, but if the world’s most popular magazine finds all this stuff so foreign, perhaps we are more evolved creatures when it comes to food and sustainability issues. What’s your take?

Is there something more interesting than mushrooms and cheese making, I ask you? Madison definitely does have a wonderful and privileged meeting of agriculture and city life that is rare and was one of the things that drew me to the city in the first place. My hope is that my own fascination with and love of these items (though I admit I have never been morel hunting. I am pretty sure that I would be that person who gets the death cap) comes through to make it involving even to people who don’t share my obsessions.

Reviews often mention your strong narrative voice. I agree. Your characters, not just the three main, but also the alcoholic husband Will, the elderly shut-in Mrs. Bryant, all of them are so well developed. How hard do you work on that part of the writing process?

Thank you. The difficulty varies … Mrs. Bryant was just right there as soon as I tried to write about her. I love that awful old woman. Will was right there too, probably partially because I’d been writing about and around him for three-hundred pages before slipping into his head. But others, particularly Hal and Karin, I had to sit and write about for a while to feel I knew them, put them in a few situations and see what felt right, and that work can go very slowly. But I couldn’t move the story or the people forward without knowing them well—in such an interior book it all comes from character, so without them you’ve got nothing.

For all those wannabe novelists out there, what’s your general writing process like? (Me, I have no fingernails.)

Small pieces. I rarely sit down and barrel through huge drafts in two weeks or something, though I did do that with the very first 100-page draft of You’re Not You, just to see if I could get from A to Z the first time I tried to write a book. I’m more likely to do a little scene, get the thread for the next scene, and return to it the next day. I don’t usually have music on, and I don’t go to coffee shops because they feel too relaxing to me, and I am endlessly torn between having my wireless handy for quick research questions and not wanting Internet at all so I won’t distract myself. I don’t suppose you know of any Internet-free studio space in Madison? Because I would get a lot more done.

What did you love most about this book?

I love so many little parts of it, in that parental way: I love Karin’s visit to the farm, and I had great fun writing the party scene, but most of all I have a strong connection to anything about Greta and Will and their entire miserable conundrum. I feel for them both, as frustrating and frustrated as they are.

Was the second novel easier/harder/no comparison to the first?

It was harder! You’re Not You had a natural arc imposed by the structure of an illness and the structure of a coming of age. So even when I was deliberately subverting or deviating from those known quantities I had a path to stay on or walk off of. But I didn’t want to have the same feeling this time—I wanted to write a book I had never read, and I wanted to reach more broadly and give myself more room than a first person novel had. Also, I began with just a little scene and no idea where it was headed in terms of plot. So I was often writing without knowing what the next sentence was—literally. It was slow and scary in that way, because for the longest time I wasn’t sure this was a book. I was afraid it was just some people, sitting around the co-op living room.

What’s next?

Good question. I’ve been at the very early stages of thinking about and jotting down a new thing, but I like to wander around and think for awhile before I really start writing, and I’ve been slow to get going on a new project.  For a long time I was feeling really cut off from creative life, but it’s gearing back up again. I have something in mind now; another novel, and I can tell you I do want to have a little fun with it. Of course, I’m the kind of sicko who found writing a book like But Not For Long kind of fun too, but I think I’m due for a lighter, funnier book.