Gwen Goodkin speaks with author Jen Michalski about love, family, acceptance, and Michalski’s new LGBTQ+ novel, You’ll Be Fine.
GWEN GOODKIN: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Jen, and congratulations on the book! While reading You’ll Be Fine, I was struck by the term ‘adultescents.’ I found it both apt and funny, but, as I read further, I came to understand that the term could be applied to every character in the novel. Was the concept of ‘adultescents’ a topic you set out to explore with this book, or did it emerge during the writing process?
JEN MICHALSKI: Thank you! It was definitely a broader topic in that I wanted to write a book that was dysfunctional but also funny. Everyone has a family, I think, that is semi-dysfunctional, and no one (despite what they think) is the adjusted “exception.” In a lot of You’ll Be Fine, Alex thinks that she’s escaped her family and is better adjusted or higher functioning, when in reality she might (with the exception of her recently deceased mother) be the least adjusted of all of them.
Although I’m not like Alex, the main protagonist, at all, the situations in her life and my life are similar. After my mom died seven years ago, I was spending a lot of time at her house, in which she had lived with my brother, going through her things and initiating the probate process, and tempers were flaring a bit between my brother and me over silly things. I remember thinking about how, no matter how much you mature and grow as an adult outside the home, whenever you’re with family, you always seem to revert (at least I do) to the person you were during your formative years, and a lot of conflicts that you thought were resolved bubble up again. Writing a lot of the book was therapeutic for me — finding a way to try and get out of the cycle of angry teenaged Jen by trying to shepherd someone else through it.
Of course, it’s really not all bad between my brother and me — we just perpetually relate as 14-year-olds! In addition to arguing over silly things sometimes, we share the same adultescent sense of humor and would rather watch Rick and Morty or bad eighties films together than do “adult” things. I don’t think we’ll ever grow up — we’ll probably be stupid together when we’re 90.
I like the thought of that — being silly together when you’re both older, staying connected through the child in each of you. In You’ll Be Fine, I was struck by Alex’s reflection on her mother’s absence: “Alex is really alone. Her mother had not been her best friend, but she knew Alex best, which is its own comfort, she guesses. Someone who always knows who you are and will tell you, whether you want to hear it or not. If that person was gone, who will be there to show you the ugly truths of yourself?” What impact do you think the absence of a parent (or parents) has on us as we age?
I can only speak for myself, but there’s a devastating loss of history, and with that in some ways, of self. All the things I never asked my mom about our family, or her, or even me as a young child, now will never be answered. There’s a great constriction of personal space and reach in the world when you feel as if your history has been destroyed. Which is why I think writing is so important to me. It’s simply a way of saying “I existed and here are some of my thoughts.” In that way, I guess it’s no different than the oral tradition of passing down stories. It’s especially important to me because I don’t have children to preserve or curate my life after I’m gone, only readers. My mom’s death also got me thinking about what self really is. Is it so fragile that it can be undermined by the loss of all this history, or does it simply exist moment to moment, and therefore can be whatever it wants or needs to be?
This is tangential, but related to the preservation of self and history through writing. Although I’m not a memoirist, there’s a lot of memoir in fiction. Your fiction encapsulates who you were at the time of writing — the themes that interested you, the prose style you preferred and other stylistic elements. But there’s also the undertext that only you as an author know. As in, sometimes I’ll read my old work and certain paragraphs will transport me back to when I was writing them or revising them, and others will remind me of a happy time or conflict in my life. And sometimes I put Easter eggs for myself in my writing, so I don’t ever forget the internal life of mine that was occurring during the writing of that particular book.
In You’ll Be Fine, toward the end of the book, Alex starts keeping a journal and writing all her memories of her and her mother, so she won’t forget, and also asking her questions she’d wanted to ask her. It’s an exercise I took from my own life, and it’s something I encourage everyone to do, to preserve their history in a meaningful way, because somewhere in those memories may lie answers to questions you’ll have later in life, when you’re old enough to need them or understand them.
So, taking that a bit further, how much of a writer’s examination of the self do you believe is an examination of her parents? Or, an examination of her relationship to her parents. I’m thinking of the uncomfortable truth Alex’s brother Owen delivers: “‘I always thought you were self-righteous and judgmental, but now I know you’re just freaking bat-shit crazy, just like Mom.’ … It’s what she’s always feared, that somehow she would turn into her mother and not even realize it. But after this week, maybe there’s no way she can even deny it.”
I think every writer’s relationship to their work is different, and even every book is different. In my last book, The Summer She Was Under Water, I explored a lot more of my own codependency at a time when I was trying to figure a way to break out of it. However, I envisioned You’ll Be Fine, at least originally, as an examination of siblings who were polar opposites — how can one sibling be an overachiever and the other an underachiever and how can they coexist? I was thinking a lot about loving people as they are in the moment and how hard that is for all of us, with siblings, with parents, with anybody. Ironically, my relationship with my own mother was golden the last few years of her life, so the relationship between Alex and her mother in You’ll Be Fine was pretty improvisational on my part! Alex’s mom is loosely based on someone I knew, someone who was artistic and blunt and acerbic and at times intimidating, and I always wondered if I could survive as her daughter without being a hot, completely broken mess. And I think, to answer your question, there are definitely people who were bullied by their parents as children and have absorbed those tactics and use them unknowingly on their own children and other people, as well. So I created Alex and tried to figure out how to give her a breakthrough, how to free her from her past. That’s the great thing about writing — it’s totally role-playing. It’s like being the catcher in the rye to a world of sometimes very poorly adjusted people who radiate tension like Chernobyl and you have to dismantle them to avoid meltdown. Other people, I guess, play Sims.
I would be remiss not to mention my favorite character, Johanna, who delivers one of my favorite lines of the book, “Love isn’t the old razzle-dazzle, honey. … It’s about what stays when the razzle-dazzle is gone. Or sometimes you don’t even get the razzle-dazzle, but you have a connection that can’t be explained. And being with that person makes you a better person, makes you want to be a better person.” Would you say, at its core, You’ll Be Fine is a book about love?
I do think it’s a book about love, but also of acceptance, of yourself and other people. It’s been hard for me to categorize, but I’ve settled on “family comedy.” There’s definitely a bit of a love triangle, and some trauma from sexual abuse, as well as some identity issues, but in 2021, I think every family has some variation of those in spades. But what I’m most proud of is that I really wanted to write a funny novel for once, so people don’t think I’m so morose, and a few people who’ve read the book laughed at one thing or another in it, so I feel like it’s an “achievement unlocked” moment for me.
What are you working on now?
We moved to Southern California two summers ago, after I’d spent all of my adult life in Baltimore, and I started a novel at the start of the pandemic called All These Things Will Be True, about a woman whose husband wakes up from a coma after she’s prepared herself to move on with her life (and with someone else). It’s the first story I’ve set in California since we’ve been here, so I guess I’ve officially let go of the old and embraced the new.