A local author builds a reading and writing community with the help of Bird in Hand, Baltimore’s newest book café by Tyler Mendelsohn

In The Summer She Was Under Water by Jen Michalski, the reader comes to understand protagonist Sam Pinski through the novel the character is writing about a pregnant man. This internal story forms a core sub-plot for a character dealing with a history of abuse, incest, and mental illness, putting up a front of wellbeing during the first Pinski family Fourth of July weekend together in two decades.

In prose that is evocative and clear, we identify with Sam, cynical and edgy around her family members and awkward around her brother, whom she hasn’t seen in many years. Their complicated sexual relationship is revealed in flashbacks from the past where Sam gave enthusiastic consent, but did so out of a confusing position of vulnerability.

The novel Sam is writing is about a pregnant man, based on her brother, whose pregnancy is a way for him to reconcile with their past. The man becomes pregnant because he is sorry for past wrongs. Sam writes the novel to work through her own feelings, but there is also a lot of empathy in it for the version of her brother who has worked on himself. She needs to write a different story, where Steve feels remorse and she can forgive him. You can see a lot more of the depths of her healing process through this indirect way than watching her move through life closed off by her trauma.

Michalski handles complexity and nuanced motivations with a grace that makes reading about the sexual relationship between a brother and sister possible, without throwing the book across the room. You understand that there is a bond between them distorted by their messed up family life, and that they both need each other in complicated ways. You feel anger toward Steve in the ways Sam feels angry. You care for Steve when Sam cares for Steve. You’re immersed in Sam’s head.

The Baltimore-based author has been mastering complex characters for many years. She graduated with a BA in Language and Literature from St. Mary’s College, and then got her MS in professional writing at Towson University. After she graduated from Towson—“eons ago,” as she says—she felt she had lost a writing community. She joined a few writing groups with people from graduate school, and they founded JMWW, a Baltimore online journal she still helps to run.

Years later, when she was looking for new people to interview for the journal, she went to a party and met a number of local writers. One was Gregg Wilheilm, then director of CityLit. They both had a lot of free time—she was newly single, his wife was in Africa a lot for work—and they ended up spending a lot of time together brainstorming ways to connect with other writers. This was 2006; Facebook hadn’t really taken off yet. They put out a classifieds ad in the City Paper for a writers’ happy hour, and on the first night, 50 people showed up. Craving a community herself, Michalski ended up helping to create one.

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At one of those happy hours, Michael Kimball asked Michalski if she wanted to start a literary fiction reading series, and that’s how the 510 readings started. The two hosted the series at Minas Boutique until it closed in 2014. “After the store closed, Ed Berlin approached me about anchoring Starts Here! for the Ivy,” says Michalski. “I appreciated his dedication to local and literary work, his outreach in the community, and, of course, how could I resist his charm?”

Like most authors, Michalski speaks quite differently on the page than in life. She surprises even herself by writing about controversial topics like incest; in real life she comes off as shy, quietly contemplating everything you say. Despite this appearance, Michalski is comfortable on stage and cohosted the 510 reading series for seven years at Minas in Hampden, and now hosts Starts Here!—a reading series that features writing that doesn’t play it safe. As an active and vocal member of Baltimore’s literary community, Michalski is not shy about her talents or the talents of others.

For the past two years, Starts Here!, sponsored by The Ivy Bookshop, has taken place at Artifact Coffee. Starting December 7, it will move to Bird in Hand book café, a new partnership between The Ivy Bookshop and Artifact.

One reason the reading series is moving to a bookshop in the hopes of creating the same feeling Michalski was craving when she graduated from Towson—being part of a literary community, where everyone is devoted to lifting each other’s voices, to books. In this new space, Starts Here! is also committed to seeking out new participants. As Michalski says, their commitment to emerging voices is in the title of the series.

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Some of the writers scheduled for the upcoming 2017 season are: Rion Amilcar Scott, an award-winning fiction and non-fiction writer; Angie Chuang, a non-fiction writer, whose debut book The Four Words for Home won The 2013 Willow Books Literature Awards Grand Prize in Prose; and Sara Lautman, a cartoonist whose works have appeared in The New Yorker. (Fun side-note: Lautman was recently invited to take over comedian Tig Notaro’s twitter for a day.)

Many of these writers have little in common with one another aside from the practice of writing. In Baltimore’s literary scene, it seems more and more people are creating environments where writers who have had different lived experiences can access each other’s words—where people can come together and learn from each other. Michalski has long been part of helping create community, and the new Starts Here! hopes to bring diverse writers into the same room. And in a bookshop with 2,037 (and counting) books to browse through, too.

“The great thing about Baltimore,” says Michalski, “is that if you see a need for something, there’s nothing to keep you from creating it. [When I was starting out] I didn’t have anything to lose—the worst people could say was no, not respond. And I’d be no worse off. But I wound up gaining so much. And so, I think, did the community.”

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Author Tyler Mendelsohn is a Baltimore writer and a member of The Ivy Bookshop’s team. Tyler has an MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts from The University of Baltimore.

Authors Among Us is sponsored by The Ivy Bookshop. The Ivy Bookshop offers a wide and wonderful range of books, including art books, books on creativity, and books that highlight art’s importance in our lives. You can also find more information on The Ivy’s blog here.

The Summer She Was Under Water by Jen Michalski was published by Queensferry Press.