A Conversation with Michelle Herman; Part II

On Wednesday I posted part one of my conversation with Michelle Herman. What follows is the conclusion of that conversation. Below we discuss the line between literary and genre fiction (if there is one); how she approaches different forms (short story, novella, novel); what her writing focuses on; the value of an MFA; blogs; and more.

KH: Your writing doesn’t include much in the way of plot and seems to focus on the prose and inner though process of your characters. Do you see a bright line between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction?” Where do you see yourself?

I hate the terms, but I use them too because you kind of have to . . . I hate the term “popular fiction” because everybody wants to be a popular writer. I mean, what would make me happier than look around and see everyone reading Dog right now? I do think that – and I kind of hated it when Jonathan Frazen said no to Oprah and said “I see myself entirely in the high art tradition” – I think there is a difference between artful writing and in-artful writing. Words that are careful chosen and shaped – it is art in the same way that any other art is artful, crafted and thought about and meditated on, really made as opposed to just getting stuff down on a page at its lowest level. You can go back to Aristotle who said that reading at the lowest common denominator was to find out what happens next – he was talking about epic poetry – but still you read to find out what happens next. And as you can tell, I have stripped that almost completely from my work. What happens is really pretty much beside the point. It is just a hanger; it is just a frame for me to hang my characters on . . . So in that way I think there is a difference.

On the other hand I think there are a lot of writers who artful writers but who are popular, easily accessible, widely read – Nick Hornby for example – Nick Hornby is a writer I love. And I think in Nick’s case – I know in Nick’s case because I have talked to him about it – he is interested in beautiful artful writing, he works very hard at it, but the stuff that interests him, the stuff that compels him, also happens to be interesting to a lot of other people. I think it is true of Ann Tyler too. She is actually one of Nick’s greatest heroes – we’ve talked about that – as different as they are (She has the same characters, the same family, over and over again with different names, she’s pathologically shy personally, she’s very reticent, not hip, and Nick is just the opposite). That sort of artfulness – that just happened to plug in – I definitely would aspire to that. I think it’s possible that Dog – though it really is a quiet little book – but if enough people knew about it it might find a lot of readers – not the millions of readers that say John Grisham finds – but you know . . .

KH: There are an awful lot of dog lovers out there . . .

No only dog owners, but there are a lot of lonely people who have found some kind of redemption, in a single connection with a dog, a cat, a bird, with something. A lot of my books tend to be about what are you going to find that, what small thing are you going to find – it is usually a relationship of some kind – a connection that redeems one’s life and makes it meaningful. The connection doesn’t have to be huge and dramatic to be meaningful it can be gentle, a gentle connection. So I don’t know . . . the initial printing for Dog was rather small – like it is for all literary books – and about the size of all of my other books, roughly 4000 copies, but it actually went into its second printing so at least 4000 people have read it – that’s a lot of people! I wish I knew them all so I could shake their hand.

KH: Do you approach different forms differently (short stories, novels, novellas, etc.)? Do you know going in which is which?

The dirty little secret is that everything I write is a novella and it is just the way they market them that is different. I mean really Dog, Missing, and all three of the pieces in A New and Glorious Life are close to the same length. The Middle of Everything is composed of four novella length personal essays. It turns out that’s the length that feels absolutely right for me.

I often start out thinking I am writing a short story. In fact, it is interesting; I just wrote an actual short story for the first time since about 1985. I did it because someone asked me to, I was asked to contribute a short story to an anthology on a particular subject and at first I thought I would say no. But then I thought maybe I should see if I can still write a short story within very strict parameters and it was a very different experience – sort of trying to get at that single moment.

And it was a particularly interesting experience because I have been teaching the short story for so many years – at Ohio State my students write almost exclusively short stories. And that may be one of the reasons why I stopped doing it; I had sort of finished my thinking about it. But as you probably can tell from this interview, I am very expansive. That is why I could never be a poet.

The novel Missing was written as a novella but my agent said no we are going to market it as a novel. Dog is a novella but they said no lets call it a short novel. And Dog is very short but it is small, has big print and has lots of blank space. Which is wonderful because it makes it very user friendly as opposed to The Middle of Everything that has the same number of pages but the manuscript is almost three times as long. The pages are very full and the printing is very small and the pages are packed tight, which makes it hard on middle-aged women’s eyes like mine.

I have a novel length manuscript that Mac/Adams Cage is looking at that I always thought of as a novel but I realize now looking back it too is a novella. My next big project is finally going to be a novel proper – a big sprawling novel that takes place over twenty years that has lots of point of view characters – it is my War and Peace, which I have been trying to write now since 1986. Every time I start working on it I would say “no” its over, but I am going to do it, it is going to happen one of these days. But really what I write are novellas. That’s my thing.

KH: Your writing seems to focus on the complicated nature of relationships. Has getting married and having a child changed your perspective on relationships and other central themes of your work? Does this impact your writing?

I think everything that happens to you changes your writing because it changes you a little bit. I don’t know if I am changing actually . . . when I go back and look at Missing, which I wrote before I met my husband, I am surprised by how much I predicted about how it would like to be married – for me. I wrote the first draft of Devotion, which is the short novel/novella that MacAdam/Cage is actually now reading too, that might be my second book with them, the summer of 1990 before I met my husband. I then spent years – it takes a long time for me to write anything – revising and lengthening and I ultimately, I would say around ’94 or ’93, had a draft I felt like I could sit on for awhile. And there was a baby in the book. And later when I went back and looked at it, after I had a baby myself, I realized that I had gotten that experience totally wrong. It went on for pages and pages when the baby was just happily sleeping in the place where they were having their meal – a newborn baby! Yeah right, like the baby would just be quiet for hours – not need anything. And the mother is not going to be thinking about the baby. So I went back and actually revised that.

So in terms of factual stuff there is a lot more that I am capable of accessing now. But in terms of the personal, I think it has probably complicated and enriched everything that was already true. I think I can write more effectively about being alone than I ever could have done when I was still alone. Partly because I can write about it very tenderly sometimes I am nostalgic, really – and Jill is not bitter about being alone. She gets her meals and she makes her meals . . . I had moments where I was clomping around the kitchen thinking g-d dammit am I going to eat every dinner alone for the rest of my life?! Whereas now I think longingly about it. I ate dinner by myself the other night because the kids were off on a field trip over-night and it felt like I was eating at a four star restaurant – I was just happy to be alone. It is funny; the thought of being alone has a sort of romantic haze over it. It’s interesting.

KH: Neither A New and Glorious Life nor Dog seems to give a flattering portrayal of academic life. Is there a clash between art and academics? Is it a sacrifice?

It’s not a sacrifice. I think the academy is not a pleasant place. What I love about it – well there are many things I love about it . . . and I think you can tell from reading Dog. If I had to ask you from reading Dog what do you propose is the part of being in the academy I love most? What is presented tenderly, affectionately, and admiringly?

KH: The students.

Yeah, I mean I love my students with the same intensity as I love my family. I love teaching. It is shocking to me that I have found a way to earn a living because I came to it late – I spent years earning a living doing crappy work – doing something that gives me as much pleasure as writing does. I am amazed actually. So there is that, that I have this thing to do for a living that I love, and very few people have that luxury. Even if I didn’t have to – I would teach less if I didn’t have to – but I would continue to teach because it is just a thrill to me.

Jill’s disappointment that when she gets this job no one wants to talk about books and ideas, I had that experience. I was very disappointed, which isn’t to say that I don’t talk to people, every once in a while I will have a conversation with a colleague that is the kind of conversation I imagined I would have had. I have enough people throughout the university system, and not just in my discipline, that are as passionate about ideas, or art, or literature, or science that I am. But for the most part it is a dopey world – it is a super specialized world where people have blinders on, and most of them only know about the one thing they do and even within that they only know about one tiny slice . . . And that is just a reflection of the way the world is – people are specialized.

One of my campaigns has been to convince students not to specialize. You are obliged to declare a major, you have to, but once you choose have two majors, and have a minor. Thank God for the GEC (General Education Courses), because without those requirements I know many of them wouldn’t. My graduate students too, I urge them to take different classes. You know you are in this amazing world where people know things about everything, take advantage of it.

When Lore Segal, who is my mentor, read the book she said, “Michelle, do you really feel so hateful of your colleagues as this book suggests?” Of course, Jill’s situation is different than mine in that she is the only writing teacher at the unnamed institution where she teaches. I am not that isolated at all, I have seven writer colleagues and I like them all and I am very close to some of them. And that makes for a very different environment – and I am very lucky that way. I am not sure how well I would handle a situation like Jill’s where I was the only writer, like Case Western where there is one writer. So that helps. And the truth is I have a couple of scholarly colleagues that I truly love. It’s an exaggeration I would say.

KH: What is the value of an MFA in your mind? Who is the ideal candidate or can benefit the most from a program like the one you teach in?

I think these days getting an MFA is the equivalent of – a combination of – two things that used to exist. One, it’s like going off to Paris to be a writer; being a writer in a place where it has some value as opposed to being in the regular world where people think you are nuts if you don’t have a regular job. And the other thing is what editors used to be but don’t do anymore; which is go over the book and say to the writer this could be strengthened, or did you every think about this . . .

KH: Sort of polish?

More than polish – there are people who can help you polish – but people who can really help you re-imagine what you are doing and help you become a better writer. There are a handful of such people still, but I am taking maybe 1% of the editors out there now. Because editors don’t have time to it anymore, they are in the business of acquiring books and marketing books. So what you get in an MFA program is you get the community of other artists. There is actually a third benefit, which is being employable. I am not in favor of people going somewhere where they will have to pay for their own education, that’s crazy. Because you are never going to be able to pay it back. I do think it is worth while if you are independently wealthy and it is something you want to pursue and you can afford to pay for it. But most people are not in that position.

So you go to an MFA, you are in the community of artists; you’re in this world where everyone thinks this is a good thing to do. You are getting supported like we do at Ohio State. And, if you chose your program right, you have these faculty members who are essentially editors who are going to sit down and work with you that way. So I think it is invaluable if you go to the right program – you go to a program that really suites your needs.

In terms of its value in the world the degree is completely meaningless. I mean what does it cost to ride the bus? That and $1.50 will get you a ride up and down High Street. The caveat would be if you are interested in teaching. If you want to get a job teaching you cannot get a job without an MFA. The MFA won’t get you a job – you have to write and publish books – but you can’t get the job without an MFA. So in terms of value, if you think you might ever want to teach you might as well have the MFA. But I think mostly it is a self-improvement thing. There is this whole thing about can you be taught to write? Of course not, but you can be taught lots of things about writing.

I was able to teach myself. When I got my MFA – in those days, I don’t know what it is like now I am sure it has changed (I was at Iowa before Frank Conroy) that wasn’t really a part of it; I got nothing, no one even read my thesis. But what I got out of it was being in a community of writers, many of whom I have stayed in touch with my whole career, and it was a really wonderful experience. When I look back on it they were two of the happiest years of my life.

Our program really does aim to teach and it is a very small program. So nobody comes here to Ohio State without learning something they didn’t already know about their writing. Of course everybody that comes are really very good to begin with so it’s not that they “needed” us but I figure we save them ten years of stumbling around in the dark.

KH: Do you read literary blogs? If so, what do you thing they bring to the literary community?

I stumbled across the blog that was discussing my memoir . . . But no I don’t actually. My husband showed me how to build my website ( showed me how to do real simple web editing) so that was fun. But I really don’t understand how blogs work. I use the Internet for research – I use it in that way everyday – but recently I have been Googling myself (for the first time in my life actually) to see if there have been any reviews that I missed. And I actually found one. I found a Boston Globe review that I didn’t know about and the publisher didn’t know about yet (sometimes it is a race to see who kind find them first).

(There are those who say they don’t read their reviews and maybe they don’t – maybe if I ever got so successful . . . I guess it is possible they don’t. I guess if you were John Grisham and you were selling millions of copies, who cares if someone didn’t like the book? But I am really eager to know – not that I necessarily think that what the reviewer has to say really means anything – but I want to know if people are going to hear about this book in Boston, maybe they are going to buy it. I want to feel in control.)

So I stumbled across this website where there was this blog of mothers and they were talking about my book. And they were wondering if this is a memoir then just exactly how bad a mother was Michelle Herman? And that ticked me off, I mean really ticked me off and I thought I should do something about it. Then after about an hour I realized: A) there is nothing I can do about it, and B) it can’t be all bad, you know, some of the women on that website probably haven’t read the book and maybe now they will go out and read the book.

I knew that was going to happen, I mean I didn’t know THAT was going to happen, but I didn’t forget the particular nature of the controversy about that book – I mis-predicted it. And really the memoir has gotten very little publicity; far fewer reviews than Dog even though it came out about a month ahead. And what I imagined what people would complain about was not so far what they have actually complained about. The New York Times hasn’t reviewed it yet; no parenting magazine has reviewed it yet . . . sometimes it takes a long time. My guess is that if they do review it they will take me to task for certain things that are in it, but not what these women at Hip Mommas were talking about – and I have actually gotten some email from readers along the same lines.

KH: Some blogs are just like diaries really . . .

But diaries are something that by its nature is private. That’s something I don’t get about them. Maybe it’s the same kind of intermediary thing that email is . . . it’s not quite a letter but it’s not quite a phone call. So maybe a blog is not quite a diary but it’s not really a piece of formal writing . . .

KH: People use it differently. There are a lot of journals out there that really are semi-private; 15-20 people read them.

Like your own Christmas letter but everyday.

KH: Right, but something has developed from that that is more like an e-zine or online magazine.

But they aren’t mediated right? They aren’t being refereed like a journal or a magazine.

KH: The way it kind of works online is the readers are the mediator – if nobody reads it then you think I guess it’s not that interesting. But if more and more people validate it, if more people read it, comment on it, and pass it on . . .

I am all in favor of writing stuff down in any form at all. I am not a big gatekeeper (there are a lot of artist who say only the experts should do it), but it is a little overwhelming if you are my age and you are not used to the idea that there is all this stuff out there. I don’t know how people figure out what to read and what not to read. I use it for research and I do stumble on things and I wonder why would I trust this person or take them seriously.

KH: Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Because there is a personal nature to it people develop relationships and they can trust the person. Someone recommends a book and you read it and you say that was really good. You think this person knows my taste or I trust their taste. It is very idiosyncratic . . .

It is quite interesting it really is. No question it is a major way of disseminating information – like the Book Babes. It is amazing how much they have done for Dog. They wrote about it on their blog, and Margo Hammond ended up listing Dog as one of the best books of the year in an Australian newspaper column she writes. I only knew them as the Book Babes. And then she wrote about it in good housekeeping! And she is a woman I have never met, yet I love Margo Hammond.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).