In the Breakroom with Michelle Wildgen

Michelle Wildgen is the author of three novels, including “You’re Not You,” recently made into a film starring Hilary Swank and Emmy Rossum. She grew up in the midwest, attended UW-Madison and got an MFA at Sarah Lawrence. She is also the executive editor at Tin House magazine and, along with Susanna Daniel, runs the Madison Writers’ Studio. She is working on a fourth novel. WorkingLivesHeader

Describe your first job and what you remember most about it.

I waited tables and worked in the carry-out section of an Italian chain restaurant  in Stow, Ohio. It was a pretty terrible restaurant–there was a wine spigot; the pizza crusts were frozen pre-made rounds we basically ran through a giant toaster oven–which is why it was an extremely fun place to work. It was stocked with teenagers and college students planning their next party or getting started on one on the clock. There was no pretense toward good food or, say, standards. Well, not among the staff, there wasn’t. 

The clientele also boasted a number of genuinely weird regulars. There was an ancient couple who walked past the “Wait to be Seated” sign every time and seated themselves, never removing their huge wrap-around sunglasses. There was a multitudinous crew of extended families who would come in after church on Sundays, take over a whole section, and get really comfortable. One guy would stand up at the table with one foot braced jauntily on the chair seat, as if he were stretching his quads in his living room. We called that crew the Buck-a-Family, because each table tipped only about a dollar. 
I worked at that restaurant for most of high school, and I think I could still do all my side work from memory: making salad, hauling up jars of parmesan peppercorn dressing from the basement, buttering garlic bread, vacuuming carpets. I would know that red-polo-shirt-and-black-pants ensemble anywhere. And as with all of my early restaurant jobs, I found the cross-section of employees fascinating: the managers might be on their way up to something better or just doing their best with what they could get; the college students and high school students and the lifers and the oddballs would end up in very different places in a few years, but for now we were all there, and for the most part everyone got along. Of course, those wine spigots were unsupervised, so that helped.

Tell us about a moment that changed the direction you took in your working life.

I’m not entirely sure I ever really changed direction, so I’d probably have to go back to when I was a teenager and went off to writing camp on a lark. This followed art camp, theater camp, science camp–I knew my way around a camp. But this was the first time I threw myself into writing. It was basically a college dorm version of Bread Loaf for teenagers, and a week of thinking about nothing but reading and writing knocked me flat. I felt completely excited about writing and books and just being in the world of it. The faculty were wise enough to let us know that no one’s likely to get rich doing this, so instead I came home a week later figuring I’d find a way to support this writing habit with other work, and that’s what I’ve done since.

What do you do on a regular day?

My regular day is a mix of stuff but all sitting at my dining room table. I screen and edit manuscripts for the literary magazine I work for part-time, I do the books or plan classes for the Madison Writers’ Studio or do the classwork for my current classes, I edit manuscripts on a freelance basis, and if life is going well, I actually write fiction somewhere in there.

What does the future of your work look like?

I hope it doesn’t look too different. I like my mix of jobs, and while I would rather skew the balance more in favor of writing novels, I would always keep a few different irons in the fire. I don’t think I could only write all day. Though I did once read an interview with Rikki Ducornet, who said she got up, did yoga or danced, made bread, and wrote for awhile. That sounds like a glorious existence to me, except for the yoga. But give me a treadmill and an independent income and I’m there with you, Rikki.

When you think of making a living and making a life, what comes to mind?

Two different things! Making a living for me right now is a footrace: I have bills, I have a husband with a start-up company, I have a three-year-old. We put our heads down and we work, dammit. That’s the deal right now, and it’s okay. Life is chugging along and everyone is happy. But when I think of “making a life” I think of my physical and emotional space and how I fill it or take pleasure in planning it. I think of the food I want to make, the daily project of feeding a family because I love to cook, or the ways I tried to make my living space feel like my own: a few small photos, paintings, or the pendant lamp I was desperate to have to make our home feel like something I’d given thought to. (You can see it in the photo of my workspace.) Making a life is about all the things I do when I am not working, the things I work in order to do: travel, or socializing, or any kind of play. I don’t say that because I don’t love my work; it is vital to my vision of a good life. I suppose the distinction is that my work is almost all intellectual, not tactile, and “making a life” feels more like the tactile, sensory experience on the other side of the coin.

This interview with Michelle Wildgen is part of a series. We hope you’ll keep reading, and learn more about our Working Lives Project: Making a Living and Making a Life in Wisconsin.

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