The restaurant business is at the heart of Michelle Wildgen’s most recent literary endeavor, BREAD AND BUTTER. Today we’re chatting with her about the new book, getting an MFA, and submitting to the prestigious Tin House literary journal. Michelle has some terrific advice for writers who’re interested in having their work in the magazine.
NG: One of BREAD AND BUTTER’s main characters, Harry, compares designing a new dish to academic writing: “It was a lot like writing a thesis, actually, that same process of gathering information around a rough kernel of thought, a vague sense of flavor combination that might lurk in the back of the mind, and then the editing and revising and re-arranging.” How does your character’s process here mirror your own process as a fiction writer?
MW: Well, that sounds about right, actually. I’m not a writer who starts with an outline and a full plan. I start with a little thing, like an image or a moment, and I try to build it up layer by layer until it has enough complication to become a formative scene, and then I just take it from there, often writing with a lot of uncertainty, and figuring out how to rearrange and edit once I have something on the page to work with.
NG: In an essay for Tin House literary journal—where you’re also the executive editor—you write that editing others’ work has turned you into a writer who “who loves to cut.” How do you decide what to keep and what to cut?
MW: It’s mostly a gut feeling but it’s been honed over the years by discussing stories with other writers and editors. Sometimes you know a section has something in it that will be needed—even if it is just an idea you haven’t managed to convey effectively yet—and you hold on to it until you can figure it out and maybe just develop it elsewhere. Or until you lose your love of it, or you see that other sections are doing the same thing better, or you realize that something just lacks life and energy and you have to cut it to free yourself to create a more lively take on it. Especially early in my writing, in my teens and twenties, I often got sidetracked just listening to myself say pretty things, and I couldn’t always figure out how to make a nice line of prose be a part of the story. So as a defense against that failing of mine, I now go almost too quickly to saying, “Cut it! Hack it off!”