“Nothing is more interesting to me than a story about a person who I am trying to understand.”
Michelle Wildgen is an editor, creative writing coach, and the author of four novels including the hotly anticipated Wine People, out in August. She is also the editor of Food & Booze, a food and wine anthology series, and a former executive editor with the award-winning literary journal Tin House. Michelle’s intoxicating essays and reviews have been featured in The New York Times, O Magazine, Real Simple, and more.
While growing up in the suburbs of Northeastern Ohio, Michelle cultivated a community of longtime friends and a love for the written word. “It also shaped me by being the home of the creative writing summer camp that set my brain on fire in a really good way,” Michelle says. “It’s probably the reason I’m a writer now.”
Michelle studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before earning an MFA from Sarah Lawrence. She harbored dreams of fusing her writing talents with another passion: food. Michelle worked in casual restaurants through college, but when she landed a job at the James Beard Award-winning L’Etoile in Madison, her views on the industry were changed forever. The experience was “transformative.”
“It exposed me to just how intentional a restaurant could be at every step; how it could be theater, yet intimate,” says Michelle. “I can still name the dishes we served every season.”
That same intention flows in her writing. Michelle effortlessly weaves together the pleasures of the palate with the complexities of human relationships. Her characters use food and wine as a means to express emotions, settle conflicts, and connect with one another, just like we do in our own lives. In 2006, Michelle published her debut novel You’re Not You, which was adapted into a film starring Hilary Swank and Josh Duhamel. She followed up with But Not For Long and Bread and Butter, and her latest book, Wine People, dropped on August 1, 2023
When she’s not publishing novels or penning essays, Michelle is a freelance editor and creative writing teacher in Madison. Since 2013, she and fellow novelist Susanna Daniel have run the Madison Writers’ Studio, offering a variety of creative writing workshops and classes. In 2023, Michelle was named Writer in Residence at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, where she connects literary writers and scientists to illuminate scientific concepts in fiction (an interest sparked by researching the chemistry and microbiology of wine for Wine People!).
Michelle knows that food is more than just sustenance; it's a language, a way to communicate, bond, and show love and care. Here, the Hall of Femme honoree reminisces on her time in restaurants, shares tips for dealing with creative blocks, and tells us how she treats herself after writing a book.
Where did you grow up, and how did it shape who you are today?
I grew up in a suburban city in Northeastern Ohio. The way it shaped me was all about the people who mattered to me and who I’m still in touch with. Having those people who can still make fun of you for the bizarre fashion choices you made in middle school keeps you honest. It also shaped me by being the home of the creative writing summer camp that set my brain on fire in a really good way. It’s probably the reason I’m a writer now.
Finally, I think it’s crucial that I had a drive-in burger joint where I could go when I said I was at church. My husband and I have the tiniest little twenty-year battle over this question of whose childhood burger is superior, and I imagine it must wound him to lose this war so consistently.
When you were a young girl, what were the narratives you were exposed to about women and women's rights?
I think the most formative ones were books by Judy Blume and Norma Klein, books about teenage girls whose desires and goals were important to them and respected by the writers. That includes narratives about sexual coming of age in particular, because I also grew up absorbing the cultural narrative that said any sexual choice a girl made was somehow not her own—she’d been manipulated, she didn’t know how badly she’d regret it, she must think she had no other worth, etc.—so reading books in which girls made choices and took responsibility for them when they turned out well or not was a welcome counterweight.
Your new book, Wine People, explores the complexities of female friendship against a backdrop of food and wine. How did your own experience working in restaurants inform the writing process?
In every way! I worked in casual restaurants until the end of college, and you never forget the satisfaction of just getting through the rush and not really knowing how you did it. When I went to work for a more formal James Beard Award-winning restaurant in my twenties, it was transformative. Everyone cared about every aspect of service, everyone was serious about it, everyone loved food and wine and living in the world of it all the time. It exposed me to just how intentional a restaurant could be at every step, and how it could be theater, yet intimate. I can still name the dishes we served every season. That was when I understood that cooking or food was not just a nice little hobby I had, but it could be a real job.
What do you love most about storytelling?
For me, it’s the best way to teach, to learn, to examine, to entertain, and there are endless ways to do it and to think about it. It’s hard to find a human being who doesn’t respond to stories in one way or another. Nothing is more interesting to me than a story about a person who I am trying to understand.
How do you cope with writer’s block?
Sometimes I just accept that I might be in a quiet period. If I just finished a big project, it’s reasonable to take a break and read and take in something restorative before I try to generate. Other times, I just hit a wall in an ongoing project and need to shake things up a bit. I read something I don’t usually read, or do prompts to flex new muscles without caring if I throw them away or not. I take a walk, I go to a good movie. It helps to know that sooner or later you come out of it, usually about 30 seconds after you were convinced you never would.
Tell us about a woman who inspires you.
Alice Munro might be the apex: a writer who has taken the form of the short story and made it into whatever the hell she would like it to be at that time. And who will write about lives that seem quiet and even dull and reveal them to be roiling with intensity. I think she can do anything on the page.
What's a ritual in your life that you swear by?
Bad TV on the treadmill. Well, it’s not always bad—sometimes I watch excellent TV on the treadmill. But the way I got into the habit of working out regularly was by bribing myself that I could watch, say, two Law & Orders or Real Housewives as long as I did so while walking or running. Then I just started to like it.
What's your favorite way to celebrate a win (big or small)?
You’re going to think I’m pandering, but by opening a bottle of wine I’ve been looking forward to. Sometimes I throw in a great dessert too. And I have celebrated every book by buying some small piece of jewelry. Nothing super expensive, just something I love like an antique cocktail ring or a pair of earrings. I’m still looking around for my Wine People gift to myself, but I can feel a necklace coming on.
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