When local writer Jen Michalski sees a void that needs filling, she’s the sort of person who goes ahead and fills it. Despite her full-time job copy-editing peer-reviewed medical journals and her active fiction-writing career, Michalski heads a literary journal, co-hosts a monthly reading series, and is poised to launch yet another writing-related venture in Baltimore: a live-action late-night talk show with a literary bent.
Michalski explains her drive thus: “If you think I want to see something like this, you either wait for somebody else to do it or you do it yourself,” she says. “And I’m kind of impatient and bossy and like to do things my own way.”
Thus far, doing things her own way has paid off. After completing a master’s in professional writing at Towson University, Michalski found herself missing interaction with other writers. So, in 2004, she launched a quarterly literary journal called jmww. The first issue drew just three submissions, including one from Michalski herself. These days, jmww has about 15 editors and receives hundreds of submissions a month.
Then, in 2008, Michalski started the 510 Reading Series, hoping to help foster a sense of community among Baltimore’s literary types. The series—co-hosted by author Michael Kimball—takes place at Minás Gallery in Hampden every third Saturday of the month and has been a roaring success, with crowds often spilling into the stairwell.
Now Michalski has set herself a new challenge: coaxing those who might not normally attend readings into the literary fold. The idea arose when the Creative Alliance expressed interest in hosting the 510 Reading Series. Michalski declined, but the offer got her thinking. She was interested in helping to champion a literary scene on Baltimore’s east side, which is not as active in that arena as neighborhoods like Hampden and Hamilton. “When you think of Canton and Fells Point, you think of drinking and sports,” Michalski, who lives near Greektown, says. She also wanted to cast a wider net than does your average literary reading. “There are a lot of readings series in the city now, and they’re all great,” she says. “But there’s still a swath of people you see in other places that never come to the readings.”
The semiannual Lit Show, which launches at the Creative Alliance on March 22, is an attempt to change that. It will mimic the form of a classic late-night talk show, with Michalski and fellow fiction writer Betsy Boyd as co-hosts. Interviews with guests will alternate with readings, fast-paced repartee, music by a guest band as well as the house band (Howard Markman’s Palookaville), and “stupid human tricks”—in this first show, for instance, one guest will sing an Appalachian death ballad and accompany himself on wine glasses. The show will feature author Cathy Alter; Aaron Henkin of WYPR-FM’s The Signal; comedian, writer, and City Paper contributor Jim Meyer; musical guest Height With Friends; and a mystery guest.
Michalski says that while the growing number of reading series in Baltimore represents “an embarrassment of riches,” she hopes to win over new lit fans by taking the time to show writers as human beings, not simply producers of stories. “I see things in terms of, ‘Would my family come?’” she says.
Boyd, who has a background in sketch comedy and honed her interview skills as a longtime stringer for Variety, adds that personal biographies are what build stories. “The person is also a work of art,” she says, “and it’s fun to know if somebody loves to mow their own grass or how they make a casserole that their great-grandmother made. I love that stuff.” When Boyd was in college, she was a research intern with Late Night With Conan O’Brien. “We spent all day up in the NBC library,” she says. “We worked like dogs for no pay, and I think I met Conan once when I brought him McDonald’s. It was just totally unglamorous.” But, Boyd says, the experience taught her the depth of research required to create a good interview. While Michalski and Boyd plan to keep the format of the Lit Show loose and spontaneous, “we’re going to have thoroughly digested a good bit of biographical info about each guest,” Boyd says.
As for the musical portion of the show, the hosts see it as a natural fit. “We often joke that there are people who write and put their words to music: We call them musicians,” Michalski says. “And music and art seem to have a natural alliance in this town, but literature doesn’t have any alliance. So hopefully that will begin to change.”
One figure in Baltimore’s music scene, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop, has been a particular inspiration to Michalski. “She came into town and said, ‘How can I serve you?’” Michalski says. “She wanted her product to fit with what people were willing to take a chance on, whether it was doing Led Zeppelin orchestrations or whatever, hoping that people would sort of back-door their way into the other stuff.” The Lit Show’s approach is similar, Michalski says. “It’s kind of like when you’re little,” she adds. “The Peanuts played jazz and that’s how I got into it. That was my gateway drug to jazz. Some people definitely need a drug to be won over by literature.”
The Lit Show will be held on March 22 at 8 P.M. at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson. For more information, visit creativealliance.org.