Michelle Wildgen, WINE PEOPLE: A Novel

Michelle Wildgen, WINE PEOPLE: A Novel

Zibby Books author alert!!! Zibby interviews author Michelle Wildgen about Wine People, an intoxicating escape into the cutthroat world of wine and the complicated terrain of women’s friendship. Michelle describes her journey to food writing (she started as a back waiter!) and shares the secrets to doing it well! She also discusses her two fascinating female protagonists (and the real-life women who inspired them), her food writing role models, her previous novels, her love of The Bear on Hulu, and the bottle of wine she is saving for the right moment. Finally, she shares her best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Michelle. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” especially as a Zibby Books author, for your novel, Wine People.

Michelle Wildgen: Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.

Zibby: Michelle, can you tell listeners what your book is about?

Michelle: Absolutely. Wine People is about two women in the wine importing business. They start off as colleagues and kind of rivals and slowly become allies and then friends and even partners. Business partners, I should say. It is about ambition. It’s about a difficult, male-dominated workplace. It’s also about travel and about all the things that keep people coming back to the wine business over and over again, which is the beautiful places and the incredible food and the conviviality of routinely just sitting down with other people and paying attention to the wine that somebody has labored to make before you.

Zibby: How did you become so interested in this industry?

Michelle: When I was in college, I got really interested in food and wine. I wanted to write about it, but I knew when I tried to write about it, I just had no idea what I was even talking about. I thought, well, I know a lot of people will go travel around the world for a year or two. I didn’t have that option, so I said, I’m just going to go get a job at the best restaurant I can. I’m going to hope that they teach me more about food and wine. It actually worked. I went to a restaurant called L’Etoile, which is still around. It’s won James Beard Awards. The chef at the time was considered the Alice Waters of the Midwest. I got a job as a back waiter. They really did expect us to learn about the food and about the wine and about dining and all that good stuff. In the course of working there, I encountered things like wine dinners, which is where they have the winemaker come. They have a whole meal that is designed around showcasing the wines. That was a really fascinating thing for me to start to think about, the people who actually made the product. Also, that was where I first encountered somebody whose job was to import the wine. All of that has stayed in my head for twenty years.

Zibby: Wow. This, of course, is not your first book. Tell me about what happened in your life from when you worked at the restaurant basically until now in terms of writing and food and wine and the whole journey to getting here.

Michelle: After I left the restaurant, I went to grad school and got my MFA in fiction and all that good stuff and started to work at a literary journal called Tin House. I took over the food and drink writing that they had there that was literary food and drink. That was really wonderful because I got to focus on editing food and drink writing. It got me thinking about my own, so I did some of that as well. It just always stayed in my head and was always a thread that came up in my first novel, my second novel, my third novel. At some point, maybe I’ll write about something else, but I love how you can use that to talk about people. You can write about a tense meal or a beautiful meal or a really terrible one, and they all are so revealing. It was one of my favorite tools, basically. Maybe the most recent one that really dug into it was Bread and Butter, which was my third book. That was actually about three brothers in the restaurant industry, so that was pretty direct.

Zibby: What is the secret to writing well about food? This is such a broad question. I could write about a meal not being a food and wine writer. How much detail do you go into? Which parts of the meal are the most important? How do you make sure you’re not totally distracting the reader? It’s the same thing you would get asked, really, for a historical fiction. How do you make sure you’re not overwhelming the reader with unnecessary facts? With food and wine writing, what are some of the things that you keep in mind the most and that even when you’re editing, you look out for, dos and don’ts type of thing?

Michelle: The biggest thing is just paying attention. If you really are looking at what you are eating, you start to notice all the little details. One of the sensory exercises I give students sometimes is I’ll say, if you are describing a donut, you can tell that it’s got all these different textures. Usually, the frosting has a slightly different little crust on the top. Then it’s creamy inside. We see all of this. We just have to train ourselves to notice it. In the same way as with historical fiction, you want to give the details that actually serve the moment, serve the story. If every single meal gets a page of description, even I will start to wonder if maybe we could cut back, even though invariably, I am happy to have more food description than other people are. Ideally, that’s kind of the rubric. Is it revealing something about the person who made it or the way that people are eating it? Is it a meal that is different than another meal would be? All of that can really help, so just paying attention and making sure you have a reason for it.

Zibby: Tell me more about Wren and Thessaly and where they came from.

Michelle: Wren is from Wisconsin. She grew up in a difficult childhood. She had a father who never really got sober. Then her mom went back to nursing school and raised her singlehandedly. She just happened to encounter the restaurant business, a little bit similar to me but kind of different. She fell in love with it the way I also fell in love with it. She winds up in New York. Through that restaurant business connection, she got a job at a wine importer. She is definitely one of those people with some imposter syndrome who feels like, I’m not really sure I should be here. I don’t necessarily fit in with these other people who are really well-educated. They may have grown up traveling. She did not do that, so she is always seeking some kind of safety in the form of her own expertise. She really takes responsibility for it. Thessaly is the opposite. She grew up the daughter of some grape growers in Sonoma. She grew up in that winemaking world doing the travel, doing the dining. She’s perfectly comfortable in that world, but she’s not entirely sure that she can do what her parents once did. That is the ongoing source of uncertainty for her.

Zibby: Where did they come from in your own consciousness? When you set out to write this novel, was it the two women? What was the germ of the idea for you?

Michelle: The germ of the idea originally was that I just knew that the wine importing business was really interesting. I wanted to find out about the world before I had any idea what the story was going to be. I just started talking to people. I was able to turn to a good friend of mine, actually, from my L’Etoile days who had gone to work for an importer and asked her about six thousand questions or so. I took a lot of her life story and sort of put it into Wren’s in different ways. She is one of those people who — sometimes you ask people questions for research, and they just aren’t on the same wavelength. They don’t notice the same things. They’re not interested in what you’re interested in. That was not the case. This was like, anything I wanted to ask my friend, she was right there and had these wonderful stories and memories that I could use. I didn’t want to just have her walking around because it wasn’t interesting enough. I wanted kind of a foil for her. One of the people that, through friends of friends, I had come across was a winemaker named Jasmine Hirsch, who actually is in Sonoma. She has a very respected grape-growing family. She was the one who said, let’s make wine. Now they make these beautiful — I think they make pinot — these beautiful wines. Just the brief ways that she talked about growing up in this world and about her family, I was like, oh, that’s who I want this other person to be. I have no idea if this woman has anything whatsoever in common with Thessaly beyond that. She probably doesn’t because I made her up, but that’s where the idea came from.

Zibby: Interesting. For those who don’t know the difference between, necessarily, the wine importing business versus — where does it fall in the whole spectrum for just the recreational wine drinker?

Michelle: The recreational wine drinker doesn’t have to think about of this if they don’t want to, obviously. It’s actually a little bit like publishing, in a way. Somebody out there is producing the product the same way a writer — we write a book. We just hope somebody will love it. Somebody out there is growing the grapes and making wine. That’s their product. Then the importer is the one who goes around the world to their various regions and tastes each new vintage and sees how the past vintages are aging and all of that stuff and decides which things are going to serve their market. They literally pay to get it all brought over. Then it is their job or a distributor’s job to go around and sell it. Then you have all of these people going to the different venues, like the stores and the restaurants, and trying to sell all of the different wines in that book. I think of the importers as being like publishers or like agents because they’re the ones who are saying, here’s this beautiful thing. I understand it. I think if I explain to you why it is special and I find the right people for it, you’re going to love it.

Zibby: There’s a new market opportunity for frustrated agents to become importers.

Michelle: That’s right. They can all go into the wine business.

Zibby: It’s perfect.

Michelle: How hard can it be?

Zibby: What is your own personal relationship with wine? What do you like the best?

Michelle: I like almost everything. It kind of just depends, what time of year is it? What are we eating? All of that good stuff. The go-to things that I especially love — when I went to the restaurant business, I had no idea that you could just order a glass of champagne to start any old meal. I was like, that’s a lifestyle I want. Now I want champagne to be in my life regardless of whether it’s a special day or not. I love a really bright, citrusy white. I love them all, honestly. If anything, I spend a lot of time just trying not to overdo it because I could drink wine every night. I’m like, okay, I’m getting older. We don’t really have the capacity to be drinking a couple glasses of wine a night. I try to be a little bit more abstemious about it and really enjoy it when I do have it.

Zibby: Wren and Thessaly both come into the book with their own series of loss or complicated relationships in their own families and everything. When you were crafting that, did you bring in any of your own stuff to these characters? I know the friends for the background. In terms of family relationships or any of that, what, if anything, did you take from your own life?

Michelle: They all have parts of me. What I think it breaks down to is they often have my insecurity parts, the things that I’m not so great with, and then I give them the things that I wish I had more of. I love Wren’s really steely determination and ambition. I just love that about her. I feel like she is tougher and more intense about it than maybe I am. With Thessaly, I just love her confidence. I feel like she can walk into any room and hold her own. She doesn’t mind arguing with people. She can sell. That’s something that I love about her. I understand her insecurity about, can I do the things that I saw other people do? Do I really have it in me? I understand anything that makes these two uncertain or not sure if they can move forward. I completely identify with that.

Zibby: What are your biggest insecurities, would you say?

Michelle: Darn, I opened the door for that one. Of course, I should’ve seen that coming. I think just all the normal things. Am I good enough at what I do? Do I write the books as well as I want them to be written? Am I as good an editor as I want to be? Just all of the normal things that I think we do. Then after a while, I’m usually like, okay, no, you did this well. You did your best. You’ve got to feel confident in it. Then I feel better.

Zibby: That’s true. That’s a good framework. It went okay. I’m going to go with that. Who are some of the influences for you in food and wine writing and editing? Do you like people like Ruth Reichl, who famously writes in that world, or more the chefs writing about their own experiences or all of the above? What do you like?

Michelle: I do like all of the above. I started with M.F.K. Fisher. Have you ever read anything by her? She kind of created food writing, the way that a lot of us think about it nowadays, because she would talk about food as a way to tell a human story rather than recipes. She was the one who really blew my mind when I first read her. I love Laurie Colwin, who has been dead for decades. We’re still reading her and still reissuing her books. She wrote about food in fiction and nonfiction. She’s passionate about it. She knows a great deal about it. She’s very precise, but she has a lot of warmth and a lot of wit in the way that she approaches all of it. I really love that about her. One of my other seminal food texts is Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter. I don’t know if you read it. They have that beginning where she talks about the lamb roast. She has this beautiful passage about sitting on her mother’s lap after dinner that I just think is one of the best things I’ve ever read. I return to it all the time.

Zibby: Are you a rereader? Do you go back?

Michelle: Yes. You can tell if I didn’t love something if I’m like, I only read it once.

Zibby: Oh, wow. I can’t get away with that.

Michelle: It doesn’t happen as much now as it used to be.

Zibby: What are you working on now? Are you working on a new book?

Michelle: It feels like I’m sort of putting the layers on it. I’m starting the beginnings of a new book and figuring out — I’m at that stage, like I described with Wren and Thessaly, what are the oppositions going to be? What’s causing trouble for these people? It’s really early on. I’m enjoying just thinking, where do I want to set this? What’s going on with them? I think it’s going to be taking place in the wellness industry and also more like the actual neurological well-being research kind of thing. I want those two oppositions talking to each other.

Zibby: Interesting. I love how you go at it as what you want to learn. That’s so great. It’s a unique way to approach each book. What do I want to know more about? Then be like, okay, I’m going to just figure this out. Then I’ll make a story around it. I know that sounds obvious.

Michelle: The research thing, that developed along the way in my career. I don’t know that I started with it. Then I discovered that the kind of research I love to do is where you just talk to people and ask them about their lives and what they do. When they walk into their office, what’s the first thing they do? Whatever it might be. I end up finding a lot in that. It turned out to be a really fun process for me.

Zibby: What are the things most people do first thing in the office?

Michelle: Depends on what the job is. My first book was about a young woman who takes a job as a caregiver for a woman with ALS. I had a friend who had done that. I said, when you get to her house, what are the first things you do? I think that’s what helps a fiction writer the most. We have to be able to picture our character in a room and know what they are going to do before we can figure out all the other stuff that’s really crucial. You have to have this comfort in the world. So often, that’s where I start. Day to day, how do you spend your time?

Zibby: Tell listeners about all your other books.

Michelle: You’re Not You was about a college student who gets job as a caregiver for a woman with ALS. She becomes really involved in her life and in her marriage and basically is transformed by this period of life with her. My second book was called But Not for Long. That was about a bunch of people living in a co-op in Madison, Wisconsin, and basically fearing that the world might be ending, but they’re not entirely sure. It starts with a blackout. There’s no real explanation for the blackout. It just keeps on going on. Then the third one was about three brothers in the restaurant industry. That was really fun because I made up a whole city for them. I loved just being able to invent it. That was a really enjoyable thing. Two brothers own a successful restaurant. Their younger brother comes home and wants them to work with him. It’s about all of them transforming their relationships with each other. Then of course, there’s this one, which is about the two women in the wine industry.

Zibby: Have you been watching The Bear?

Michelle: Yes. I love it. Have you been watching?

Zibby: Are you obsessed? Yes.

Michelle: Yeah, I am. Have you seen all of season two?

Zibby: I haven’t. Actually, it was Meghan Riordan Jarvis, one of the Zibby Books authors — everybody else had told me about it, but when she was like, I’m dying over this season, I just had to watch it. I haven’t gotten to season two, but I’m working my way there quickly. It’s intense.

Michelle: It is. I’m only partway through it. It’s really true. All these people, they got the restaurant industry. They know what it feels like. They have it. It just feels fully inhabited. It’s so true. It feels just dead on.

Zibby: Maybe there’s some collaboration. That would be nice.

Michelle: Probably.

Zibby: I think The Bear also speaks to the fragmented attention, the lack of attention spans that we all have right now because it is so immersive. You cannot be distracted watching this. You’re literally being hit over the head with a frying pan. It’s like, okay, I’m here. I’m watching. I hear it.

Michelle: I watch it on the treadmill too. That’s kind of perfect because time flies. You just don’t even notice. Then you’re like, oh, that’s right, it’s been an hour.

Zibby: That’s smart. I should work out. Good reminder.

Michelle: Don’t think about that. I can tell you that the reason I started using the treadmill was because I would watch old Law & Order reruns on it. I was like, this is how I’m going to make myself be on the treadmill. I will use any kind of TV. The way I see it is, the worse the TV, the better because I still have the net gain of doing exercise. I feel free to watch anything I want.

Zibby: I like it. It’s like discovered time. Anything during that time is also sanctioned.

Michelle: Nice and legal.

Zibby: Who are you most excited to read Wine People when you think about it being out in the world?

Michelle: I think just anybody who never thought about this part of the business. A lot of us enjoy wine to varying degrees. We might not really care but just enjoy the occasional glass. You might really love it. I think there’s something fascinating about anybody who never really considered how it got from there to there and to discover what people put into it and how interesting the world really is. I love that idea. I always love the idea of people who actually do know the world getting to read it and see if, hopefully, it’s reflected. I turned to a lot of those people and did a lot of research with them. I’m excited for them to read it and also always nervous because you hope you got it right.

Zibby: Love it. Next bottle of wine you’re going to drink, any idea? Do you have one queued up for tonight?

Michelle: I don’t have one queued up for tonight. Actually, I have a bottle that I’m holding onto. It’s this Italian varietal called Perricone. It’s from Sicily. My friend got it into her store and was like, everybody has to try this. It is this beautiful red, ripe, juicy, fruity, but it’s kind of balanced. It doesn’t feel sweet or anything like that. It’s delicious. Every time I pour it for somebody, they’re always just like, oh, my god, what is this? I don’t know when I’ll drink it, but I’ve got my eye on it.

Zibby: Nice.

Michelle: Actually, I bought a bottle for my mom because she had done something for me. My friend was running out. I was kind of like, do I have to give this bottle to my mom, or can I keep it? I steeled myself, and I gave it to her before I could keep it for myself.

Zibby: That’s very gracious of you.

Michelle: Wasn’t it? I felt very generous.

Zibby: So many people who I’ve met since we’ve announced your book and all of that stuff, so many people are like, I love Michelle. I know Michelle from this. I know Michelle. People just flock to you and are such fans. I’m serious. Anywhere I go.

Michelle: I’m delighted to hear that.

Zibby: Even today on Instagram, somebody randomly was like, I love Michelle so much. Great. Your footprint in the world is vast.

Michelle: That makes me happy. When you work for a literary journal for as long as I did, you work with a lot of different writers. Hopefully, they had a good time working with you. I’m going to tell myself that that’s it. That was the most fun part for me, was that I just got to encounter all these incredible writers and work with them on something great.

Zibby: Do you miss that at all? Do you want to go back to food and wine editing, or no?

Michelle: I feel like I get to do that. I do a lot of freelance editorial work, so I feel like I do get to do it. The only part that I miss about that was that I did get to say at the end of it, and here it is. It’s coming out. It’s being published. Now as a freelance editor, I don’t get to say that, but I do get to hear from the writers when something we worked on together finds a home. It’s the same kind of thing. It just takes a little longer for it to happen.

Zibby: Were there any students of yours or clients or people who wrote essays at Tin House who have gone on to become really big deal whatever?

Michelle: Yeah. One of the first things I worked on back in the day was an essay from Leigh Newman — that was a really long time ago — who you know well. I do too. She’s incredible. There’s been a lot of them. Kate Christensen, I worked on some early things with her. She had not really done any food writing before. I noticed that in her novel, The Great Man, she wrote about food so well. I got in touch with her and said, “Hey, do you want to write about food?” She said yes. She later said, “That’s how I started writing these food memoirs, because you asked me to.” That’s really exciting for me. There’s a lot. There’s a lot of really wonderful writers that I worked with who I started early with them, not because I did anything special. I just noticed that they were incredible. I happened to luck out, and they went on to become a really big deal.

Zibby: That’s awesome. That’s really great. Any advice to aspiring authors?

Michelle: So much advice. I’d say a mix of, keep doing what you’re doing and always improving your craft. Also, one of the helpful things to me about building up a few years in this is that I think you really benefit from a thick skin and a certain amount of distance from all the rejection and all the difficulty. It’s going to happen. It’s not personal. It’s just a difficult industry. The numbers mean that you’re going to face a lot of rejection. I did learn from being on the other side of that. When I did have to reject things, it wasn’t because I was like, I despise you as a writer, and I want you never to do this again. It was just like, I don’t have room. As a writer, you feel like, no, you’re saying, I hate you, and I want you to never talk to me again. It was helpful to me to realize what that actually looks like on the other side. It made me a lot more calm about sending things out and having a rejection. You’re like, well, that’s too bad, but I understand where this business is going. You just have to be really resilient. The other thing I would say is that it’s so uncertain whether your piece will find a home in the world that you should write, really, what you want to write because it’s the only thing in your control. We do this for love. We do it because it is a craft and an art that we adore. You might as well do it the way you want to do it.

Zibby: Give me a quick visual on your writing process and where your favorite places to write are.

Michelle: Let’s see. I can write, I would say, almost anywhere as long as I have some white noise on my earbuds. I discovered that during the pandemic, like a lot of writers, when we were all at home. I was like, okay, I’m just going to download a white noise app. That’s how I’m going to ignore everybody wandering around. I don’t have to be in a nice place to work. Somebody once came to take a photograph of my work station. I opened the door, and they were like, let’s pick a different room. The shades are down. It doesn’t look anything special. Every now and again, I am smart enough to book a cabin with a friend. We’ll drive an hour. You just spend a weekend writing there. I love having the memory of doing that work in that place. I think I need to do that again.

Zibby: That sounds nice. I would like to hole myself up in a cabin every so often.

Michelle: Right? It’s kind of perfect.

Zibby: Michelle, I’m so excited. I can’t wait for this book to come out. When this airs, it’ll be pub day or close to pub day. Congrats. I hope you’re having fun, future you. Thank you for doing this.

Michelle: Thank you so much. I’m so excited. It was a long time researching and writing and revising. It’s really amazing to have it actually find people in the world and come out. Thank you.

Zibby: Awesome. Thanks so much.

Michelle: Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks, Michelle. Bye.

WINE PEOPLE: A Novel by Michelle Wildgen

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