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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Michelle Wildgen crafts delicious Bread and Butter from memories of working at L'Etoile
Food and fiction
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Credit:Nick Wilkes

By any standard, Michelle Wildgen is having a very good year. Her third novel, Bread and Butter, comes out on Feb. 12; classes are full at Madison Writers' Studio, the writing school she founded last year with fellow Madison author Susanna Daniel; and a movie of her first novel, You're Not You, starring Hilary Swank, Josh Duhamel and Emmy Rossum, is slated to hit theaters in early summer.

Like most writers who've sold their books to filmmakers, Wildgen has, for the most part, let go of what will become of her creation on screen, though she did visit the set for a day during its 2012 filming. She is wry about the film's release date, which Rossum has mentioned in at least one online interview.

"Good to know. Emmy and I should really keep up, I guess," she says.

Wildgen's new Bread and Butter is the story of three brothers navigating the restaurant industry and their own lives in a small town outside Philadelphia. It's a witty and finely observed work that succeeds both as a literary novel and a pleasure read.

Part of this pleasure is the sense that you're in the hands of a writer having a blast with her material. Wildgen gives us a delicious inside look at the business of running the sorts of restaurants where everyone cares deeply about the food. We get to know a restless genius of a pastry chef, observe a very bad night when the dishwasher breaks down, and learn a few important rules of owning a restaurant, such as "never sleep with the staff."

Of course, none of this would provide sustenance without characters to care about. For all the restaurant-insider goodies, Wildgen excels at selecting details that illustrate the frustrations and rewards of sibling relationships. She also precisely renders small moments between the three main characters and the women they court. There is plenty of fun and wit, but she never lets us lose touch with what is at stake for each of the brothers.

A passion project

Wildgen is a writer who loves her work. You catch it in the deadpan humor she uses when she describes going to "writing camp" at Bowling Green State University as a teenager in Ohio. The organizers "disabused us of the idea that we would ever get rich writing," she says.

Wildgen is an avid reader who always knew she wanted to write. She gives kudos to her mother for finding the Bowling Green program, where she got to experience "the physical feeling to have written well." Early on, she learned a lesson that more mature writers often struggle with -- that "just because you're getting criticism doesn't mean you can't write."

The author went on to study creative writing as an undergraduate at UW-Madison and, after graduation in 1997, worked as an assistant editor at Cheese Market News, a dairy trade publication. Around the same time, she began working three nights a week as a back waiter at L'Etoile, a favorite restaurant of many Madison foodies. A year later, she left the editorial job to be a full-time server, both for the health benefits and for a topnotch education about food.

Wildgen moved to New York in 2000 to attend the MFA writing program at Sarah Lawrence. While in graduate school, she interned at Tin House, one of the most respected literary magazines in the country, and then stayed on to do editorial work after graduation. Her food writing was featured in Best Food Writing 2004 (and again in 2009), and she edited Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast during that time. She also wrote a short story that became her first novel, You're Not You, which she set in Madison because she "missed it."

You're Not You tells the story of a drifting college student whose life takes unexpected turns when she goes to work as an in-home aide to a vibrant woman disabled by ALS. The book came out in 2006, winning much acclaim for its distinctive writing and unconventional handling of a character living with significant disability. This unique take on a woman with ALS prompted producer Alison Greenspan to bring the novel to the big screen.

"It's a passion project for her," Wildgen says.

Wildgen returned to Madison in 2007 as she was finishing work on her second novel, But Not for Long. Released in 2009, it's also set in Madison -- what seems like a pre-apocalyptic version of the city -- at a sustainable-foods co-op on Lake Monona.

A fly on the wall

For her third novel, Wildgen knew she wanted to write about the food industry again. Feeling it had been a little too long since her own restaurant experience, she bugged friend Daniel Momont, former owner and manager of the Old Fashioned and corporate manager of the Muramoto restaurants, with research questions. He read early drafts and shared his insights on how restaurant staff really behave. Momont also explained many of the nuts and bolts of tasks performed in "the back of the house."

Wildgen spent an afternoon watching the butchering and dessert preparation at Lombardino's, and was later allowed to hang around the dining room for the first hour of dinner service to check out the vibe and the camaraderie.

"Every restaurant has its own lingo the expediter uses to communicate with the kitchen staff," she says, adding that there is a particular flavor to the banter. "I got so many great quotes, it was hard to work them all in."

In addition to watching restaurant employees at work, Wildgen immersed herself in Michael Ruhlman's excellent series on learning to cook at the Culinary Institute of America, The Making of a Chef, The Soul of a Chef and The Reach of a Chef.

"He just found all this passion," she says of Ruhlman's books. She hopes some of that feeling ended up in her own work.

Launching Madison Writers' Studio

Wildgen's schedule has been busy for quite some time, especially since becoming a mom in 2011. She has also taught classes for the UW creative writing program and continues to work as an executive editor for Tin House.

"I get to find work I love and see if I can make it better," she says.

These jobs also keep her in touch with a large and diverse community of writers.

Last fall, Wildgen launched Madison Writers' Studio with Susanna Daniel, a former UW creative writing fellow who has penned two critically acclaimed novels, including last year's Sea Creatures. The idea for a community writing school that is not degree-based formed when Wildgen and Daniel were in a novel-writing group together.

"Susanna just sort of informed me we were going to do this," Wildgen says. "We had planned to wait until we had real toeholds in our next novels, but then the time seemed right, and we decided to go ahead anyway."

Wildgen and Daniel filled each of their first two fiction-writing classes with eight students and hosted a couple of student readings at Mystery to Me bookstore on Monroe Street. Many of their students are professional writers in some capacity, and their ages range from early 20s to mid-60s. In January, both Wildgen and Daniel began yearlong novel classes. Shorter-term classes in fiction, creative nonfiction and, of course, food writing are slated to begin in the coming months.

Wildgen looks forward to some writing time of her own as well. She has been working on essays and has a new novel in her head.

"I need empty time," she says. "Creative work seems to come best from those stretches of contemplative, almost bored periods of time. Stillness is needed to develop something new."

She expects that to be a challenge over the next few months, with readings to help launch the new novel and classes to teach.

"One of my favorite quotes," Wildgen says, "is that being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life."

She is not complaining.

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