With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Sun readers who pay close attention to our contributors’ page may have noticed a recent coincidence: our October 2021 issue featured an essay by Michelle Herman, and the following month a poem by Michele Herman. The first name wasn’t a typo.
Michelle (two Ls) Herman was born in Brooklyn, educated at Brooklyn College and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and lives in Columbus, Ohio. Michele (one L) Herman was born in Norwalk, Connecticut, educated at Skidmore College and Columbia University, and lives in Manhattan. Michelle was a founder of the MFA program in creative writing at Ohio State, where she founded and directs a graduate program in the arts. She also writes the Sunday Care and Feeding column for Slate. Michele teaches at the Writers Studio, writes columns about Greenwich Village life for The Village Sun, and performs on the New York cabaret circuit.
Michelle Herman: I should start by stipulating — or confessing? — that when I first learned there was another writer with almost the exact same name as mine, I did not handle the news with equanimity.
Michele Herman: Nor did I. I knew about you way before you knew about me, when I read your wonderful story in 20 Under 30, the 1986 anthology of hot new fiction writers. This was not long after I had handed in my MFA thesis in nonfiction, a memoir about my father who had died a few years earlier. It had come back with dry and dismissive feedback from my advisor, and it upset both my mother and my sister. Seeing your name in 20 Under 30 cut me to the quick, but my quick was always getting cut back then, when the gulf between what I yearned to accomplish and what I had accomplished was at its widest.
Michelle Herman: I wish I could tell you it was easier on my end. When I found out you existed, I was about to turn fifty, with my third and fourth books soon to be published. But I think a writer never feels secure. Getting cut to the quick is a never-ending fact of our lives. It was late summer 2004 and I was in the grocery store with my eleven-year-old daughter. In the produce aisle, an acquaintance called to me, “Hey, I loved your story in The Sun!” But I hadn’t published a story in The Sun.
Michele Herman: Yes, 2004 — that was when you called me and dropped the bombshell about having not one but two new books coming out. I was publishing short stories and essays but hadn’t finished a book. I decided to make the best of my envy and wrote a comic essay about us that appears on my website. I send it whenever people mix us up.
By then I’d had eighteen years to get used to the unfortunate situation; I’ve been receiving — and rejecting — compliments meant for you ever since 20 Under 30. Just yesterday a stranger wrote to me to gush about your recent essay in The Sun. By the way, I’m happy to learn, almost two decades after the fact, that your acquaintance at the supermarket liked my story!
Michelle Herman: Once I tracked down your story, I freaked out a little. I don’t want to call it an identity crisis, or an existential crisis, but it was some kind of crisis.
The thing is, my first two books had come and gone pretty quietly, and it had been seven years since the last one. But with my second novel, Dog, and my memoir about motherhood and daughterhood coming out, I was feeling especially fragile: full of hope yet steeled for disappointment. Then I discovered the “other” Michel(l)e Herman was writing about — Oh, God, no, I remember thinking — motherhood and dogs. Dismayed, I went searching for your phone number.
I don’t know what I thought was going to happen when I called; I just felt we should talk, Michelle Herman to Michele Herman. You took the wind out of my sails when I said, possibly somewhat belligerently, “Michele Herman? This is Michelle Herman,” and you said, “Michelle Herman the writer?” It shocked me. I thought I’d be news to you.
Michele Herman: You asked me how I’d feel about using my middle name, or at least a middle initial.
Michelle Herman: I remember. I’m sorry I did that — that wasn’t very generous of me. You told me you’d always hated your middle name.
Michele Herman: A couple of things helped me put this in perspective then. A fellow mom at our kids’ elementary school was a fairly well-known and well-respected author. When I told her about you and me, she said, “So? You’ll have your career and she’ll have hers. So what if a few people get you mixed up?” The other thing that calmed me down was that, despite the overlaps in our material, we don’t sound alike on paper at all. Your sentences have a sweep and a conversational tone that are very different from my sentences.
Michelle Herman: Yes, we have different voices, different styles and syntax. But then there’s all the overlap, which has become increasingly uncanny.
Michele Herman: Jews, family from the same Brooklyn neighborhood, motherhood, dogs, kids the same age, publications in The Sun.
Michelle Herman: Greenwich Village, where you live and where I lived for years after college. And we both played the piano as children — which wouldn’t be weird because who didn’t? — but you took it up again recently and it’s near the top of my list of things to do in my imminent retirement, just below relearning French, which was my college minor.
Michele Herman: I co-majored in French.
Michelle Herman: Right. Of course you did!
Michele Herman: I know I threw you for a loop when I mentioned my recent forays into singing and ballet.
Michelle Herman: What are the odds? Those are my obsessions. I’ve been singing all my life, but ever since I started taking voice lessons and occasionally performing, I’ve wanted to relearn to play the piano to accompany myself. And for the last five years, nearly every waking hour I have after writing and teaching have been spent in the dance studio.
Michele Herman: At this point, each new coincidence hardly comes as a surprise.
Michelle Herman: I get that. I was unsurprised that the ending of your poem in The Sun echoed the ending of a story I’d been working on — and, you know, a way of feeling I have about things in general.
Michele Herman: And our most recent overlap . . .
Michelle Herman: Right. That your first novel, Save the Village, as well as your second chapbook of poems, Just Another Jack: The Private Lives of Nursery Rhymes, just came out—
Michele Herman: A month before your new novel, Close-Up!
Michelle Herman: I feel like we should hit the road together, don’t you? Two MHs for the price of one!
Michele Herman: I can’t wait to find out what we both independently get obsessed with next.