Michelle Wildgen
"I'm still really excited when publication happens. I think, 'Thank God, I'm still a writer,'" Michelle Wildgen said. Kate Huntington

This fall, food is everywhere. From the renaissance of Julia Child spurred by "Julie and Julia" to UW-Madison's choice of Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food" for its inaugural campuswide "Go Big Read" project to first lady Michelle Obama's vegetable garden; it looks like interest in delicious and sustainable eating is going to be, well, sustained.

Madison author Michelle Wildgen is no stranger to this fascination with all things gastronomical. An attention to the details of eating - what we eat, how we eat it and with whom - is central to her writing. Wildgen's first novel, "You're Not You," chronicled the relationship between a gourmet with ALS and her can't-boil-water caregiver.

Her new book, "But Not For Long," to be released Oct. 13, shares the culinary undertones of its predecessor, but "in a slightly more elusive way." She'll be reading advance excerpts from it Thursday as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival.

"But Not For Long" takes place in a sustainable-foods co-op, depicting an ensemble cast whose personal crises are exacerbated by, among other things, summer blackouts and gas shortages. Although Wildgen started the book before the current economic collapse, its themes couldn't be more prescient.

"It seems more zeitgeisty than I thought at the time," she said.

Inspired by the catastrophic Northeast blackout of 2003, Wildgen "was having the suspicion that the end wouldn't be a meteor - it would be a series of smaller events. It's more about the feeling that everything is falling apart in some grand way."

Wildgen said she has always been primarily interested in character. What elevated "You're Not You" above sentimentality was her willingness to depict both noble and uncharitable aspects of her characters' responses to stress and change.

Her protagonists, Kate and Bec, were not saintly sufferer and selfless caregiver, respectively, but real people with recognizable foibles and desires. "But Not For Long" is Wildgen's exploration of what happens to members of the Morrison Street Co-Op "as little comforts and eases drop away (and) each of their issues start bubbling up to the surface."

One consistency in Wildgen's novels is a deep knowledge of and affection for Madison, to which she recently returned after seven years in New York. The move was a welcome homecoming for Wildgen, who transferred to UW-Madison as a sophomore after visiting her newly relocated Madisonian parents over Christmas break.

"Madison felt like it had a personality of its own," she said of her adopted hometown. Her childhood home in suburban Ohio "felt like it could be anywhere. This is a particular place."

She spent three years working at L'Etoile, and did a stint writing for the Cheese Market News. She made use of that experience in "But Not For Long," which takes its characters out of the city to the farmland surrounding Madison. The novel shows off a deep knowledge of cheesemaking.

She counts the Greenbush, Lao Laan Xang and Osteria Papavero among her favorite local restaurants but added, "Madison needs a ramen house."

Wildgen lives with her husband, Steve, on the Near East Side, and splits her time between work as senior fiction editor for the literary journal Tin House and as developmental editor at the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

It's a juggling act she seems to be managing with aplomb; her freelance work has appeared in the New York Times and O, The Oprah Magazine, and "You're Not You" has been optioned by actress Hilary Swank's production company.

Success, she said, hasn't jaded her.

"I'm still really excited when publication happens. I think, 'Thank God, I'm still a writer.' "

A recent New York Times article favorably profiled Wildgen's new book as part of a trend of post-recession "chick lit," books focused less on consumerism and romance than on female characters grappling with adversity.

But Wildgen's work is more subtle and interesting than the latest girl-gets-boy-but-not-Kelly-bag froth. Her characters don't diet; they eat robustly without concern over fitting into a size 0. Favorite writers such as M.F.K. Fisher and Laurie Colwin echo in her descriptions of meals and their meaning.

"I just find food a beautiful thing to write about," Wildgen said.

IF YOU GO

What: Author Michelle Wilgen reading from her new book

When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: A Room of One's Own, 307 W. Johnson St.

Festival info: wisconsinbookfestival.com

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