Finding Ellen Birkett Morris: An Interview with Dean Monti

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer, teacher and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. Her fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, The Antioch Review, The Notre Dame Review, and The South Carolina Review, among other journals. Her commentaries have been heard on public radio stations across the United States. She is a winner of the Bevel Summers Prize for Short Fiction and the recipient of a 2013 Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council. Morris holds an MFA from Queens University-Charlotte. She’s the author of SURRENDER (Finishing Line Press) and the recently published LOST GIRLS, a short story collection (TouchPoint Press).

Dean Monti: There’s so much rich material about the process of growing up in Lost Girls. I’m curious about your own youth—did it help create the writer you’ve become?

Ellen Birkett Morris: I was the kind of kid that daydreamed a lot and made up stories about the stuff and people around me. I had a mild case of cerebral palsy and wore braces for the first five years before surgery allowed to me to walk unassisted, so I didn’t ride a bike with my sisters and I wasn’t that physically adventurous. I think stories and poems were both a way to escape my environment and a way to transform and express my feelings in a fictive way. As we all do, I know loneliness. I know what it feels like to feel different. Just as I know kindness and joy. It’s really gratifying (and emotionally safe) to explore those ideas on the page. “Religion” about a young virgin who joins a breast feeder’s group is about the desire to belong and connect and just how far we go to get what we need.

DM: Did you grow up in an environment that nurtured literature?

EBM: My father wrote and the floor was of our apartment was filled with stacks of books and typewriters. Seeing him do that work let me know it was an option. Because I admired him in many ways it was inevitable that I would try my hand at writing at some point.

DM: Do you remember some of the authors?

Saul Bellow, Charles Portis, Flannery O’Conner, Katherine Ann Porter. He gave me Roald Dahl’s work and read Jabberwocky and Dickens aloud to me and my sisters. He also read us Flannery O’Connor stories at bedtime. He had no radar for what kids shouldn’t be exposed to. At his memorial I told the story of seeing Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask as a kid and the indelible memory of a giant breast toddling across a lawn.

DM: It made quite an impression on me, as well. Sounds like you were picking up on everything around you.

EBM: Yes. Hearing that language from other authors helped imprint its rhythms in my head, hearing those stories helped me get a sense of narrative arc. Then, I got an English degree and an MFA and could put a name to the tools of fiction writing. I could use them with intention.

DM: One of the things I admire about your work is your ability to tell stories about young women in that younger voice, but believably—without any affectation. I found that in stories like Helter Skelter and Emoticon, among others. Where does that voice come from?

EBM: I am pretty in touch with my inner young person. My goal in life is to retain some sense of wonder at life, even when things are bad. It isn’t harder for me to write young or old. I think we writers contain multitudes. We hold in ourselves the voices of many ages and experiences. It is our willingness to go there emotional and psychologically that allow us access to those voices.

DM: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that the title story, Lost Girls, was based on an actual event. It seems like this story, and many of the stories that follow benefit from time and perspective.  I see a lot of the stories saying this is how it was, and this is how it is now… Are we seeing a reflection of your own sense of perspective?

EBM: I grew up in Louisville and have lived here my whole life. I am constantly running into people I knew when I was younger and driving past important places (the apartment where we lived when my parents got divorced, my dad’s last residence). I love the perspective that age gives you on things that were scary or sad or strange as a child. I like the idea that there are things we can salvage from the wreckage of the past, ways to honor people or celebrate having made it through tough times.

DM: I feel Lost Girls could be used as a primer on craft. There are excellent examples of subtext, metaphor, dialogue, characterization, and other literary devices, as well as tone, voice, etc. How much of it is craft and how much of that is intuitive?

EBM: I think so much of this comes from reading. I think subtext emerges from a character’s desires. I can’t remember which workshop it was where they pointed out that dialogue in stories is so much more meaningful and pointed than regular conversation.

DM: I once took a film writing class where we broke down every single line of dialogue in Casablanca. Always asking, what does this person want by saying what they are saying?

EBM: Yes, it seems obvious, but it helped me understand that all the things in the story need to be in service of what the character wants and what they will do to get it.

DM: There’s a wonderful economy in your stories. I think David Payne called it “pointillistic” and I agree with that, as well.  How would you describe your writing style?

EBM: I am a feminist writer who admires Hemingway’s style and economy of words. I like to see how much meaning can be carried in few words. I’m most interested in a character’s inner life and less drawn to elaborate descriptions of their outer world. I think writing poetry heightens these tendencies. Poetry is about the art of precision, the image(s), the moment, the shift, the awareness. I think the bluntness, the plainspoken nature of a spare telling of a short story adds a certain authority to the telling.

DM: Skipping Stones is your longest story at 17 pages and is very rich and effective. But Heavy Metal is only three pages and is equally rich. What helps you with editing and determining the length of a story?

EBM: I follow the flow of the story to determine length. When the mother in Heavy Metal hits the drums and feels what she feels, I knew that was all I had to say about her experience with grief and how it acts on the body.

Skipping Stones had a larger cast of characters and a larger arc to explore, Terri’s dreams and how they are stymied by circumstances. It took more space to play out her relationship with her mother, Shayne and Miss Allen. She shows up in other stories of mine, not included in this collection, but I decided to end her story in her a moment of reflection after so much has happened to her and so much is still possible.

A lot of the work of developing a story happens in my mind as I am going about everyday life. I think my finished first draft carries the heart of the story, but I work with three writing groups to help hone my stories and make sure what I say on the page is what I intended to say.

DM: As you are developing new work, is there an ideal writing environment for you?

EBM: I’m most productive when I’m alone in my quiet home office. I don’t go to coffee shops or the library. I’ve done retreats, but my house is quiet and comfortable enough to make those a hard sell. I am usually in the company of a small dog, though I am between dogs now.

DM: Do you vary what you are working on?

I make time every weekday to so some sort of writing, either author interview, paid media relations, or creation and revision of new work.

EBM: Some characters and places recur in some of your stories. I’m thinking particularly of the candy shop and Abby Linder that show up in more than one story. As I read Lost Girls I often felt like I was walking through a small town you had created.

DM: Many of these stories came from a linked collection I worked on about a photographer from Boston who travels to a small town in Kentucky to document the Bicentennial. Big homage to Elizabeth Strout and Sherwood Anderson who showed the rich, fascinating undercurrents in small town life. The photographer proved to be less intriguing than his subjects, so I gathered the stories about the women and toned him down or in some cases removed him from the stories completely.

DM: If you could imagine spending more time with any of your characters, which ones come to mind?

EBM: I think Terri the poetry reading waitress with the mean mother from Skipping Stones is the one I am rooting for the most. I want her to find love with the right person and to find her place, even if it isn’t a New York apartment and a job at the public library. I think she has something to say about carrying on when things are tough.

DM: In your story Inheritance, you talk about “eating sin” And bottle trees in Bottle Tree Blues. Can you tell a wide-eyed, midwestern suburban kid like me a bit more about these strange and wonderous regionalisms?

EBM: I heard about sin eating from my sister-in-law Johnna, who is from Western Virginia. She was talking about the folkways her family practiced and mentioned keeping the hair of the dead, relics from surgery and people’s teeth. Sin eating came up as another old tradition and I was immediately impressed with the metaphoric possibilities of one person being paid to symbolically take away the sins of another by eating what were called “corpse cakes” that were placed on the body.

Bottle trees are a southern tradition. Something about evil spirits getting caught in the bottles and burned up by the morning sun. I read about in Kate DiCamillo’s book Because of Winn Dixie. The tree is a comfort to Kelly when she loses her grandmother and a form of symbolic communication between her and Silas when he tries to win her back.

I like the idea of building stories around traditions that already hold symbolic meaning, and making it work within the context of a very particular life and set of circumstances.

DM: I also enjoyed your use of multiple viewpoints, as you do in the stories Fear of Heights and Swimming?

EBM: Yes, I love alternating perspectives. I have a whole novel, Beware the Tall Grass, that I am sending around now that is told in alternating perspectives. There is something that feels cinematic about it to me. I like being able to shift location and scene. It is another form of compression that can apply forward motion to a story. My greatest fault is impatience. Maybe it just helps me get to the story sooner.

DM: What did you expect and what did you get out of your MFA experience at Queens University?

EBM: I didn’t know what to expect but I wanted to get the eyes of some serious writers (peers and mentors) on my work and get feedback. There are so many fine teachers in the program. I enjoyed the readings and lectures, which made me more aware of some things I knew instinctively.

DM: Who were some of the writers-in-residence that you got to work with, and what did they offer?

EBM:I got different things from my mentors. Nathaniel Rich let me know that I was doing many things right and I learned a lot by reading his work. David Payne showed me how to write with emotional authenticity and modeled the writer’s journey to their natural subject. Susan Perabo let me know it was okay to write about regular people in regular situations. Steve Rinehart called me a “prose stylist,” which helped me to quit aspiring to write like someone else.

DM: You published “Religion” in the Antioch Review during your residency.

EBM: Yes, that was a huge confidence builder. I came out more confident with a bigger network, which is great, but I still had to do the hard work myself of submission, rejection, revision and the rest.

DM: And you also teach writing now. What do you believe can be taught in writing?

EBM: You can teach craft, but you can’t teach someone how to develop their voice or train them to make choices that avoid the pitfalls of bad writing. I teach online at The Loft and in person at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. I offer up examples of good writing of many types and exercises to help students tap into their ideas. I encourage them to rewrite and revise and offer submission tips as a way to spur them to create new work.  I talk a lot about the importance of detail and specificity and not being afraid to find the emotional core of the writing.

DM: Do you believe anyone can be a writer?

EBM: Anyone can write. Not everyone can write well. Thankfully, there are markets for all kinds of writing.

DM: I understand you were involved in a project to make a music playlist for your stories. Are there any specific examples you can share of a song you’ve associated to a story?

EBM: It was really fun and hard. The playlist are the brainchild of David Gutowski, who runs the largehearted boy site, a literature and music website that explores that spot in the Venn diagram where the two arts overlap (http://blog.largeheartedboy.com).

I paired the title story Lost Girls with Freedy Johnston’s “This Perfect World,” which contains devastating lines like “these pills don’t even let me cry.” Both narrators are finding ways to mourn the loss of an innocent girl and to cope with the feelings that come from being a survivor.

The story Harvest is paired with Iris Dement’s “Our Town,” since both explore what is like to live and age in a place with lines including “Up the street beside that red neon light/that’s where I met my baby on one hot summer night/ He was the tender and I ordered a beer/it’s been forty years and I’m still sitting here.”

DM: You’ve now succeeded with poetry, short stories, journalism. I think you’ve also done some dramatic works. You seem to be building as you move forward. Is novel writing an aspiration?

EBM: I finally got the courage to take on the novel form and I did it incrementally, working scene by scene until I had something I could try to make sense out of. I have been building in length and in confidence as I go. I saw myself as a short form writer but I have bigger stories to tell.

I’ve had two important things help me in my process, working with novelist Masha Hamilton through the AWP Writer to Writer program and working with Editor Brenda Copeland. I’ve learned so much about emotional authenticity, pacing and story structure from them both.

DM: What are you working on currently?

EBM: I’ve spent the last five years working on two novels, Beware the Tall Grass, which deals with the impact of past life memories on a family, and an untitled novel about a female astronomer in Hawaii. Tall Grass is making the rounds with indie presses. I think the Hawaii book may be best suited for a big publisher.

DM: I know that publication helped encourage me, personally.  Like, oh, okay, yes, I really ammeant to bewriting as opposed to taking tango lessons or exploring ocean life. But I always write whether I get published or not. Does publication matter?

EBM: I will write even if nobody publishes anything ever again. That said, as a former journalist I’m used to seeing my name in print and driven to have my work read so I submit like a motherfucker. I want eyes on the work. I want to make people feel stuff and this is the only way I know how to do that.

DM: What does literary success mean or look like to you?  Are where you want to be at this point in your life?

EBM: I have always been on my own timeline and done things at my own pace and this is no exception. My father and stepmother were writers so I had no illusions about money or fame. What I’ve sought (and think I’ve found) is to be part of a community of writers who love to read each other’s work and talk about it. Who are excited by ideas and wordplay. Who have curated a life that is rich in imagination and full of possibility and fully humane. I think I’m where I need to be.

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