Striving for Truth: An Interview With Michelle Ross by Curtis Smith

Michelle Ross is the author of the story collections There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award, and Shapeshifting, winner of the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Fiction Award (November 2021). Her fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, Witness, and other venues. Her work has been included in Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, and the Wigleaf Top 50, among other anthologies. She is fiction editor of Atticus

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Shapeshifting. I really enjoyed it—and it looks great. Can you tell us how you hooked up with Stillhouse Press?

Michelle Ross: Thanks, Curtis! I really appreciate you reading it and taking the time to talk with me.

I entered Shapeshifting into the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Fiction Contest, judged by the fabulous Danielle Evans, and it won.

CS: This is your second collection. Was this journey different than the first? If so, can you tell us in what ways? What advice would you give to a writer who’s putting together their second collection?

MR: My first collection, There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, has some recurring themes—science, horror films, feminism, etc.—but it’s kind of a loose conglomeration of stories, really. I wasn’t so much writing toward a particular project. With Shapeshifting, I knew early on that I was writing a book of stories about mothering and motherhood—and about how the mythology and cultural expectations of motherhood affect women and girls, whether not they have any interest in becoming mothers themselves. Not everything I wrote over the years in which I worked on Shapeshifting was about mothering/motherhood; those other stories went into different files, for different projects. I also wrote some motherhood-related stories that didn’t get included in this book. So, the conception of Shapeshifting was more intentional.

The publication journey, however, was very much like that of my first book. I published most of the stories in literary journals along the way. Then once I felt I had the right mix of stories, I started sending the manuscript out to presses, both contests and open-submission periods. It’s funny to me how before I’d published my first book, I imagined that once you published a book, publishing subsequent books would be easier somehow. When my first book was runner-up in a contest in which it lost to a writer who already had five books published, I remember thinking, why do writers with five books enter book contests? Soon I noticed that the phenomenon of multi-book authors entering book contests wasn’t at all rare and, in fact, kind of a norm for many short-story writers.

CS: I was interested to discover in your bio that you’re a science writer. I’m always interested in science and math and all the other left-brained realms that some see as distant from the creative side of things. I think there’s so much in the scientific world that one can use in their fiction writing. Do you find this to be the case? Or is the science side of things strictly a work thing that you want to leave behind when you sit down at your desk to create stories?

MR: Science regularly makes its way into my fiction. It’s a source of metaphor, among other fiction fodder. Also, I think science and fiction are quite similar pursuits. Both are methods by which we seek to learn about ourselves and the world we live in. Both are interested in examining questions and diving into mysteries. Both strive for truth.

CS: You’re also an editor at Atticus Review. I have a lot of respect for editors and the work they do—but I think I would have difficulty shifting gears from working on other folks’ stories and then clearing my head to work on my own. Is this ever a problem? If so, how do you deal with it?

MR: Editing a journal is a challenge sometimes, for sure—in terms of time, but also in terms of how it can affect my mood. That is, reading a lot of work in which authors aren’t attentive to word choice or the rhythms of their prose can get me down. Not only do I feel uninspired, I lapse into feeling depressed about writing altogether. Thankfully, though, this isn’t typical of my time spent reading submissions. I think I’ve been editing fiction for Atticus Review for about six years now? I wouldn’t have made it this long if even ten percent of my time reading submissions was like that.

Mostly, I find editing immensely rewarding. It’s thrilling to find stories in the queue that I love, that I can’t stop thinking about. Also, I really dig the work of editing. I’m one of those writers who much prefers the process of revision to that of writing a first draft. Certainly, it’s lovely when a piece in the submission queue is spot on, when it doesn’t need any edits at all, but my greatest satisfaction as an editor is working with authors to make their work even better.

As far as shifting gears goes, though, I’m an early-morning writer. As a rule, I don’t read submissions before I’ve done my own writing for the day. In fact, most weeks, I read submissions only a few days a week.

In addition, I have a great staff of fiction readers who make my job so, so much easier.

CS: I’m a morning writer as well—and an evening editor—and I know that creatively, I’m good for nothing in the afternoon. I encourage my students to try to understand their brains and how they work—I think it helps to work with rather than against one’s rhythms. Can you share your other writing habits with us?

MR: I agree with that sentiment, Curtis, yet, sadly, I’m good at forgetting how my brain works. For instance, I do a lot of my best writing in my head when I’m out on a run. Unfortunately, too often I skip runs to anxiously sweat over a story at my computer instead. I should put a sticky up on my computer monitor: “If you’re stuck, go for a run!”

I also do a lot of my best writing when I feel like I’m cheating on the other things I should be doing. As much as I sometimes envy people who have more free time to write, I think having lots of responsibilities to cheat on is weirdly good for my writing.

CS: I really enjoyed these stories—although it wasn’t always a comfortable enjoyment. I guess that had to do with the fact that many of the pieces focused on parenthood—and I no doubt read my own anxieties into the narratives. What do you see in the landscape of modern parenting that provides such rich material?

MR: I’ve come across a few essays and interviews recently in which writers discuss feeling they must defend parenthood as being worthy subject matter for literature. It hadn’t occurred to me before this that anyone would question the literary merits of parenthood. Now, motherhood, that’s another story, I think, because now we’re talking specifically about women, and there’s a long history of the material of women’s lives being considered less literary than the material of men’s lives. As for parenthood, and motherhood specifically, making rich material for literature, I’d say that motherhood is a huge source of tension and conflict in the lives of women and girls, whether or not they are mothers or intend to become mothers. And isn’t tension and conflict at the heart of fiction?

The stories in Shapeshifting grapple with these questions and many more: Can mothering one’s own children heal the wounds of a lack of mothering in her own life? How honest should one be with children? What harm do parents unknowingly do to their children despite their best efforts? What responsibility do parents bear for the people their children become? Is deriving material for one’s art from one’s children ethical?

This list makes Shapeshifting sound like a serious, somber book, but dear readers of this interview, I swear that many of these stories are rather funny.

CS: There is a lot of funny here—and I admire funny and wish I could write more, but I struggle with it, especially in light of what’s happened over these past four or five years. What lens do you hold to such a sometimes tragic world and use to offer your readers the gift of something that will make them smile?

MR: Honestly, I think I lean towards humor largely for selfish reasons. Life feels unbearable without it.

 CS: Your narrators are women whose main focuses are their children and immediate families—but a number also have a female friend, a confidant of some kind. I think female friendships are really interesting, both in real life and in fiction. Can you address the roles these female friends play—both in terms of the stories’ structures and in terms of their emotional landscapes?

MR: I love writing about female friendships, Curtis. In fact, I’m currently working on a book of linked stories that center on female friendships—specifically, high-school female friendships. I’ve long been puzzled by the notion that family and romantic relationships are somehow more powerful or more sacred than platonic friendships. We’re inundated with this message, right? If you marry, your spouse should be your best friend, the center of your relationship universe. That may be true for some people, and that’s fine and good, I suppose, but I think the idea that this is how it should be, that this is the “natural” way of things, is bullshit that stems from the patriarchal invention of the nuclear family. It’s certainly not been true of my own experience. Female friendships have been essential and central in my life. It’s important to me in fiction to represent that truth of my experience—that is, even when my female protagonists are married to men, even when the subject of the story is not female friendship, their friendships with other women are nonetheless central in their lives and their stories. Joy Williams has said every story should contain an animal within it to give its blessing; I kind of feel this way about female friendships. The notable exception in Shapeshifting is “A Mouth is a House for Teeth,” a story that takes the isolation and loneliness of early motherhood to an extreme. The only other woman in the protagonist’s life is the neighbor she watches from the windows of the home she and her young child never leave. No female friend makes an appearance in the story because the protagonist doesn’t have any friends, and I think it’s fair to say that this lack is integral to the bleakness of her situation.

CS: I was familiar with your flash fiction—and there are some great flash pieces here—but this is the first time I’ve read your longer stories. Were you a flash writer first—or did you start with the more traditional form and then discover flash? Do your pieces ever surprise you—a story you intended to be flash ends up wanting to be longer—and vice versa? What are the story elements that dictate what final form one of your pieces will take?

MR: I was a short story writer long before I ever wrote flash fiction. In my MFA days, I discovered the very short fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Grace Paley, Diane Williams, and many others, but for whatever reason, I didn’t try writing a flash fiction myself until a decade or so later. I think partly it just didn’t even occur to me that I could write flash fiction. That sounds goofy, I know, but before I started writing short stories, I felt that way about short stories, too. That is, growing up, as much as I loved reading and as much as I wanted to be a writer, I couldn’t really imagine a life as a writer because not only did I not know any literary writers, I didn’t even know any adults who worked with words. I was the first person in my family to go to college; writers were like Martians to me. Then, in graduate school, although I was reading flash fiction, most of my peers and my teachers, the real human writers I knew, were writing novels and/or traditional-length short stories, so I suppose that’s why flash fiction still seemed otherworldly to me.

Whether I write flash fiction or longer stories has so much to do with my mood. I think I naturally gravitate toward the kinds of stories that will work with whatever length that is at the time. The last year, I’ve been in a long-story mood. At other times in my life, it’s been the other way around, and I’ve written flash fiction non-stop for many months.

CS: As we hopefully find ourselves in the tail end of the pandemic, may I ask what your experience has been this past year? I hear of some folks who had trouble working—and others who were very productive. What was your experience—and what role did your art play in your life during these strange times?

MR: I struggled hard to write in the first few months of the pandemic, despite having had a solid routine of writing almost every morning for many years. The second half of March 2020, not only did I spend my mornings frantically scouring the news, I obsessively recorded Covid case numbers in the world, in the United States, and in my state of Arizona. Then a few months later came the murder of George Floyd, and my obsession with reading the news in the mornings, instead of writing, was renewed.

But it wasn’t just what was happening in the world that made writing challenging, it was having to adapt to the at first temporary, and, eventually, permanent reality of working from home. My home office was no longer a dedicated writing sanctuary. For the first year of the pandemic, I was doing both my day job and my fiction writing at the same desk and on the same computer. This was incredibly challenging to my writing. I couldn’t focus with all the job clutter. Finally, I got a second desk and a second computer, and now my home office is divided into two separate work spaces. This has made all the difference.

CS: What’s next?

MR: My flash fiction collection, They Kept Running, recently won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction and is forthcoming in April 2022. And I’m working on a few projects at once, as is my tendency. One is a collection of stories inspired by horror films. Another is the project I mentioned earlier—a linked collection of stories that take place within a Texas high school and that center largely on female friendships. At the same time, I’m trying to find a home for a collection of collaborative stories I wrote with my good friend, Kim Magowan.

Curtis Smith’s most recent novel, The Magpie’s Return, was published last summer and was named one of Kirkus’s Indie Picks of the Year.

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