A CONVERSATION WITH Michelle Ross
BY ARAM MRJOIAN
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (Moon City Press, 2017), winner of the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. The collection was also runner-up for the Juniper Prize in Short Fiction, and a finalist for the New American Press Fiction Prize and the Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest. Her fiction has appeared in the Common, Cream City Review, Hobart, New World Writing, TriQuarterly, and right here in the Adroit Journal!
Her work has won prizes from Gulf Coast, Main Street Rag Publishing, and Sixfold. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review and a consulting editor for the 2018 Best Small Fictions anthology. A native of Texas, she received her BA from Emory University and her MFA and MA from Indiana University. She currently lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband and son. She works as a science writer.
To start, how would you describe your short stories? When people ask about your work, what do you tell them?
MR: I’m terrible at talking about my own work, so often I stammer and say, “I’m terrible at talking about my own work.”
That or I talk about structure. I’ve long been interested in experimenting with structure in fiction—using the conventions of forms outside of fiction to tell stories, or just rethinking what a story is and what it can look like. This interest is partly practical. For a long time, I struggled to write a more traditional-looking story, meaning a story that didn’t rely on some sort of structural device outside of Freytag’s pyramid. I needed the crutch of a form to follow. The first two stories I ever published, both in this collection, are “If My Mother Was the Final Girl” and “Taxidermy Q&A.” The structure of the former relies so much on Carol Clover’s fabulous book, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, and the structure of the latter was inspired by online taxidermy forums. Some of the other stories in my collection also have unconventional structures—“Key Concepts in Ecology” and “Unit 7: Exploring Fossils,” in particular. But I think that even some of the stories that look more conventional on the page skirt expectations in other ways—“Prologue,” for instance.
I also tend to talk about my interest in writing (and reading) fiction that defamiliarizes the world. I’m especially drawn to fiction about worlds that seem largely realistic, yet slightly strange.
And I might say that I’m a bit obsessed with writing about horror films, science, and fairy tales.
In There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You’s opening story, “Atoms,” one of the characters opines, “Classification is bullshit.” In some ways, this statement feels like an axiom for the collection, because, as you mentioned, many of your stories toy with or shirk genre conventions. Do you think about genre when you’re writing stories? Is there a tendency to try and place a piece in one box or another? I guess I’m thinking in particular about stories like “If My Mother Was the Final Girl” or “Key Concepts in Ecology,” which touch on tropes of horror and sci-fi respectively.
MR: I do think about genre, but not in order to classify stories. As I touched on already, I’m particularly fond of stories that are mostly realistic but that are slightly strange, that flirt somewhat with the boundaries between realism and other genres. I’m fond of stories that cause me to question the world as I think I know it. For instance, in “Key Concepts in Ecology,” that there’s a mysterious, unidentified animal on the loose that a team of snipers is hunting seems science-fictiony, but is it implausible? I don’t think so. Not what with genetic experimentation, the continual discovery of new species, and citizens illegally importing animals from other parts of the world. There are a variety of possible explanations for the mysterious animal. Not to mention that crazy shit happens in real life all the time. Of course, the why and what of the animal are not what the story is about.
Classification can sometimes get in the way of a reader’s experience of a piece. If a piece of writing is affecting, who cares, for example, that it seems to be neither simply fiction nor nonfiction but somewhere in between?
Also, I don’t like being pigeonholed. I have rather eclectic tastes, and I want to write whatever excites me at a particular moment and not waste energy worrying that a story is too different from other pieces I’ve written. Really the only rules I have is that the writing has to feel honest, that it has to be authentic to my voice/vision, and that I have to be satisfied with the piece before letting it go (as opposed to settling).
Another thing that makes that line in “Atoms” so interesting is that many of these stories touch on biology, astronomy, and other scientific fields. What kind of research did you have to do to add scientific elements to your stories? How do you think hard science lends itself to the craft of fiction?
MR: I work for a living as a science writer—writing science assessment content for grades K–12 (e.g., multiple-choice questions and so forth). And I used to write for a science program on public radio. So I guess it’s natural that I would end up mining science for my fiction. Sometimes science is the inspiration for a story. But I also intentionally look toward science a lot of the time when I get stuck in a story. Because it’s such a rich source of metaphor, imagery, and language. I’ll get to writing about some scientific process or whatnot, and before I know it, the story is moving forward again. The science helps reveal character or push the plot forward in some way. It’s a craft tool.
In addition to science providing content for fiction, I think that I approach fiction writing in a somewhat scientific way. I feel like I’m conducting experiments—to do with plot, characterization, story structure. If ____ happens to my character, what will my character do? If I structure the story this way instead, what will be the effect? If I alter the point of view, how will the story change? I tend to think of the construction of a story as a puzzle I’m trying to solve. I manipulate variable after variable until the story starts to click into place.
Scientists and writers have much in common. We’re curious, we’re imaginative, we’re problem solvers, and our work is in large part an endeavor to understand ourselves and the world.
That makes a lot of sense. I hadn’t thought about those similarities before. For me, I think one reason a lot of the scientific facts really resonate is because many of the stories—either in perspective or presence—deal with children. Kids in your stories are constantly learning, and you deftly capture the youthful anxiety (and real adult anxiety) of always wanting to be in the know. What attracts you to writing about childhood and adolescence?
MR: I’m not really sure why I write about childhood so much other than to say that I’m interested in how children are constantly changing, their understanding of the world constantly being revised. It’s a time when most of us feel in the dark about so much. Partly this is just the nature of growing up. You acquire knowledge bit by bit along the way. But also adults often intentionally withhold stuff from kids and outright lie to them (e.g., Santa, the Tooth Fairy). A friend of mine told me about a couple she knows who have chosen to withhold the fact of death from their kids. They see a dead animal alongside the road, and the parents tell the kids that the animal is simply sleeping. I suppose the idea is to preserve innocence, to not burden the kids with the cruel facts of life. But not only does it seem to me that this would only work if you live a life of enormous privilege, I also think that, much of the time, withholding does more damage than good. Eventually, these kids are going to find out about death. How are they going to feel about their conceptions of life being so radically revised? How are they going to feel about their parents having lied to them about such a fundamental truth of existence? Also, kids aren’t nearly as innocent as adults like to imagine. If you pretend that cruelty doesn’t exist, for instance, how then do you prepare kids to handle cruelty when it happens to them or they witness it? If you don’t talk about cruelty, how do you teach kids to be kind? I’m kind of going off on a tangent, I guess. My point is that childhood is a time of radical change, and in many cases, that’s accompanied by feelings of frustration and betrayal.
But also wonder and imagination. I don’t want to leave that out. I have a seven-year-old son, so as with science, childhood is part of my day-to-day life. My fiction is often inspired by him—his imagination and the delightful things he says. I owe the story “Like Pulling Teeth” to him. When he was about three or four and learning that kids lose their primary teeth, he asked earnestly whether other parts of the body fall off and get replaced too, like eyeballs. And he was creeped out from the get-go about the idea of a Tooth Fairy snatching his teeth from underneath his pillow. He didn’t want to give up his lost teeth, nor did he want a stranger in his bedroom while he was asleep. So we left a note on the back porch asking the Tooth Fairy to leave money, but to please not come into the house and take his tooth.
I’m also inspired by my son’s keen understanding of the world. I often think he understands people better than a lot of adults seem to understand themselves and each other. Children are far wiser than a lot of adults give them credit for.
At 23 stories, There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You is a robust body of work. How long did it take you to put the collection together?
MR: The oldest story in the collection was published about 14 years ago, so about 12 or 13 years with the caveat that there were several years between the earlier stories and the later stories in which I didn’t get much writing done. After completing my MFA and getting a full-time job outside of academia, not to mention moving to a city where I didn’t have a writing community, I struggled for a while. I wasn’t disciplined. The bulk of the collection was probably written between about 2010 and 2015.
This might be a loaded question, but out of the stories in the book, do you have a favorite? Is there one that really stands out?
MR: I don’t have a single favorite. I have a hard time even naming a few favorites. I feel like I’m betraying the others. If I must choose favorites, today I’m going to say that “Key Concepts in Ecology,” “If My Mother Was the Final Girl,” “If You Were a Serial Killer,” “How Many Ways Can You Die on a Bus?” “Virgins,” “Like Pulling Teeth,” and “Sex Ed” are my favorites. Having written that sentence, I now feel sad that “Atoms,” “Prologue,” “Pam’s Head,” “Cinéma Vérité,” “An Impromptu Lesson on Black Holes,” “Rattlesnake Roundup,” and “When the Cottonmouths Come to Feed” aren’t on that list.
Also, I notice that my first list doesn’t include much flash fiction. Not because I don’t love the flash pieces. I think I’m a little biased toward the longer stories as a result of the enormous labor involved in writing them. I’m a painfully slow writer. While it has taken me several years to finish a few of these flash fictions, the time and energy I put into the longer stories feels so much more substantial. Take “If You Were a Serial Killer.” That story went through about eight years’ worth of drastic revisions. I felt foolish at times for not giving up on it. I think it’ll always be special to me because it took such a long time to finish. I seem to be a person who gets more satisfaction out of completing something that was difficult than something that was relatively easy in comparison.
There are some phenomenal one-liners that flow throughout these stories. The prose is taut, but never feels rushed. With that said, what does your revision process look like? Do you focus mostly on the sentence level or big picture? Or both?
MR: All of the above.
Like I said, I’m a slow writer. The unfortunate side effect of that is that I have a tendency to revise both sentences and the big picture before I’ve even finished a rough draft of a piece. Or at least I think this is an unfortunate habit. Anything that delays the completion of the first draft seems risky. It’s too easy to lose momentum. On the other hand, I don’t see much point in following through on the original idea if several pages in, I have a better idea.
All these early revisions don’t save me much from later revisions. After I have a draft, I still revise and revise and revise. There are three stories I’m working on right now that have all been in the works for three years or so now. I have dozens of drafts of all three—some radically different from one another in structure, setting, etc. I’m always telling people that I feel like a highly inefficient writer, but it is what it is. I have to keep messing around with these stories until I’m satisfied, no matter how long it takes.
I suppose that my chief focus during much of the revision process is the big picture, that it’s largely something to do with the big picture that prevents me from feeling the stories are close to done. However, I’m always always tinkering with sentences, and sentences aren’t really secondary or even separate from the big picture. Sentences dictate the big picture.
And for the closing question, what are you reading right now? What books and writers have caught your attention lately?
MR: I read Yoko Ogawa for the first time earlier this year—her collection of novellas, The Diving Pool, as well as Revenge, which I’ve seen at times described as a novel and at other times described as a collection of stories. I’ve become kind of obsessed with her writing—the way she blends elements of horror and realism, as well as the way the tales in Revenge connect to one another. Sometimes a story, clearly from the beginning, connects back in some way to the previous story; in other cases, the connection amounts to a small detail that appears later in the story.
I’ve been slowly savoring Eric Puchner’s second story collection, Last Day on Earth. He’s one of my all-time favorite short story writers.
The last book I finished was Julia Leigh’s novel, The Hunter. It’s a quiet, hypnotic study in character that I couldn’t put down. And most recently, I began reading Samantha Hunt’s novel Mr. Splitfoot and The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. I’m loving both so far.
While they’re not collected into a book just yet, I’ve been loving the stories Dana Diehl and Melissa Goodrich have been writing together, inspired by their work teaching at the same elementary school. One of them, “Spy Girl,” was published recently in the Adroit Journal!
To learn more about Michelle Ross, you can visit her online here.
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Aram Mrjoian is a contributor at Book Riot and the Chicago Review of Books. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Millions, Kenyon Review Online, Joyland, Colorado Review, Gigantic Sequins, Tahoma Literary Review, the Masters Review, and many other publications. He is currently working toward his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University, where he is the Assistant Managing Editor of TriQuarterly.
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