Luke Rolfes: Michelle, I had the privilege of reading and enjoying two of your books which came out in the last two years: Shapeshifting from Stillhouse Press and They Kept Running from University of North Texas Press (Katherine Anne Porter Prize Winner). Shapeshifting is a collection of 14 mostly longer stories while They Kept Running is all flash and micro-fiction.I was wondering if you might talk about the construction of these two projects. Were you crafting these books simultaneously? Did you set out to write a book that was all short fiction and then one that was flash fiction, and how did you go about determining which story ideas belonged with which manuscript?
Michelle Ross: Thanks so much, Luke! Yes, I wrote these two books simultaneously. Shapeshifting was a more fully formed idea of a book before They Kept Running was. With Shapeshifting, I knew early on that I wanted to write a collection of stories that examined mothering and motherhood. I made that decision before I had completed even half the stories yet, but the stories I had written were various lengths, several fairly long, and I had ideas for other long stories I wanted to write.
Before and after conceiving of Shapeshifting, however, I was writing a lot of flash fiction, and I completed the first draft of They Kept Running slightly sooner than I did Shapeshifting. As I was collecting and arranging, I made a list of all the flashes I’d written over the years that were related to motherhood. The decision as to which belonged in which book was largely a matter of how they interacted with the other stories I was collecting for those two books. For instance, “The Sand and the Sea” seems to me a counterpart to a longer story in Shapeshifting, “Life Cycle of an Ungrateful Daughter.” The questions in “Winkelsucher” and “The Pregnancy Game” are so central to the exploration of motherhood in Shapeshifting that the book not only seemed stronger with them, but I thought the stories were stronger when in conversation with that set of stories than with the flashes in They Kept Running. The flash that was toughest for me to place, because I thought it belonged equally to both books, is “Manhandle.” My editors at Stillhouse made that decision for me by recommending that I remove it from Shapeshifting.
LR: I’m glad you brought up the flash fiction pieces that appeared in Shapeshifting, because I was going to ask about those. I’m happy they were included in the “conversation” of Shapeshifting, and it would be hard for me to imagine the collection without them.
One other big-picture idea I’ve been curious about: Having two books released relatively close to one another, do they “fight for your affection,” so to speak?
MR: Well, I think the biggest thing is that book promotion is draining, and after six months of thinking about promoting Shapeshifting, I was worn out by the time They Kept Running was published and couldn’t muster up much energy for anything more. I feel I shortchanged They Kept Running in that regard, and it’s kind of a bummer. I am very proud of this book, and I hate to let it down. But mental health is important, too, and book promotion is my very least part of being a writer.
LR: Let’s talk about Shapeshifting. These stories all touch on the subject of motherhood in some way, and characters often refreshingly explore the weirdness and rawness of having to raise a child who totally redefines and changes one’s life, not always for the best. All the characters in these pieces (not just the moms) are incredibly human and idiosyncratic. They all seem to have ceilings and floors, expectations and things that they are willing (and not willing) to concede. Can you talk a little bit about how these characters came into focus? Do you see them as vehicles for ideas you wanted to express, or did you imagine them as real people navigating real predicaments and circumstances?
MR: That’s an interesting question. Sometimes characters seem to begin more as vehicles for ideas—maybe even a lot of the time?—and I think there may be good reasons for that. I always want to be pushing against what’s expected, and I think being a little idea-focused helps me accomplish that. But if my characters don’t evolve and flesh out as I draft and revise, I lose interest in them and the story. Stories that remain more focused on ideas than on characters tends to make me feel cringey, at least when I’m the one writing them.
LR: I know exactly what you mean. To me, ideas are, sometimes, only as interesting as the characters interacting with them. Some of my favorite characters in Shapeshifting appeared in the opening piece called “After Pangaea” which centers around a mom “camping out” in line for days in an attempt to register a spot for her son in a good kindergarten. Her husband, Pete, is no help---choosing instead to spend his time with his online, cult-like following. What inspired this story?
MR: Well, the camping out part is pretty much straight-up truth. I actually did sleep in a van for three nights, followed by my husband sleeping in the van for two nights (I think I have that math right) to get our son into the Montessori school he’d been attending for preschool. I didn’t have an infant in tow, and my husband is not a creepy daddy blogger, at least not that I know of, but the premise of families camping out for five days to get their kids into a school was born of that real and surreal experience. Yes, several of the families rented RVs. Yes, people who lived near the school complained, and, yes, eventually, we all got kicked off the street by the cops and moved the caravan to some dude’s front yard. Yes, all of this is embarrassing. Present me shakes her head.
Anyway, I took notes. I didn’t imagine the story going in the direction it ultimately did, but that’s part of the fun of writing fiction.
LR: Oh, wow. I figured there was some truth to that story, but I had no idea parents had to go to those lengths!
Let’s shift to your newest book. They Kept Running is just out from University of North Texas Press. Unlike Shapeshifting, it’s all flash and micro-fiction. Can you share a little about your process in writing flash versus longer short stories? How do your goals with writing and language change?
MR: With almost every distinction I think to make between writing flash and writing longer stories, exceptions quickly come to mind. For example, I want to say I fret less over flash fiction, but while longer stories have a lot more elements to juggle, I can just as easily fret over a one-page story, tweaking it for years on end until the pieces snap into place in a way that satisfies me. On the other hand, once in a while I’m lucky enough to draft and revise a flash in a single day, the story feeling like it emerged magically from the ether. That never happens for me with longer stories.
With flash, I can get away more easily with not bothering to learn much more about the characters’ lives beyond the little world of the story. I can dwell on a moment or on an image or on a single word. I find it easier to follow instincts in flash without overanalyzing why this choice or that choice.
LR: Yeah. I get what you are saying. It’s not unreasonable to say there is little to no difference in writing flash versus short fiction, and it’s also not unreasonable to say there’s a big difference. Both answers make sense to me. Maybe the only inarguable difference is time?
One thing I noticed is that your flash fictions sometimes share an associative link and “talk to” the stories around them. “Tobe’s Baby” is about an infant nearly drowning in a water park, and then the story immediately following is called “I’m Just Talking about Water.” How did you go about putting this book together? Did you go by organizational feel or have a specific arc in mind?
MR: I’m so happy you noticed, Luke. I really wanted these stories to talk to each other; I wanted to juxtapose them in ways that feel meaningful and intentional because that’s always a delight for me as a reader. One of the things I did was make a notecard for each story and jot down themes and keywords, as well as images in the beginnings and endings of the stories. It was then kind of like solving a puzzle that doesn’t really have one perfect, correct solution, but that does have better solutions and worse solutions.
These are all stories about girls and women, though one is narrated by a fish, and they span childhood, young adulthood, and more middle-aged adulthood. I noticed at some point that they could be fairly evenly divided up into those three phases of life. By dividing the stories in this way, the collection as a whole seemed to acquire a narrative arc it didn't have when the stories were more randomly ordered. Also, I’m always a fan of breaks between text.
LR: The notecards are a great idea. I might have to steal that! Another theme I noticed that pops up several times in this collection is horror/slasher movies---Elvira, Hitchcock, The Scream Queen---and you often juxtapose that theme with sexuality. I love that you draw inspiration from these sometimes-campy films. Why do you think the idea of horror popped up so often in this book?
MR: I’m a horror film fan. Mostly I prefer more progressive, thought-provoking horror films (e.g., Get Out, Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby). They get at truths that other genres don’t. But I also enjoy less thinky horror films if they’re artful and beautiful, like so many of Dario Argento’s giallos. Horror films are like fairy tales for me in how they resonate, how they make up part of the lens through which I see the world. They’re always there lurking in the recesses of my mind. They’re a go-to source for inspiration.
LR: Night of the Living Dead is definitely a favorite of mine. I watch the original every Halloween. One theory I’ve been trying to flesh out---and I think your work supports this---is that stories/movies can’t be enjoyably scary unless there is an undercurrent of dark humor/absurdity to them. (Example: The mom in Night of the Living Dead is so worried about her daughter, and then her daughter ends up killing/eating her.) On the other side of the coin, stories/movies are rarely funny (like really funny) unless they are also a little bit evil. Do you think there is any truth to this theory?
MR: I totally agree about the dark humor. I think great horror films and great comedians have a lot in common. They’re so affecting because they get at painful truths about the real world we live in, and they do this in such a way that brings a little pleasure, and relief, where there might otherwise just be dread. And yes, I think the dark humor that taps into very real fears and anxieties is also a big part of what makes these films scary.
As a person who adores dark humor, I’m going to shy away from the word “evil.” “Wicked” feels more comfortable. I definitely think wickedness is a key ingredient in humor.
LR: I can’t say enough about these two fantastic collections, and I can’t wait to see what’s next from you. Do you have any projects in the works? What are you working on right now?
MR: I’m working on more story collections, it seems. One of them is composed of stories that re-envision characters from horror films, including King Kong and The Bride of Frankenstein. Another is composed of stories that center on characters, mostly students, in a fictional Texas high school. The first story I wrote for this collection is loosely based on the Steubenville rape case. Given the subject matter, it probably sounds odd to say that the story was a blast to write, but it was. It’s told from a collective first-person point of view, and the teenage girl behind that voice is deliciously despicable. I’ve written several companion stories since. Outside of those two projects, I’ve been writing other random stories, mostly flash fictions, that I throw into a file together and that might eventually congeal into a book.
LR: Can’t wait to read! Thanks so much for sharing. You can read Michelle Ross’ flash fiction “My Sister’s Monkey” in the newest issue of Laurel Review.
Bio: Michelle Ross is the author of three short fiction collections, There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Press Fiction Award and Finalist for the 2017 Foreward INDIES Book of the Year Award for Short Stories, Shapeshifting, winner of the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Story Award (forthcoming in November 2021), and They Kept Running, winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (forthcoming in Spring 2022). Her fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Gulf Coast, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, TriQuarterly, Witness, and elsewhere. Her work is included in Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, the Wigleaf Top 50, and will be included in the forthcoming Norton anthology, Flash Fiction America. She serves as fiction editor of Atticus Review and was a consulting editor for the 2018 Best Small Fictions anthology. A native of Texas, she received her B.A. from Emory University and her M.F.A and M.A. from Indiana University.