Michelle Ross is the author of three short story collections: There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award; Shapeshifting, winner of the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Fiction Award (November 2021); and They Kept Running, winner of the 2021 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (forthcoming in Spring 2022). Her fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, Witness, and many other venues. Her work is included in Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, the Wigleaf Top 50, and other anthologies. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review.
Danielle Petty and Harrison McCroskey are English writing majors at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, where they interviewed Michelle Ross about her new short story collection Shapeshifting as part of their coursework.
HM and DP: How did you go about creating the stories in Shapeshifting? Did you organize your thoughts first or simply start writing?
MR: I don’t ever do much in way of organization before I begin a new story. Usually, I start writing without having much idea at all about where I’m going. I begin with a crumb—an image, a conflict, a setting, overheard dialogue—and just follow that crumb kind of blindly as it begins to accrue more crumbs, as it begins to reveal what it might become. Once in a while, however, a story idea comes to me in more of a chunk than a crumb. Rather than a tiny crumb that could become almost anything, I might have a hefty chunk of a scone, say. I can see that the story wants to be a scone. Before I write a single word, I have a more or less intact, albeit hazy, idea of what that story is. “A Mouth is a House for Teeth” is one of those stories. From the start I knew I wanted to write a story in which a mother was trapped in a house with her young child. I wanted to capture that feeling of how incredibly isolating motherhood can be, and I felt I needed the mother’s situation to be extreme, a bit outside of reality, to get there. Various components and scenes came to me almost all at once while I was floating in a sensory deprivation tank. I hurried to a café after and wrote for hours, trying to get everything onto paper. That initial first draft writing continued for days after that, maybe weeks. Then I spent some time thinking about how best to order those pieces, what was missing, what could be cut, and I typed up what I had. Organization comes later in the process always—after I have something concrete to organize.
HM and DP: What’s the oldest story in Shapeshifting? Or can you name one piece that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?
MR: The oldest story is “Lifecycle of an Ungrateful Daughter.” It’s one of those stories I wrote (years ago before I wrote many of the stories in my first book even) and then set aside and forgot about entirely. In this case, though, I had shown the draft to a friend of mine. Years later, she asked whatever happened to the story; she said it was one of her favorites of mine. I had to dig around a while to find it. I’m not certain why I put that one away, but that story does feel closer to autobiography than I usually write, so maybe I was just uncomfortable with that.
HM and DP: One of my favorite sentences in “Lifecycle of an Ungrateful Daughter” deromanticizes parenthood: “Her humiliation gave you a smidgen of pleasure” (129). We like how your stories describe the gritty truths about raising human beings. Do you wonder if people might misinterpret your stories? Is it helpful to imagine how readers will react to your work?
MR: For me, one of the most profound pleasures of reading fiction are those moments when a narrator or character says something I’ve thought but haven’t heard someone say aloud before, or maybe that I haven’t quite thought, but when I hear it, it rings so true it’s almost like the writer voiced something I was feeling without my even knowing it. That’s also often what makes a great comedian. As readers and audience members, we want that feeling of Oh my god, yes!
That said, sure, a line like the one you quoted isn’t going to go over well with everyone. Some people aren’t comfortable with gritty truths. Do they not recognize such truths? Are they in denial? Are they repressed? Do they lack a sense of humor? I don’t know. But I don’t write for people like that. I write for people like myself who want to hear people say the things others are afraid to say or didn’t even know they were thinking.
By the way, I can’t help but think here of the title of Curtis Sittenfeld’s story collection You Think It, I’ll Say It, which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it.
HM and DP: Which story in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
MR: “After Pangaea” comes to mind because the part about camping out in a van for five nights for a kindergarten spot is something I really did do. The true story is pretty much just as wild, except there was no proselytizing husband and no infant. Police did come and kick people off the street, though in real life, that was on the fourth day, so the group (twenty-something vehicles, including two campers) spent two nights camping out at one guy’s house (the guy who was #1 in line). That ended up being the last year of that. The school put an end to that madness by changing their registration process.
HM and DP: Which story is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
MR: “The Sand and the Sea” and “Lifecycle of an Ungrateful Daughter” feel like misfits insofar as they go into daughters’ points of view versus mothers, the latter especially because the daughter in that case isn’t even a mother herself. But both those stories are also very much about motherhood and so ultimately seem to belong. The narrator in “Lifecycle of an Ungrateful Daughter” addresses her mother as “you” and narrates what she imagines to be her mother’s experience, her mother’s point of view.
HM and DP: What was the final story you wrote or significantly revised for Shapeshifting, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?
MR: Up until stories get published, I’m often still tweaking them, so I think I was probably actively making revisions to several stories at once. The two that I believe were the last two pieces to be finished are “After Pangaea” and “Keeper Four.” “Keeper Four” was especially important to the book’s wholeness to me because its protagonist isn’t a mother, and she has intentionally made that choice not to become a mother.
HM and DP: We like how the dialogue reveals a lot about the characters, especially in “After Pangaea.” How would you describe your dialogue style, and what do you think makes dialogue strong?
MR: Thank you! Dialogue is one of my favorite things to write. When done well, it’s also one of my favorite things to read. In real life, I love listening to other people’s conversations, too, at least the interesting ones (plenty of real-life dialogue is miserably boring and not worth tuning into). Obviously, in fiction, the dialogue generally needs to be tighter, not quite entirely realistic, but I think good fictional dialogue captures what makes real-life dialogue interesting. That is, it should reveal who the speakers are, how they think and see the world. It should reveal the relationship between the people speaking, the power dynamics, what they want from each other, etc. It should create tension and subtext. One of my favorite things about listening to people talk to each other in real life and on the page is how they miscommunicate—talking past each other, over each other, not quite saying what they really mean, deeply misunderstanding each other.
HM and DP: Your stories have good pacing. We noticed that “Winkelsucher” is among the shortest. How did you decide on its length?
MR: A lot of the times I know from the start that I’m writing a long story or a very short story. I’m in a particular sort of mood and so approaching the page in a particular sort of way. When writing short, for instance, I’m digging as fast as possible toward some focal point, be it a word or phrase or an image or metaphor. If I’m writing long, I have lots of time and space to wander. That said, sometimes the material shows me what it wants to be. I might think I’m writing a longer story, but then I inadvertently come to the end of the story much sooner than I anticipated. It just feels like the ending. “Winkelsucher” is one of the older stories in the book, so I can’t say I remember vividly how it came together.
HM and DP: Where do your creative ideas come from? Do you plan for certain parts of your day, such as a walk, to imagine a story?
MR: When I’m really present and observant, I find ideas all over the place, more ideas than I can handle. I wish I could say I was always in this state of mind, but sometimes work, the news, and other life stuff gets in the way, and I realize I’m not paying such close attention. When I realize this has happened, I try to practice at paying attention again. One exercise I do from time to time is give myself a little journaling assignment of making a list of five or however many “interesting” observations or thoughts or images each day. This simple little exercise helps get me back into a more observant, present state of mind. It also produces a record of little crumbs that might become stories.
Also, yes, physical movement, such as walking or running, is also enormously helpful in my writing. It’s how I work out story problems, push past stumbling blocks.
If all else fails, I write to a prompt. I’m not very good at writing to prompts—that is, I’m not very good at following their rules. But that doesn’t matter as long as they get me writing. Getting going is really the point. A writing prompt can be as simple and seemingly uninteresting as, say, describing a coffee mug or some other object in my gaze. Eventually, something interesting will come of the exercise if I keep at it.
HM and DP: What is your revision process like?
MR: I love and relate to how George Saunders describes writing and revision in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. I basically keep writing and revising until nothing, or almost nothing, about the story nags at me anymore. In the beginning, much of what I’ve written may nag. So I replace words, add words, cut words, and rearrange words until bit by bit, I’m satisfied with what’s on the page.
Sometimes along the way, I also need to write “outside” of the story. Sometimes I have to retype a story multiple times. Sometimes I have to switch the point of view numerous times until something clicks. Sometimes I have to cut a story up. Sometimes I have to rearrange the pieces. Sometimes I have to mark up a draft with colored markers. Sometimes I have to put the story aside for years.
HM and DP: In your interview with Lilia Shrayfer, you say you work on multiple projects at a time, often leaving a project for “weeks or months or years” and returning to it with a fresh perspective. How would you describe your transitions? Are you systematically going through a series of projects or sporadically jumping from project to project based on how you feel?
MR: Mostly I kind of sporadically jump around from project to project. I don’t mean I jump around day after day, though. Typically, I might work diligently on a particular story for several days or weeks, depending on whether we’re talking about flash fiction or a longer short story. Then if/when I start to feel like I’m no longer making progress or I can’t see the piece clearly anymore, I put it aside and pull out some other story that I had set aside in the past, or maybe I start something new. Some days I might open up five different stories-in-progress before I find the one that I feel like I can make progress on again. On the really lucky days, I dig around my files and finish three stories all in one writing session. These are typically stories that were already close to being done or maybe even were already done, but I didn’t know it yet, not until I gave myself some distance. This method of writing sometimes results in me forgetting about stories. I’ll dig through my files and not even recognize the names of some of the Word documents. But that’s fine because eventually I do find my way back to these pieces, and I think they’re better off for having been forgotten for a little while. I’m no longer attached to every sentence. It’s far easier to cut the lines that might be good but that don’t belong. It’s also far easier for me to tell the difference between what rings true and what is bullshit.
HM and DP: What is your day job, and how does it influence your writing?
MR: I’m a Manager of Assessments at an educational technology company. For many years before that, I was a senior science assessment writer. Basically, I made standardized science tests (multiple choice questions, etc.) Although I have less time for writing science assessments these days, I do still write science assessment content when time allows. It’s oftentimes fun and creative work, and sometimes the science works its way into stories.
HM and DP: Does using social media help or hurt your writing opportunities?
MR: Social media can definitely help writers insofar as it helps them build a writing community and an audience for their writing. It’s also a good way to learn about new opportunities, submission calls, etc. However, social media comes with some serious drawbacks and risks. It’s time-consuming and so can take precious time away from writing and reading. Just as social media does in every other aspect of people’s lives, it can make a writer feel less than. But worst of all for me is that I don’t like how phony and performative some interactions on social media feel. I left Twitter after being on it for only a year or so partly because of that, but also because I found Twitter dizzying, exhausting, overstimulating. I understood that leaving Twitter would probably lose me readers, but my wellbeing is worth it. Also, I believe that while social media may be helpful in building an audience, if a writer works hard enough at their craft and publishes good work, readers will find their way to the writing regardless of whether the writer is on social media. The one social media site I do use is Facebook. I think from time to time about leaving it, too, but I find Facebook far more tolerable than Twitter. I have more meaningful interactions with people on Facebook, and I would truly miss that if I left. I’m just careful to limit my time there. I don’t go onto Facebook every day. I rarely spend more than 15-20 minutes on it on a given day.