Fiction that Multitasks: An Interview with Michelle Ross

photo of author Michelle Ross

Reading a writer for the first time is like making a new friend. As you delve into the work, the writer’s unique voice and sensibilities become familiar, and over time, even when you put the book aside, the rhythm of the writer’s sentences linger in your consciousness, much like a friend’s voice pops into your head even though you haven’t spoken in weeks. When I started reading the first story in Michelle Ross’s new collection, we were strangers, but as I got to know her characters and tuned in to the music of her language, we soon became acquaintances, and by the end of the collection, Ross and I were friends in that strange special way that writers and readers connect through space and time.

Ross’ debut collection, There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, won the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award and was published in February by Moon City Press. Purchase a copy here.

Book Cover for Michelle Ross' story collection

Ross recently shared her thoughts on writing, editing, and the joys of paying attention to landfills, dead skin cells, and the natural world.

Q: There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You is an intriguing title. How does it reflect the recurring themes featured in the collection?

A: All of the protagonists in this book grapple with either information that has been withheld from them or with what they don’t understand. Also, quite a few of these stories deal with adolescence, a time when we all feel in the dark about so much.

But I chose the title for the book more on instinct than anything else. I knew that I wanted the book’s title to come from a line within a story rather than the title of one of the book’s stories. (I didn’t want to weight one story more than the others, especially not with twenty-three stories in the collection.) “There’s so much they haven’t told you” comes from dialogue within the first story in the collection. Pretty much as soon as I considered it as a potential book title, I knew it was right. It was a physical reaction.

Q: One of my favorites in the book is “Sex Ed.” Tell us about it.

A: One morning when I dropped my son off at school, I saw a junior high girl transporting an electronic baby to class in a baby carrier. The idea behind this assignment is that being responsible for caring for an electronic baby for a week will show kids just how difficult caring for an infant is. Thus, kids will be motivated to take precautions against becoming pregnant or getting someone else pregnant. But I wondered if some kids become attached to their electronic babies—if they enjoy the attention, if they enjoy being needed.

In the story, the electronic baby becomes a kind of substitute for the boy who rejected the protagonist, Sammy, after a series of summer hook-ups. The baby alleviates some of her pain and loneliness. Also, she sees a parallel between trying to figure out why the baby is crying and trying to figure out how to get that boy to love her. Of course, as you know, she ends up losing the baby, too. For those who haven’t read the story, I won’t say how, except that it’s not because her week with the baby is up.

Interestingly, a year or so after I wrote this story, an Australian study revealed that these electronic babies seem to make girls more, rather than less, likely to become pregnant—for the same reasons that inspired this story. The girls grow attached; they enjoy caring for the babies.

Q: In “If My Mother Was the Final Girl” you play with the horror movie trope of “the final girl.” How does that idea of the “final girl” reflect on the relationship between the narrator and her mother?

A: The protagonist in that story sees her mother as a kind of final girl. She knows very little about what trauma her mother actually suffered, except that she knows it has to do with her mother’s childhood, and more specifically, her mother’s mother. What seems especially important to me is that there’s a cyclic relationship between the killer and the final girl in slasher films, the way that in real life, the abused so often becomes an abuser. The mother in the story may have escaped her own trauma on a physical level, but she can’t really escape it. Trauma follows her. It infects her relationship with her own daughter.

Q: Mothers play a role in many of the stories in the collection. Was that by design?

A: I just seem to be obsessed with writing about mothers and daughters. It’s a relationship I come back to again and again.

Q: From rattlesnakes to a pinworm infestation, the natural world appears in many of the stories. What role does nature play in your work?

A: Writers talk about how much readers love to read about other people’s jobs in fiction. I feel that way about the natural world and science in fiction. I can’t get enough of it. Partly it’s just my curiosity. I enjoy fiction that multitasks, offering up other lessons in addition to better understanding ourselves and each other.

I have a particular fondness for mechanical details and gritty details. The former are easy to overlook or unintentionally ignore, like say understanding how electricity works or paying attention to how ants behave. The latter people look away from intentionally a lot of the time, e.g., pinworms, dust mites, dead skin cells, sewer systems, landfills. I find great joy in paying attention to stuff like this. Maybe because I’m such a materialist?

Also I’m drawn to the natural world and to science because it functions as a craft tool. Simply setting out to write about human relationships is too generic; it’s paralyzing. But if I focus in on concrete details from science or the natural world, the writing is much easier, and the human story then reveals itself rather naturally. The natural world offers potent metaphors and feeds tension and plot.

Q: In an interview in Fiction Writer’s Review, you mentioned a preference for short fiction as opposed to the novel. What excites you about short stories?

A: Short stories don’t tend to mess around with building up to the meat of the story. They begin with what really matters. They begin close to the end. Novels, on the other hand, don’t have to do that to be considered successful novels. Some of the world’s most praised novels take as many as hundreds of pages to really get going. I think it takes not only discipline but also guts to move swiftly to the big stuff. I admire the boldness and the concision of short stories.

As a mother of a young child and someone who works full-time outside the home, I also appreciate the practicality of short fiction. Novels, both reading them and writing them, is an indulgence for which I don’t have much time.

Q: Who are some of the writers that have inspired you over the years? Is there a specific story that made you think, “Wow—I wish I’d written that!”

A: Of course, answering this question is always challenging because you have to leave a lot of people out. That said, some of the writers who inspired me most when I first began writing short stories, and who still inspire me now, were Flannery O’Connor, Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Mary Gaitskill, Ray Carver, Dan Chaon, and Reginald McKnight. I wish I’d written just about every story in Hempel’s Reasons to Live, but especially “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” Also Chaon’s Among the Missing. Another story I’ve read over and over again is Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here.”

In more recent years, two of my favorite story collections have been George Saunders’ Tenth of December and Eric Puchner’s Music Through the Floor. There are so, so many other short story writers whose collections I’ve been inspired by as well, including Chimamanda Adichie, Clare Beams, Robin Black, Jennifer Egan, Amelia Gray, Dana Johnson, Sara Lippmann, Elizabeth McCracken, David James Poissant, and Joy Williams, to name just a few. Also, my friend Kim Magowan, a really great short story writer whose first story collection I expect to see in print very, very soon.

Q: You’re also the fiction editor of The Atticus Review. How has that role influenced your writing?

It has made me a bit more scrutinizing of my own work, especially the beginnings of stories. I assume that most of the stories people submit to journals are stories they feel really good about, yet too many of these stories are mundane or too familiar or start off way too slow or are just poorly written. If you want to be published, it’s not enough to write for yourself. You have to write with an audience in mind.

At the same time, editing has helped me to better understand how subjective this business is. One or several editors’ rejections of a story is not good reason to abandon or revise a story. Maybe those editors simply weren’t the right audience for the story; or maybe they were tired and cranky when they read your story.

Q: There’s been a lot of discussion about diversity in literary fiction, and some of the challenges that women writers face. What are your thoughts on the issue?

A: I don’t know if it’s coincidence, but the majority of my stories have been published by women editors. Do I submit more often to women editors? Maybe. I do tend to feel more optimistic about a submission if the editor I’m sending it to is a woman. I’m not sure if this is because of the aforementioned track record or because I tend to write about women and suspect that women may be more interested than men in reading about women. Some of both? That said, the editors at Moon City Press, Michael Czyzniejewski and Joel Coltharp, are men, and they couldn’t be more supportive.

I can tell you too that in my experience, men submit more often than women. Not only are the majority of Atticus Review fiction submissions from men, but men are significantly more likely to resubmit after having a story rejected. In fact, I’ve sent encouraging rejections to women and never heard back from them; yet there are some men to whom I’ve sent nothing but generic rejections, but nevertheless they submit a new story immediately, again and again and again. I don’t know what this is about exactly. Do men tend to be more confident? More risk-taking? I’m not mocking these guys. I think it’s great that they persist. I wish more women would do the same.

At the same time, there are legitimate obstacles women and people of color and other marginalized groups face when submitting. For instance, when I encounter a journal with an all-male editorial staff and see that they’ve been publishing significantly more men than women, reasonably, I’m skeptical about sending my work to them.

But this reluctance helps feed the problem. It becomes a cycle. If that all-male editorial board is receiving far more submissions from men than women, does it not make sense that they would end up publishing more stories by male writers?

Still, I think the onus is on the editors to work to change that dynamic. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about in regards to Atticus Review. I’ve been getting all of the fiction I’ve published from the slush pile, but the lack of diversity in the slush pile is becoming a problem. I’m planning to start soliciting some work in hopes of making the fiction selections more representative of a wider array of voices, and in turn, hopefully attracting a more diverse submission pool.

Q: What are you working on currently?

A: I have another story collection in the works, maybe two collections actually, though one is much farther along than the other.

Q: Finally, there’s no shortage of ways to spend one’s time. Why do you choose to write fiction?

A: I’m depressed and mean when I don’t write.

Michelle Ross‘ work has appeared in Arroyo Literary Review; Cease, Cows; Cream City Review; Gulf Coast; Hobart; Jellyfish Review; SmokeLong Quarterly and other venues. She serves as fiction editor for Atticus Review and works as a science writer. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her husband and son. To find out more about her writing, visit michellenross.com.

Chuck Augello is Head Editor of Cease, Cows. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, two cats, and several cows that refuse to cease. His work has appeared in One Story, Juked, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, and other fine places. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut and contributes interviews to The Review Review. He’s currently at work on a novel.

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