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Flawed People Making Bad Decisions But With Tender Hearts: An Interview with Shannon Robinson, author of The Ill-Fitting Skin

The surreal is mixed with the extraordinarily realistic in Shannon Robinson’s The Ill-Fitting Skin, a new collection of stories about women “who work and grieve and create and destroy.” The winner of the Press 53 award for Short Fiction, it’s a challenging book certain to surprise, shock, and entertain. Purchase your copy here. 


Robinson shared her thoughts in a recent interview with Cease, Cows. 

Chuck Augello: Describe The Ill-Fitting Skin to potential readers. What should they expect when they pick up the book? 

Shannon Robinson: Readers should expect to be entertained and maybe occasionally unsettled. They should expect to be surprised (if that’s not too paradoxical). The Ill-Fitting Skin contains stories that are realist and also stories that are fantastical; the realist stories are inflected with the uncanny, or they feature fantastical elements, such as Dungeons & Dragons, zombie cosplay, or fairy lore.   

Themes of motherhood and nurturing thread through the collection, as do depictions of troubled relationships between men and women. You’ll find bad romance, bad sex, and murky power dynamics. If you Google the collection, the tag “dark comedy” pops up, which seems about right: the stories are often funny and sometimes satirical—although never cynical. My characters are flawed people, making poor decisions. But many of them have tender hearts. 

CA: In “The Rabbits,” a woman suddenly begins giving birth to rabbits. How did you come to write this story? 

SR: Appropriately enough, I found inspiration for this story after I fell down a rabbit hole, Googling this and that. God knows what I’d been looking for originally, but I came across the story of Mary Toft, a real-life, eighteenth-century hoaxster who claimed to have given birth to rabbits. Head over to her Wikipedia page if you want the gruesome details, but let’s just say she displayed a certain level of commitment to the fraud. Lots of people were fooled, including the king’s own physician. 

At the time that I learned about this woman, I had recently become a mother, and I was (and remain) fascinated by the strangeness of pregnancy, birth, and babies, and by how fraught women’s experiences surrounding each of these can be. I got to imagining: what if Mary Toft’s birthing of rabbits was a real miracle—but was treated like a fraud? I wanted to write that story.

CA: In “Dirt,” Sharon, a failed PhD candidate who cleans houses for a living, develops an odd relationship with a socially awkward client. What choices confront Sharon during the course of the story? How does she react to her client’s strange request? 

SR: It’s interesting to think of this story—which is a story about employment, but also a story about agency—in terms of choice. Sharon feels overqualified for her current line of work, and she resents it; to her, it’s like a self-inflicted punishment, but she also needs it—she needs the money. When she first signs on to clean for Hartley, she doesn’t realize there’s been a misunderstanding (or maybe, a “misunderstanding”): he has a sexual fetish centered on watching her clean. Bit by bit, Hartley pushes her boundaries; he doesn’t overtly coerce her, and yet she’s not so much consenting as acquiescing. Hartley is no Christian Grey figure—it’s more like he’s weaponized his dorkiness. Just because he seems like a loser, does that mean that she’s in charge? Implicitly, as the story progresses, Sharon’s questions to herself become not so much How far will he go? as How far will I bend (or be bent)?   

CA: “A Doom of Her Own” includes instructions for the reader to advance to different parts of the story based on their response to the question. What inspired you to write this story? What were some of the challenges? 

SR: Growing up in the 80s, I was very taken with the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books, which were all the rage. Each book featured a themed adventure (Haunted mansion! Alien world! Jungle safari!) with “you” as the protagonist. At the end of every page, “you” are asked to choose between options for the next course of action (“If you decide to jump through the portal, turn to page 9. If you try to reason with the soldiers, turn to page 48”). I loved that intimate sense of co-creating and directing the story … even though it was an illusion: sometimes, you’d be so sure you were making the right decision, but you’d still end up trapped forever in the dungeon/death-rayed by ant people/eaten by piranhas. As an adult, I was inspired to return to the form: I wanted to write about a toxic romantic relationship, and I thought a Choose Your Own Adventure would be an excellent way to illustrate feeling stuck in self-defeating patterns, but also feeling gaslighted, thwarted, maneuvered to act against your own interests. I also thought it would be fun to splice in parts resembling the classic 80s adventures, which might initially seem like non sequiturs, but would function metaphorically. I knew it would be a challenge to help readers to make those associative leaps; I wanted the adventure scenes to still work as such, but also for them to be suggestive of particular emotional states. The 80s CYOA style I patterned them on may have helped me out a bit there—that mixture of hokey-but-compelling. It was a big challenge, in general, to craft all those sequences of choices, and to make sure that pages didn’t get overused or neglected. I started with a random sequencing, and then just started playing with different paths until it all came together.   

CA: If a reader could only read one story in the collection, which would you want them to read, and why? 

SR: It really depends on the reader! I suppose there’s some Choose Your Own Adventure aspect to approaching a short story collection. You don’t have to read all of it, and you don’t have to read it in order. You can be selective (If you want a ghost story, go to “Secondhand.” To witness a failed intervention, go to “All Things Bright and Beautiful” …). I might recommend either “Origin Story” or “Miscarriages” as an introduction to my work. They are, not incidentally, the first and second stories of my collection, and they both approach the theme of motherhood from different angles, one fantastical, one realist; one a werewolf story, one a lyrical mosaic.   

CA: What are some of the challenges in putting together a collection? Tell us about the book’s journey to publication. 

SR: I wrote and rewrote these stories over the course of several years. Some were published in literary magazines, and others I held onto. As I started thinking about a possible collection, I looked at what connected the stories thematically and emotionally, how they might be in conversation with one another. Certain stories had to go, and certain stories needed more work; the stories needed an order that provided a kind of arc, like an album’s progression of songs, and the collection needed a catchy title (on the reject pile was “No Good Will Come of This”). Everyone tells you that it’s tough to get a short story collection into publication—and yes, I found that to be true. Most publishers are predominantly interested in novels. But I was very happy for my work to find a home with a wonderful independent publisher. When Kevin Watson (Press 53) called me on my cell, one of the first things he said was that he was surprised I picked up because no one answers their phone anymore. Then he told me I had won the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, and it was my turn to be surprised! And here I am, book in hand. 

CA: Who are some writers whose work excites you? Do you have a particular favorite story or book? 

SR: Two of my early and enduring influences are Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. The two books that I’ve given most as gifts over the past few years are Ling Ma’s Severance and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. I recently finished Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (just … wow), and I’m now reading Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot (likewise). Two books that are just coming out now that I’m excited about are Katya Apekina’s Mother Doll and Ananda Lima’s Craft: Stories I Wrote for the Devil. 

As for short stories, I love “Houyhnhnm” by André Alexis, “Peking Duck” by Ling Ma, “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” by Lorrie Moore, “Boys Go to Jupiter” by Danielle Evans, “Stone Rabbits” by Kelly Link, “The Ghost Birds” by Karen Russell, “The Music Teacher” by John Cheever … just to name a few favorites! There is so much great work out there.  

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

SR: I’ve always identified as a big reader, but it took a while before I identified as a writer. I used to tell people that I didn’t start writing until I was in my thirties … but that’s not really true. I wrote a lot of things—journal entries, letters, comics, skits, articles for the college paper, commentary for public radio—but beyond a few creative writing assignments, which seemed to cease abruptly at the end of elementary school, none of it was fiction. Shortly after my 35th birthday, I took a creative writing class, and I wrote my first short story—and I wondered why I had waited so long to embrace what I’d been dancing around my whole life. And yet as much as I love writing fiction, it’s not without dread and anguish. At some point, every story seems like a disaster, a terrible idea, like it will never work. (I think of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, heading to jump off the roof with a blanket for a parachute…) And yet you never get to the part where you feel in the flow, almost one step ahead of yourself, typing like you’re taking dictation, unless you go through the terrible parts. Every writer knows this. And yet when a story finally works, it’s so deeply satisfying. 

Chuck Augello (Contributing Editor) is the author of The Revolving Heart, a Best Books of 2020 selection by Kirkus Reviews. His work has appeared in One Story, SmokeLong Quarterly, Literary Hub, The Coachella Review, and other fine journals. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut, a website exploring the life and art of Kurt Vonnegut. His novel, A Better Heart, was released in November 2021.

Shannon Robinson’s debut short story collection, The Ill-Fitting Skin, is winner of the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction (forthcoming with Press 53 in May 2024). Her writing has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Iowa Review, Joyland, Water-Stone Review, Nimrod, failbetter, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in fiction from Washington University in St. Louis, and in 2011 she was the Writer-in-Residence at Interlochen Center for the Arts. Other honors include Nimrod’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction, grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation and the Canada Council for the Arts, a Hedgebrook Fellowship, a Sewanee Scholarship, and an Independent Artist Award from the Maryland Arts Council. She teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore with her husband and son.