Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Michelle Ross

by Christopher James Read the Story December 17, 2018

Michelle, your story’s beautiful. I love the mother, and I’ve seen you write about imperfect mothers before. You’re so good at it! What attracts you about this relationship?

I seem to be a little (cough) obsessed with writing about mothers and motherhood. For me, it’s such rich territory—inexhaustible. Partly that’s because as a mother myself (my son is now eight), motherhood is a concept and identity I grapple with in countless ways every day.

I’m struck by that word, “imperfect.” Of course, all mothers are imperfect, as all humans are imperfect, but because we live in a sexist culture that holds mothers to a much higher standard than fathers, their imperfections are more glaring and more alarming. Not to mention that our demands of mothers are rife with contradictions and nonsense. I’m deeply critical of how unfair this is to mothers (and also to women who don’t want to be mothers).

But I’m drawn to writing about mothers, too, because as a daughter of an emotionally inaccessible mother, and as someone with many friends who have difficult relationships with their mothers, I feel all kinds of feelings on this topic. And as a mother myself, I’m deeply cognizant of the ways in which my son’s emotional development is affected by his relationship with me.

Secondary characters in this story are important, too—the sister hanging out the car, the woman pulling up crabs. They feel real. Do you begin with the character or the action? Does the sister lean out the window because that’s obviously what this sister would do, or is the sister born of the movement?

The action is very much what gives rise to these characters. The sister is barely on the page in this story, yet I think one has a strong sense of who she is, at least in contrast to the protagonist, because of that reaching arm in the first section and the sifting of the candy in the second section. Especially in flash fiction, but even in longer stories, I often don’t see my characters so clearly when it comes to physical attributes. I guess I just don’t care that much what they look like, unless the characters themselves are focused on each other’s physical appearances. More often I see characters in terms of the way their bodies move, the way they hold themselves, their twitches and quirks. I find actions and gestures more revealing.

There is so much here (including time travel)! Which part of the story came first?

The seed for this story was the idea of almost being pulled out to sea under the watch of a mother who doesn’t know how to swim. This actually happened to me as a kid. It’s something I’ve tried to write about several times now, first in a longer story titled “Cinéma Vérité,” which is in my story collection, There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You. Ultimately this anecdote felt in the way in that story. It was too backstoryish and just not really necessary ultimately, but I couldn’t let it go entirely. I returned to it again when I took a weekend Word Tango workshop with Kathy Fish about two years ago. For that workshop, Kathy asked us to braid together several different strands to make a unified piece. I worked on the story off and on for a few months. Then, frustrated with it still, I put it aside and totally forgot about it. When I rediscovered it in August, right before submitting it to SmokeLong, I saw clearly what needed to be done. I cut a few sections, tweaked a few things, and just like that, it was done.

Besides being a wonderful writer, you also edit the fantastic Atticus Review. How does your experience editing shape your writing, if at all?

It’s made me more cognizant of the reader. It’s easy for writers to get kind of self-centered in their writing. After all, I’m writing this particular story or about this particular subject matter, in theory, because it’s important to me. Of course, it’s super important to write for ourselves, to write what we want to read. But the reader has to be every bit as important as the writer if that story is going to resonate with an audience. One of the most common failings of story submissions is that they’re boring. Sometimes they’re boring because nothing happens. Sometimes because what does happen is too expected or too mundane. Sometimes because the writer is in the way of the story, preoccupied with trying to be clever or charming. Sometimes because the prose is lazy. Sometimes because the story lacks heart. All of these things boil down, at least in part, to a failing to give the reader due respect. In a recent Writer’s Chronicle article about the revision process, George Saunders wrote, “Banality is what happens when we take our reader for granted.”

At the same time, editing has made me more cognizant of the biases, whims, and other factors that shape editors’ impressions of submissions. As one editor I know confided, he’s aware that he very well may occasionally overlook great stories just because he happens to be tired or hungry or cranky when he encounters them.

Finally, and most importantly, what’s the best ice cream flavor?

This just might be the hardest question you’ve asked me. I love so many flavors of ice cream. But I’m going to go right now with cinnamon ice cream. I love it for the flavor—cinnamon is one of my favorite spices—but also for the subtle grittiness of the spice on my tongue.

About the Author:

Michelle Ross is the author of There's So Much They Haven't Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, CRAFT Literary, Nashville Review, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, Tahoma Literary Review, and other venues.

About the Interviewer:

Christopher James lives, works, and writes in Jakarta, Indonesia. He has previously been published online in many venues, including Tin House, McSweeney’s, SmokeLong, and Wigleaf. He is the editor of Jellyfish Review.