Michelle Ross is the author of the new story collection They Kept Running. Her other books include the story collection Shapeshifting, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Alaska Quarterly Review and Colorado Review. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review, and she lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Q: What inspired the stories in They Kept Running?
A: I wrote these stories over a span of about five or six years. The oldest is "Three Ways to Eat Quince," which was published in the long defunct Word Riot, in January 2016.
I wasn't writing towards a particular project. I was just writing stories about topics and themes that preoccupy me. This includes work, motherhood, family, relationships, fairy tales, science, horror films, etc.
But what I think unites these stories is that they are about the many threats that lurk in the everyday lives of women and girls. This is a topic I can't not write about. It's on my mind all the time.
To be a girl or a woman in this world is to live with the threat of violence constantly. I've never been physically attacked while running or walking down the street, but I feel that threat often.
I know that if I were to be physically attacked while I was out walking or running alone at night or in a remote location, I'd be blamed for having dared to be out alone at night or in a remote location.
So the threat of danger--and how women and girls respond to it--was my guiding focus when I started to collect and arrange these stories. That said, the threats in these stories range in severity. These aren't all menacing stories; some are lighter. And also, I love humor, so there's certainly some of that.
Q: The collection is divided into three sections--how did you divide them up, and what themes do you see running through each section?
A: When I started to cull together the stories for this book and think about what the book could do and be, I saw that I had stories that spanned childhood, young adulthood, and more middle-aged adulthood.
I toyed with mixing these up, but while I was able to make interesting juxtapositions between individual stories in this way, the book as a whole felt kind of random. By dividing the stories into these three phases of life, though, the collection as a whole seemed to gain a narrative arc.
The tricky thing about dividing the collection into three sections like this, as you might guess, is that lines get blurry. Some stories I wrestled with more. They felt like they could go in either section I or II, others in either II or III.
"Killer Tomatoes" is one such story. In the story, a creep man with whom the protagonist's mother sleeps with off and on, arrives at the girl's house when her mother isn't home. He sexualizes this girl in ways that made me feel like the story could go in section II.
But, on the other hand, the girl is 13, still very much a child. Just because this guy doesn't respect that she's a child, and that he has no business sexualizing her, doesn't make her a young adult. Hence, I put the story in section I.
As for themes running through each section, I'd say that the threats in section I are more often coming from within the home than outside it.
In the opening story, "Accomplice or Hostage," the girl's mother warns her "about men who drive around town looking to lure girls into their vehicles. They use lost puppies and Happy Meals as bait." But the girl doesn't experience that menace yet. What she fears is her own mother.
Another story from that section, "Hostages," is about a girl witnessing her father holding all his coworkers hostage by gun.
Or there's "Knife Rules," in which all the men and boys in the girl's family become knives, including her younger brother, whose diapers she used to change, whose fingernails she once scrubbed.
In section II, the threats are often sexual in nature. Teenager girls and young women navigate various forms of manipulation, unwanted attention, and so forth.
By section III, the women protagonists have become savvier and tougher in many ways, but they are hardly invulnerable.
Q: The writer Michael Czyzniejewski said of the collection, "With this third collection, Ross has proven herself not only one of our most innovative and smart (and prolific) storytellers, but she has also evolved into one of our great satirists, every piece buzzing with commentary and comedy." What do you think of that description?
A: Ha! Well, it's flattering. His words give me something to aspire to: must work hard to try to maybe eventually live up to Mike's description of my writing.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the collection?
A: I don't know that I hope anything in particular in this regard except that I hope that readers find something of value for them--whether that be that they feel seen or that they're entertained or that these stories linger in their minds in such a way that they feel changed by them or that they're valuable in some other way I can't even anticipate.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on several different projects at once, as seems to be my nature.
What I've been spending most of my time on lately, besides randomly writing flash fiction here and there, is a book that centers on a fictional Texas high school. One of the stories (chapters?) is loosely based on the Steubenville rape case of 2012. So there's that.
But I'm also interested in exploring the intensity--and sometimes barbarism--of female friendship.
I'm also working incredibly slowly on a collection of stories that reimagine characters from horror movies.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The collaborative story collection I wrote with Kim Magowan is looking for a home. It's been a finalist or runner-up in various contests now, so we hope we won't be shopping it around too much longer.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Michelle Ross.