Connecting to other authors during my extended homestay has been both challenging and rewarding, especially since my introverted personality enjoys closing off the noise of the world and living the stories in my head. Last year, however, I had the good fortune to review fiction by Ellen Birkett Morris and found a new colleague and friend. This month I’d like to introduce her to you. Ellen is the author of Lost Girls, a collection of short stories called “a varied set of tales from a skilled practitioner of the short form” by Kirkus Reviews, and Surrender, a poetry chapbook. Her fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Antioch Review, Notre Dame Review, South Carolina Review, and Santa Fe Literary Review, among other journals. She is a winner of the Bevel Summers Prize for short fiction. Morris is a recipient of a 2013 Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council.
Janet Irvin: Welcome, Ellen! It’s so good to host you here at my Authors’ Studio. 🙂 I thought we might start with your writing journey. Can you share with us how you came to be a writer?
Ellen Birkett Morris: My father wrote detective fiction, so I grew up around books and stories. He read widely and would read aloud to us. The selections changed as we aged, starting with Jabberwocky and working our way to the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. I wrote stories as a kid. When I grew up I was drawn to writing jobs. I worked as a business reporter, edited the newsletter of a museum foundation, and work in media relations for the Kentucky Foundation for Women. I started writing creatively in my 30’s, knowing that if I didn’t give it a try I would never do it. I was afraid to fail but stayed with it until I was able to hone my skills.
JI: In addition to your BA and your MA, you have an MFA from Queens University, one of the strongest programs in the US. Why did you choose Queens?
EBM: I was drawn to the quality of the faculty at Queens. I got to work with Nathaniel Rich, David Payne, Steve Rinehart, and Susan Perabo. I got lots of encouragement from my mentors there.
JI: How did your writing change as a result of the program?
EBM: My fiction became more focused. I developed a prose style and began to discover what kinds of stories I wanted to tell.
JI: Do you recommend writers complete an MFA?
EBM: The MFA was useful in offering feedback and helping me build a network, but I don’t think it is essential to writing good fiction. If you can’t afford an MFA read widely, take classes from writers you admire, and get a group of peers to offer feedback.
JI: You write fiction, poetry, and essays. Do you have a preferred genre? How does your approach to each differ?
EBM: I love short stories because they offer a glimpse of a significant moment in a vivid way. They are a bit like a glass jar full of lightning bugs, sending out their signals in beautiful patterns.
I tend to write short, whatever the form. I look for images and particular details that can carry the weight of meaning in the story and crystalize the emotions. I strive to be plainspoken and direct, never sentimental. I like offering up unexpected contrasts and surprising scenarios like the breastfeeding virgin in my story “Religion” or the images of tumbling kittens and solid metal leg braces in my flash essay “The Nine.”
I work the same way when writing poems and stories, but novels require a much longer view. I have to work to think of multiple complications for my characters and slow down and do the kind of scene-setting people expect from a novel. Every part of it has to flow and the stakes need to be very high. It is an altogether different kind of challenge.
JI: Lost Girls explores the experiences of women at different stages of their lives. How did you decide on this theme?
EBM: The struggles and triumphs of women emerged as a theme all on its own for me as I explored imagined situations that caught my attention. I think all women know what it feels like to be unseen or to be seen for the wrong reasons. My characters struggle with profound loss, oppression, and assault.
JI: Was it difficult to write some of the stories due to the subject matter?
EBM: It was very hard to go there. I had to pull myself back from wanting to rescue these women and make their lives easier. I forced myself to stay true to the characters and the times I was writing about. It always paid off in a story that was richer and truer than a watered-down alternative.
JI: You also teach. Does your teaching interfere with your writing life or enrich it?
EBM: I teach online classes for small presses including Hidden Timber Books and writing centers including The Loft and The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, Kentucky, so I don’t have the burden of the kind of course load you would have at a university. Talking about writing and reading the work of students helps inform my writing. It clarifies what I already know. Good student writing shows me new ways to put words on the page. Work that needs improvement helps steer me away from bad choices and reminds me of areas that need improvement in my work.
JI: What are your biggest distractions?
EBM: I work from my home so there are so many things that pull me away from the computer – laundry, my rescue dog Lila, a Casio keyboard I bought my husband for his birthday. Did you know there are tutorials on YouTube that can teach you how to play “When the Saints Go Marching In”?
JI: I think you captured the situation for many writers! Now, writers are also great readers, so I have to ask who are you reading now?
EBM: I am reading Milk Fed by Melissa Broder, which is a funny and sharp exploration of desire. The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner, a mysterious story of two women across time, and Alex Trebek’s memoir, which showcases his wit and smarts.
JI: Do you have a favorite writer among all those you have read/studied?
EBM: I love Elizabeth Strout’s work. What she did with Olive Kitteridge was amazing, but I particularly admire the deep humanity of her earlier book Abide with Me.
JI: I had the immense good fortune to be Elizabeth’s workfellow at Antioch Writers’ Workshop the year before she won the Pulitzer. Her work is amazing. Can you share with us what you’re working on now?
EBM: I am gearing back up to write some new short stories for the Vermont College Post-Graduate Workshop that I’ll be attending this summer.
JI: Since I fancy these interviews a little like the old Actors’ Studio show, I like to ask a few whimsical questions, so here goes: what do you like best about where you live — Louisville, Kentucky?
EBM: My family and friends are here and that keeps me here. We also have a vibrant arts community in Lousiville, and great parks and restaurants. It is a nice place to live.
JI: If you could be a character in any book, who would you choose to be and why?
EBM: I’d like to be Harriet in Harriet the Spy. I would love the chance to do all that spying unnoticed and be with her when she begins to sense what it means to take responsibility for yourself.
For more information about this author, visit www.ellenbirkettmorris.ink