This blog is back after a long hiatus due to Covid-19. This year I’ll be interviewing poets and prose writers about their upcoming books. Please feel free to contact me if you have a book forthcoming and I’d be happy to feature it!
Stay Safe and well,
ELLEN BIRKETT MORRIS: LOST GIRLS
Ellen Birkett Morris is a writer I’ve admired for almost a decade now! We were classmates together at the Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency Program from 2011-2013. I’m thrilled to interview her below about her stunning new short story collection, “Lost Girls,” which comes out on June 26th and is available for presale now.
But first, here’s a clip of her reading a few minutes from “Religion,” a stunning story first published in “The Antioch Review.”
How did you come up with the title “Lost Girls?”
It comes from the title story written from the perspective of a young woman whose neighbor is kidnapped. At first she sees the loss only through the lens of her own drama, but over time she develops a ritual to mark the birthday of the girl each year. There are so many girls lost to kidnapping, domestic violence, and abuse. The experiences of women are lost to history, women writers absent from the cannon, there is so much collective joy and pain that goes unseen. I want these stories to reflect/illuminate the experiences of women in a meaningful way.
One of your stories, Inheritance, features a narrator who is a sin eater. Can you tell me about the origin of that story? Are there really sin-eaters, and if so where did you first hear about them?
I heard about sin eating from my sister-in-law Johnna, who is from West Virginia. She was talking about folkways her family practiced and mentioned keeping the hair of the dead, relics from surgery and people’s teeth. Sin eating came up as another old tradition and I was immediately impressed with the metaphoric possibilities of one person being paid to symbolically take away the sins of another by eating what were called corpse cakes that were placed on the body .
I kept the idea and worked on it for years. I was never able to make it come alive until now. The daily trauma of having a president who lacked respect for others and actively worked to deepen systematic oppression was a real inspiration.
I thought about how people in power are able to masquerade as if they are advocating for those less well off, how they keep power through oppression and the way people are forced to swallow so many indignities.
I’m not sure if sin eating is actually practiced these days or not, but it was a strong springboard for Inheritance.
I hate to ask two “origin” questions in a row, but honestly your stories are so magical, so fantastical that I can’t resist! Please tell me how you came up with the idea for “Religion?” That story literally knocked me out. I loved it.
I was thinking about how groups that we join can become cultlike in both good and bad ways. There is love and acceptance but also pressure to live a certain way and follow certain rules. Stories always need a twist and the idea of a virgin wandering into a breast feeder’s group and feeling so loved that she doesn’t leave really appealed to me. From there on it was a matter of getting in the character’s head and discovering her desires. Those desires led to action and conflict. What started as an idea morphed into a story that became about larger things like loneliness and belonging.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
I am forever in awe of Elizabeth Strout for how she made me fall in love with Olive Kitteridge. By the end of the book I wanted to lie down with Olive on the couch as she looked out the window and hold her in my arms. I love the writing of Stuart Dybek, especially his story “We Didn’t” which has a simmering energy. I loved Naima Coster’s debut novel Halsey Street. I’ve also read some really beautiful work written for kids and you can’t go wrong with Kevin Henkes.
Do you have any advice for new writers?
My favorite advice came from Coster. It’s about learning from the work. She noted that there is no guarantee that a piece of writing will ever see the light of day. She said, “It is scary to admit that something is important if it only has worth for me. It brings up questions of self-worth and selfishness, but my work as a writer is linked to my own emotional and psychological development. One way to sustain my work is to value myself, my own mind, my own time. It is like climbing a mountain. What do you have to show for it? The place it took you to and the strength you gained going there.”
Do you have a favorite story in the collection, and if so, why is it your favorite?
My favorite is “Religion.” The germ of the story was the way that mothers are judged for every choice they make and the idea that social groups can sometimes function like cults with an unquestioning adherence to arbitrary rules but also offering acceptance that feels like love. As I wrote the story it deepened into a funny/sad story about loneliness and wanting to be accepted. My heart still aches at the last line: “Sometimes, when I am cutting and pasting pictures, I feel a familiar pang of loneliness and think of the women sitting in a circle, the sun shining through the window, the babies’ small mouths sucking away, so hungry.”
ELLEN BIRKETT MORRIS is an award-winning writer, teacher and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. Morris is the author of SURRENDER (Finishing Line Press). Her fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Antioch Review, Notre Dame Review, and South Carolina Review, among other journals. Her commentaries have been heard on public radio stations across the United States. For more information see her website here.
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