Kim Magowan and Michelle Ross met in late 2014 via a Sixfold fiction contest. Kim was one of the voters/readers assigned Michelle’s entry into the contest, which ended up winning. They’ve been each other’s first readers pretty much ever since. In the summer of 2017, they started writing collaboratively. In this conversation, they discuss their newly released story collections, which have a number of random things in common, including that each collection contains fifty-seven stories.
Michelle Ross: First, How Far I’ve Come is so extraordinarily good, Kim! It’s a masterful collection. I think of it as a flash fiction collection because it contains fifty-seven stories (the same count as in my new book, coincidentally), most of them very short. But there are a few pieces that stretch a little longer than what most writers define as flash fiction, such as “Home Economics,” “Irreconcilable Differences,” and “Women on the Sidelines.” “Home Economics” is the third story in the book, and it’s composed of tiny, compressed pieces so that the effect is something like a short story built of flash fictions. “Irreconcilable Differences” is under 2,000 words, and it too is composed of pieces, so again, it feels akin to flash. “Women on the Sidelines,” the final story in the collection, is a possible outlier, but, of course, thematically, it certainly belongs. Another interesting thing about this collection is that there is nonfiction included, “Irreconcilable Differences.” What are your thoughts about genre and categorization? How did you decide on this mix of pieces?
Kim Magowan: How weird is that both our books have fifty-seven stories? And I’d never thought of it that way, but you’re right, that two of my longer stories, “Home Economics” and “Irreconcilable Differences,” are composed of pieces—I love your description of them as stories “built of flash fictions.” There are a few other longer stories in there that are “normal” (not broken into sections) and over 2,000 words—“Shoelaces,” “Fire in Snow,” “Incompatible Ideas”—but not many. In the last four years, I’ve gotten obsessed with flash fiction, and so my average story length skews short. The longest story in the book is “Women on the Sidelines,” and it’s only about 3,500 words. Personally, I like mixed collections, combinations of longer stories and flash fiction. I almost didn’t include “Irreconcilable Differences” because it’s nonfiction, but I decided it shared so much genetic material with the fiction—my parents’ divorce was such a foundational experience for me as both a person and a writer—that I put it in. The funny thing is readers don’t seem to realize “Irreconcilable Differences” is nonfiction. I guess you have to know me?
You know how much I love all your books, Michelle! That said, I think They Kept Running is my favorite. You are the queen of flash fiction! I bow before you. One thing that I marvel about with this book is how you’ve sequenced it: Part I groups together stories about children, Part II stories about young adulthood, and Part III stories where the main characters are somewhat older—married, parents—but still navigating the same problems that many of the children did (surviving in a world of predators, both imbibing and resisting social conditioning). Then the story sequence works on a micro level too, in the care you take with how each story transitions into the next. For instance, “Fish Story” ends with, “pay attention, and you will learn all you need to know,” and we turn the page to “Lessons.” You’ve obviously thought a great deal about how to organize the book. How did you curate and structure it? And how does the title They Kept Running fit in? (I think of titles as bowls that have to hold all the stories, or umbrellas—upside-down bowls, I guess—that have to shelter them).
MR: Thanks, Kim! Sequencing and juxtaposition: These are elements I’m attuned to at every level. Within stories, too. As you know, sometimes when a story isn’t quite working, I’ll fix it largely by rearranging its pieces. When I first started getting serious about writing, I remember trying to write these “traditional” length stories with long scenes or passages of exposition and feeling overwhelmed by large chunks of text—pages and pages without breaks. When I started to think of stories as more modular, composed of lots of little scraps that I could rearrange and swap out, that helped enormously. I’m a tactile person. I dig geometry. I like sculpture. Writing stories is, of course, a different beast, but the way that I write stories and build collections bears these influences.
Anyway, with this book, I was interested in how my arrangement of the stories could tell a story. These are all stories about girls and women. The only exception is “Fish Story,” which is told from the point of view of a fish, but even here, the story is not so much about the fish as it is the woman teacher and her young students. These are also largely stories about the many threats that lurk in the everyday lives of women and girls. Dividing these stories into three sections that move from girlhood to adulthood gave the book itself a narrative arc, I think, and one that resonates with the book’s title. I love your upside-down bowl metaphor. Are these characters running from something? Toward something? In the story from which the book takes this title, the young women keep running even though they’re so worn out that they’d move no slower if they walked. For them, continuing to run is about grit. Also, though, the fact that they’re running so slow that walking would propel them just as much is kind of depressing. There’s a stasis in their motion. This is another thing our new books have in common, isn’t it? Your book’s title, How Far I’ve Come, has a similar feeling, plays on a similar metaphor, as They Kept Running. I don’t think I thought of that until just now. How do you see your title as an upside-down bowl for your book’s stories?
KM: Ha, you’re right! I never realized that. It’s like the fifty-seven stories, a funny synchronicity. Both of our titles are about dogged persistence, a treadmill motion. My title is kind of a joke. It’s taken from what was once upon a time the last story of the book, “Impulse Control”—now it’s the penultimate story—which ends with this line: “I want to march to Danielle’s office, even though my session with her isn’t until Thursday, and brag about how fucking far I’ve come.” But the narrator is referring to a dubious accomplishment: She’s just been fired from her job. Getting fired is a small victory—Sarah’s boss/ ex-lover Richard has been trying to manipulate her into quitting—but it’s hardly brag-worthy. So I intend that title to be tongue-in-cheek, a nod to the wobbly trajectories my characters take. That’s picked up in the book cover image: bendy paper dolls march in sinuous twists, like they’re standing in one of those endless switch-back queues. No one is making a lot of progress here! I will say women (I’m generalizing) seem to like my title more than men. They get that it’s insouciant. My favorite book titles for collections are lines from stories (if a book shares a title with a single story, I feel like there’s too much pressure on that one story): lines that have that bowl/umbrella effect, that name the book’s dynamic.
Okay, another question. In interviews I get asked “What’s your favorite story in your book?” And I always feel guilty, like I’m choosing a favorite child. So let’s flip it. What’s your favorite story in my book? You’ve read pretty much every one of these in draft forms. And I’ll start, though it’s very hard to choose. My favorite in yours is “Manhandle”—that’s the one I’m always begging you to read at readings. It feels like such a quintessential Michelle story: It’s hilarious, it’s feminist, it’s barbed, it’s about marriage and parenting and work and obnoxious dudes who talk too loudly in movie theaters. The ending is a drop-mic: “I wanted to say, Where’s your movie, asshole? What have you ever done? What have you ever made?”
MR: Hmm. That’s a super tough question still. I’m going to cheat a tad and mention first how much I love “Contronyms.” It’s a story I’ve heard you read many times now, and I never grow the least bit tired of hearing you read it. One of my favorite snippets: “Or as I think of him now, Contronym Bill, like a vocabulary version of a Wild West outlaw.” My most favorite, though, and it has a similar economic theme, is “Home Economics.” I was talking earlier about loving the modular quality of some stories, and this is a perfect example of a more overtly modular story. It’s composed of these tight, punchy little segments. There’s no fluff here. It reminds me so much of Amy Hempel’s longer stories. I admire the hell out of it.
Okay, so even though we’ve been each other’s first readers for many years now and we’ve written over thirty stories together now, I can’t really say I intimately know HOW you write, Kim. I know you write freaking fast. We do these flashathons, and you knock out stories that are way longer and more polished than anything I can do in an hour. I know you’re not a fan of heavily reworking stories. I know some of your stories come from dreams or you write in your head while out walking. But tell me more! Tell me all your writing secrets. Do you often have an idea of the story you’re going to write before you begin typing, for instance? Do you perfect each sentence as you go?
KM: I am fast, and I tend to write pretty polished first drafts, though that’s because I HATE revising. If a story needs too much work to become presentable, I’ll bail on it. As far as where my ideas come from—they emerge from some dark, Id-ish part of my subconscious that kicks up flotsam. Some stories are born of spite: I’ll see that [Partner] hasn’t put away the trashcans and I’ll write about it. Some come from fear. Sometimes my stories are like dreams, waving flags at me, trying to get my attention. I started writing stories about a girl named Laurel struggling with an eating disorder before I had consciously acknowledged to myself that someone close to me was having similar issues. I feel like my stories snap their fingers in my face, shout, “Wake up!”
What about you? I know you sometimes sit on things that I think are DONE for forever! You’re like that Doctor Seuss character hatching the egg who won’t leave the nest. Sometimes, frankly, it pisses me off, when you admit that you still haven’t submitted some sparkling gem of a story that is, in my opinion, already perfectly cooked.
And final question, once you get done answering that: What’s a book that you wish you’d written? I mean, a book that when you read it, you felt full of both admiration and envy? Just in case we say the same one (frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me), don’t type the title until we’re done with this interview, and we’ll do it at the exact same time.
MR: I sit on those stories, I suppose, because I’m the opposite—I love revision. Also, because they don’t feel quite done yet (and I don’t know yet how to fix them) or because I’m too uncertain. Certainty is a tall order. I’m really talking about a spectrum here. We’ve talked about how it’s easier to really believe in a story once it’s been accepted and published. I think there’s almost always at least a little bit of uncertainty before that happens, and, well, even afterwards. But there’s a threshold I need to cross. A little uncertainty feels healthy—it often means I’m taking risks. A lot of uncertainty is a good indicator that I’m not satisfied with the story, that I haven’t done it justice.
As for your final question, I think I have to go with George Saunders. Which book, though, that’s tough. Tenth of December, I think, but Pastoralia is a close second.
KM: For me, Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill. That novel exploded my brain. Though now I’ve seen your answer, and I love Saunders so much! I teach Tenth of December.
MR: Dept. of Speculation is an excellent choice!