“Not until we are lost,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “do we begin to understand ourselves.” In her new collection of short stories—Lost Girls—author Ellen Birkett Morris taps this premise by exploring the experiences of women and girls as they grieve, find love, face uncertainty, take a stand, find their future, and say goodbye to the past. Though they may seem lost, each finds their center as they confront the challenges and expectations of womanhood.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Whenever I ask authors what inspired them to take up a pen (or a keyboard), they often relate that it’s because they were voracious readers and/or had a favorite English teacher who encouraged them. Rarely, though, do I encounter someone who already had a published writer in the family. In your case, it was your father who was penning detective fiction in the 1980s and 1990s. Did watching him write make you want to be a writer?
A: Watching him write was a bit of a disincentive. He was at the kitchen table working while the world went on around him. It looked like drudge work. But when he wasn’t writing he was reading aloud to me and my sisters. The floor of our apartment was stacked with books. He took us to the movies and to story time at the library. Having story as a part of my daily life was what drew me into writing. I started off as a journalist and freelance writer and discovered the power of poetry and fiction to help me learn what I cared about and make people feel things.
Q: What’s the best advice he ever gave you about the craft?
A: “Don’t just read about writing, write.” He said it’s good to hone your craft, but finally you have to focus on the work.
Q: What’s the best advice you give aspiring authors?
A: Embrace the process. The joy is in the doing of the work. In that quiet room where you write. Getting published is great, but the work is its own reward—the pleasure of the writing, what you learn about yourself, the way in which you are able to imaginatively transform human experience to create something beautiful.
Q: What writers (past and present) have you looked to as you’ve developed your own voice and style as an author?
A: My father read us Flannery O’Connor stories at bed time and I like to think some of that dark, southern sensibility has stayed with me. I greatly admire the work of Elizabeth Strout. Reading her taught me to love my characters warts and all and to go deep when exploring character.
Q: Whenever I advise clients to start with short stories rather than diving straight into a full-length novel, they often balk and say, “But my plot can’t possibly be contained in something so limiting!” What is your own take on the challenges and rewards of short story form? For instance, what can a short story accomplish that a novel can’t?
A: The short story offers us peak moments. As writers we get to decide where to start, what to focus on and where to end. I love the intensity of the short story form. I love the way objects and events take on heightened meaning. We get to skip the boring stuff and go straight to the good stuff.
Q: What attracted you to create a collection of stories centered on women?
A: I think because of the central dilemma most women share, which is not being seen and understood. There is so much to work off of there in terms of relationships, career, motherhood, so many stories. I wanted a chance to dwell with women of all types and explore their experiences. They did not disappoint.
Q: And the title—Lost Girls—where did that come from?
A: From the title story, which was inspired by a kidnapping in my neighborhood when I was 18. They are so many ways we can lose ourselves and I wanted to explore how you come back from that.
Q: What was your thought process that went into developing a collection? For example, did you find you had a set of stories which you felt naturally belonged together or did you specifically write new pieces with building a collection in mind?
A: I had a collection built around a male photographer traveling the south and I found that the women characters in those stories were more interesting than he was, so I toned him down and gathered their stories together.
Q: You have some interesting characters in these stories—a sin eater, an aging beauty queen, a virgin who joins a breastfeeders group. Where do your story ideas come from?
A: I hang on to ideas that spark my interest. The breastfeeders story began as an exploration of how social groups are cultish and morphed into a story about loneliness. I learned about sin eating from my sister-in-law who is from western Virginia and knows about folkways. It took me ten years to come up with a story big enough to fit the idea. If an idea has heat for me I assume it will appeal to a reader.
Q: These characters are so different that it is hard to imagine the same person writing them all. Talk to me about character development.
A: It is most important to know what your character wants and what drives them. This is where I start. I follow this by populating their world with things that are particular to them, the stain on the wall the girl imagines is a dog in “Inheritance” or the Groucho t-shirt the aging beauty queen wears to bed in “Harvest.” Then I try to think about how they’ll go about trying to get what they need—quietly, forcefully, or with charm. These are my building blocks of character.
Q: Do your fictional characters ever take you to places you hadn’t originally intended? If so, do you rein them back in or allow them to direct the journey themselves?
A: I had no idea how “Inheritance” would end. I thought hard about how this character would act and react and balanced that against her limited options given the time period. I think it is best to follow your characters and see where they take you.
Q: You also have a poetry chapbook called Surrender. How has being a poet proven useful to you when it comes to writing prose?
A: Poetry is built on images and objects that carry meaning and reveal character. I learned how to work with metaphor though poetry and how to distinguish which details are important. Writing poetry helps make my prose more vivid and authentic.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: I am working on a novel about a female astronomer in Hawaii and looking for an agent.
Q: Where can readers learn more about your work?