Ellen Birkett Morris Wrote a 'Dazzling Collection of Stories'
An interview with the author of 'Lost Girls'
Ellen Birkett Morris did something right. Or, really, she’s done 17 right things.
Morris is the author of a new story collection, Lost Girls. The book contains 17 tales that novelist Jenny Offill calls, “a dazzling collection of stories.” Offill, the writer of acclaimed novels such as Weather and Dept. of Speculation, knows a thing or two about telling a good story.
In the interview below, Morris talks about writing Lost Girls, who she writes for, and more.
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Interview with Ellen Birkett Morris
By Emily Quiles
Can you tell us the story of how Lost Girls got published?
The book was originally conceived as a set of linked stories about a male photographer traveling the south during the bicentennial. He was a quiet character and didn’t spark much interest, but the women in the stories were vibrant, fascinating, and alive.
When the Me Too Movement happened I realized that people were interested in the authentic stories of the lived experiences of women. I pulled the stories together and began to send them out. The big publishers shy away from publishing collections by debut authors so I sent the book to independent presses. TouchPoint is an indie press based in the south and I felt they were a good fit.
How do you get into the minds of your characters?
I use objects and sensory details to enter the minds of my characters. In “Inheritance” the second line is, “The room smelled of lemons and vinegar.” Sharp smells place us in her body and help set the tone to follow. We know that this is not a welcoming place.
I also give them quirks. In “Harvest” Abby Linder’s response to aging is to cover all the mirrors in her house. Hannah Starnes in “Kodachrome” is obsessed with seeing her own colors. The more particular the detail, the better I know them and know how they might respond to challenges that come their way.
Your characters' experiences feel so real, do you use details from your own life in your characters?
The emotions in the story are filtered through my own experiences and have an authenticity, but scenarios are fictional. Like the girls in “Like I Miss Not Being a Ballerina,” I watched lots of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, hated gym class, and loved going to the candy store. But, I didn’t experience that kind of loss as a child.
The title story “Lost Girls” was inspired by a kidnapping in my neighborhood when I was 18. A young girl was kidnapped and the media attention eventually led to the creation of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. I was powerless at the time. But, in my story, the protagonist creates a ritual to celebrate and remember the life of the girl who is taken and is lifted up by that act.
Of the 17 stories in Lost Girls, were there any that challenged you or were difficult to write?
“Inheritance” was the hardest to write. I had the idea for ten years before I figured out what to do with it. As I got into the story I had a strong desire to give this young woman a safe way out, a happy ending. I had to dig really deep and ask myself what she would really do in response to all the injustice that she was faced with. I had to make myself write an ending that brought tears to my eyes.
When you write, do you have an audience in mind?
I don’t. I try to let the characters guide me. But now that the book is out there I envision my audience as men and women looking to take a deep dive into the experiences of others.
You’re also a teacher in Louisville, Ken., so I’m curious how much influence your training and experience as a teacher has on your writing?
I spent ten years as an adjunct communications professor at colleges and universities around Louisville. Now I teach creative writing through literary centers.
My experience teaching exposed me to lots of different kinds of people and life experience. I think it heightened my skills as a storyteller because I would tell funny stories to illustrate principals in class. In my writing classes, I learn so much from reading the work of students.
Why did you start writing in the first place?
I have written since I was a child and took creative writing courses in college. I worked as a freelance journalist, which I compare to putting a puzzle together, while creative writing is like painting on a canvas. I had a come-to-Jesus moment in my early 30s where I decided that if I was ever going to write creatively it needed to happen then. So, in spite of fear of failure, I got started.
What concepts do you keep coming back to as a writer?
The idea of really seeing each other and what it means to be unseen. Issues of power and what control we do or don’t have over what life hands us.
Can you share advice for writers on editing their own work?
I think time is a great helper when it comes to judging your own work objectively. It is okay to take all the time you need to let a piece develop.
What happens when you finish a piece? Is the next project one that’s been waiting in line?
I have two novel-length projects, one I am sending out and another in second draft. I work on those but also intersperse work on poems, flash fiction, and essays.