Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Michelle Ross’ fiction piece, Swarming
Sommer: This story is a great example of an omniscient narrator, in which the narrator is able to freely move from the outer world of the story to each character’s inner world. The reader is able to experience the almost illicit pleasure of getting inside Oliver’s head and Robin’s. I find that often it’s hard to maintain that true omniscience, but you do so enviably here. How did you make sure you didn’t start sinking into close 3rd point of view, favoring one character over the other? Or maybe that wasn’t a challenge at all? Do you have any suggestions or advice about writing in this point of view?
Michelle: I see this story as more limited third than true omniscience, but I agree with you that there are junctures, two in particular, where the pov is blurry—where it’s not quite clear whether Oliver is imagining what Robin is thinking/ feeling or whether the narrator is reporting what Robin is truly thinking/feeling. When I was drafting this story, I experimented with writing it so that the narration doesn’t go into either of the characters’ thoughts, but I ultimately felt dissatisfied with that approach. I also wrote a draft from Robin’s perspective. Eventually, I decided to favor Oliver’s perspective, but I wanted to maintain a little bit of distance from him, a little bit of the feel of that earlier omniscient pov. At the junctures where the story seems that it could be reporting on what Robin is thinking or feeling, note that the story eventually turns toward Oliver again. The passages about Robin are Oliver trying to interpret the messages he believes Robin is signaling to him.
So in answer to your first question, I guess I see myself as failing in not eventually favoring one character over the other, but it’s so interesting that you read the story’s pov differently. Maybe that’s a result of all that experimenting with the pov (which is something I do a lot in drafting stories).
I also like how such a point of view can show us things the characters don’t yet know about themselves, or maybe never will. For example, the narrator reveals that Robin has a passive-aggressive habit. She certainly wouldn’t or couldn’t reveal that about herself. Such “inside” information makes the story that much richer. For me, there’s also a strange sense of justice, to have the truth so laid bare. When you write a story, are you always aware of who knows what (author vs. character vs. reader), and how such knowledge (or lack of) will affect the story?
I don’t know that I’m always aware of anything when I write, but I’m very interested in this subject of who knows what about the characters. It’s one of the great pleasures of reading to realize that you the reader know something about a character that the character doesn’t know.
I’m interested in how people misinterpret each other and themselves. I’m interested in how impossible it is to truly know someone. There’s that passage in the story where Oliver thinks about how he doesn’t know how Robin’s mind works: “People are alien civilizations. Every encounter is fraught with danger because every encounter is fraught with the potential of miscommunication, and all parties are afraid and armed to the teeth.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that.
But as much as I’m interested in characters’ blind spots, I’m perhaps even more interested in characters who recognize their bad habits and traits, but persist in behaving badly.
You do so much with so little plot. In fact, this is a story about a married couple standing in their bedroom looking out the window! Of course there’s more to it than that, but HOW, is the question. Please enlighten.
Ha! I can certainly imagine how this story could be stretched into a longer story in which the scene of Oliver encountering Elspeth at the door is dramatized and other such scenes dramatized, but I was mostly interested in swarming as a metaphor for what people do when they try to set out on their own as adults while carrying all this baggage from childhood. I was interested in how these two characters struggle to remake themselves, how they struggle to connect to each other and their daughters despite being “raised” by parents who were emotionally distant and far from nurturing. I didn’t feel the story needed anything more than this little moment to explore that. A lot of flash fiction is like this—exploring little moments with a big emotional impact. It’s the emotion that is key. Nothing much necessarily has to happen in terms of physical action as long as a lot happens on an emotional level. This story is slightly too long to meet most people’s definitions of flash fiction, but only slightly.
Who are some of your favorite writers who do similar things with subtle plotlines?
I could list sooo many flash fiction writers and stories. A few flash fiction stories that spring to the top of my head now because I’ve read them again recently are Gwen Kirby’s “Friday Night,” Jennifer Wortman’s “What Kind of Person,” Kim Magowan’s “Chicken for Two,” and Curtis Smith’s “The Kitchen,” the latter of which I had the pleasure of publishing in Atticus Review. These are all stories in which not much happens in terms of action, but so much happens on an emotional level.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection? What keeps you going?
One way to lessen the sting is to make rejection a goal. That’s what a group of writers here in Tucson have been doing for several years now. The rejection competition celebrates and so normalizes what is, after all, a totally normal part of submitting your work.
Thank you, and congratulations!