Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared in CRAFT Literary, New World Writing, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Tahoma Literary Review, and other venues. www.michellenross.com
Our former fiction editor, Cathy Ulrich, asked Michelle a few questions about “An Arm or a Palm Frond or a Boot” published by Pidgeonholes on December 14, 2018.
ULRICH: The moment that this story grabbed me by the throat is “she keeps quiet as sap.” I love when people don’t go with the obvious simile. What made you choose sap here?
ROSS: The short answer is that’s the image that immediately came to me and it just felt right. So much of writing is unconscious and instinctive. Reflecting on this choice, I think “quiet as sap” suggests calculation, sneakiness. I think of how slowly sap creeps along. I think of insects getting lodged in tree sap. But also sap is the blood of a tree. It transports nutrients throughout the tree. Sap only leaks from a tree because there’s some kind of injury. So sap is also suggestive of bleeding, of infection, of pain. I’d add worry here too. Worry is a sort of slow bleeding.
ULRICH: The girl sees a man’s arm in the road. She’s sure she saw it, but she offers outs for the boy that maybe she didn’t: “a palm frond or a boot.” What do you think she is hoping for from the boy here? (I almost said “expecting,” but she doesn’t really expect things from him, does she.)
ROSS: I’m not sure she is sure it was an arm that was in the road. She’s sure at first, and she sees it rather vividly, but I think she has doubts too. Of course, it doesn’t really matter in the end whether it was real or not. This is the image in her head, and so it is significant. I think she wants the boy to be present with her and take her seriously. Perhaps she also wants him to tell her they’re going to be OK. But quickly that shifts. She’s studying his hands again, she’s taking his hand in hers. She seems to be the one comforting him.
ULRICH: The girl thinks of deceptively delicate things when she sees the boy’s hands, spider legs, ballerinas in pointe shoes. The boy doesn’t like that, being called delicate, but he doesn’t seem to realize the power in these so-called delicate things. Do you think he ever will?
ROSS: I think so. I believe he genuinely cares for the girl. I think she’s right that he tries to see her. Also, he’s not afraid to be vulnerable with her (even if he doesn’t like his vulnerability being pointed out), and that right there is pretty big.
At the same time, I feel like I should admit that I don’t really know that he will. One of the great pleasures of writing flash fiction for me is not knowing so much about my characters. Oftentimes with longer stories, I spend so much time writing and thinking outside the story that by the time I’m done with the story, I feel like I’ve written a novel or two or that I could have, what with all the material I developed and how well I know those characters’ lives. Flash fiction is kind of the opposite. There are exceptions to this for sure, but much of the time I don’t know a whole lot about the characters’ lives outside of the small world of the story. I embrace mystery and, well, ignorance to some extent. I take instinct’s outstretched hand, and I don’t ask so many questions about where we’re going. I trust instinct so much that I’ll close my eyes and fall backwards if instinct says it will catch me.
ULRICH: Their second date, when the boy kissed her “like she was oxygen,” do you think that’s the moment she decided to keep on with him? That she’d have left if he’d just brought her “dumb cereal-box joke(s)” and treated her like helium, like the other boys?
ROSS: Absolutely. What draws her to him is his vulnerability, that he needs her and shows it.
ULRICH: The girl tells her friend that the boy tries to see her. Do you think he will ever manage to actually see her? Or at least, will he keep trying?
ROSS: To the extent that anyone ever sees anyone, yes, I think he will manage to see her, if only in small glimpses. He’s a bit of a mess, but I think he means well.
You can read Michelle’s story, “An Arm or a Palm Frond or a Boot”, here.
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