I was happy to see two familiar names on the cover of the Spring issue of the Colorado Review, but it was a conjunction that really caught my eye. Kim Magowan and Michelle Ross. And!!! When I got done reading Twenty-three Safety Manuals, a twenty-one-page short story gem, I wanted to know more. How did they do this magic? Twenty-three is a story about loneliness, closeness, distance, intimacy, and friendship. It’s a reflective story told in first-person spanning about six years of the main character’s young college and post-college life. One thing completely missing in the text is evidence of a collaboration. I wanted to know how. Kim and Michelle kindly accepted my interview request and although I knew going into it I might never know how they did it, but I certainly look forward to reading more. Reading their answers has only left me in more awe. All I can say is this is true Monster spirit. Holy cow. Roar!!!
— Al Kratz, April 7, 2021
At 8,200 words, I assume this was a little different to manage than your previous collaborations. How did this work logistically? Who came up with the original premise and what drew you to going down the collaboration path with this story?
MR: I came up with the premise insofar as I began this story, writing the first three paragraphs, then handing them off to Kim. In college, I did spend one summer working in the office of Environmental Health & Safety Services at UTMB in Galveston, Texas, so that premise at its most basic is autobiographical. And it’s true to my own experience, too, that returning home for the summer during college was challenging on many levels. But other than that, I had no preconceived ideas about where this story was going to go after those first three paragraphs. The rest came together bit by bit as Kim and I passed it back and forth. As to the question of why collaborate on this particular story opening, all I can say really is that I didn’t already have a story in mind when I wrote those three paragraphs. It’s challenging, and possibly silly, to collaborate if you think you already know some part of the story—at least the way Kim and I collaborate, it would be. We just write. There’s no planning. There’s rarely any discussion over plot other than perhaps in revision to say something’s off here or missing there. And the thing about collaborating with another writer like this is neither of you really control the narrative. You might think you know where a story is headed when you pass it off to the other person but then it comes back and you find yourself somewhere unexpected.
KM: With this EQ (we always call our collaborations-in-progress EQs, short for exquisite corpses), Michelle proposed at the outset that we try to write something longer. So I knew from the beginning to slow down the pace, and it suited our strange summer of 2020 circumstances, in which time felt so stretchy. We never have a set word count with collaborations, but mostly we will send each other the current story after we tack on a paragraph; in the case of this story, the chunks we each wrote were a little longer, sometimes over a page. I remember when Michelle sent me the beginning of this story (the first three paragraphs), realizing that setting was going to be crucial in this story, and writing Michelle a nervous email: “Wait, I don’t know anything about the Gulf Coast!” She immediately brushed aside that concern; she reminded me that I’d made her write plenty of stories set in Northern California, so suck it up!
What’s the most surprising thing that you discovered during this particular collaboration?
MR: The most surprising thing about writing this particular story—even though we’d experienced this with previous collaborative stories, too—is how quickly it seemed to write itself. As Kim said already, I had proposed in this case to aim to write a longer story, but I didn’t assume that it would work out so easily, or work out at all. I never will get used to that or take it for granted. Solo writing is sooooo much slower. I’m working on a long story off and on right now that I began back in the early fall (or was it late summer?), yet I’m still not happy enough with it to show it to Kim or anyone else. I think we wrote “Twenty-Three Safety Manuals” in just a few weeks, from start to finish. The first place we sent it to was Colorado Review, and it got picked up within a few days, I think. Am I remembering that right, Kim?
KM: I just double-checked my Inbox. So, Michelle started “EQ Summer” on 7/8/20, and we finished it on 8/3. I will say, for us, that’s slow—but of course this story is way longer than any of our other collaborations (the second longest, “To Be Generous,” is just under 6000 words). Four weeks is much, much faster than any long-form story I’ve written solo. We submitted it to Colorado Review that same day, 8/3, and it was accepted 8/25. So yeah, ridiculous start-to-finish-to acceptance turn around, especially since I find longer stories typically are harder to place.
MR: And now you see how reliable my memory is.
How do make the voice so seamless? I’m guessing there is some magic here more than just writing. Like a seamlessness beyond the art. That this takes a special kind of friendship, in some ways very parallel to the themes of the story on trust and friendship.
MR: I think a lot of the seamlessness stems from Kim and I being each other’s first readers for about 6 years now. We know each other’s writing well. But I also I wonder if it has something to do with the way that writers learn to write in the first place—largely by mimicking other writers, trying on different voices and other tools. That is, maybe we sort of unconsciously meld our writing?
KM: We have a book-length manuscript now of our collaboration stories (we’ve published 27 of them), and it’s true that a persistent chord in the stories, when I see them as an aggregate, is friendship, particularly between two women. Those friendships aren’t always functional or healthy: another artery of the collection is frenemies (what Michelle calls “nemeses” and I call “mortal enemies”), and those enmities often germinate in friendships gone sour. I don’t think as individual writers, Michelle and I sound all that much alike. But somehow, when we work on these together, it’s like a third voice emerges. Our writing blends to such a degree that I have trouble sometimes remembering which one of us wrote a particular sentence. And that’s true not just of the 1st person stories, which have a character voice, but also of our 3rd person stories. It’s frankly uncanny! I have no doubt part of why our writing blends that way is because we are, in real life, good friends. We can “hear” what the other person is trying to do with a new piece, and fall quickly in step. It fascinates me.
How much did the pandemic play into this collaboration? I was thinking about the parallel of that while I read this story too and the main character having to experience many of the events of this story without her friend Edie who was in Ecuador at the time. Homesickness and the place that used to be home. The pandemic had a unique quality of distance in some cases, but in also drawing people together who may not have had the same opportunity for connection. So there’s a tension between Time and Distance.
KM: Well said, Al! This story was definitely the product of feeling that time had ground to a halt. Right before lockdown, Michelle and I were supposed to see each other at AWP, and after a lot of hand-wringing and dithering, we decided to cancel that trip. I know I missed Michelle, and I missed normal life, and I was feeling (quickly glancing over my shoulder for lurking eavesdroppers) a little stuck at home with my likewise anxious and struggling family. I was “homesick,” that is, not in the usual sense, but in the sick-of-home sense! All those elements went into, in a way that I intuit more than I can explicitly identify, the stone soup of the story. But there is one explicit reference to the pandemic: “His words have come back to me in recent days, when I encounter those CDC signs in storefronts that say, ‘I wear my mask to protect you. You wear your mask to protect me.’” It’s clear from the opening of the story that the story is being told retrospectively, at the distance of a number of years, and when I wrote that CDC sentence, I realized it’s being told right NOW.
MR: Yeah, I agree. There are definitely parallels between Catherine’s experience of homesickness and what many of us have been experiencing the last year. Home has become a somewhat claustrophobic place. Or at the very least, home has been transformed. And our relationships with others have been transformed at the same time. I don’t have much to add to what you’ve both already said, except that as much as I’ve enjoyed the new opportunities to connect with people over Zoom, I miss connecting with people in the real world. I don’t want to lose what we’ve gained, but I certainly hope to regain what has been lost.
There’s so many wonderful sub-plots or stories or mediations almost that I particularly wondered where they fit in the collaboration and if they discoveries that would not have been made writing this solo. One was the toddler who never learned to crawl properly but would drag herself around. The other was the image of the divorcing parents taking a breather as if marriage were akin to swimming underwater. Then there’s a little turn to darker images of the memories of certain works of art. The film director using his daughter in extreme horror scenes. The character of a book brainwashed by her parents to forget traumatic memories. The sculptor mad at his subjects for not sitting still.
KM: To break it down: the toddler dragging herself by her forearms was my bit—my niece Lucy used to do that (her parents called her “the Swiffer”). The swimming underwater was Michelle: I love that bit, how efficiently Michelle captures how differently the parents tell the story about their split (and I love the fact that they each tell “their side” using the same Mary Cassatt stationery; that’s a perfect Michelle touch, capturing how even estranged, they are still entwined). The film director who casts his daughter is Michelle’s (and any fan of Michelle Ross could probably spot that as a “Michelle” element; Michelle is a cinephile, and horror films are a persistent narrative concern of hers. The first story of Michelle’s I ever read, how we met, is her superb “Cinema Verite,” which also uses film to reflect upon family relationships). The brainwash book is a for-real junk novel that I read as a kid, and it killed me that Michelle immediately recognized it as V.C. Andrews and had read it too. Duh, of course she had! The Giacometti bit is Michelle again, but that’s another moment of synchronicity—he’s my mother’s favorite sculptor, I know his work well.
MR: Much of what I write comes as a surprise to me when I write it. That’s one of the great joys of writing—it expands my thinking, reveals to me what I didn’t know was there. I think that certainly writing with someone else might draw out material that might not have gotten drawn out otherwise, but the same can be said of any story, whether written alone or collaboratively. At the same time, I’m also kind of always filling my pockets with little observations or anecdotes or metaphors or what have you (I think here of how my son used to come home from school with an assortment of little treasures in his pockets, from acorns to rocks to used Popsicle sticks he’d dug out of the trash bin in his classroom) and then inserting those odds and ends here and there into stories where they seem useful or pertinent. I assume all writers do that. We’re kind of like birds building our nests out of whatever random materials we can find.
MR: We actually haven’t written a short story together in a while. I think “Twenty-three Safety Manuals” might have been the last one. We’ve been busy pedaling our short story collection manuscript around. I imagine we will write more stories together when we have both have a little more free time.
KM: Michelle, you’re forgetting “Night Vision,” and so am I, frankly, because I need to submit that somewhere. But yes, we haven’t collaborated in a few months. We must! As Michelle knows, I always have a hard time getting any writing done besides flash fiction when the semester is on, and this year has been an unusually demanding year job-wise—remote teaching is challenging and time consuming. (I literally had a dream last night where figures in my dream were encased inside squares and I could see their lips moving but couldn’t hear them talk, and then I realized it was because they were in Zoom and they were on Mute. Yikes. Too much Zoom). But I miss writing with Michelle! We should take this joint interview as a sign to get moving again.
MR: I miss it, too. Definitely we need to collaborate again soon!
If some writer friends told you that they were thinking of collaborating on a twenty-page short story would you be happy or scared for them?
KM: Ha! I am always telling writer friends they should try collaborating —it’s so much fun. Writing is lonely, so one thing I love about collaboration is having company. Plus, it stretches me in all kinds of ways as a writer. It teaches me how to ventriloquize. Working with Michelle shucks me out of my comfort zone, because I have to write about things I know nothing about, like science, home improvement projects, fancy cooking, and Galveston , Texas. BUT: I’d probably advise anyone sensible to start the process of collaboration by working on something shorter. This is by far the longest story we’ve ever written.
MR: Collaborating is so much fun, and yes, it does make writing a little less lonely. It also makes it easier. Writing a story with Kim energizes and inspires me. The magic of it rubs off a little onto my solo writing. I highly recommend it. That said, I think there’s probably got to be some kind of chemistry involved. I couldn’t just do this with anyone.
KM: Same same! I love you too!