Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Michelle Ross’ fiction piece, The Difference Between Me and Everyone Else
John: One line in this story struck me particularly: “Scientists are constantly discovering new mistakes it’s too late to undo.” It’s so painfully true, and points to an even bigger, scarier fact—that most of our lives, in fact, are spent making mistakes we will never be able to undo. This problem obviously torments the narrator. What are we to do with this terrible condition?
Michelle: Haha. This is quite a grim view, but yes, the protagonist is certainly haunted by her mistakes. She recounts two anecdotes within the story of circumstances in which she thought she was doing the right thing by others (her unborn son, a baby bird), but it turned out that perhaps she had done more harm than good. She worries about this, worries about what harm she’s inadvertently doing now and that she’ll do in the future.
At the same time, I have a little hope for her because she at least entertains the possibility that perhaps she’s somewhat mistaken about the harm she did. In the case of her son, she recognizes that perhaps even though it’s true that soy mimics estrogen and that she drank lots of soy milk while pregnant, maybe her son’s penis is normal. In the case of the baby bird, she has her friend Jeannie’s alternative view that the bird’s parents had abandoned the animal regardless.
Also, she understands that sensitivity to and a craving for sugar is innate in humans. Thus, while she worries about mistakes she’s made and may make regarding drinking, I think she has some compassion for herself.
Having compassion for ourselves is vital, and we can show compassion to ourselves without dodging personal responsibility.
Honesty and a sense of humor help, too.
I also want to emphasize, though, that I don’t see mistakes as terrible. Mistakes are a normal part of living. They’re a necessary part of taking risks and challenging ourselves. They are how we learn and grow.
The interplay between causality—the narrator’s drinking leading to her guilt—and the random nature of Biscuit’s car accidents is really well done. How much control do you think we have over events? Are we all just careening along through life, heading for a skull impalement, Biscuit sitting shotgun?
I’m fascinated by the interplay between what we can control and what we can’t. Even what we often perceive of as choices are in many cases heavily influenced by physiological factors at least partially outside of our control. For instance, we know that some people’s brains are chemically more susceptible to addiction than other people’s brains. Genetics drives so many of our characteristics and behaviors, not to mention the influence of environmental factors, by which I mean here anything from parental and cultural influences to the foods we eat to toxins in our environment.
And then there’s also that element of randomness. Terrible things happen to people beyond their control. (And wonderful things, too.)
Years ago, a huge buck leaped out in front of my car, bounced off my bumper, and then landed on the windshield of another driver’s car. This was in the middle of the day, but I didn’t see that deer until it was too late. I don’t know why I didn’t see the animal. And even if I had seen it earlier, I doubt that I could have avoided hitting the deer. This was a four-lane highway just outside of Atlanta. There was quite a bit of traffic. That car the deer landed on was three lanes away from me. I don’t think I had any control in this circumstance except the control I exerted to somehow manage to pull my car off of the road without getting into a collision with another vehicle.
In the case of circumstances outside of our control, whether it be genetic influences or a random disaster, what we can control to some extent is how we view these events, how we respond, how they shape us. In my collision with the deer, I wasn’t physically hurt at all, which is much more than I can say for the poor deer. But still, I was quite shaken by the accident. My car, which was brand new, was heavily damaged. I suppose I could have come away from the accident feeling sorry for myself or unlucky. But I recall feeling the opposite—grateful. Grateful to be alive, grateful to not be physically injured.
Of course, much worse things happen to people, trials that test them much more severely. Still, I think personal responsibility is crucial. Nothing good comes of simply seeing yourself as a victim, giving up, blaming all of your problems on circumstances outside of your control.
Take an alcoholic who knows that addiction runs in her family, is in her genetic make-up. Science has revealed so much about why we are the way we are, but that’s not the end of the story. She can choose to use this as an excuse to drink or she can choose to respond by getting whatever help she needs to overcome her addiction.
I suspect that if the protagonist of this story had had Biscuit’s experience, she’d feel damaged somehow, marked. Not Biscuit. As she says in the story, “I don’t believe in curses.”
That’s a great first line. Was that one of those sentences that just pops into your head and makes you think, “I should write a story about that,” or did it come later?
I once attended a party where there were quite a few naked toddlers running around and one of them did indeed have a noticeably longer penis than the rest of the toddler boys. It was the kind of thing you can’t help but notice even though you feel a little weird about noticing. So that was a seed for this story. When I sat down to write, I began immediately with that observation and with these mothers in the hostess’s kitchen—one of them eavesdropping on the others’ conversation and wishing for a glass of wine but knowing that she shouldn’t drink. I think the subject of Biscuit’s and Opera Cake’s conversation came a few paragraphs into the writing, after I’d written some much less interesting dialog that I scrapped.
How does your work as a science writer affect your fiction? Do the two come from completely different parts of the brain, or is there some overlap?
Science is such a rich source for metaphor and imagery and language. Quite often it’s a starting place for me. I’ll be writing about some topic for work and think, oh, I should use this in a story. Science is also often where I go when I’m stuck. Sometimes I’ve gotten concrete ideas for a story while writing science content. That happened with a flash fiction story I wrote called “Atoms.” I was thinking about how wild it is that such a fundamental concept isn’t typically addressed in state science standards until around fourth grade or later. Hence, learning about atoms has the potential to be kind of mind-blowing, to really shake up one’s sense of the world.
As far as “The Difference Between Me and Everyone Else” goes, I’d recently written about the science of smell and taste for my day job, so that information was in my head. Also, I drew on what I’d read in the past about the mammalian craving for sugar and about sense of smell in infants, among other things.
Beyond science providing material for fiction, I think that I approach story writing in a somewhat scientific way. For a fiction writer, I’m perhaps a little strange insofar as my brain is more naturally geared for mathematics and logic. I’m really interested in story form and structure, in patterns. And I tend to think of a story as a puzzle, or, more precisely, a set of puzzles, I’m trying to solve.
I wonder too if many fiction writers share some traits with scientists. As much as we write from empathy, I think there’s a kind of cold curiosity at play, too. Our characters are like lab rats. We put them in difficult situations and poke and prod to find out what will happen.
John Haggerty is the founding editor of the Forge Literary Magazine.