Shuly Cawood interviews Ellen Birkett Morris, Author of “Lost Girls”

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Author Ellen Birkett Morris has a new short story collection out, Lost Girls (TouchPoint Press, 2020), which explores the experiences of women and girls as they grieve, find love, face uncertainty, take a stand, find their future, and say goodbye to the past. Though they may seem lost, each finds her center as she confronts the challenges and expectations of womanhood. Jenny Offill calls the book “a dazzling collection of stories that showcases Morris’ impressive ability to hide devastating truths within seemingly small moments.”

Shuly Cawood

SXC: How and why did this collection come to be?

EBM: This collection was born out of the realization that my female characters were the most interesting characters I’ve developed. I had enough stories about women and girls to populate a collection and realized that the collection could cover a huge range of experiences and ages, so I began shopping it to small presses.

SXC: How did you decide on the title of the book, and how do you come up with story titles in general?

EBM: I named the book after the title story “Lost Girls,” which was inspired by a kidnapping in my hometown when I was eighteen. The title fit because that story is about honoring women and girls and I wanted the whole collection to do that. Though the women and girls are lost, they find ways to connect with themselves and others. Women do this well and it should be celebrated.

Generally, I find story (and poem) titles to be really hard to settle on. I have found myself falling back on song or movie titles, when I should be looking for a phrase or image in the story that captures the spirit of the story and using that.

SXC: What made you decide to focus on women and girls in this collection?

 EBM: #MeToo showed me the power of women sharing their stories and speaking their truth. Women want to know what other women are feeling. Men need to hear what it like is to be in our skins. I felt like the time was right for a book like this.

SXC: What surprised you the most while writing this collection?

EBM: The places some of the characters took me. Some of the choices they made startled me, especially the protagonist of “Inheritance,” who chooses to make a strong statement of independence to escape her circumstances.

SXC: How long have you been writing short stories and what made you start?

EBM: I’ve been writing stories since my mid-thirties. My father was a writer and I grew up in an apartment with stacks of books and being read to. He actually read us Flannery O’Connor stories aloud. I’ve always loved stories for their immediacy and focus on peak moments. All the boring stuff is left out.

SXC: Who is your favorite short story writer? Why?

EBM: Barbara Kingsolver and Bobbie Ann Mason are my favorites. Kingsolver’s “Homeland and Other Stories” was remarkable for the sensitivity with which she portrays her characters. Bobbie Ann Mason showed me that Kentucky stories matter. Her stories pulse with life, like this passage from “Shiloh”:

Leroy Moffitt’s wife, Norma Jean, is working on her pectorals. She lifts three-pound dumbbells to warm up, then progresses to a twenty-pound barbell. Standing with her legs apart, she reminds Leroy of Wonder Woman.

SXC: You also write poetry. What makes you turn to one genre or another?

Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris

EBM: The piece tells me what it is. I had an idea for an essay about sexuality in pop culture and how it is interpreted differently across the generations, which turned out to be a poem. In the poem I talk about watching Mick Jagger run his tongue across Keith Richards’s lips, how fascinated I was and how aghast my father was. It struck me that this was something better explored through image and contrast in a short form. So I mentioned my father listening to radio and to Elvis. A poem could include lines like: as the country boy with sneering lips/dripped sensuality like lemonade/trickling down the side of a glass/on a hot Memphis afternoon

SXC: What is one thing you didn’t know when you first started writing that you wish you had known?

EBM: It takes so much time and requires so much patience. It all about the process and if you don’t love doing the work, don’t write. The writing itself is the reward.

SXC: What’s the best craft advice you have gotten for writing fiction/short fiction?

EBM: The writer Lee K. Abbott asked this question: “Have you exploited the dramatic potential of the story?” It gets me to the heart of what matters in a story and helps me focus on what I’ve been able to do or not do in a piece.

SXC: How has your own teaching influenced your writing?

EBM: I learn a lot from my students, when I see what matters to them and how they choose to tell a story. Also, talking about craft helps clarify my own understanding of what a story should do.



Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer, teacher and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. Her fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, The Antioch Review, The Notre Dame Review, and The South Carolina Review, among other journals. Her commentaries have been heard on public radio stations across the United States. She is a winner of the Bevel Summers Prize for Short Fiction and the recipient of a 2013 Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council. Morris holds an MFA from Queens University-Charlotte. Find out more here:

Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is an author and writer. Find out more here:

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