The Massive, Strange Shape of a Story: A Conversation with Melissa Goodrich

By James Tadd Adcox


I’ve been a fan of Melissa Goodrich’s short stories for several years now, following her work in magazines like PANK, American Short Fiction, >kill author, and Sundog Lit. A onetime student of writer Kate Bernheimer, Goodrich shares Bernheimer’s interest in fairy tales, with a strong dose of formalist experimentation and stunningly lyrical writing; her stories can often feel like long prose poems, their narratives moving with the associative logic of dreams.

Her first book-length collection of stories, Daughters of Monsters, has been called “prismatic and sweetly perturbing” by Catherine Zobal Dent, author of Unfinished Stories of Girls. I was excited to talk to Goodrich about her book, fairy tales, magical realism, and whether we deserve whatever apocalypse might be coming for us.

James Tadd Adcox: I want to start off talking about transformations. They’re everywhere in these stories. In “She Wants, She Gets,” your retelling of Cinderella, Cinderella doesn’t just transform into a princess—she lives a whole life of transformations, transforming into ashes every night at midnight, turning into a bird instead of remaining a princess for the prince. In “Super,” we have a child undergoing a series of transformations at the moment of death. And the title story hinges on a girl’s eventual transformation into her monstrous birthright. What’s your interest in transformation?

Melissa Goodrich: Transformations intrigue me . . . and scare me. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of “turning into” someone I don’t want to be. I wonder if we can be genetically predisposed to certain behaviors or personalities . . . not just the biological passing of diseases, but the much worse pathological passing down of behavior. Most of my life I’ve been afraid of, then afraid of turning into, my mother. I think she was scared of turning into her mother, and who knows how far back that goes. I’m her daughter. One day I’m supposed to wake up with her face. I’m supposed to mimic the things she said to me to my children. It makes me feel like I’ve been coded to be something I don’t want to be.

On the other hand, transformation is a kind of freedom—to become anything! What if we just lifted out of the ashes of ourselves and turned into something—anything—else? What if we are fighting to turn into what we want to turn into? I think most of us want to “become” something or “make something” of ourselves, right? I like the idea that it can happen to anyone at any time, with or without consent.

Do you think all these changings and becomings have implications for how you approach the idea of character in fiction?

 I think characters (and people) rarely know who they are. They become different kinds of people as soon as they make a certain sort of choice. I love that characters are as unsure of who they are as I am—it means we’re meeting the same person as the story comes to fruition. And that’s total freedom—I don’t want to limit myself as a writer to what I want a character to be. She can be anything. She could change, any instant, into a lark.

In an essay on fabulism you talk about “giving an abstraction a body.” It seems like in your work giving the abstraction a body is a way to make that abstraction messier, bring it into the slippery world of the human. Do you start with the abstraction, or do you start with the body?

 I have to start with something that would make me want to keep reading. I take the “you are your first reader” thing very seriously. I take first sentences very seriously. I think I need the potential in first sentences to have a body mess with something uncanny, something magic.

So do you tend to approach writing as a process of building one sentence on top of another, rather than, say, skipping around or having some grand design for a story?

I have no plan. I base it all on an image or a voice or a sound. I follow the music of the sentences. I start at the first sentence and push forward blindly like a moose in a snowstorm. Once I have a start-to-end draft, I can skip around, add and subtract, refine, build bridges between things, but grand design? No. I think this is why novels intimidate me. The only way I know how to write is feeling for the massive, strange shape of a story with my hands.

You teach elementary school. I couldn’t help thinking about that during a particular moment in the story “Lucky,” about a pair of Midwestern families driving east to escape a wall of poisonous gas that is slowly making its way across the United States. There’s this scene of two of the kids, friends, secretly torturing a frog together. It’s an incredibly visceral, well-wrought scene, which I honestly found kind of hard to read—I could feel myself squirm.

 Maybe it was just me, but kids were nasty in grade school. Usually when I see children depicted in film or television, they seem watered down, they’re too cutesy or kind of clueless or used as props. But kids are inventive and sharp and they get into mischief as quickly as they can. They are perceptive about what causes pain. I think they know they’re always on the verge of being caught. I think they know that they can see who’s the strongest by who doesn’t flinch. They want so badly to belong to each other that they join in on things that maybe normally they wouldn’t. So I didn’t want the kids in “Lucky” to be sterile. I didn’t just want the adults making nasty choices. I wanted to show how kids process pain—by dealing it.

Is this something you’ve witnessed firsthand? 

When I was in fifth grade, I incubated chickens for the science fair. I brought a few of them in, to go with my poster. Some of the boys in class sharpened pencils and stabbed those chicks in their bellies through the wires. And let me tell you, those roosters grew up MEAN. They used to chase us around the yard, and we used to run.

I’d like to talk a little bit about the story “Where Dust Storms May Exist,” about a trucker charged with transporting angel-like beings to slaughterhouses, where they’ll be processed—slaughtered—for sale as food in supermarkets. At one point, the trucker-narrator says “It was actually awful, the things we had to do.” What strikes me about this story is that it’s never really clear that the narrator has to do these things, or why. Which makes me think of our own complicity in so much of the evil going on around us. Does the narrator have to participate in the evil he does? Do we?

I think of complicity as part selfishness, part nervousness—where you aren’t exactly the evil thing, but you stand aside to let it push ahead. We’ve all been that person in the supermarket buying meat without thinking about where it comes from. There are homemakers who don’t get divorced because they don’t want to be poor. When we’re working for a corporation, we feel we must do what we’re asked—and it’s hard doing something immoral. But it’s also maybe harder for people, like this protagonist, to leave a job and that stability, especially if he can’t tell his partner—Hey, I’m quitting because I sell angel meat. Well, I transport. Well, I bring them one place when they’re alive and another place when they’re dead. The speaker of this story feels as if he has no choice—and I think he must believe it. He can’t picture a world where he loses what he’s worked for—not at that moment in time—not until he reaches a tipping point. For me the surprises in that story were the mounting discomforts in watching a character, largely, stand by. He was complicit because he stood and watched these things happen. He absorbed that world, he needed to be really shook to see how bad it was.

Hospitality seems to be another theme running through that story. How do you see that idea, the idea of hospitality, interacting with or speaking to the questions of complicity?

I think hospitality and complicity are similar in some ways—I think the instinct in both is to be unobtrusive, to create a space for someone else. When I think of my own life, I feel as though I was trained to be polite, courteous, respectful—and while those are noble aims, they sometimes are a detriment. When you spend your whole life trying to be polite and make way for others, you learn very little about how to say “no,” or how to carve a space out for yourself.

What’s the difference between fairy tales and magical realism? Is there one? How do you find yourself tending towards one or the other in a story?

For me, a fairy tale has more of a warning or a message—the genre inherently works as a teacher, even if the messages are complicated or complex. Also fairy-tales feel less of-this-world. Characters don’t need to be fully developed, nor their motivations or intrinsic ways of trusting or being tricked or feeling devoted to a quest or journey. Magical realism is more of a style or mode of story-telling. I define magical realism as this world we live in, plus magic. Usually just a little magic. Like, everything is the same except one person’s mother is an orange. Everything is like our world except these animals people keep finding in the snow. Magical realism uses that mode to still tell essentially human stories—to explore characters and find out what they care about. But the magic helps us see the unseeable things—a heartbreak can be a mass of bees spilling from a purse, or lonesomeness can manifest as a hill of bones. I think of magical realism as my favorite tool for taking the world and shaking it up like the snow globe it actually is.

You mention a detail from one of my favorite stories in this collection, “Anna George,” which begins, “Your parents go on a trip overseas and your mother comes back as an orange and your father doesn’t come back at all.” I’ll admit, reading this first line, that I thought I had this story pegged, as the sort of quirky and strange story where one thing is inexplicably different and the energy (and pretty much everything else) of the story comes from this strange difference. But that’s not what’s going on here at all. “Anna George” doesn’t stop with the orange-mother—there are so many different elements and conceits in this story that I found myself holding my breath each time a new element was introduced. But it somehow all works, which seems like quite a feat to pull off. What was the composition of that story like? What’s been the reaction to it from readers or editors? It really felt like something I hadn’t seen before.

George Saunders has this essay in The Braindead Megaphone that talks about stories with patterns—which are essentially my favorite stories to write (i.e.: an animal is found in the snow. It grows and grows and grows—that’s the pattern). He talks about stories like Barthelme’s “The School,” which also follows a pattern of class pets and pen pals and parents dying—and the thing is, even when the stakes grow (the deaths get more intense, more is lost), those stories can get . . . I guess, predictable. Especially to those of us who write stories like that, we know how the gimmick works. Saunders talks about giving the reader interesting “gas stations”—something along the way that keeps us hooked, makes us want to keep reading. I think about this a lot. But I also kind of wanted to take it to a new level, like I wanted to throw something total new into the mix—I wanted to, like, break pattern completely. One way to do this in the writing process is to inject something totally different into the middle of it.

In this particular case, with “Anna George,” I was having these long productive writing dates with the fantastic Mariah Young. We’d give each other a prompt, write for an hour or so, then swap laptops. We gave each other permission to add a paragraph or two, inject a different voice or sensibility into the pages for just a brief moment. I’ve done this a lot with her—we end up pushing each other’s stories in totally new directions. I’ve done this so many times with her that I’m getting comfortable doing it myself now. For example, I’m working on stories for a new collection, and there’s this floating-away school. The pattern is that it’s floating off, higher and higher off the earth. But I wanted to shake it up, give the story something totally different to deal with as well—so on top of the floating these storms start coming, raining apples and hairbrushes and shampoo. I feel like even the worlds we invent don’t have to be tidy or clean or straight-lined. I liked the idea of inverting the story “Anna George” half-way through, turning it inside out like a pair of socks.

A lot of these stories feel haunted by the real or metaphoric idea of apocalypse. Your Noah, riding out the flood in “A Dreamless Year of Feeding Animals,” thinks to himself: “What a punishment. . . . What was God doing?” Another character, thinking of the end-times, asks “I wonder if we deserve it?” I feel like it’s pretty obvious, at this moment, why a writer would gravitate towards questions of apocalypse. But what’s your take—do we deserve it?

When I think about the specter of God—that Old Testament one, especially, the one who needs blood above a doorway or turns you into a pillar of salt—I don’t know what we deserve. Maybe it’s easier thinking there’s some thought behind the universe; maybe it’s humbling to realize how much the world is out of anyone’s control. I think humans process chaos in fantastic ways. Sometimes it’s the apocalypse that makes a person want to counterbalance it. Most of the kind people I know had uneasy lives. If we deserve it, we deserve all of it—all the pain and all that transformed out of it.

James Tadd Adcox is the author of a novel, Does Not Love, and a collection of short stories, The Map of the System of Human Knowledge. A novella, Repetition, is forthcoming September from Cobalt Press. He is a visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Purdue University.

Melissa Goodrich received her MFA from the University of Arizona. Daughters of Monsters is her first collection.  Find her at melissa-goodrich.com.

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