January 27, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Michelle Ross's collection Shapeshifting offers unvarnished and brilliant glimpses of motherhood.
Claire Beams wrote of the book:
"Here are motherhood stories of the kind I crave, hilarious, skewering, tragic, and huge-hearted, following only their own rules. Nothing is sacred here-the wondrously particular, memorable mothers in these pages are allowed all their human dimensions. Michelle Ross has written a sharp, moving, immensely satisfying collection."
Shapeshifting is collection of 14 stories that delve into the relentless cult of motherhood. I wanted to write mothers who are human and messy, who are allowed to be their whole selves. I wanted to write of the pressures on mothers, the impossible expectations. I wanted to write of the isolation of motherhood. I wanted to write of the power mothers have over their children even when in all other respects they may be powerless. I wanted to write of the shittiness of being female in a world in which other people feel entitled to tell you what you can and cannot do with your own body. I wanted to write of the guilt mothers feel. I wanted to write of the many fears for their children’s safety and well-being. I wanted to write of the pain of having an emotionally unavailable mother. I wanted to do all these things and many more at once.
For Shapeshifting, I’ve comprised a playlist of one song for every story in the collection:
“Karma Police,” Radiohead (story: “After Pangaea”)
The mother listens to this gorgeous, aching song on repeat her third night sleeping in a van in front of her son’s preschool. The van is cold now that the sun has set, so she’s pulled the flannel blanket around her shoulders and around the baby, who is asleep with the mother’s nipple in its mouth. A quiet rage is building inside her as she watches the other parents, who are lit by the gold light of a lantern where they sit by one of the RVs drinking beer and laughing, and as she thinks about her husband warm inside a stranger’s cozy, insulated living room.
“Werewolf,” Cat Power (story: “Shapeshifting”)
The morning after dreaming that she sliced into her partner’s torso, trying to get to his organs, the mother-to-be in “Shapeshifting” hums this moody, haunting song while she brushes her teeth, which is painful because her gums are swollen because hormones because her body has been commandeered by an alien being.
“Dig Me Out,” Sleater-Kinney (story: “Play It Safe”)
This is the song playing in Jessie’s earbuds when she’s attacked by a man while she’s out running in a neighborhood at sunrise. She likes to run to music that makes her feel fierce and unstoppable, like nothing can hurt her.
“Hole in the Middle,” Emily Jane White (story: “The Sand and the Sea”)
Every time the daughter, now also a mother, hears this song, she pictures her mother on that beach long ago returning with bucketful after bucketful of sea water that she says will take the sting out of the daughter’s limbs. The sea water does not take the sting out. Nothing ever does.
“Everything is Everything,” Lauren Hill (story: “What Doesn’t Kill You”)
This song is playing on the radio when Annabelle gets into her rental car. If the buttons on the control panel weren’t so confusing, she would have flipped the station before she heard any of the lyrics. But because the buttons are confusing, she does catch the lyrics, and she finds herself listening to the song in its entirety. The lyrics give her a hopeful feeling. The desert sun, which had at first seemed cruel and accusing when she exited the airport, now seems to be gazing gently at her, lovingly. This sun will soon enough feel harsh again.
“Perfect Day,” Lou Reed (story: “Keeper Four”)
Now that all electronics have shut down, now that her coworkers are dead, now that Keeper Four is left to live out the remainder of her days in the facility with the Researcher and the few research animal and human subjects who have survived, there is no more music. But this is the song Keeper Four whistles when she strings sardines from the trees in the grizzly bear enclosure, hoping that this time, Sheena will be inspired to eat.
“Psycho Killer,” Talking Heads (story: “Winkelsucher”)
Later, when Oona’s son, Max, is no longer angry at her about taking his picture, the two of them will dance in the living room to Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” Max will be all smiles, but Oona will be wondering if what happened in the garden will be one of those memories that stick for her son. What story will he one day tell about her?
“Who the Fuck?” PJ Harvey (story: “Life Cycle of an Ungrateful Daughter”)
While the mother would probably find this song grating, it seems an apt expression for how she feels about the daughter writing a story inspired by her. Of course, it’s hard to say for sure since even the story of the story is told from the daughter’s point of view. The mother is as lucid as smoke.
“It’s Not Up to You,” Bjork (story: “The Natural Order of Things”)
This Bjork song could accompany the mother’s thoughts in the wake of her niece’s death, as she’s flying over the Grand Canyon to the funeral.
“A Forest,” The Cure (story: “Three-week Checkup”)
While Deena is probably too exhausted to dance to this song which, I think, normally demands dancing, “A Forest” echoes the reeling feeling of new motherhood. The lyrics “I’m lost in a forest/All alone” pretty much sum up her days and weeks.
“Doll Parts,” Hole (story: “The Pregnancy Game”)
In the woods where Frances’s friend Gwen goads her friends into playing an uncomfortable game, the trees thrum to this song.
“My Silver Lining,” First Aid Kit (story: “The Difference Between Me and Everyone Else”)
As the mother drives home in the dark after the party, her young son asleep in the back seat, his neck at a disconcerting angle, this song plays so quietly from the car’s speakers that it is as if the song is meant for her alone.
“Windows,” Angel Olsen (story: “Galactagogues”)
This song paints the mood in the room where the mother gave birth and where, six weeks later, she now cradles an inanimate doll instead of her daughter. The light is gauzy. It envelops the mother like a cocoon. Or maybe like a spider’s web.
“Life on Mars?” David Bowie (story: “A Mouth is a House for Teeth”)
This song plays on a loop in the mother’s head as she presses her face against the cool window and looks out at the woman next door throwing a stick to a dog, as she taps at that window to get the woman’s attention but the woman doesn’t look. All these years alone in this house with her young daughter, the mother might as well live in a snow globe. “Life on Mars?” is exactly the kind of song that would play on repeat in a snow globe.
Michelle Ross is the author of three story collections, There's So Much They Haven't Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award and Finalist for the 2017 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award for Short Stories, Shapeshifting, winner of the Stillhouse Press Short Story Award (forthcoming in 2021), and They Kept Running, winner of the 2021 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (forthcoming in Spring 2022). Her fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, The Common, Epiphany, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, TriQuarterly, Witness, and other venues. Her fiction has been selected for Best Microfiction, Best Small Fictions, and the Wigleaf Top 50, among other anthologies. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review and was a consulting editor for the 2018 Best Small Fictions anthology. A native of Texas, she received her B.A. from Emory University and her M.F.A and M.A. from Indiana University. She currently lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband and son. michellenross.com