The Mystery and Female Power of Ellen Birkett Morris’ “Lost Girls”

Ellen Birkett Morris’s Lost Girls gives an inside view of the bedrooms, workplaces, gathering places, and, most importantly, minds of originally drawn Southern women as they navigate the world and struggle to reconcile southern mores with their own desires.

Jenny Offill, author of Weather, Dept of Speculation, and Last Things had this to say about Birkett Morris’s writing: “A dazzling collection of stories that showcases Morris’ impressive ability to hide devastating truths within seemingly small moments.”

Morris, a writer and writing teacher from Louisville, Kentucky, is the winner of the Bevel Summers Prize for Short Fiction and has had stories in Antioch Review, South Carolina Review, and Shenandoah among other journals. Lost Girls is her debut collection.

Where do you get your love of words and Southern stories?

My father was originally from Detroit but settled in Louisville when he got drafted. He was a writer and autodidact. He loved southern writers like Eudora Welty, Charles Portis, and Flannery O’Connor. He used to read me and my sisters O’Connor stories at bedtime. I was a little young to catch the subtext, but the cadence of the language made a huge impression on me. So did the characters. They were grotesque and inspired empathy and repulsion. I drew on those characters when I developed the virgin that wants to breastfeed and the young girl who is desperate to see her colors reflected in a nude picture of herself that are featured in Lost Girls. And, yes, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” gave me nightmares for years.

What attracted you to create a collection of stories centered on women?

I’d had written these stories over years and many of them were published. I was actively shopping a collection centered on a male photographer from Boston who was traveling the south taking pictures for the Bicentennial. It was a finalist for a few competitions, but nobody was picking it up.

Then the Me Too movement happened. Women were bravely telling stories and getting taken seriously. I realized my fiction reflected the rape, sexism, ageism, and pressure to conform that was being discussed in the larger culture. I wanted these fictional voices heard. That said, the characters are complex. The young woman in the title story “Lost Girls” worries about the ways girls her age “go missing.”

Shirley Jackson described herself in a New Yorker interview as an “amateur practicing witch.”  Much of your writing has a Wiccan-like feel to me. Have you researched or experimented in those traditions, like celebrating the solstice, or is that simply the feminine mystique finding its voice?

I’m a practicing Buddhist, but I respect all kinds of spiritual practice. I’ve celebrated the solstice with friends and written down my regrets and thrown them into a burn pot, but that is as far as I’ve gone. I think mystery plays an important role in fiction and I hope my characters hold some mystery and female power.

In “Inheritance” the protagonist practices the old English tradition of “sin eating,” which functions both as a ritual and a metaphor for her oppression by the people rich enough to pay her to symbolically eat the sins of their dead. In “Life After” a mother contemplates swallowing water from a swimming pool hoping that it has traces of her dead son’s blood in it. I think these acts are part of a desperate wish to transform reality and to have some control over an unfair society and unruly world.  

What’s your favorite story? What was behind the writing of it?

My favorite is “Religion.” In it, a single woman who is a virgin walks into a breastfeeders league meeting and decides to stay. The germ of the story was the way that mothers are judged for every choice they make and the idea that social groups can sometimes function like cults with an unquestioning acceptance of arbitrary rules and norms. As I wrote the story it deepened into a funny/sad story about loneliness and wanting to be accepted. My heart still aches at the last line: “Sometimes, when I am cutting and pasting pictures, I feel a familiar pang of loneliness and think of the women sitting in a circle, the sun shining through the window, the babies’ small mouths sucking away, so hungry.”

How did you come up with the idea of a “sin eater” in the story “Inheritance”? This story has tones of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to me.  Do you read her work?

I heard about sin eating from my sister-in-law Johnna, who is from West Virginia. She was talking about folkways her family practiced and mentioned keeping the hair of the dead, relics from surgery, and people’s teeth. Somehow sin eating came up and I was immediately impressed with the metaphoric possibilities. I kept the idea and worked on it for years. I was never able to make it come alive until our current political climate. I thought about how people in power are able to masquerade as if they are advocating for those less well off, how they keep power through oppression, and the way people are forced to swallow unfairness and indignities.

The woman in “Inheritance” is pregnant by rape and carrying the baby of the mine owner. She is powerless in many ways and it was my job to discover what power she held and how she could wield it.

I’ve read Atwood, but as I was creating this story I was fueled by the fictional world I saw of the poor people who lived in “the elbow,” the starving mining family and the abundance and hubris of the Cabots.

Have you ever had your own or known someone that had a bottle tree?  What makes bottles in trees so evocative as in your story “Bottle Tree Blues”?

I learned about bottle trees in Kate DiCamillo’s wonderful book Because of Winn Dixie and then I started noticing them in yards. I liked the idea of having a tradition between Kelly and her grandmother of the bottle tree and the idea that the sound of the wind blowing across the bottles would banish sadness. I was excited for the bottle tree in the story to work in another way, as a symbol of Silas’s commitment to sobriety. I think it works because it is so visual.

What is your next project?

I am submitting a novel about the mother of a child with past life memories to independent presses now. My next book, still in development, is about a female astronomer in Hawaii.

Lost Girls
By Ellen Birkett Morris
Touchpoint Press
Publication Date June 26, 2020