Exploring the art of prose


Author: Michelle Ross

Author’s Note

To crudely summarize, “Key Concepts in Ecology” is a story about a corporate office that is shown to be its own ecosystem. There are predators and prey, producers and scavengers, mutualistic relationships and parasitic relationships. And the ecosystem of this corporate office is part of the larger ecosystem of the town, which includes a mysterious animal snipers are hunting; delivery guys bringing lunch to the office because the employees have been warned not to venture outside; and the longtime-out-of-work domestic partner of the story’s protagonist, Andrea, who works in this office as a science writer.

Early on, I knew Andrea’s story and the story of the office she works in would be bound up with the story of the natural world outside the building, specifically the story of the creature being hunted around the town. I knew Andrea would identify with this creature her coworkers have deemed a threat. What I was less sure about was how to convey this animal. At some point, I experimented with identifying the animal as a mountain lion, but this choice didn’t feel right. Naming the animal seemed to put it into a box. We have pre-existing ideas about mountain lions. We think we know what they are. They’re predators. They’re dangerous. Heck no they shouldn’t be roaming neighborhoods where children play.

Instinctively I felt that the animal’s identity should be unclear. Not naming a thing pares it down to its essentials and lends a mythic quality to that figure. And what really matters in this story, after all, is not the animal’s identity but its circumstances. This creature is being hunted by snipers not because it has done any harm but because it’s unfamiliar, an outsider, and thus deemed suspect. Of course, it’s quite likely the creature isn’t an outsider at all, but that it’s been dislodged from its home by urbanization. This is a familiar story. In a way, not identifying the creature makes it scarier, more of a monster, but I also think it helps make the creature’s plight more empathetic.

At the same time, I fretted about making the creature mysterious. Not naming the animal gives this rather realistic story a somewhat otherworldly feel, which I loved, yet I felt sort of like I was breaking some rule by allowing in this one otherworldly element. That is, writers talk about it being fiction’s job to either make the familiar strange or the strange familiar. Insofar as this story is set in a corporate office, but applying key concepts of ecology to the relationships within, the story would seem to be doing the former, making the familiar strange. But this creature seems like a fantastic element, and insofar as its story becomes an empathetic one with which Andrea can relate, the creature seems to be the strange made familiar.

Here’s the thing, though: The more I think about what distinguishes  the familiar made strange and the strange made familiar, the less sure I am about the distinctions. The binary falls apart. Freud’s discussion of the uncanny comes to mind—the uncanny being that which is at once both familiar and strange. Maybe because it seems both alive and dead, both human and animal, or both home and not home. Walk along the grass, and there is a world beneath your feet you know almost nothing about, yet there it is, right beneath you, hidden in plain sight. Scientists are constantly discovering new species we’ve been living on this planet with for thousands of years if not significantly longer than that. When so much is already unknown or strange about the “familiar” world, the constructs of reality and fantasy break down. I’m hard-pressed to identify an example of anything that is familiar that isn’t strange, and vice versa. Is using key concepts in ecology to understand the dynamics within a corporate office, or within a family or any other brand of human relationship, really an example of making the familiar strange or is it perhaps an example of making the strange familiar? I can make an argument in both directions.

And we are perhaps as strange and unknown to ourselves as anything else. A character in “Key Concepts in Ecology” says of the president of the company on the phone to her fiancé, “It’s like she thinks we’re animals,” and Andrea thinks to herself that if her coworker hadn’t been on the phone, she might have informed her that humans are, in fact, animals. What a startling feat of the imagination that we can forget this basic truth. At the same time, as estranged as we are from our home, is it any wonder that we forget?

MICHELLE ROSS is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Passages North, Electric Literature’s Recommended ReadingTahoma Literary ReviewTriQuarterly, and other venues. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review and a consulting editor for the 2018 Best Small Fictions anthology. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. She can be found online at www.michellenross.com.