Colleen Morrissey’s story, “The Muscle and the Eye,” appears in Vol. 33.2 of The Southeast Review. Purchase the issue here.
Tell us about the piece in SER. What inspired it?
A few years back, I started seriously going to the gym. I started for the wrong reasons—basically, I was trying to shape my body according to the popular standard of female beauty. But once I’d been going for a while, particularly when I began lifting weights, I got unexpected satisfaction out of feeling physically strong. It was a feeling that had nothing to do with losing weight, and it was additionally powerful because it felt subversive, even forbidden. Women aren’t supposed to be strong. The longer I went to the gym, the more resentful I became of those outside forces that compelled me to go in the first place.
Now, there was this old man at the gym I went to—a campus gym, at the university where I taught and got my master’s. I lifted this old man, wholesale, from my life and put him into this story—the slow walk, the open-mouthed stare. He gave me the creeps. And, as you do with staring creeps at the gym, I pretended I didn’t see him. But then I mentioned him to my friends, other women who also went to the gym, and they all knew him. They were all creeped out by him. So I decided that the next time he began to stare, I would stare right back at him. And I did. I was up high on an elliptical machine, above his head, and when he came by, I stared right back at him, trying to communicate all my fury at him and others like him through my eyes. And to my surprise, he seemed utterly shocked. He was flustered. His gaze faltered, and he looked away. It was a rush. I felt like I’d won something. But then he came back, always, and kept staring at all the other young women even though he no longer stared at me and in fact seemed abashed whenever he passed me. My victory felt totally empty because there was nothing I could do to stop him.
At the same time, I’d either watched a documentary or maybe listened to a podcast story about women who write to prisoners and fall in love with them, even marry them, while the men are locked away for life. I thought that these women do this because they’ve paradoxically chosen the safest men to marry. Their husbands are locked up, imprisoned, and these women can construct their ideal marriages through letters and brief visits. They’re free from both the minor and the major threats that come with a man’s presence in a woman’s life. There’s also something guiltily seductive about brute strength, which these prisoners embody. It’s something primordial in us, the reason I think we’re so enamored with athletes, particularly in violent sports—and it’s something I’m certainly not immune from. The attraction of these relationships for women, I think, was also that they constitute a reverse-gaze, where the man is helplessly subject to the woman’s desire. In my imagination, both of these threads gelled into a story about the body and power.
What are you reading right now, or what have you read most recently?
I just finished Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.
What is the most surprising (to you in some way, whether it be the awesome plot or usage of language, or the subject matter, or anything really) piece of writing you’ve comes across recently (in the past year)?
In Faber’s book, I was been really taken aback with how he had the audacity (I don’t think this word is too strong) to write an entire novel from the close point of view of an ardent Christian. It seems like a very risky thing to do for a contemporary readership. I am currently working on something partially written from the point of view of a very religious person, and I struggle with how to convey the reality of that person’s viewpoint without alienating the reader. I’ve been very impressed with Faber’s ability to render his characters’ beliefs with respect and interest. It would be very easy to become bored with a story of lost or challenged faith, but Faber really captured my investment in a story that at least half-belongs to a genre I wouldn’t normally read (science fiction) and features a character arc that I might have found too familiar or clichéd.
Where do you turn for inspiration? (A writer, another piece of writing, a place?)
Most of the time, I don’t find myself turning deliberately to anything for inspiration. Most of what I write germinates in my head from bits and pieces of things in my life, things I’ve heard or read or watched, and I end up putting them together on the page. The entire process is sort of mysterious to me, so I don’t think I have a very interesting answer to this question. I will say that I am very influenced by all kinds of media, not only the “good” stuff like books but also the “guilty pleasures.” Last year, I went to Disneyland by myself and was “inspired” to write a story about those people who walk around as Disney characters, in the suits and all. Still trying to figure out how to do that without getting sued, however.
Is there a certain writer or piece of writing you find yourself turning to over and over again?
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. It’s my favorite book of all time, and it’s got everything. I have no idea how a writer can fit the entire universe into a relatively short novel like that, but she did.
Do you have a writing routine? If so, what does it entail?
I do. I’m an early riser, so I do my writing a few times a week from about 6:30 to about 8:30 a.m., before the working day begins. If I’m generating new text, I have to write 1,000 words in that time. I’m a fairly quick writer, so that’s about what I can do in two hours. If I’m revising, I basically just have to do what I can in that amount of time. I usually don’t write outside of that set time. Having those limits really helps me to avoid overworking myself and to maintain my life outside of my writing. And having the entire rest of the day to think—or, maybe more accurately, to not think— about what I’m working on helps generate those in-the-shower sorts of breakthroughs that seem to come only when you’re not working.
What do you hope readers come away from your work thinking or feeling?
It’s hard to avoid answering this with, “I just hope they come away thinking or feeling something.” I’m still in the stage (which I hope I never leave) where I’m just thrilled to have readers. But I suppose I hope my writing does to others what my favorite books and stories do to me—to have them feel like they had a stake in what had just unfolded on the page, that what was said there was true to them and their lives, and that I, the writer, wasn’t cynically messing around or trying to impress them.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a novel. I hope you’ll get to read it soon.
What short story or collection of short stories would you recommend to our readers? Why this specific short story or collection?
My favorite collection is Steven Millhauser’s The Knife Thrower. I don’t generally write magical realism, but I find Millhauser’s stories totally arresting and haunting. It feels like every oddity he writes about in this collection is just the materialization of something true in real life, like the way each segment of the monstrous amusement park in “Paradise Park” articulates a different dark, human desire. The titular short story doesn’t even feature anything particularly “magical,” just exposes our perverse, collective bloodthirstiness. Millhauser’s stories spook me and thrill me and disturb me, which is my ideal combination of sensations while reading.
Colleen Morrissey was born in Omaha, Nebraska and hasn’t yet had the heart to live anywhere but the Midwest. She achieved her B.A. in English at the University of Iowa and her M.A. in English literature at the University of Kansas. She is currently working toward her Ph.D. at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Her story “Good Faith” has won an O. Henry Prize and is included in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014, out now. The same story was named as a Best American Short Stories 2013 Notable. Her story “Loveland” recently won first runner-up in the Tennessee Williams Fiction Contest. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Southeast Review, Cincinnati Review, Monkeybicycle (print and audio), and Used Furniture Review; her nonfiction has appeared in Confrontation; and her poetry has appeared in Parcel and Blue Island Review.