Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Denise Howard Long

by Tay Marie Lorenzo Read the Story March 20, 2017

You’re from the Midwest—Illinois to be exact! As a fellow Midwesterner, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgia from the description of the bug zapper and the Western music. Meanwhile, there is a sense of danger in Hadley’s observation of her father. Can you tell us a little about this juxtaposition? Was it a conscious choice?

I am from Illinois! And now I live in Nebraska, but honestly, all Midwest is pretty much the same—and I don’t mean that as a bad thing. This is home to me.

I’ve never consciously set any of my stories in the Midwest, but I do think there is often something inherently Midwestern in all my writing. You just can’t get away from yourself, I suppose. I love that you found a warm nostalgia in the bug zapper because they are a source of strange comfort to me, too. I associate them with my childhood and my grandmother’s house out in the country, which was definitely in the back of my mind when I wrote this. I knew that I was writing a story about a young girl in a precarious situation, and I think relying on that comfort of environment let me more freely explore the tension an undercurrent of violence might bring.

“A Smooth, Shallow Cut” reveals so much depth to Hadley’s relationship with her father in so few words. Through an in-and-out fade between the sharp reality of the present and Hadley’s imaginings, my perception is that Hadley’s father is abusive. Is this a correct assumption? Can you share some of the reasons for the stylistic choice to keep the abuse implicit?

Hadley’s relationship with her father is definitely tempered in violence in some way, but I’m not sure whether that stems from abuse or something else. There’s an element of neglect in her life as well. I originally wrote this in first person from Hadley’s perspective, but it seemed to deflate some of the tension. Shifting the point of view let me keep it close to Hadley’s perspective, but I could root the story more deeply in this specific moment, without delving too far into things from the past, things outside this one point in time.

Your story, Taxidermy, also portrays a child’s observation of her taxidermist father. What compels you to write through one character’s examination of another? And I have to ask, did your father have similar hobbies?

This made me laugh. My dad grew up in a rural setting, but to my knowledge, he’s never even gone hunting. There’s nothing explicitly autobiographical about the characters here. I did write both of these stories around the same time, though, and I joked to my writing partners that I was going through a “dead animals” stage. But I hadn’t really thought of these stories in connection to one another beyond that—until now. It is an intriguing comparison. In Taxidermy the narrator’s father fixates on taxidermy to deal with his grief, but in the process, he’s alienating his child by essentially filling their home with dead things. In “A Smooth, Shallow Cut,” I think the alienation is pre-existing; I don’t think Hadley and her father have ever experienced a healthy relationship. And the only animal, the only death, we see is the deer, and it’s Hadley who seems to be fixated.

The title, A Smooth, Shallow Cut, appears as a line at the end of the story, followed by a second deeper, emptying cut. Can you share some insights on choosing this title?

I’ll admit that titling stories is one of my weakest skills. This story was born during a writing workshop, and one of our exercises focused on trying out different titles for a story we wrote. One of the methods was pulling a line from the story, and initially, it was as straightforward as that. Beyond simply being a quotable line, it also fits on a variety of levels. For me, Hadley is in a pivotal moment of her life. A moment where she’s going to make a choice to enter that garage and let her presence be known or she’s going to retreat and resume life as it’s been for her. No matter her choice, I feel like she really has no way of winning here. And cutting through that moment and her fears is only the first part of any choice she makes—the smooth and shallow one. The fallout that comes after is where the real pain will likely be.

I read the daily writing habits of some writers: Maya Angelou kept a hotel room to write in; Kurt Vonnegut swam each morning and was in bed by 10pm every night. Over time, have you developed any writing habits/rituals of your own?

Well, I definitely write more at night and always, always, always on a computer. I’m horribly slow at writing longhand and it just can’t keep up when I’m writing something I’m excited about. A true consistent writing routine, however, is something that has always eluded me, and for a long time I wished I had one. I like to blame time constraints—between work and two young kids, there are plenty of those—but honestly I think I’m just a writer who doesn’t operate off a set ritual or habit. Trying to force one won’t do me any favors. I’ve learned that the hard way.

When I’m in the midst of a project, though, there is a lot more consistency. Last year, for instance, I was working toward putting together a thematically linked chapbook collection of flash, and I was writing almost every evening as I drafted and revised numerous new pieces. I finalized that project at the close of 2016, and ever since, I’ve been struggling to regain my rhythm. I know it will return—it always does—but these fallow periods can be rough and are usually when I wish I had some sort of habit or ritual to kick me into gear.

About the Author:

Denise Howard Long's short fiction has appeared in Pithead Chapel, Journal of the Compressed Creative Arts, The Tishman Review, The Evansville Review, and elsewhere. Her short story "Recuerdos Olvidados" was runner-up for the Larry Brown Short Story Award, and her story "Where It's Buried" won Five on the Fifth's Annual Short Story Contest in 2016. Denise lives in Nebraska, with her husband and two young sons.

About the Interviewer:

Tay Marie Lorenzo is an undergraduate at Missouri State University and serves as an assistant fiction editor for Moon City Review and a poetry editor for Fields Magazine. She has had poems published in The Cossack Review, Wu-Wei Fashion Mag, and Metatron’s ÖMËGÄ blog.

About the Artist:

A Best Small Fictions 2015 Winner, Dave Petraglia's writing and art have appeared in Agave, Apeiron Review, Chicago Literati, Crack the Spine, Foliate Oak, Gravel, Jersey Devil Press, Necessary Fiction, Loco Magazine, New Pop Lit, North American Review, Pithead Chapel, Popular Science, Prairie Schooner, Stoneboat, theNewerYork, Vine Leaves, and elsewhere. He is a Contributing Editor at Arcadia Magazine.