Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Linda Niehoff

by Matthew Fogarty Read the Story December 19, 2016

One thing that immediately struck me about “The Way of Things Now” is how you use voice and dialogue and perspective to efficiently and effectively immerse us in this weird world. It feels, at once, like maybe we’re in the American south or the middle West but that we’re also in some other fantastical place and time or perhaps in no place and no time. Is this something you think about in your writing, how to establish and/or undermine place?

Place is absolutely everything to me and is often the very first character I start with in a story. People and situations arise when I start wondering who would haunt such a place. For this story, I was intrigued by the idea of an underwater house where people and things are floating by, and I wondered, Who would live in a house like that and why? What would they want? What are they fighting? How would they tell this story? A good setting has its own personality, its own wants and desires, its own way of afflicting the characters. It can soothe and torment the way any good character can.

My favorite sentence: “I hold [my breath] until my scalp tingles, until I hear the starlight we can no longer see.” What does starlight sound like?

Why, distant moon chimes of course!

Your work tends to explore the magical and the fantastical or the simply odd. So here’s a question: Is “believability” a thing? Is it important? What does it mean for a fantastical or a weird story to be “believable”?

I think stories have to be believable to truly keep a reader with you on the page. Having something recognizable helps with the things that are more fantastical (like an underwater house). It’s like giving the reader a foothold. The easiest way to do that is by writing a character who wants something. I think a reader will almost always believe a character who is feeble enough to want something very desperately whether they are on the moon or in an underwater house because all of us want various things very desperately in our own lives. I also think you can make something believable as long as it follows the rules you’ve set up in the story world. If a story follows its own internal logic, we will happily follow along. I think that’s because we want to believe things. I think we want to get swept away. I’m not interested in writing (or reading) about marriages and mortgages and mid-life crises. I wish the world were a little more fantastical, and so on the page, I often like to sprinkle the off-beat and the magical into ordinary dusty life.

In my cursory research, I see you’re also a photographer, but that you prefer not to shoot in a studio. You say: “I love the challenge of shooting with available light.” This seems to me like it might be a great way of describing flash fiction, as well, and your flash fiction, in particular. Is it? If so, how so? If not, how not?

Oh I love this! Yes! Flash fiction and photography have everything in common! To me, a photograph is a tiny moment of poetry where light and dark collide. I love finding those moments and shooting them. But a piece of flash is no different. It’s the collision of light and dark. It’s often (but not always) a single scene. And hopefully it’s also a tiny moment of poetry. I’m always very aware that I’m creating a picture when I’m writing and that I’m telling a story when I’m taking a picture.

You live in Kansas. I’ve only been to Kansas once—a trip I’ve successfully forgotten—and so, like most people, I’m sure, my understanding of Kansas is based primarily on the Wizard of Oz. If you were a Dorothy type and you were traveling the Yellow Brick Road, what three characters (real or imagined) would you hope to meet along the way and what vital organ would each lack?

Of course I have to start with place. The yellow brick road would be I-70, and it would have to be an epic road trip with stops in convenience stores where the Cheetos taste vaguely like gasoline, and where mini-tornadoes swirling in jars and tiny plastic ruby red slippers stand for sale on grimy shelves. Dorothy’s grown tired of a magical world and wants to live ordinary, hence she comes to Kansas. Probably an angry woman from a trailer park has sent out her motorcycle gang to capture Dorothy. They have wing designs stitched to the back of their black leather jackets. Along the way she meets an eyeless “prophet” who can “see” into things better than anyone else. He’s the brains of the outfit. (You make me think he’s also the only one who can hear starlight). She meets a voiceless man who is the most eloquent, poetic voiceless man she’s ever met. He collects words and scribbles broken poetry in a cheap spiral notebook. And finally, she meets someone who completely lacks any sort of fear – which, consequently, gets them into all kinds of trouble. There would have to be lots of silver water towers and grain elevators and cheap squat motels with peeling signs. Uh oh. Now I want to write this!

About the Author:

Linda Niehoff's short fiction has appeared in TriQuarterly, Necessary Fiction, New South, and elsewhere. She lives in a small Kansas town where she works part time as a portrait photographer and full time as a homeschooling mom. Find her on Twitter: @lindaniehoff.

About the Interviewer:

Matthew Fogarty is the author of Maybe Mermaids and Robots Are Lonely, a collection of stories and a novella published by George Mason University’s Stillhouse Press. He is originally from the suburbs of Detroit.

About the Artist:

A Best Small Fictions 2015 Winner, Dave Petraglia's writing and art have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, bohemianizm, Cheap Pop, Crack the Spine, Five:2:One, Gambling the Aisle, Hayden's Ferry, matchbook, Medium, McSweeney's, Necessary Fiction, North American Review, Per Contra, Points in Case, Popular Science, Razed, SmokeLong Quarterly, Up the Staircase, and others.