Smoking With Susan Henderson

Read the Story June 15, 2004

Who was the last person you Googled?

Ha! I have an answer for that question, but I’ll feel so exposed. Okay, so I Googled my first boyfriend, who was a perfect first boyfriend and I have a story featuring someone very much like him, called Motorhead. And he has taken over his father’s horticulture business—this I know from Google. And there was an NPR interview on All Things Considered that came up during the google search because his father has early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease and has been writing a book about the interior experience of losing his mind. It was bittersweet to hear this boyfriend and his parents on the interview. Not just because of what they’re going through right now, but just because of how powerful the past is, how it’s still present in so many ways and yet you can’t penetrate it.

I’d forgotten he’d had an accent. The whole family is really so dear to me, and when I heard his mom’s voice on this interview, I missed her again. I think part of the reason this boyfriend and I lasted so long was because—even once everything was inevitable—I didn’t want to break up with his mom. Anyway, there’s a Google story for you. My first crush is now doing some gay porn, by the way—I googled him, too.

What made you get into bodybuilding? Is it still a hobby?

Whew, I told you to hit me with some tough questions and now I’m all off-kilter. Well, my interest in weight-lifting was because my brother used to hit me so much and I thought I’d be less of a target. (The whole idea didn’t have much of an impact on the hitting because my brother’s arms are long and he could just hold me by the forehead and go whack-whack-whack, and I wouldn’t be able to reach him for any return-punches. And as it turned out, the best way to not be a target in the end was me not being so much of a brat—which was kind of a difficult thing to part with.) But anyway, I’d go down to the basement where he kept his chest press thingie and some dumbbells and I’d make myself do sets of 50 without taking a breath because—well, see there was this really freaky print of a Harlequin by Picasso in my basement, and I thought if I breathed, it would come out of the picture and destroy me.

This was in junior high when this started, this weight-lifting, and then I started tagging along with my dad to the Officer’s Athletic Club at the Pentagon. I was the only girl and pretty much the only kid in that place at the time. I think the bodybuilding just grew out of that experience. I liked that it was different, that I did something others couldn’t compete with. And no, it’s not a hobby anymore, but I do go to the gym every week, and my arms and my stomach are pretty strong.

You clearly dote on your family, and yet stories like this one and others I’ve read show a serious longing. Where does that dichotomy come from?

I’ve noticed that, or it’s been pointed out enough anyway—the longing. It’s definitely a theme in my work. I’ll try to tell a funny story and there will be an unintended heartbreak behind it. I don’t know exactly why it’s there. I just finished a collection of stories, which, strangely, I’m super happy about. And it’s definitely about longing. Want to hear about it?

Of course I want to hear about the collection.

Well, I just finished a novel-in-stories. It’s called Such a Small Lie at the Time. The title story of this collection is in the current South Dakota Review, by the way.

This will sound ridiculous, especially if you know me—but I read my collection from one end to the other one day, and when I got to the end, I just said, “Fuck. That’s good. I did it.”

Let me see if I can set up the premise of the novel for you, and then I’ll get to the longing part. Okay. It’s this kid, kind of feisty and lost, who is primarily looked after by her famous father—who takes her to meetings and gatherings with Deep Throat and other leading scientists and political folks from the Watergate era because he can’t take his wife. And he can’t take his wife because she is so clinically depressed and inappropriate. But this kid, she adores her mother because everything else in her life is over-regimented, but her mother is all chaos and passion.

But see, here’s where it’s about longing. The mother in the story is depressed and disappears for months within their house, so a lot of the longing is for this mother. Then, when Lucy, the narrator of this collection, discovers where her mother’s been hidden, the longing changes form—longing to impress her mother and not do anything that would make her go away again, which requires the kid to shut off aspects of herself that would be upsetting to her mother. And a deep relationship is built with this condition over it. So by the end of the book, and I guess this all feels very familiar to me, you realize the kid can’t express love or forgiveness for this mother, though she feels this tremendously. Because there were so many things that were not talked about in order to protect the mother’s mental health and the father’s very public career, that she can’t communicate her adoration of the mother without bringing up the very things that would kill her.

So yeah, I think a theme of mine is a sense of stuckness in the stage of longing, longing to communicate an adoration that would cause hurt if it were expressed. Someone who feels things deeply but has worked herself into a pattern of holding the feelings to herself.

I talk a lot, sorry. This is something I work on at home, too. I have this deal with my husband that, at a certain time every night—even if I’m still talking—he’s allowed to turn over and go to sleep. You probably have an idea now why this is necessary.

About the Author:

Susan Henderson is a recipient of an Academy of American Poets award, and the Managing Editor of Night Train. Her work has appeared in Oakland Review's 25th Anniversary Anthology, Zoetrope: All-Story Extra (December 2000 and September 2001), Today's Parent, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Eyeshot, Alsop Review, Happy, Opium (January 2003 and April 2004), Carve Magazine, Monkeybicycle, Hobart, The MacGuffin, Zacatecas: A Review of Contemporary Word, Word Riot, Pig Iron Malt, Mid-South Review, Eleven Bulls, Insolent Rudder, Ink Pot (January 2004 and July 2004), Moondance (December 2003 and April 2004), North Dakota Quarterly, The Edward Society, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Bellevue Literary Review, South Dakota Review, Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies, SmokeLong Quarterly (June 2004 and August 2004), Avatar Review, as well as in a number of pamphlets and training manuals used at Pittsburgh Action Against Rape. She recently helped to judge the "20-Minute Stories" contest at McSweeney's.

About the Artist:

A native of Ohio, Marty D. Ison lives with his wife transplanted in the sands of the Gulf of Mexico. He studied fine arts at Saint Petersburg College. In addition to the visual arts, he writes poetry, short stories, and novels. See more of Ison's work here.