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Smoke & Mirrors with Carolyn Oliver

Interview by Brenna Womer (Read the Story) December 16, 2019

Carolyn Oliver

Art by Paul Bilger

In your story “Nail Polish,” you avoid names and pronouns as they pertain to the narrator and the narrator’s romantic partner. Despite this omission, I read the narrator, who owns a navy blue dress, and their partner, who has stubbly legs and painted fingernails, as women, which, upon reflection, caused me to interrogate my own biases and assumptions. To what end did you include and exclude these particular details? Was introspection in this regard a desired outcome for the reader?

Yes, the narrator and her wife are women, and while my primary goal in leaving names out and having the narrator address her wife as “you” was to create a sense of intimacy, I’m delighted if readers subsequently question their assumptions! 

Nail polish is obviously integral to your story—the “title track,” as it were: the acetone-sharpness of the well-to-do women being observed; the chipped, sky blue nails of the narrator’s partner; and the narrator’s impulse to paint the chipped nails right again. I have a few ideas, but what is the central metaphor you see the nail polish working at?

Nail polish is both adornment and armor at the same time, isn’t it?

How do you see this story benefitting as flash rather than a longer piece?

I loved the way the (self-imposed) restriction (which is really a kind of freedom) of flash allowed the compression of a couple’s history and present into a single scene, and I hope I’ve left space enough for readers to find meaning in the floating possibilities. This story started with the overheard conversation, and I didn’t at all expect who’d be listening; I think if I tried to expand the story, I’d lose the joy of that surprise (for me as the writer) and the sense of intimacy I hoped to create for the reader.  

If there were a song playing in the restaurant as a background track to this scene, what would it be?

I can’t pick one, so here are three: Brandi Carlile’s “Party of One” / Amy Shark’s “Adore” / Beth Orton’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy.” All playing very softly.

About the Author

Carolyn Oliver’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in FIELD, Tin House online, Indiana Review, Cincinnati Review, The Greensboro Review, The South Carolina Review, Necessary Fiction, Booth, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is the winner of the Writer’s Block Prize in Poetry and the Frank O’Hara Prize, and has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and poetry. Carolyn lives in Massachusetts with her family.

About the Interviewer

Brenna Womer (she/they) is a queer, Latinx prose writer, poet, and professor. She’s the author of honeypot (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019), Unbrained (FlowerSong Press, 2023), and two chapbooks. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in North American ReviewCrazyhorseIndiana ReviewRedivider, and elsewhere. She is the Nonfiction Editor of Shenandoah.

About the Artist

Paul Bilger’s photography has appeared at Qarrtsiluni, Brevity, and Kompresja. His work has also been featured on music releases by Dead Voices on Air and Autistici. When not taking pictures, he is a lecturer in philosophy and film theory at Chatham University. He is the art director at SmokeLong Quarterly. 

This interview appeared in Issue Sixty-Six of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Six

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