Interview with Michelle Denham
Our Literary Contest Winner Shares Her Writing Insights
Legendary Women, Inc. reporters, Corina Lombardi-Adamousky and Margaret Bates interviewed Michelle Denham to get her thoughts on writing, feminism, and everything in between below. Please enjoy!
1) Tell us about your background.
I long since decided that I should stay in school for as long as humanly possible. I double majored in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of California, San Diego. I have always been passionate about both the reading and writing of fiction, so when it was time to decide on an advanced degree I was faced with deciding between two (relatively useless) degrees. I chose to continue my studies in Literature (as the slightly less useless degree) and vowed to continue writing creatively on the side. I’m proud to say I’ve always done so. I’m currently working on my dissertation at the University of Arizona and stealing time to write as I go along.
2) When did you start writing?
Like most writers, I was always writing. When I was in the fourth grade I wrote a cowboy story using my classmates as characters. Some of them very kindly acted out their death scenes for me to make sure I got it right. But even though I was always writing, it wasn’t until I was an undergrad that I started taking my writing seriously and started considering myself as “a writer.” I don’t think I realized I had stories to tell until then.
3) What other things have you written?
Many things! A dissertation chapter, for one. A vast collection of truly awful poetry in my “early” years (before I realized I really should just stick with fiction) and a fair number of unpublished stories and novels that are best kept unpublished. I have three short stories published in online magazines, which I will provide links to further down.
4) What inspired your short story “And From Her Tears Came the Sky?”
I rarely get inspiration from a single source. I knew I really wanted to write a character named Sabbath and I also really wanted to write about monsters. But I would say that for this story I drew a lot from the women I’ve known in my life. I’ve been fortunate to have known a lot of strong women throughout the years — friends, family, co-workers — and I think it was listening to their stories that really inspired me to write this one.
5) Where did you come up with the title for “And From Her Tears Came the Sky?”
The title was the first thing that came to me. It was really just one of those random bits of poetry that floats through the muck of all the other thoughts that crowd the brain; I just liked it so much I knew I wanted to write a story that fit the line.
6) A lot of people find it hard to get an actual plot in such short writing. Is there anything you find particularly challenging when writing short stories?
For a long time I resisted short stories in every way — reading them, writing them. I was somewhat of the idea that any story worth telling was worth telling in a novel. Discovering short stories was an epiphany. The best stories are ones that do things novels can’t — they’re beautiful and fleeting and they leave you wondering. Plots aren’t as important as the ability to tell a story that sticks in the brain all day long. I’ve found that in a short story what’s not there can be just as important as what is. And I think capturing that is something I still struggle with. Endings are also challenging for me because with short stories it’s incredibly easy to end on something hokey or clichéd without realizing it.
7) What (do you) think makes a strong female character?
A “strong female character” is really just synonymous with a “strong character.” And that is often a challenging thing to create as a writer because people are incredibly complex. They have personalities and desires and often behave in completely contradictory ways. I think where people often go wrong in writing a “strong female character” is when they believe there’s only one kind of way to be strong — there’s not. Anymore than there’s one way to be a woman, or one way to be a person. Creating any strong character means understanding that people are nuanced and complicated and that sometimes just living is the strongest thing someone can do.
8) What is feminism to you?
To me, feminism has always broadly been about the equality of the sexes. Everyone is a feminist so long as they believe equality should exist. And feminism is also about women supporting other women. I think part of why I wrote my story around the idea of a monster support group was so that I could show how women — all different kinds of women — still support one another despite differences.
9) You write about so many types of monsters, like the Medusa or Sphinx here, do you have a favorite one, one that just seemed to fit as a ‘female?’”
I have always loved monsters. It would be hard to pick a favorite because I want to be friends with all of them. I think what fascinates me, in part, is that so many monsters are usually women. It would seem that throughout history there’s always been something very threatening about being female. I think if I had to pick, my favorites are the monstrous mothers — Echidna, Grendel’s mom — because they demonstrate that even the “safe” womanly traits, like maternity, can pose a threat. And while some might find this insulting, I think it’s great. Not all women are princesses locked in a tower. Very few are, in fact.
10) What advice do you have for other writers, especially with regards to writing women?
The broad advice to all writers is to never give up. Choosing the path of a writer comes with a lot of rejection but we only fail when we give up completely. In regards to writing women I would say to try and write about all kinds of women. So often in novels I see the same woman over and over again — she’s a tough survivor who kicks ass and takes name and has incredibly biting wit. And don’t get me wrong, I love reading that woman, but I’ve never actually met her in real life and frankly I’m getting a little bored of her in books. A “strong” woman can be nerdy, shy, anxious, maternal, kind, neurotic, athletic, unathletic — she can even lack a sense of humor. And I think it’s important to explore her relationships — not just with men, as we often see, but with her friends, her parents, her siblings. The “strong female character” I often see in books is usually alone (until she meets her love interest) and that seems unfair to me because so much of my strength comes from the people I know and love.
11) What are you working on next?
I am currently working on a fantasy novel, as well as trying to write as many short stories as I can. (And that dissertation. Working on that too, I swear.) I hope to always be working on novels and stories. It’s with writing that I learn who I am, and I haven’t fully gotten to know myself yet.
12) Where can readers find you on social media and where they can find your other works?
13) Is there anything else you’d like to add for our audience?
Thank you so much for reading. If you’re the kind of person who reads short stories and interviews, I’m sure we’d get along well. Have an amazing day.