Nancy Stohlman is the author of Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities (finalist for a Colorado Book Award), The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories, the flash novels The Monster Opera and Searching for Suzi, and three anthologies of flash fiction including Fast Forward: The Mix Tape She is the creator and curator of The Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series, the creator of FlashNano in November, and her work has been published in the W.W. Norton anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction and will be included in the 2019 Best Small Fictions. She lives in Denver and teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder as well as co-facilitates flash fiction retreats around the world. Find out more at www.nancystohlman.com
We sent Nancy these questions while she was at the end of her writing sabbaticaL. And since then we've seen her at the Flash Fiction Festival, 28-30 June, in Bristol, teaching and performing her flash. She ran some great workshops on performing work and we got to hear her read and saw her in a special video created by our last judge Christopher Allen and his husband. So much fun!
- You have recently been on a writing sabbatical for three weeks. Can you let us know how it went? What was the most worthwhile thing about deciding to take some time out in this way? And has the time resulted in another collection ready to go?.
It was amazing (actually I’m in my final days right now). First of all I can’t remember being alone for 3 weeks—maybe ever. Really alone. So I went through a lot of creative levels—excitement, possibility, self-doubt, fear, breakdown, breakthrough, acceptance, and lots and lots of gratitude. I think my biggest discovery is how essential boredom is to creativity. I just wrote a whole essay about Holy Boredom here
But staying in the same place for a long time is different than the usual travel, where we are rushing past things and quickly taking pictures, barely skimming the surface. I recognize the townspeople now, they recognize me. We wave like friends passing on the street. I can spot the new crop of tourists, fleshy and pink and overeager. I’ve been here so long I know who the town crazies are, know that they are harmless. The waiter asks: how is your book, you find inspiration yet? Just today he brought me my coffee exactly how I like it before I even ordered. When I needed a new snorkel the shopkeeper takes it out of the wrapping—you pay me tomorrow he says.
Are you sure?
Did you come here to steal? You pay me tomorrow.
It feels like acceptance.
New manuscript? Let’s hope so…I’m leaving with a nearly completed draft of…something. Time will tell.
- Can you tell us more about your collection Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities (which was recently a finalist in the literary section of the prestigious Colorado Book Award) and how it came about?
Yes, another crazy impulse that turned into something. As usual I didn’t set out to write a book, I just started writing the pieces as individuals and then collaging them and then realized that indeed I was writing a bigger story. Many of the pieces in Madam Velvet are my shortest ever—tiny stories, micros. And they started to play together and create a cabaret of their own, a variety show with an impulse running from beginning to end. A traveling freak show on the page.
I often use theatrics as a framework for my writing. I wrote another flash novel (published back in 2013) called The Monster Opera, where the story was an opera within an opera. Super weird. I’ve actually performed both Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities and The Monster Opera as full shows with full casts and original music composed by Nick Busheff. You can see clips from both these on the links.
And the Colorado Book Award—yes! I was especially excited because of course there was no flash fiction category so I submitted the book as a short story collection, which isn’t exactly right but close enough. Then I was told that all the short story entries were going to be combined with literary fiction and I thought: Well shit. Now I have no chance! So to have this book, this very strange, out of the box book, be a finalist in literary fiction, was a double and triple win for me and I feel for flash fiction in general.
- I recently attended a writing retreat you led with Kathy Fish in Italy and saw you perform some of the pieces from this collection wonderfully. Reading a story outloud is always good for revision purposes, and do you think performing it as if to an audience might help a writer learn more about it?
We loved having you! And thank you — you not only got to see me perform but you got to see me accompanied by Nick, so that was an extra treat. And yes, because I have a performance background — I’ve been on various stages, singing, acting, etc—since I was 10 — it naturally bleeds into my work as a writer. I think it lends a certain ear for musicality, dialogue and timing.
Can we learn how to edit our work through reading to an audience? Definitely. Many times I’ve been reading something to an audience and instinctively know during the reading that a sentence is going on too long, or I need to change a word. And I’ll do that on the fly. Then, as soon as the reading is over I’ll make those same changes on the page. Pay attention to the audience’s cues: Where they laugh. If they didn’t clap at the end because they didn’t know it was over. Etc.
In 2013 I started the Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Seriess in Denver (and helped facilitate the NYC spinoff in 2016 with Paul Beckman). One of my goals with that series, besides creating a dedicated showcase for flash fiction, was to help writers get better at reading their work. It’s not something that comes easily to a lot of people. But it’s so important.
- You have been teaching flash for many years. Can you tell us more about your current online workshops and how writers may join them?
I’ve been teaching flash fiction since 2009 and teaching online flash workshops since 2012, and in that time there have been so many evolutions! In some of my earliest (online) classes we actually had telephone conference calls (!), which of course no longer worked once the students became international.
My online offerings for the summer are just about full. I’m about to launch a new Flash Novel class in July—it’s full with a waiting list we we’ll see how it goes. The best chance to work with me this summer is during my weekend workshop “Through the Back Door: Absurdism as a Way to Truth” hosted by Bending Genres August 23-25.
I also have a Writing Flash Fiction self-paced generative workshop that has rolling registration—it includes 5 self-paced lessons with accompanying prompts, readings, and videos.It’s a great starter to flash and/or a jump start if you are feeling in a rut and want to shake up your creativity. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to find it. It’s a good introduction to me as well. And then there are always the in-person workshops—I’ll be teaching with Kathy (Fish) and Randall Brown in Colorado this August. Unfortunately I’m beholden to the university schedule so I load up my classes during the summer and winter, mostly. But look for me to run FlashNano again in November (8th year!) and I’ll be offering a new crop of classes in the winter break Dec/Jan.
- What do you like about teaching flash fiction?
Well, and I’m not alone in this, as a teacher it’s extremely helpful to guide students through entire drafts from beginning to end, something that’s tough with long works. And of course the best is the a-ha! Whether it’s the a-ha! of a new idea brought to fruition or the a-ha! of finally unlocking the key to a story that hasn’t worked yet (I’m crazy about revision). The great thing about teaching for so long is I have worked with writers who were new to flash fiction once, and then over the years I have watched them publish, then win awards, then publish books, then have those books win awards! It’s super rewarding.
But mostly I love being on the front lines of the flash fiction movement, seeing how this tiny little genre is changing all of literature, changing how we tell stories.
- What sort of micros would you love to see among the entries?
That’s hard to say because I’ll just know it when I see it. I’ll tell you want I don’t want to see: stories that are trying too hard. Trying too hard to be: cute, clever, weird, poignant, traumatic, intense, etc. I can always see through that.
Actually, you know what I really want to see? The story that arrived for you seemingly out of the blue, the one you drafted in just 15 minutes because it just poured out of you, almost effortlessly, almost as if you weren’t the one writing it. That magical gift-from-the-muse story. Those are my favorite because they feel like they spring from a deep well of creativity that isn’t always easy to tap.
- A tip for a writer finessing a micro of three hundred words or under?
I hesitate to give absolutes, like “don’t try to do too much in a micro”, because as soon as I say that then someone writes a story that does “too much” and it’s brilliant and it works perfectly. So in the end, write what wants to be written (see gift-from-the-muse story above). The story that chooses you as a midwife, not the other way around.
But my very favourite tip for editing in general is to cut the story in half. Then cut it in half again. I was first inspired to do this exercise by Bruce Taylor, and since then I have had many students do it and have done it myself many times. That doesn’t mean that either of the “cut” version are THE final version; the final version might be somewhere in the middle. But forcing yourself to make the hard decisions of what stays and what goes when you cut in half is extremely revealing. It’s an excellent way to get honest with ourselves.