Perhaps nothing is stranger, more visually fascinating, than human deformities and abnormalities of nature. Before television brought everything into the home and political correctness made drawing attention to the out-of-the ordinary taboo, traveling shows filled with characters such as the four-legged woman, elastic man, Jo-Jo the dog-faced boy, and the albino family drew curious crowds of all ages.
Such is the world of “Madame Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities,” Nancy Stohlman’s flash-fiction novel that is this season’s Wheat Ridge Reads selection. A finalist for the 2019 Colorado Book Awards in Literary Fiction, the book alternatively amuses, shocks and challenges its audience.
The book “requires the reader to be an active participant in the story,” says Stohlman. Unlike a traditional novel, which takes its time unfolding, flash fiction requires one to “be awake, pay attention, or it will fly right by you.”
Stohlman discovered the emerging writing genre while attaining her Masters of Fine Arts degree at Naropa Institute a dozen years ago. She struggled with writing a novel of 80,000 words or so, and finding flash fiction was “an enormous relief,” she says. “I can get rid of the part that I’m bored to write, that connective tissue that is necessary to tie the long novel together. Now when I write, I think about what I can take out.”
The technique — also known as micro-fiction — reduces a story to 1,000 words or less. “Madame Velvet’s” is a series of these stories carefully choreographed to make the whole, using white space as much as words.
“Using white space is an intentional negative, letting what you have written resonate against what is not said,” explains Stohlman, exhibiting a page where the written words take up less than a quarter of the space. Flash fiction “gets at the essence” of a story in a “tight, hard-hitting, sharp, fast” manner that is “over quickly,” she says.
Stohlman herself is larger than life when she performs. With her expressive eyes, bright red lips, and crisp, clear voice, she has a presence that commands the stage.
Her readings and discussions for Wheat Ridge Reads take place 7:00 p.m., Wednesday, January 15, at Swiss Flower and Gift Cottage, 9890 W. 44th Ave., and 9:00 a.m., Thursday, January 16, at Ye Olde Firehouse, 3232 Depew St. The events are free and open to the public. She will also be presenting to students at Wheat Ridge High School as part of the WR Reads program.
In addition to being an author, Stohlman is a lecturer in University of Colorado’s Program for Writing and Rhetoric and is the lead singer in the jazz metal lounge band Kinky Mink. She has published four books and her stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. She leads writing retreats all over the world and is the creator and curator of The Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series at The Mercury Cafe.
Wheat Ridge Reads is a citywide book club sponsored by the Wheat Ridge Cultural Commission in partnership with the Wheat Ridge Library and Wheat Ridge High School. Presented annually, the program promotes literacy and a shared reading experience throughout the city. Complimentary copies of the book “Madame Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities” are available at the Wheat Ridge Recreation Center and Swiss Flower and Gift Cottage as well as Little Free Libraries throughout the city.