Join me at several free readings and talkbacks to celebrate Wheatridge Reads! Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities is the most “progressive” book they have chosen for their program, so come support art, taking risks, and flash fiction! Free copies of Madam Velvet’s also available (link below)!
The stories in Kim’s Chinquee’s new collection, Wetsuit, are the barest of wisps, impressionistic in their minimalism and yet dense with implied meaning. Each one is a gem, deceptively simple but hiding entire, barely concealed worlds in the silences. With each revisiting you discover the truth: that the stories are shadowboxes that continue into infinity, a magician’s hat with no bottom.
Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, explain this book in six words:
Kim Chinquee: Water. Swimming. Food. Animals. Motherhood. Men.
NS: I’m super intrigued by your titles, which are very often a seemingly random phrase pulled from the story that becomes the title and then suddenly isn’t random at all. Talk about your process with titles. Does it change the story for you?
KC: Absolutely! Titles are so much fun. A title can inform a piece, and can also turn it on its head. I’m always experimenting with titles, whether removing the first sentence of a story, and using it as a title. Or sometimes I’ll choose the last sentence, or one from the middle. Or perhaps the title is a word in the story that repeats itself. When I studied with Mary Robison, she recommended (to me and other students) closing our eyes and randomly pointing to places (on the physical copies of) our stories and opening our eyes and imagining the words and phrases (where our fingers landed) as potential titles. That’s a fun exercise I share with my students a lot. Sometimes a title can have nothing to do with the text of the story and can give that entire piece a different meaning. I think I have a few stories with titles like that.
NS: Your stories are very sculpted—sometimes down to almost an impressionistic wisp. I often find myself rereading them several times, as they are slight but extremely dense, sometimes deceptively so. How do you know when to stop? Do you think flash writers ever go too far?
KC: It’s possible to go too far, of course. But one can always save the latest drafts and rearrange the words, add them back, etc. I struggle with writing longer work because I’m always cutting.
NS: Water is a theme connecting these stories, from puddles to steam to oceans to ice. Talk about your connection to water and why it ripples through this book? (By the way I love your picture of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon on the cover!)
KC: Thank you! Pier Rodelon designed Wetsuit (and my books Oh Baby, Veer, and Shot Girls). And (in speaking of titles): I had several other titles of the book before deciding on Wetsuit (I think maybe MILK was one.)–and when I saw the cover, I realized Wetsuit was the one that best “suited,” and included mostly pieces pertaining to liquid and/or water of some form. And I added some words and lines to some of the pieces so they would better fit the overall theme. So, the theme of water was kind of accidental, I suppose. Or something that I didn’t see until later. I had been swimming a lot and doing triathlons when I was writing these pieces, so it makes sense to me now that I was writing a lot about water.
NS: The narrator seems consistent through many of the stories, and we get reoccurring images tagging back to other stories. Was this an intentional weave or a happy discovery? And if intentional, how you would distinguish this collection from, say, a flash novel? Or is it?
KC: It probably was a bit of both intentional weave and happy discovery. Some of these pieces were written long ago, and some were written during the same timeframe and in consecutive order. When compiling the collection, I ordered them to have some sort of arc, and/or storylines that connect and speak to each other.
NS: On that note, your beginning and your ending are also circular, with one image from the end hooking up with the initial one. It gives a certain sense of spiraling around and around a life. Can you about your circular concept?
KC: Thanks for noticing that! My editor and publisher Kathryn Rantala suggested ending on that last piece “My New Skin,” which I thought was kind of brilliant. I suppose, when looking at it now, I like to think it’s a metaphor for the front crawl or the breast stroke, the circular motion and the constant movement that keeps one not only moving forward, but afloat.
NS: About 2/3 of the way through the book your stories start to get super short and extremely dark. It feels like both a shift, a deepening, a quickening, and also, consequently, like the climax of the book. Can you talk about your design and intention with this purposeful pondering?
KC: As I was compiling the collection, it seemed natural to me to put these pieces closer to the end of the book, I suppose like a climax. I was afraid that if I included them near the front of the collection, they might discourage the reader, and that some content before might give them more context. I suppose it’s a lot like writing a novel. Wetsuit feels, content-like, or at least the way I compiled it, much like how I put together my first collection, Oh Baby.
NS: You have been an important voice in the flash fiction movement for a long time, and you’ve authored many books, including Shot Girls, Pretty, Veer, and Oh Baby. How is this book different than your others?
KC: Ah! Good question. I was about to talk more about this in the previous answer. I like to think Wetsuit holds a bit more hope for its main protagonist, and that there is maybe more maturity and depth. The son of Wetsuit is older, an adult, and there is a longing, I think. Artistically and aesthetically, Wetsuit is much like Oh Baby, imo. Veer was compiled as a collection to celebrate the venues where the pieces appeared (and where I’ve published most regularly): NOON, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Willow Springs, Story Quarterly. Pretty was published (as a prose poetry collection) with White Pine Press, under different editorship and is told in three parts. Whereas Shot Girls (also with Ravenna Press) includes mostly longer stories, of women working in “service,” including the military, and it includes a few flashes.
My next collection will also be published with Ravenna Press in 2020! It’s tentatively titled Snowdog. (And involves a lot of snow. And dogs.) Though I tend to change my titles a lot!
My novel-in-flashes, Battle Dress, will be published with Widow + Orphan House in 2021. I wrote the pieces in Battle Dress in consecutive order, while I was running a lot of local 5K, 10K races. So, there’s a lot of running and repetition in that book. Kind of like running the same kind of races (with different results) over and over.
I’ve also written a couple of “non flash” novels, and am currently revising Pirouette, which takes place in Boston, with alternating points-of-view of three protagonists and their experiences during the Boston Bombings. I’ve also started a new book called Stray Voltage, which is mostly about cows.
I probably write flash fictions with the most consistency and frequency, especially when I’m in the midst of teaching and doing administrative work. So, when compiling Wetsuit, I drew upon the flash fictions in my inventory, and put them together in a kind of collage.
NS: Congratulations! I’m looking forward to all of these! Wetsuit is published by Ravenna Press. Talk about your path to publication?
KC: Ravenna Press published my first book Oh Baby in 2008; I had such a great experience with Ravenna, and continue to publish with them. Kathryn Rantala is a great advocate and supporter of my work. I believe we have a mutual respect for each other and I love working with her.
NS: What advice would you give someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
KC: Read a lot. Write your story. Collect advice and keep what’s useful. Pay attention to what’s happening around you.
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.
Once all hope had truly been lost—after the planets lined up and nothing happened, after churches were roped off with police tape, historical landmarks proven fraudulent, and even sex became irrelevant, the few people still able to feel pain took what was left and traveled to the edge. And once there, they sacrificed the rest of their ruby slipper childhoods and abandoned imaginations and some people even ripped off their own tattoos and threw the inked bologna skins over the edge and together we watched our dreams quietly float away, like deflated balloons and sad water bugs…..Keep reading
In Some Have Gone and Some Remain, Robin Stratton takes us on a retrospective, a slideshow of love, loss, nostalgia and hope. Simmering within these poems and essays is a sweet, simple and honest invitation to witness the many interludes that make up one human life.
Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in six words
Robin Stratton: Sad, funny, honest, bittersweet, raw, hopeful
NS: I really love the way you take the flash fiction form and weave it with poetry to create this flash/poetic autobiography. Where did you get the idea to do this?
RS: Most of the flash form pieces began as poems, but were such involved narratives (“And Then There Was the Time”, “A Tumor Not a Cyst”) that they just looked better structured as paragraphs, not stanzas. The two long pieces, “Moms” and “The Summer of Lizzie Borden” were written years ago, and were waiting for a home.
NS: Unlike memoir, that generally focuses on just one aspect of a person’s life, this feels like a true autobiography—a retrospective beginning in childhood and taking us on the up and down journey through many moments of a life. I imagine this could make you feel somewhat “exposed”, especially compared to fiction writing. Can you speak to this idea?
RS: “Exposed” is just the right word for how I felt. When I was writing the ones I feel were most revealing, like “It’s 4:30 in the Morning” and “Results”, I kept thinking, Just write, but don’t show anyone. I kept thinking how my brothers would feel, knowing some of these things that happened to me, or how much damage I did to myself, emotionally.
NS: I love the reoccurring You Men (Vol 1-5): it reminds the reader that romantic relationships are so often the highest and lowest points. You even dedicate a note of gratitude to all the former boyfriends in your acknowledgements. Talk about this.
RS: Wasn’t it grand of me to acknowledge how their criticism and bullshit helped me grow? All those years of trying out different men introduced me to different aspects of myself; what I was willing to put up with when I was in my 20s, versus my 40s and 50s. Looking back on my evolution was fascinating to me. I hope other people found it interesting, too, and could relate. By the way, thank you for blurbing the book! I have admired you for years, and that meant SO much to me!!
NS: Oh, you are so welcome, thank YOU! Now you publish both poetry and prose, and you utilize both in this book. Can you talk about your own crossover? Where are you most comfortable?
RS: I am not a poet, even though I would love to say I am. I love the visual of stanzas that lead to a kind of unconventional performance of the sentences, but getting it just the way I want it doesn’t come easily to me the way it does to real poets. My mind thinks in terms of indent-paragraph-carriage return. I so admire poets who can break up a sentence right in the middle; especially when it goes against a natural way of speaking and changes the whole presentation. I was happy with the way “Teen” came out… but you can see that most of my poem lines end where you would normally pause in a sentence.
NS: Speaking of crossover, you have published multiple books in several genres, including the novels Blue or Blue Skies and In His Genes, several collections including Dealing With Men and Interference from an Unwitting Species, and even a writing guide! How is Some Have Gone and SomeRemain similar and different from your other books?
RS: Some Have Gone is completely autobiographical, from start to finish, there isn’t a single bit of fiction in it. My novels, of course, have a lot of “me” in them, but I never ever write them that way; it just happens. I always laugh when someone tells me they just read Blue or Blue Skies and they “see” me in the main character – I had gone way out of my way to create a character who was the exact opposite of me: successful, rich, beautiful famous author. I never saw even the slightest bit of me in her until people started pointing it out, and I realized that all my vulnerabilities – about men, and about my loneliness after my friends got married and ditched me – came through in her.
NS: Some Have Gone and Some Remain is published by Big Table Publishing—I happen to have a sweet spot for BTP, who also published my own Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities—and you are the founder and the brains behind the whole shebang. Can you talk a bit about the genesis and evolution of BTP?
RS: Believe it or not, I started Big Table with the sole purpose of being able to include “publisher” in my bio when I submitted my novels to agents, because I thought it would make me sound impressive, and that was all I cared about. I thought I’d publish a few books, create a website, and so on. I never thought Big Table would be so big. It’s why I started Boston Literary Magazine, too – I never wanted to have a magazine, I just figured agents would say WOW, lookit her!
NS: BTP just put out several “Best of” volumes. Talk about these. What do you learn about your own writing from publishing others?
RS: Any writer who is in a group knows you can learn a lot from observing how other writers do it, either badly or well. When your ear tells you that something they’ve written is wrong, it leaves a trace in your memory (hopefully) that alerts you when you find yourself doing it too. So seeing raw manuscripts submitted to Big Table often demonstrates to me how a character or story line can be ruined by writing that’s sloppy or inconsistent. A lot of Big Table novelists are surprised when I tell them I love their book but they have to re-write the whole thing before we’ll take it. Sometimes I’ll suggest taking a character out, or completely changing the ending. Some resist, but most appreciate it. It’s why our slogan has always been “Work hard. Get published.”
NS: What advice would you give someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
RS: This advice has changed over the years. If you’d asked me this ten years ago I would have (and often did!) said, Keep going! Don’t give up! Now I say, Accept that you will probably not be on Oprah, make any money, or sell more than 200 copies of your book; you have to write with the single purpose of creating the best book you’re capable of.
It’s easy advice to give, and I often have trouble accepting it myself. But I lived it this past summer when I posted my novel In Love With Spring on my blog. I started writing it in the mid 90s, and it was a “current” version of Little Women – the four girls are sitting around talking about how John Lennon was just assassinated and Dad has walked out on them. I had a lot of trouble avoiding a Young Adult tone, and wrote it over and over and over. Suddenly a few decades went by and it was no longer current, it was nostalgic, and I knew I’d never find a home for it. I didn’t even bother to send it out, I just decided to put it on line and hope that people read it. I’m working on Volume Two, and there’s a real freedom to writing for the sake of writing, not submitting for publication. When all is said and done, that has to be why we write. If anyone wants to check it out, it’s here: https://www.robinstratton.com/blog
All of my books are available at www.robinstratton.com along with opening paragraphs of each novel and fun little promo vids. Parking is free, and on the weekends we have coffee and donuts! I’d love for people to stop by!
Robin Stratton is also the author of four novels, including one which was a National Indie Excellence Book Award finalist (On Air, Mustang Press, 2011), two collections of poetry and short fiction, and a writing guide. A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she’s been published in Word Riot, 63 Channels, Antithesis Common, Poor Richard’s Almanac(k), Blink-Ink, Pig in a Poke, Chick Flicks, Up the Staircase, Shoots and Vines, and many others. Since 2004 she’s been Acquisitions Editor for Big Table Publishing Company, Senior Editor of Boston Literary Magazine since 2009, and she was Director of the Newton Writing and Publishing Center until she moved from Boston to San Francisco in 2018. Now she leads the popular “Six Feet of Poetry” and “Fiction by the Foot” series.
Looking into the darkest parts of humanity with compassion and honesty, the nuggets in Len Kuntz’s This is Why I Need You are keyholes into the quiet desperation of your neighbor, the painful tragedy of your lover, and the exquisite experience of being human: both pain and wonder, horror and redemption. Kuntz overturns the dark stones and pokes at the wiggling decay with a loving, careful, but unflinching bedside manner. He faces the wound of humanity, pulls out the poisoned arrows, and lets us see the rupture. And in seeing it, somehow, we are healed.
Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in six words.
Len Kuntz: Stories for broken and imperfect people
NS: I’ve read several of your books, including Dark Sunshine and I’m Not Supposed to Be Here and Neither are You, and they all have that searing “Len” quality: you love to break our hearts, and we love you for it. How is This Is Why I Need You different from your other books?
LK: Honestly, I think the only thing that is different are the stories. The voice is pretty much the same. People still struggle with their problems. Characters get hurt. The only slight difference is the last linked twelve stories are a little bawdier than I usually write.
NS: You have a character, Jess, that continues to show up in multiple stories but isn’t (I don’t think) the same exact character. Can you speak to Jess as a literary device? Is Jess more of an archetype or an everyman/everywoman?
LK: Names are important, and maybe even more so in stories. But they can trip things up, claim too much attention or even mislead the reader. I like Jess when you need a name for reader convenience, yet the name itself isn’t crucial to the story. I also like the quasi asexual quality of the name, how Jess/Jesse could be female or male.
NS: Many of these stories have a little thematic or imagery “hook” into the story before or after like literary chain mail. Were the hooks intentional in the writing or in the arranging process? Did you have to manipulate them or were they already apparent?
LK: I almost never know what the story is going to be about. I just start with the first sentence, and if I like the sound of it, or the weight or potential of it, then I move to the next sentence, then the next, and so on.
NS: The last 12 stories in fact are linked more overtly, like self-contained flash sequence connected by the 14th of each month. Any significance with the 14th?
LK: Yes, it’s a linked flash-novella. That was born out of a really cool project Matt Potter (PURE SLUSH) created where he took 30 writers and assigned us a date. Mine was January 14th. Then from there we had to continue through an entire year—Feb. 14th, March 14th all the way to Dec 14th. Matt is a terrific editor and all-around great guy. He published all of our pieces in an anthology through PURE SLUSH then separately printed each of our novellas into our own private book. He titled mine My Uncertain Search For Myself, which I thought was brilliant.
NS: Have you thought about writing a book that was more intentionally threaded, a flash novel or novella?
LK: I have briefly, but now that you’re bringing it up I’m thinking about it more. My best friend, Robert Vaughan and I spent a couple of months where we each challenged ourselves to write a poem a day, so we ended up with something like 120 combined. We’re going to paginate them into a manuscript and hopefully find a publisher.
NS: Your characters are often hiding secrets, summed up perfectly in this thought: “All your life you think you know someone and then you discover you don’t. That must be how it is when neighbors learn the insurance salesman in the rambler ends up being a serial killer.” Can you talk about this impulse in your work? Should all writing aim to expose?
LK: Secrets are fascinating, don’t you think? We all have them, and we all have secrets that are kept from us as well. As material for writing, secrets are brimming with possibilities. I don’t necessarily know if all writing should aim to expose, but it should jolt you in some way. When I worked in the corporate world, I used to say that, as a leader, when you’re through talking to someone you should leave that person feeling as if a warm mitt had been imprinted on both their head and heart. You should leave them stimulated, their mind buzzing, and their emotions stirred. I think that’s what any type of writing should do.
NS: This metaphor seems to describe your work perfectly: “…like those wicked weeds that look plain until you touch them and invisible needles sink into your skin.” Would you say your writing is like those invisible needles?
LK: Hopefully, and that’s nice of you to ask. I tend to write about the tough stuff in life because we’ve all been through our share of it, and if I’m able to portray things authentically, yet hopefully, I think the reader can identify with the writing, even when it hurts.
NS: You publish both poetry and prose, although this book is prose. Can you talk about your own crossover? Where are you most comfortable?
LK: I love writing anything short, sometimes very short. Novels, especially tomes, bogle my mind. I’m in awe of how an author can write about tedium without making it tedious.
Poetry is probably my favorite form. You can do so many things with it.
But mostly I just enjoy starting small fires, pieces that (hopefully) pop and spark and bring out some sort of emotional depth, then get out of the room.
NS: This is Why I Need You is published by Ravenna Press. Talk about your path to publication with this book and/or your experience with Ravenna.
LK: Kathryn Rantala runs Ravenna. I’ve still never met her yet I feel as if I have. She put out three books by Kim Chinquee, one of my idols and virtual mentors. On a lark, I sent Kathryn a note asking when their submission window would open because the site said Closed. She wrote back that they’re always open for writers they like and to send something, so I did that very night—a poetry manuscript and This Is Why I Need You. Kathryn was a delight to work with. She’s just a lovely person through and through. If I could, I’d put out all my books with her.
NS: Anyone who follows you or your work knows that you are incredibly prolific. What is your secret?
LK: Truthfully, I’m just incredibly lucky. I get to write full-time, every day. So many writers have jobs and have to squeeze in 20 minutes of writing here or there. But I do write really fast. Usually a story will take no more than 15 minutes. The other thing that helps so much is finding great authors who use language in surprising ways i.e, Sabrina Orah Mark, Steven Dunn, Heather Christle. I’ll be reading their book, and a phrase or certain word will spark an idea, and I’ll put the book down every other page, vomiting out piece after piece. Lastly, a bath with bubbles and wine works wonders. Really. I’ve written some of my favorite things in the tub.
NS: What advice would you give someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
LK: Of course, it depends where they’re at in their writing journey. For a novice, I would say, study the craft as if you’re studying to get a Master’s degree. Ultimately, write what moves you, what brings you joy after you’ve written it. Then get extra sets of eyes on your work before submitting. Plead for honest feedback and don’t be offended or hurt if some of what they say isn’t what you wanted to hear. Write you best book. It’s going to out-live you.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
LK: I love writing and I love writers of all kinds. I try to be a good literary citizen to my tribe. It all feels like such a gift.
NS: Links to buy the book or other promo links:
I have a blog where I post new writing, or something of that ilk, every M, W, Friday without fail. It’s at lenkuntz.blogspot.com. My last two books are on Amazon.
NS: Thank you for playing, Len!
Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State, and the author of four books, most recently the story collection, THIS IS WHY I NEED YOU, out now from Ravenna Press. You can find more of his writing at lenkuntz.blogspot.com
Recently I was asked to speak at a local community college for National Day of Writing. Driving there, I decided to scrap my prepared speech and instead asked myself: What would I have wanted someone to tell me when I was an undergrad who dreamed of becoming a writer?
1. You need to practice–maybe not every day but most days.
2. You need to have something to say.
3. You will get better.
4. You need writing colleagues.
5. You need writing mentors.
6. You don’t need degrees.
7. You will write some bad stories.
8. You will write some practice books.
9. The good news: You never get too old to be a writer.
10. Don’t just write what you know: go into the unknown.
11: Write what is dangerous.
12: Don’t outline (at first)–let it surprise you.
13: You need a writing routine if you want to accomplish a big project.
14. You style may and will change.
15: Cultivate beginner’s mind: hold onto that feeling of creative audacity even when you’ve been doing it for years.
16: Learn how to (really) revise.
17: Find readers you trust (and shower them with gratitude).
18.You must publish small before you can publish big.
19. Don’t rush to publish: wait until your work is ready.
20. Agents (publicists, etc.) are not fairy godmothers and they don’t have magic wands.
21. Learn how to advocate for yourself.
22. Support other writers.
23. The publishing world is small: be nice.
24. The creative process ebbs and flows–don’t panic.
25. You will change as a writer. Embrace it.
P.S. Come revise with me in December! Just in time for your New Year’s Resolution, in this 3-day intensive we will revise some of your flash fiction drafts and get them ready for the next page! Just a few spots left!