Nancy Stohlman answers your common and not-so-common questions about flash fiction.
Today’s question: Must flash fiction have a twist ending?
http://www.nancystohlman.com Nancy Stohlman is the author of Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction (releasing October 15, 2020 from Ad Hoc Fiction) as well as multiple books of flash fiction including Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities (a finalist for a 2019 Colorado Book Award), The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories (2014), and The Monster Opera (2013). She is the creator of The Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series and FlashNano in November. Her work has been anthologized in the W.W. Norton New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction and the Best Small Fictions 2019. She teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder.
As summer approaches, and some sort of quarantine continues, there’s been plenty of talk of productivity and the joy of creating “schedules” to maximize our (creative) time.
But most of our lives look pretty weird these days. The days aren’t regular, but they’re not vacation, either. Many of our imposed schedules from the outside are gone, and we are finding ourselves floating in an immense and frightening freedom.
So the question is: how can we have both accountability and kindness for ourselves?
Now that my semester is ending, I’ve been asking myself this question a lot. I decided to do a little investigating into my stack of journals to see what my daily schedule looked like last summer when I was (both highly productive and) on sabbatical.
And that’s when I discovered something important: I didn’t have a schedule. I had a routine.
I woke between 7-10 am and spent 1-2 hours in bed reading or catching up on social media (but nothing “important”).
I got dressed and walked to the coffee shop and began to journal for the next 1-2 hours, depending on how quickly (or slowly) inspiration hit.
I went home, ate lunch, and worked for 2-3 hours. This part of the routine worked especially well because the afternoon hours were the hottest.
I finished working for the day and went exploring, walking, swimming, dinner, etc.
I realize this is an idealized routine, but the important takeaway is that because this was a routine and not a schedule, there were no set-in-stone times. I did NOT set the alarm to wake up at a specific time or say “I have to be at the coffee shop by noon” or whatever. Instead, the looseness of this routine vs a by-the-clock schedule meant that everything got done every day—but the daily particulars were flexible.
We all have many routines already. Consider: many of us wake up and then drink coffee. One thing naturally follows the other—we wake up, we make coffee, we drink it. I have never set my alarm to make sure I don’t miss drinking coffee–coffee is part of the routine.
Or: I read every night in bed before I go to sleep. Sometimes I read for an hour. Sometimes I read for 15 minutes. Sometimes it begins at 10 pm. Sometimes it begins at 11 or 8. I never have to schedule reading time because it always happens last in my daily routine.
Not looking at the clock works for me. Letting one thing naturally follow the other in a predictable sequence works for me. Creative work needs creative breathing room. And yes, it also needs discipline. But when we make schedules we can become militaristic—we beat ourselves up, lording the clock and the whip to do those 30 mins of yoga/meditation/writing by a certain time instead of honoring that we are dynamic animals in an ever-changing daily flow.
That’s why I think a routine is truly the sweet spot in the middle. Think of it as the “sliding scale” schedule, a sequence of events. Rather than “I must be at my desk by 10 am”, it can be: “I must go to my desk after coffee.”
That said, some things must be scheduled. Work, classes, events have a starting time that we may have to work around. But for all the rest of the time, especially with summer birthing itself and many of us yearning for more productivity in this strange, in-between time, I encourage you to get investigative: throw out the clock, listen to your your natural rhythm, and discover your perfect routine. When in the day are you the most productive? When do you want to rest? Do you wake up ready to write? Or do you like to wake up slowly? Do you like to take a nap? Stay up late? Take a walk in the evening or after working? See if you can create a routine that really supports that flow this season, rather than imposing a schedule that may be counter to what you (and your creativity) really need.
Remember: Even the bunnies stay out later in the spring, regardless of what the clock says.
Here’s to your perfect routine!
(and check out some of the surprising routines of creative people below)
Workshops: Not Cancelled!
In honor of my delayed book release I will be running a fun, 5-day “Going Short” Writing Flash Fiction (with preview chapters from the book) workshop from June 22-26 for those of you who want to get your pens moving. Registration opens soon.
A deceptively slim book that tells an entire Irish family saga, Damhnait Monaghan’s debut, The Neverlands, is a beautiful treatise on who we love and how do we love–especially those closest to us. In this story love is vulnerable and risky…but it is also redemptive. A stunning mini epic full of equal parts sorrow and hope, each tension-filled story stands alone and yet together they create something powerful and universal.
NS: I love your opening story—the spray-painted phrase “Seamus O’Riordan is a gobshite” sets the tension and tone for me immediately. Was this story always the opening story? Or did this tale begin elsewhere for you?
DM:The Neverlands began as a mosaic flash written during Fast Flash, an online writing group led by the inimitable Kathy Fish, and was published at Jellyfish Review. A shorter version of the opening story was the first micro in that mosaic flash. It seemed a good place to begin the novella-in-flash as all three family members – Mammy, Nuala and Da – are referenced.
NS: How did the stories find their order—were they written mostly chronologically or did you mosaic around an idea?
DM: The five mini-micros in the original mosaic flash covered a lot of ground. Writing the novella-in-flash provided the opportunity to slow things down and fill in some of the bigger gaps between the original micros. I was vaguely aware of the overall arc I hoped to achieve, but I didn’t write the new stories chronologically, instead writing around images and ideas which then inspired more pieces. For example, I wrote a flash about Nuala’s holy communion ceremony where Mammy cuts down her wedding dress for Nuala. This led me to write a flash about Mammy and Da’s elopement, where Da shows up with that wedding dress.
NS: The title of the book, The Neverlands, comes from a literal misunderstanding of “The Netherlands,” but of course it’s a beautiful mistake. In some ways, “misunderstandings” both beautiful and painful are a defining feature of this epic story. Your thoughts?
DM: Yes, I think Nuala in particular misunderstands things that occur, partly because she wants to believe. For example, in ‘Holy Communion’ she half rises out of her seat to go look for the money tree in the garden that will pay for a new dress; she wants to believe in that money tree. But Mammy too makes mistakes; in “Star-crossed Lovers’ she runs off with Seamus/Da at sixteen, thinking his flattery is “dead poetic.”
NS: Your characters are Irish, and most of the story takes place in Ireland, but Ireland feels almost like a translucent background that you see in hints only. In the same way, I love how you pepper the Irish dialect without having it intrude on the story (as some written dialects can). What are your thoughts around writing in dialect?
DM: My parents were Irish, but emigrated to Canada before they married. I’ve never lived in Ireland (although I have visited) so I was over the moon when the wonderful Nuala O’Connor described the dialect in The Neverlands as ‘pitch-perfect.’
Done well, dialect adds another layer to a story, but I’ve read books where the dialect is so dense it’s off-putting (naming no names). I’m in the midst of dripping more dialect into the manuscript of my first novel, which is set in Newfoundland. I’m looking for that balance between a desire for authenticity and the need for clarity.
NS: At some point the child Nuala wants to stay and watch grandpa whittle, “wishing she could see what animal crawls out of the wood today.” I think your writing is a bit like this— you do an amazing job “carving” to the essence of each story. Talk about your writing process? Do you do a lot of editing/whittling or do they come out in big chunks? Or something else?
DM: Flash can be distilled right down to the essentials of the story. When I’m writing flash, I tend to write big, then pare down, changing words, tense, etc to polish the piece. The Neverlands underwent a fair amount of editing, as I explain below, and I was conscious of the need to ensure that each individual piece worked towards the whole, as well as the need for continuity.
NS: I really love the scene with the teabag—anyone who has traveled internationally will relate to being faced with unfamiliar and/or losing familiar cultural rituals. In your hands I felt this story as a point of compassion: being an immigrant is hard in hundreds of small ways (we usually only think of the big ones). Your thoughts?
DM: Thank you and yes, as an immigrant myself I agree that small things matter. When I first moved to the UK from Canada, I thought everything would be so easy. I figured, you know, Canada is a former British colony, we speak the same language, how hard could it be? Ha. There were myriad small differences that made day to day life incredibly frustrating in those early days.
As the daughter of immigrants, I so regret not quizzing them more about their culture shock -imagine their first winter in northern Canada! – while I still had the chance. The tea bag scene is based on a story my mom liked to tell about her first encounter with a teabag. During a layover in New York, en route to Canada, she had tea in a restaurant with her friends and they all had to take instruction from the waitress on how to “work” the tea bag.
NS: You use both Mammy and Nuala as story “headings.” It’s a simple strategy, but it works. How did you decide to do it this way?
DM: That was a suggestion made by my wonderful editor and publisher Sarah Leavesley at V Press. As there are two different voices in the novella, I think it helps to quickly ground the reader.
NS: The Neverlands is currently called “short fiction”—it could just as easily be called a novella in flash. Why one and not the other? And does it matter?
DM: Great question. At the time of publication, I was hung up on the apparent need for each flash in a novella-in-flash to be stand alone and wasn’t sure if all of mine did. (although reviewers seem to think they do.) But now, I think, why do they all have to be stand alone? Who made that rule? What is a novella-in-flash? It’s a short novel told in flash. If I was publishing it now, I would absolutely call The Neverlands a novella-in-flash. (Phew, glad to get that off my chest!)
NS: Ha! Now this is your first book—congratulations! Talk about V. Press and/or your road to publication?
DM: Thank you! The whole process was a delight, which I understand is not always the case in publishing. I met Sarah Leavesley of V Press at the 2018 Flash Fiction Festival and discovered they were open to submissions for flash pamphlets. At that point all I had was the original mosaic flash and another flash called ‘Habits’ written in that same Fast Flash course. The original mosaic was in Nuala’s voice and ‘Habits’ was in Mammy’s.
Well, it seemed these two characters had much more to say. While still at the Flash Fiction Festival I attended Karen Jones’ visualisation workshop (highly recommended). I was prepared to go wherever the visualisation took me, but allowed myself to hope it would be towards Mammy or Nuala. It was. The words flowed into rough drafts which I polished, later submitting a sample to V Press. Sarah got in touch to request the full MS and subsequently offered me publication. We then spent some time to-ing and fro-ing on edits until we were both happy with the final result. I can’t praise Sarah enough. She is a fantastic editor and also designed my gorgeous cover.
NS: Advice for writers who are writing a book?
DM: Oof. There’s so much advice out there, much of it conflicting. Do what works for you. Find your tribe, be it online or in person. For me, literary Twitter has always been a brilliant and supportive writing community, but there are lots of other avenues. Find what works for you. Don’t compare yourself to other writers and celebrate their success as much as your own.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
DM: Just to thank you so much for this opportunity to chat, Nancy. I’m sad we won’t see each other again this year in Bristol, but will cross my fingers for 2021!
Damhnait Monaghan was born and grew up in Canada but now lives in the U.K. Her writing has won or placed in various competitions and is widely published and anthologised. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfictions. Her novella in flash The Neverlands was published by V. Press in 2019. She is an editor at FlashBack Fiction, an online literary journal that showcases historical flash fiction. You can find her on Twitter @Downith.
Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction is a craft book that has been seven years in the making and is the product of my 12+ years in the flash fiction movement. I draw from workshops, lectures, interviews, and my experiences as a flash publisher, editor, curator, and teacher, but most importantly as a fellow writer, in the beautiful trenches of a new genre.
I’m THRILLED to be joining the ranks of Ad Hoc Fiction writers! Ad Hoc Fiction has been a leader in flash fiction publishing both in the UK and abroad, winning the 2019 Best Publisher Award at the Creative Bath Awards. Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction will officially release at the 2020 Flash Fiction Festival UK, in time for the Fall Semester writing classes.
(Educators and reviewers, please contact me if you would like early previews.)
“In Going Short, Nancy Stohlman captures the true spirit of flash fiction, those brief narratives imbued with all the urgency of life itself. An extremely practiced flash fiction writer, Stohlman is also a veteran teacher. She knows the territory and takes us on a trip from getting started to the finishing line, and everything in between. It’s hard to think of a more thoughtful, adept, and enthusiastic guide.”
~David Galef, author of Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook
“Nancy Stohlman has written the definitive, and appropriately concise, book on the flash fiction form. You’ll learn what flash fiction is and isn’t, tips on writing it, tips on honing, sculpting, and polishing it (I especially like her idea of “swapping” sentences and paragraphs in revision and “strategic cutting”), along with thoughtful discussions on the flash novel and tips for pulling together a flash collection. As a widely-published master of the form herself, Stohlman brings years of teaching experience and her own engaging voice and wit to this useful, encouraging, and entertaining guide. A must-have for flash writers of all levels.”
~Kathy Fish, author of Wild Life: Collected Works 2003-2018
“This book is an invitation to flash dance with Nancy Stohlman, an accomplished partner who will show you the steps you can take, the fluid moves you can make on the flash fiction studio floor. It is all about practice. She will spin you around and show you things you didn’t know you could do, and lead you to a kind of prose performance you didn’t think possible. It’s all about paying close attention and getting it down with the necessary urgency. It’s not easy at first, it’s a tricky art form, but Nancy shares her sharp insight and offers short cuts to get you more quickly to your own satisfaction and your reader’s delight. And at the studio door when it’s time to leave, she hands you a scroll of a hundred good ideas and wishes you happy travel. Just follow the map.”
~James Thomas, Co-editor of the Norton Flash Fiction books
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.
Robert Vaughan’s latest book Funhouse is a wild ride–he starts us off in the kiddy rides and before we know it we’re doing double loops on the Scrambler and full speed on the Centrifuge, the floor dropping away and we’re spinning and stuck to the wall, hair full of static like crazy cotton candy.
Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in 6 words:
NS: You have authored multiple books including Addicts and Basements and Rift, which you co-authored with Kathy Fish. How is Funhousedifferent from your other books?
RV: Funhouse is a varied collection and contains four diverse sections. There is the opening flash and micro pieces. Then the two middle collaborative sections, “Hall of Mirrors” which I like to refer to as the “Kids in the Classroom”; and “Tunnel of Love” which is my nod to the numerous musical Divas. It also is my first book to contain my short stories in the fourth and last section of FUNHOUSE (unlike only flash or prose poetry in previous collections).
NS: I loved this tiny story, “Corn Maze”:
“I got lost in a corn maze this morning. I know you’re not supposed to panic, but this happened in Soho. I met a lot of other people in there. Many of them were in the arts. One girl told me she’d been in there since Labor Day. I think she said this out of shame. She was wearing white shoes.”
For me this is the perfect example of a micro—lots of implication and white space for the reader to fill in the rest of the story. How you decide what becomes a micro and what becomes a poem?
RV: First of all, thanks for liking this tiny piece. I never really know what something I write is, prose or poetry or whatever. I often like to say that categories of writing were made for libraries and bookstores! I know there are all of these defining “rules,” etc. But I do feel like I tend more toward the gray areas, or middle ground, then the “defining areas” of what others tell us are a micro or a poem. It’s probably what drove me to start Bending Genres journal and workshops/ retreats. Who knows?
NS: Your “Hall of Mirrors” section (2) is somehow both sweet and chilling at the same time, like Shel Silverstein crossed with Tim Burton. I could totally see this as a stand alone (freaky) children’s book. Talk about your inspiration for this. Would you ever consider publishing it as a stand-alone?
RV: One of my favorite book collections as a kid was a gift from my grandfather. It was The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. I was fascinated by the poem lure (it’s all Iambic pentameter), completely entrancing gore and horror. Each kid dies (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B was for Ben who was bitten by bears…”) So, my “Halls of Mirrors” is a nod to Gorey, and grandpa, but also in my own way, I decided to twist it, make it my own. And it’s a great idea to possibly make this into its own chapbook. Any takers?
NS: Loved your choice of “divas”—I approve of all of them! Explain your process: did you pick the line from their song and then break it apart or how did you use it as a starting point?
RV: This section began in 2013 when my friend Joseph Quintela started a project while at Sarah Lawrence, called The Word Poeticizer. He asked 15- 20 of his poet friends to re-assign their own definitions of words. Then you could feed anything into his Word Poeticizer and pop a new version of the lyric or poem out. Then I decided to do the nod to divas, or female singers who have meant everything to me. I chose a line, and it evolved into these prose poems. My last part was asking Eryk Wenziak to do the layout, and he laid each poem on the page so uniquely, many with much white, and symbolic space.
NS: In your “Tunnel of Love” section (3) you literally doubled your alphabet, using pretty much every symbol available on the keyboard. If I were to name this section I would have named it The Scrambler! There is a lot going on in this section and it’s definitely your most avant-garde. Talk about your inspiration here.
RV: Again, because we used the Word Poeticizer, it became quite odd, more abstraction. I wavered with editing these “too much,” and then decided to go back to the originals, which became the “Tunnel of Love.” I felt like I wanted one entire chunk of the book that left people sort of “huh?” And yet, many times, I’m told it is a reader’s favorite part of Funhouse. I also think because it was a collaborative project at the onset, asking Eryk to add his brilliant touches really made it all the more wondrously strange.
NS: You are a writer that really embraces (and promotes) the hybrid form. Gun to your head: Prose or poetry for the rest of your life—what do you choose?
RV: I’d take the bullet! HA. Actually, I have to choose poetry. It’s my go to, again and again. With all of the bullshit going on the world, poetry helps me to balance, to feel more deeply. And my mentors are all poets: Dorianne Laux, Ellen Bass, Marie Howe, Nick Flynn. But then there are all these amazing contemporary writers who effuse hybrid forms: I’m thinking Sabrina Orah Mark, Alina Stefanescu, Kaj Tanaka, Len Kuntz, Maggie Nelson, Meg Tuite, Steven Dunn, and so many more. Deep Gratitude to them all!
NS: You seem inspired by visuals—both the drawings in Hall of Mirrors (amazing artistry by Bob Schofield) and the use of white space in Tunnel of Love are very visual. How important are visuals to your creation process?
RV: Of course, I am a very visual person. And Bob did great renderings for the Hall Of Mirrors. Almost like he was in my head it is so terrific! I’d love to think I am a sensory person (all senses firing). I like to write from visual prompts, and I am also inspired by how words look on a page. How the author thinks about this (or in more cases, not). So, visuals are very important to me. And then, also, what is going on BELOW/ BENEATH/ UNDER.
NS: What is your favorite story in this book?
NS: This is your second book with Unknown Press. Talk about your publishing process.
RV: My fortune started with Gloria Mindock and Cervena Barva Press, she published “Microtones” in 2012. Joseph Quintela published “Diptychs, Triptychs, Lipsticks & Dipshits” (Deadly Chaps). My first full collection, “Addicts & Basements” was published by Civil Coping Mechanisms. Michael Seidlinger cold- called me after hearing me read and host a reading at the Boston AWP in 2013. (can you say HOLY FUCK?!!) In 2015, Bud Smith (Unknown Press) suggested Kathy Fish and I to do a collaborative book. I thought: she’s never going to do this! Turns out, Kathy was in a tough writing spot. We work-shopped that entire year (Fish, Smith, Michael Maxwell and me) online in the Night Owl Café. This made RIFT a possibility, which became a book! Bud and I also chatted about FUNHOUSE along the way. It came out almost one year later (December, 2017). Every single publisher I have worked with has been beyond my wildest dreams. So professional, beyond qualified, and brilliant.
NS: Advice to writers?
RV: Write as often as possible. PAY ATTENTION! Believe in yourself. Be curious. Meet other writers and greet your family. Make love often. Take suggestions with an open mind. Travel whenever possible. Cook with others. Read, read, read…
NS: Anything else you want to add?
RV: Have I mentioned how much I adore and revere you? Truly, I do. I’m so grateful to anyone who gives back to our writing community, and you always do in such a huge way.
NS: BLUSHING!! Thank YOU so much, Robert. I am honored to call you a friend. xoxoxo
Robert Vaughan teaches workshops in hybrid writing, poetry, fiction at locations like The Clearing, Synergia Ranch, Mabel Dodge Luhan House. He leads roundtables in Milwaukee, WI. He was a finalist for the Gertrude Stein Award for Fiction (2013, 2014). His flash fiction, ‘A Box’ was selected for Best Small Fictions 2016 and his flash, “Six Glimpses of the Uncouth” was chosen for Best Small Fictions 2019 (Queen’s Ferry Press). He is the Editor-in-Chief at Bending Genres, LLC.
Vaughan is the author of five books: Microtones(Cervena Barva Press); Diptychs+ Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits(Deadly Chaps); Addicts & Basements(CCM), RIFT, co-authored with Kathy Fish (Unknown Press) and FUNHOUSE(Unknown Press). His blog: www.robert-vaughan.com.
After the rapture, the sport of bullfighting officially ended. Spanish matadors, national celebrities in crushed velvet, unfit for any other type of work, went sadly unemployed.
Belize saw an opportunity. They designated a section of Shark Ray Alley, several miles off the coast, for The Running of the Sharks, where an assortment of tiger and reef sharks waited in a large cage.
All those who would have made the trip to Pamplona arrived instead in Belize. Thousands lined the swim zone with their boats, everyone wearing the traditional red scarf and eating the traditional red snowcone to symbolize the blood spilled in a good battle. As in Pamplona, participants could be amateur or professional, and the morning of the event they were all stretching and warming up on the decks of boats under the careless sun of a Caribbean morning. Then they gathered in the water.
On the first gunshot the participants had a one-minute head start, a froth of arms and legs swimming toward a safety boat half a mile away. On the second gunshot the cage opened and the sharks were released in a several-minute frenzy of man vs. beast. Medic boats lined the swim zone as pools of red blossomed and the maimed were yanked from the water.
The spectacle culminated in a final match between one shark and one matador in a snorkel and bedazzled wetsuit. The crowd submerged to watch the silent ballet—matador with harpoon and red flippers, shark with two rows of teeth and superior aquatic skills. Bubble gasps escaped from mouths as the matador attempted traditional arabesques and veronicas in the now underwater colosseum, daring to put his body as near to the shark as possible in their delicate dance of death.
But there were new rules: If the shark won he was set free, no shark fin trophies or shark meat for sale in the markets the next day.
Christopher Allen’s new book, Other Household Toxins, is the exploration of many things: death, fathers, trains, lovers and dresses made of sugar. His stories float between the angst of a child and the angst of an adult—in one story I am gutted with tragedy, in the next I laugh, and in the third I am floating in a fairy tale. Together these stories remind us that in each human life there are multiple, contradictory, and complex realities that all manage to co-exist…and they are all equally real.
Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in 6 words.
Christopher Allen: Personal. Risky. Blue. Magic. Real. Eclectic.
NS: This is your second book—you also have a book called Conversations with S. Teri O’ Type (a satire).
CA: They are so different but maybe I could use the same six words above to describe both. Conversations with S. Teri O’Type (a satire) is an episodic cartoon and absurdist play with the same recurring characters, a wildly over-the-top satirical crash course in how to be gay, a conversation set simply on a sit-com stage. Voice is everything in Conversations. Other Household Toxins has a few absurdist stories, but each story is its own world with lots of different characters dealing with their own hard questions.
NS: Your stories often straddle the line between real and surreal. One of my favorites in this regard is “Beyond the Fences”, where the story is basically realistic with an unexpected and perfect swipe of surrealism at the end. This could come off as clashing in some circumstances, but in this case it works. Can you talk about the relationship of the real to the surreal in your work?
CA: Thank you so much for this question, Nancy. In this story I was trying to describe the feeling of being outed by awful people: that moment in a boy’s playful life when everything changes and he is left exposed to the cruelty of his abusers. For this character—and for myself—it was so traumatic that nothing less than walking off the face of the earth could describe the horror of it.
I write surrealism but more in the direction of dramatic surrealism. I think this is most recognizable in “Falling Man,” “When Susan Died the First Time,” and the title story “Other Household Toxins.” These are all collisions of disparate elements I’ve used to help me make sense of death. Most of my stories that veer from realism are magic realism.
My relationship to reality is something I think and write about a lot. I grew up in the Baptist Church where my concept of “real” was (de)formed. So I guess you could say the metaphysical was not very much different from the physical. I’m sure this influenced my stories as I began to write.
NS: Many of your stories deal with the complicated relationship between fathers and sons, in multiple and nuanced combinations. Is this a theme that continues to hold energy for you?
CA: Definitely. I don’t think there’s another theme that occupies my thoughts more, and I don’t see this changing anytime soon. Maybe when I figure it all out I’ll stop writing stories about fathers and sons. That might be a while though: I’m a bit thick sometimes.
NS: Many writers struggle with arranging their stories into a collection. How did you decide on the order of the stories? I was particularly struck by the choice to put the story “Fred’s Massive Sorrow”, a 32-page story, in the middle of primarily 1-3 page flashes. You could have decided to put it, say, at the beginning or end. Can you talk about your organizing process?
CA: Ah, yes, Fred. He’s the big sad elephant smackdab in the middle of this flash collection. “Fred’s Massive Sorrow” is a short story in flash, or he’s here to show how writing flash has affected my longer stories, or he’s here just because I love him. “Fred’s Massive Sorrow” is a modular, multi-voiced narrative with sections all under 1000 words. I see it as the centerpiece of the collection, and of course the cover art is based on the story.
Other Household Toxins, the collection, begins with a little boy trying to figure out his place in the world and his relationship to his father. The progression of stories then follows characters as they deal with life’s difficult questions from young to old, but I don’t think I stuck to this religiously. There are a few “sections”: the Southern characters are mostly together, and the German stories are together. “Other Household Toxins,” the story, ends the collection with a teenager who still doesn’t understand his father but has found a way to deal with his past through magic realism.
NS: I love that you have so many stories set on the train! I also commute by train and actually do much of my reading (including your book) on the train. Talk about the train as a theme in your work.
CA: Thank you so much for reading my book, Nancy! We are so lucky. Public transportation is a thunderstorm of stories every day. All you have to do is sit there and sponge it up. Anything can happen, and anyone could walk into your life. I love—and hate—this aspect of the train. I rarely interact with people. I’ve lived in Germany for the last couple of decades where talking on public transportation is a sure sign of insanity. But the train brings characters into my life and into my stories. The Clown Lady in “A Clown’s Lips” is one of those characters. She ends up teaching the narrator so much about himself.
NS: I’m struck by your ambidexterity when it comes to gender—you seem to write and create empathy for characters of all genders with equal ease. I actually find this unusual for a writer—we may aspire to it but it doesn’t always hit the mark. What are your thoughts on this?
CA: Thank you. When I was in my twenties I thought about becoming a psychiatrist because I was passionate about understanding people. And I still am. I’ve always seen the lines between gender as fluid. I think I understood at a very young age that humans come in a much wider variety than just masculine and feminine.
A few years ago, I wrote a story for STRIPPED: A Collection of Anonymous Flash Fiction, a project that took bylines and thus gender away from the stories. Readers were invited to guess the gender of the authors (a field that included most well-known flash fiction writers then). I’m happy to say that I fooled everyone, even the software program that promised to spot the gender of the writer. Did I try to “write like a woman”? I don’t think so. Did I try to become the character? Yes. The story still tears me apart.
NS: Some of your stories are of course set in Germany (or overseas). How has being an ex-pat influenced your work?
CA: I think very similar to riding the train, living in different places—I’ve also lived in London and Dublin—has forced characters into my life and into my stories that would otherwise never have appeared. Being an expat has taught me so such. First of all, I am stupid. My education was awful. The guidance that I received as a child and as a teenager was bullshit. I work with people every day who speak five languages and talk about paintings, opera, and chemistry. Being an expat has taught me humility. Being an expat has also driven me to learn, which has affected my work deeply.
NS: Death and dying is a prominent theme in this book, though I wouldn’t call it a morbid book. Sometimes your exploration is tragic and other times it’s completely surreal, like the guy who is dying for a living. I remember listening to you read the “The Ground Above My Feet” at AWP, and at the time the audience cracked up laughing. On the page it felt much more serious. Where is the line between funny and serious for you?
CA: I’m thrilled when readers see the humor. I hope “The Ground Above My Feet” makes the reader laugh—until it doesn’t of course. There’s a big dark line between funny and serious in that story. My publisher, Randall Brown, describes the collection as “fiercely funny,” and I wonder if readers too will think this about a collection almost entirely about death. A few nights ago as I was writing the letter from the editor for SmokeLong while watching a documentary about Stephen Hawking, I was trying to figure out how to communicate to our readers why humor is so important. And then Stephen Hawking told me: “Humor helps people think about difficult questions.” That’s exactly how I use humor—in my work and in my life. So to answer your question, maybe there is no line? Or maybe the exchange between the two blurs the line?
When Conversations with S. TeriO’Type first came out in 2012, lots of readers asked this question since humor plays such a large role in the story. Occasionally a reader would say something like “Whoa. This is really dark. Is this supposed to be funny or serious?” My response then was “There’s nothing serious here except everything.” And I think this still rings true in Other Household Toxins.
NS: What advice would you give to a writer creating their first book?
CA: Be yourself. Do something you love. There are enough books out there written because the author and their publisher thought this is the thing people want to read. Write something you’re dying to tell the world.
NS: Thanks for hanging out, Chris!
Christopher Allen is the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins. His work has appeared in Split Lip Magazine, Longleaf Review, Lunch Ticket and lots of other fine places. He is a nomad.
So you’ve been writing lots of cool new stuff and now it’s time to think about revision. When you’re in the editing phase, you must find a way to create distance from your text, to see it with fresh eyes. And it’s not always easy to see your work with fresh eyes—it can feel like looking for your sunglasses when they’re on your head! The best way to create distance, of course,is actual distance. There’s nothing more revealing than a month away from your work. But there are other ways to create distance if you don’t have the luxury of time.
Read it out loud. When you use your ear rather than your eye you can “hear” when the rhythm is off. If you stumble over a word in your spoken delivery, chances are that word is awkwardly placed. If you cut or add words in the spoken delivery, cut or add them on the page. If you find yourself amending the text as you read it, pay attention. Your subconscious is giving you clues.
Change the font Sometimes something as simple as a font change can change how we “see” our work. I change the font several times in the process of revision–it’s fun and keeps it fresh. The more distance I need to create, the wilder the font.
Print it out. In our electronic world printing your work out might seem like a waste of paper. Print it out anyway. Just as changing the font allowed you to “see” your words differently, printing it out and holding it in your hand will change the dynamic for you completely and make it a “tangible” thing.
Read it backwards. Not word for word backwards but go backwards in chunks. This is especially good when you are editing at the sentence level. Notice what happens when you read it backwards—and notice how alternate endings start jumping out at you. Pretend that the perfect ending for your story is already in there, buried in the middle somewhere. Watch your sentences come unglued in a good way.