Interviews

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Nancy Stohlman Proves You Can Tell a Story in Under 1,000 Words

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Courtesy Nancy Stohlman
Nancy Stoholman works exclusively in flash fiction, stories under a thousand words.

Writer Nancy Stohlman doesn’t need a lot of words to make an impact. In fact, she needs fewer than a thousand.

Stohlman has spent the last few years championing flash fiction, stories told in under 1,000 words. She will release her new solo anthology of flash fiction, The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories, on Wednesday, November 12 at the Mercury Café as part of the Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series. (NOTE–This EVENT HAS BEEN RESCHEDULED FOR WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 10).

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Courtesy Nancy Stohlman
The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories is Nancy Stohlman’s first solo flash-fiction anthology.

“What isn’t said is just as powerful as what is said,” Stohlman says. “I love playing with silence and absence. A lot of what we leave out is the back story, and we just drop the reader into the present, the moment. We choose description very carefully: Instead of having a vase with 25 roses, we have only one rose.”

At first, Stohlman says she struggled with flash fiction. But through time she learned the difference between the meat and the fat, and she began to find the essence of her story.

“I think as writers, we get trained to languish in our own words,” she says. “We want to spend a paragraph describing how the tree caught the light. We indulge ourselves in a way that makes us feel good — but maybe not the reader. Rather than spell everything out for the reader, I implicate them and make them more invested in the story.”

Although Stohlman says long novels still have their place, she wonders how Moby Dick would be different with modern-day tools.

“When a writer wrote those novels in the past, they didn’t have a word processor or typewriter,” Stohlman points out. “The editing was a lot different. When these stories were being written there were a lot less entertainment options; no one was in a rush to get to the end. And now I wonder if those stories would have end up differently.

“I see those novels as a mark of time and preference. I think it’s a gorgeous thing to go on a long journey, just as it is going on a short journey. But I think flash fiction is just as interesting in a different way. When you enter a story and get to the end all in one sitting, you get the entire ride at once.”

To show the power of short-form writing, Stohlman cites the legend of Ernest Hemingway sitting in a bar one evening, when someone bet him he couldn’t write a story in six words. Hemingway supposedly replied with this: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” That’s a story she could think about for years, Stohlman says, and it’s only six words.

“People think it’s popular because people are in a hurry,” she says. “There is some truth to that, but the reason flash fiction has lasted is because they’re really complex little nuggets. I think the short ride ends up being just as transformative.”

She has written novels in the past; she likens that process to being in a marriage. With flash fiction, she strives to get the first draft out in one sitting, so she can return to it later — like a one-night stand that turns into a relationship. Her stories may be short, but she still labors over them.

In Stohlman’s new book, published by Pure Slush Press, she draws inspiration from dreams and Bible stories. Her book is full of bizarre, surreal tales, including stories about a woman turning into a piano and a woman falling in love with a fox. And even though the stories come in short bursts, Stohlman does revisit the same characters throughout, creating plot development. But if you’re hoping that Stohlman will extend a single story beyond a thousand words, don’t hold your breath. She says when we try to answer too many questions, we take away the beautiful mystery of art.

“I get attached to my stories, but I’m afraid to ruin them,” she says. “For example, I just saw the latest Planet of the Apes, and the more back story you give me, the more it changes the original. There were so many unanswered questions we had to accept. Sometimes over-answering the questions waters down the experience. I don’t want to ruin the perfect snapshot.”

See Nancy Stohlman at 7 p.m. at the Mercury Café, when she’ll be reading from her new book. The event is free; for more information, call 303-294-9258.

Follow Amanda Moutinho on Twitter at @amandamoutinho.

Nancy Stohlman on flash novels and The Monster Opera, debuting as an opera Friday

02 Oct 2013 Leave a Comment

By Alex Brown Wed., Oct. 2 2013 at 9:00 AM
Publishing in The Westword. Read original here.
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From Nancy Stohlman

Nancy Stohlman can do it all. She can create new genres of literature, write operas and teach you how to do both. Someday she hopes to become a pirate, but in the meantime her new flash novel The Monster Opera will be transformed into an opera on Friday, October 4 at the Mercury Cafe. In the novel, a writer travels to Mexico to find inspiration to write — but there are monsters everywhere waiting for her. It turns into a “gothic literary noir, a genre-bending novel-meets-libretto that combines recitative with dialogue, aria with prose, and ultimately asks the question: Who owns a story?,” explains Stohlman. In advance of the opera’s debut, we talked with her about being a revolutionary in her craft, some childhood memories and finding the confidence to produce authentic work.

See also: Kinky Mink Loves the ’80s

Westword: I noticed you say you coined the term “flash novel.” Can you explain what a flash novel entails, and how you came up with it?

Nancy Stohlman: I first coined the term in 2008 for my master’s thesis at Naropa University. At that time I’d already written three traditional novels, but my new work was hijacking me — it was trying to escape the constraints of a traditional novel. None of the terminology, including “novel” or “novella,” really described what I was trying to write: a sparse, lean book that behaves and resonates as if it were much longer with the scope of a novel.

When our art begins to change, our language needs to change, too. So I basically invented the term as a way to give my work permission to misbehave and to give legitimacy to a new type of storytelling.

Are there other flash novelists, or are you the sole front of the movement? Did you feel like a revolutionary when you put the term on the cover of your first book, Searching for Suzi?

I absolutely felt like a revolutionary! I remember the conversation with Searching for Suzi publisher Nate Jordan. I said, “When people start tracing the term, I want them to trace it all the way back to here.” So we put it on the cover. It was awesome.

But in terms of being the sole flash novelist, no. There are many writers whose work has also been pushing these same boundaries; their work is being labeled anything from a novel to a novella to a collection. So many amazing new works defy the old definitions; if the writers are like me, then you finish and you sort of look at it and say, well, great. Where will Barnes and Noble shelve this? Miscellaneous?

But I’m excited that the term “flash novel” is starting to catch on. Writer magazine featured an article about the flash novel, “All Meat and No Fat,” in 2010, and Bartleby Snopes Press, which published The Monster Opera, has even begun a flash novel series.

The Monster Opera took a few years to complete and get staged, and you said you thought it was just “too weird.” How did you finally overcome that barrier and realize its true potential?

In this case, it wasn’t about me overcoming, it was about me waiting. I believe the job of any artist is to point audiences into thickets that may at first seem intimidating. Which means that naturally, at first, there will be resistance. In fact, if there isn’t at least a little resistance, than perhaps there isn’t enough at stake. I like my art raw, vulnerable, 100 percent true to the authenticity of the vision. So rather than try to make my work more widely accessible to speed up the process, I just had to wait.

Funny story: The same morning I got the acceptance from Bartleby Snopes, I was in the process of abandoning The Monster Opera. I had decided that it was too weird for public consumption and I should move on. Within hours of “letting it go,” I opened my e-mail to find an acceptance.

I heard Gertrude Stein was a real inspiration for you. Do you feel that reading her Four Saints in Three Acts gave you permission, or made it easier, to produce The Monster Opera?

If I hadn’t, quite by accident, discovered Gertrude Stein’s libretto on one of my adventures through the Denver library stacks, I probably would never have written this book. It was one of those aha! moments when smoke clears and little birdies start singing: All at once it became possible in my mind for an opera libretto to become a piece of literature. Certainly there have been works of literature that have been turned into opera. But I wanted to go the other way around — I wanted to write a libretto that behaved like literature. I wrote The Monster Opera as a book before any music was put to it.

You’re also involved in hosting many writers workshops; what do you have coming up for those? Does helping others with their writing help your own writing?

Absolutely. Over the summer I taught an intensive workshop for writers to finish their manuscripts and take the next steps launching them into the world. (I’ll probably give that one again in January.) I’m currently working with several private clients and I’ve just started individualized coaching sessions focused on book launching and self-promotion. The best part about working with other writers, especially other talented writers, is you will always be learning from the process; it’s especially wonderful to bear witness to another writer’s breakthrough, then turn back to your own work with your own breakthroughs simmering…

Nick Busheff composed the music for The Monster Opera. You work with him in your metal/ lounge band Kinky Mink. Did it help to use someone whose musical styling’s you were so familiar with? Were you two really on the same page with this project?

Nick Busheff is a brilliant musician and composer, and this production would never have happened without him. And yes, there is absolutely something magical that happens in a collaboration between artists who are really in tune with one another’s vision. I’ve done lots of successful collaborations, but it’s rare to find another artist who can hear the music in your head before you’ve even heard it yourself. I believe this is Nick’s finest work to date.

With this project finished, how close are you now to your dream of becoming a pirate?

I’m always practicing my looting and pillaging skills. I actually just stole your wallet. Why do you still have a Blockbuster card?

You said when you were nine you wrote a screenplay called Superman: The Musical. Any chance of adapting that into a flash piece for the stage? Sounds really fun.

Ha! I think the Lex Luthor/Lois Lane duet will have to be rethought. Gosh, that was really when I became a writer, I think. I remember typing it day after day on my mother’s electric typewriter, loving the sound of the keys hitting and how important I felt sitting there, creating something where there was nothing before. Perhaps it’s time to resurrect the paper mache volcano…

Anything else you would like to add for the readers out there? Promotions/shout- outs?

Definitely shout-outs to my awesome cast: Marta Burton, Erik Wilkins, Jonathan Montgomery, Dee Galloway, Toby Smith, Scott Ryplewski, Mayra Walters, Van Yoho and Kinky Mink drummer Rory Reagan. And a huge thank you to Marilyn Megenity at the Mercury Café for being a rock of support, not only to me but to the artistic community in Denver for so many years.

Stohlman will debutingThe Monster Opera on Friday, October 4 at the Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street; the show starts at 8 p.m. and Stohlman will have a book-signing after the show. Tickets are available here.

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Welcome To The Monster Opera: Chatting With Nancy Stohlman About Relationships, Writing and Flashin

by Nathaniel Tower, April 2013

A few months ago, Bartleby Snopes Press announced its call for Flash Novels. This was an idea that had been brewing in my mind for a couple years, but I wasn’t quite sure how to do it. When the idea for Flash Novels just wouldn’t go away, I decided it was time to go for it. Similar to last year’s shortlisted Post-Experimental issue, I knew it would work its way into something real.

So far, we’ve accepted three Flash Novels, all of which we’re excited to publish. Perhaps the quirkiest, and maybe the most important, is Monster Opera by Nancy Stohlman. Unbeknownst to me at our original launch for submissions, Nancy Stohlman had actually already invented the term “Flash Novel” and published one of her own.

I had the pleasure to sit down and chat with the self-proclaimed (and confirmed) creator of the Flash Novel. Here’s what she had to say.Nancy Library Close up 2 (1)

Nancy, it’s an honor to chat with you today. As Managing Editor ofBartleby Snopes, I must say that I am extremely excited about publishingMonster Opera as one of our first flash novels this summer/fall. Let’s get down to business.

First, tell us about yourself as a writer. Don’t forget to include the details of the grand revelation occurred that made you become a writer (we all have one, right?).

Thanks, Nate! I’m so thrilled for this collaboration with Bartleby Snopes!

Well my grand revelation was more of a slow seeping…I came of age in the library. We were a military family, we moved every few years, so my connections with others were always fleeting. When I was learning to read I lived in Europe: West Germany, Spain. No internet. No American television. Long distance calls were expensive and rare. The library became my connection to the States, and then eventually to the world. I was volunteering at the library by the time I was 9, reading Nancy Drew and stamping people’s books.

So I guess I’ve always known. At nine years old I wrote a screenplay calledSuperman: The Musical.

The word “flash” always seems to pop up wherever I see your name. You work with the Flashbomb Reading Series, you run the website Ask a Flash Fiction Editor, and now you have this Flash Novel coming out. What’s with you and flashing?

I’m cracking up—maybe I’m just a literary exhibitionist! “Flash” is the safety word.

So my work has never fallen neatly into categories. This used to be extremely frustrating—I spent many years and several practice novels trying to make it behave. Finally in grad school a professor suggested I get a bit more ragged around the edges. I guess I just needed permission. But I think that can be said for genre as well—Flash is roughing them all up, calling them out. I believe we’re witnessing an artistic movement that’s creating an entirely new kind of writing. So for me the word flash means freedom—a true surrender into art.

Monster Opera isn’t your first Flash Novel. In fact, it seems you coined the term “flash novel” (although I hadn’t actually read any of your work when I decided to make up the term myself a couple years later). What inspired the flash novel?

I coined the term in 2008 for my Master’s thesis, The Flash Manifesto, at about the same time that I was finishing Searching for Suzi. Suzi was the first novel where I gave myself permission to stop writing a novel. At the time Wikipedia wouldn’t let me create a page for “flash novels” (they said you couldn’t create a page for a term), so when the book came I insisted that we put “flash novel” on the cover, even though it felt sort of silly at the time. “Flash novel?  You mean novella?” everyone asked.

No. See, we’re writers, we know the power of naming. I know very few writers aiming to write a novella, and I find this problematic, because there are many, many, many stories that don’t require 60,000 words. A lot of stories would be smothered in 60,000 words. But novelists continue writing novels with parameters set by big publishing, which is really the antithesis of the creative process. The story takes as long as the story takes.

So does that mean that flash novels are novellas with a makeover? No. Shakespeare knew it, Orwell knew it: thought follows language. We create a word, we create a possibility. We write things into being. Language creates meaning where there wasn’t meaning before. The flash novel is becoming, right now.

In one sentence, what makes a good flash novel?

A flash novel is an exquisitely sliced novel.

Tell us about Monster Opera. It’s been around for a while, hasn’t it?

Okay, so I have to confess that the same morning I got Bartleby Snopes’ email, I was in the process of breaking up with it again: “Look, you’re just too weird, I don’t think we can make this work.” It’s probably the most audacious thing I’ve ever written, and I doubted myself a lot in the process. Readers had only two reactions: dazed/awe, or complete confusion. So I had to really trust my vision, even when it didn’t make sense to me.

About two years ago I decided to do a staged reading (still unfinished then) with composer Nick Busheff and a small cast of opera singers and actors. We performed in an antique warehouse to a full house of people who all left with the “Monster Opera” daze on their faces—I actually overheard someone say, “I have to go home and think about what just happened.” All the enthusiasm gave me the confidence I needed to finish it. And though it lends itself to performance, I firstly see it as a written work.

Where did you come up with the idea for this cross-genre masterpiece?

Blushing. I was already a lover of opera and classical music, but then I discovered Gertrude Stein’s libretto Four Saints in Three Acts. For those of you who don’t know, composers usually hire a librettist to write the words to their music. When I discovered Stein’s libretto (in the library!), I was stunned. It was both pure opera and pure Stein. It was an amazing piece of writing.

Susan Sontag says the novel and opera are the two most antiquated artistic forms, not having evolved through the stages of modernism, post modernism, etc., that have shaped the other arts. Being a lover of both, I saw how these two forms were fighting for their own relevancy…and I wondered what would happen if I let them fight it out on the page?

You describe yourself as a promotional fiend. What are your promotional methods? What have you found that works and what doesn’t?

Ha! Yes, it’s a necessary evil, and one that I don’t think writers take seriously. People tell me, “You’re so good at it!” But my promotional methods are about 85% naïve audacity. I think my greatest strength is that I’m not afraid to fail—I’d rather fail than not try. When I hear (every!) writer say, “I’m not good at the promotional part,” I want to say, “Neither am I, I just show up and do it anyway!”

If we don’t use the same passion to put our work into the world, then we’re ultimately birthing it and abandoning it. And I’ve learned collaboration is crucial: None of us have to do this alone. That’s why I started the F-Bomb reading series—I wanted a place where I could put other people in the spotlight and say: Look! Look at yourself. See….own it. You are awesome.

What are your ultimate goals as a writer?

To write, full time, and make my living that way. I’m pretty sure if I were given the gift of time I might take myself into realms of creation that are still inaccessible to me right now. Ultimately I envision a world where artists are acknowledged as visionaries and paid accordingly.

Fill in the blanks: If Monster Opera doesn’t__________________then I will _____________________________________.

If the Monster Opera doesn’t leave you 100% satisfied, then I will personally come to your house with a bottle of wine and a VHS copy of Fatal Attraction, and you can explain your grievance in great detail.

Which of the following is most closely associated with Monster Opera (and why):

The Muppets

The Phantom of the Opera

“Monster Mash”

Monster Magnet

Monstropolis

The Phantom of the Opera, but unlike Phantom there’s a self-awareness—not unlike a Shakespeare comedy—of being inside of one’s one melodrama. It’s funny and tragic and haunting all at once. But Miss Piggy might make a fantastic Magdelena.

What’s one piece of advice you have for any writer, seasoned or rookie?

Stop worrying about publication! And most importantly, cross-pollinate: go to museums, orchestras, operas, fashion shows, comedy shows, go to movies alone, cook, draw, dance, take photographs, take adventure walks, read random things off library shelves. Being an artist is a way of life.

Now it’s your turn. Ask me one question. It could be about anything. Make it count.

Okay (rubbing hands): Why did you choose to actively seek flash novels for publication?

Fantastic question. Part of it, like with our Post-Experimentalism issue, is to explore the possibilities of writing. We’ve seen the short story condense itself in recent years. Could the same thing happen to the novel?

Maybe it stems from my desire to be able to read more books. I never seem to have the time, and often when I read novels these days, I often find myself disappointed in the end. It seems like many authors rush to create some finality or twist or shock in order to bring the thing to a close. That’s obviously a blanket statement that doesn’t reflect every novel, or probably even half the novels written. But it seems to be a trend in modern novel writing. So let’s buck that trend. Why spend all this time developing a plot and characters, making a reader invest all this time, just to let us down at the end? As you said, let’s slice that novel into something we can read maybe in one sitting and still feel the fulfillment of a great novel. I think you make an important distinction in your responses. A flash novel is not a novel. It’s not a novella. It’s not a short story. It’s something else. Something new. Hopefully something grand. Whatever the case, it’s a new monster.

Originally published here.

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NANCY STOHLMAN: AN INTERVIEW

by Meg Tuite, Fiction Editor of Connotation Press

April, 2011

Anything you want to share with our readers about the inspiration for these stories?

Well, Prodigal and The Wager are about as different as two pieces can be. Prodigal is a piece I started many years ago—in fact it began as an excerpt from a novel I abandoned in a drawer somewhere. It’s partially based on my own experiences and observations when I was in Palestine with the International Solidarity Movement back in 2002. It’s also inspired by the stories told to me by a Palestinian-American friend and his wife when they returned several years ago.

I’m very interested in the Palestinian situation because I feel that most of the information Americans receive is skewed and has a racial/racist bias. When I write about it I try to avoid the polemic and just tell the stories…and leave it up to the readers to come to their own conclusions. It’s tricky, though, and I’ve certainly received plenty of hate mail.

The Wager—well, what can I say, except that the more I write flash fiction, the more I’m convinced that a good story really doesn’t require many words.

Do you have a specific writing schedule that you adhere to and/or any tricks that help you, that might useful to our readers?

My writing schedule has changed over the years depending on my kids and my teaching schedules, but the most important thing is to have a schedule. If you wait for the muse or for when you “have some extra time,” it will never happen. I carve out my writing schedule from my life each semester and guard it like a rabid dog. The best writing trick I know: don’t have the internet at home. It saves a lot of temptation.

What are you reading at this time?

I’m still recovering from Moby Dick. I wanted to jump ship (no pun intended) plenty of times, but I’m so glad I didn’t—the ending of that book is just exquisite. Next up on my list is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I’m in the middle of writing a gothic opera/novel , so I’ve been trying to catch up on all the classic gothic novels, Frankenstein, Dracula, etc. And The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is patiently waiting in the queue. I discovered a few years back that Gertrude Stein wrote librettos to several operas–check them out! They are pure Stein and fantastic.

Name the top two or three most influential writers in your reading life and maybe a note on why.

It might be cliché, but I’m a huge Hemingway fan. I aspire to write a novel as fantastic as For Whom the Bells Tolls, which is my favorite of his books, though The Old Man and the Sea is probably the most perfectly formed little pearl ever created.

I’m also a huge fan of Selah Saterstrom, and her book The Pink Institution was a pivotal book in my process. It gave me permission to violate my own boundaries of what a “novel” could look like. And she happens to be a fantastic person and incredible inspiration. Imagine the pride I felt when she told me that she was going to teach my novel, Searching for Suzi, as a textbook in her writing class at Denver University. Pinch me, Mom, I’m a real writer!

Read Full Interview and Stories Here